Reviews – October 2019
Abuse in church
By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)
Directed by François Ozon
Certificate 15, 137 minutes
London Film Festival, 5 and 6 October
Released 25 October
Over two hours long, this gripping and hugely topical affair dramatises the scandal of child abuse at Catholic summer camps over 20 years ago in the diocese of Lyon, France. The case has shaken the Church there since it became public in recent years. Despite Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) admitting his guilt, his superior, Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) failed to curtail Preynat’s access to children thereby enabling his abuse of more victims in the ensuing years.
At a press conference, the cardinal uses the phrase ‘by the grace of God’ about the statute of limitations on many of the abuse cases. He is immediately criticised for the comment but it reveals how Barbarin is concerned more with protecting the institution of the Catholic Church than in caring for his flock.
To highlight the different ways in which abuse can affect victims, the writer-director François Ozon constructs his narrative in three parts, each around a different survivor. In the first part, faithful, worshipping parishioner Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud) wants to sort out some form of resolution within the Church but Cardinal Barbarin fails to deliver. Knowing that under the statute of limitations the offence in his own case has expired, Alexandre sets up the website Lift the Burden of Silence to share his story and encourage others to do the same. He hopes that those effected more recently will initiate prosecutions.
In the second part, the militant atheist François Debord (Denis Ménochet) wants the guilty priest brought to justice and does everything in his power to achieve this. In the third part, Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud) is still living with profound damage from being abused as a child and his life is a mess. As well as these three men, the film also focuses on the varying degrees of support they receive from wives or girlfriends, some of whom are themselves abuse survivors.
By the Grace of God is a powerful picture of the traumas child abuse in the Church can inflict on survivors’ adult lives, whether they retain their faith or not. It’s also a laudable indictment of failures by the Church to root out this terrible scourge.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
How churches can engage with race
We Need to Talk About Race: Understanding the black experience
in white majority churches
Ben Lindsay describes himself as a black pastor of a white-majority church. It is interesting for me to have been asked to write this review, as I approach it as a white minister serving black-majority churches in the same part of south-east London.
This book doesn’t give answers to what is a huge issue for the whole Church, but it does give encouragement to engage with the questions and discuss them more widely. Lindsay’s writing leads readers through a range of themes: from how western European ideals have shaped the global Church, to social justice, asking ‘what next?’ and exploring how all this informs the Church we are part of.
Each chapter helpfully comes with specifically tailored questions to help focus what has been read and to frame a response to it. I found that Lindsay’s invitational style of writing encouraged me to openly engage and explore.
Included in the book are two ‘interludes’. These small sections contain personal experiences and offer deep insights into how it feels to be a part of the Church when the dominant church culture simply doesn’t recognise why some actions and assumptions hurt.
In this time of disharmony in the UK, Lindsay’s words feel like a call to action: ‘The world around us is in desperate need of displays of racial unity … the Church of Jesus Christ has the power to be this witness.’ This is an important book for all people in our churches, no matter what their contexts or backgrounds. It offers the wider story of what church is really like.
This book contains powerful and emotive stories as well as important theological reflection. Lindsay shares the history of black experiences in white-majority churches with a great deal of grace and hope. I am sure that for some people, this book will validate their own story, but I am convinced it will also present a challenge to many. What is discussed and unpacked here may never have occurred to some people before, but don’t let that dissuade you. This is a powerful read.
John Grundy is Minister of St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Brockley, and St Michael’s United Church, New Cross, both in south-east London
Why the Church must reassess Paul
The Lost Message of Paul
Our theology must be impacted by personal stories, and Steve Chalke is someone who has grappled with some of life’s most difficult stories. He brings decades of experience with violent young offenders, the homeless, and victims of people trafficking. It is from this experience that Chalke’s understanding of inclusivity has emerged, rather than a comfortable study or ivory tower. That doesn’t make him a scholar, and it doesn’t make him right either. But it does make him worth listening to, so I was disappointed to read even more articles and blogs recently condemning Chalke’s views as heresy.
In his latest book, Chalke makes the case that we have misunderstood Paul, badly. We have read his words through our own set of assumptions. We need to begin with Paul’s world view, to see things the way he saw them.
Chalke argues that Reformed theology – stemming from the Martin Luther and John Calvin – has created a spiritual blind spot to anything that doesn’t fit with their conclusions. Should we not translate ‘faith in Christ’ as ‘the faithfulness of Christ’ and break the salvation agony of many Christians? Has the individualistic spirit of our age seeped into the Church? Why have we ignored large, significant sections of the body of Christ and become dependent on translators who translate with an agenda?
The author has more to say about original goodness being truer to Scripture than original sin, hell being a construct of medieval theology and Reformation history, and eternal punishment (judgement) being better expressed as ‘the pruning’. Chalke is wanting to start a debate, and it’s a debate worth having. If you read one book this autumn, read this one.
David Bedford is Minister of Dorking United Reformed Church, Surrey
Overview of modern relationships
Relatable: Exploring love, God and connection in the age of choice
This book covers a lot of ground. It deals with the modern history of, and biblical teaching about, relationships between men and women. Relatable critiques and references many other resources but relies heavily on the author’s own statistical and story-led research from her ‘Real Life Love Survey’ of nearly 1,500 people in 2016/2017.
Relatable’s focus is mainly on romantic male and female relationships (though there are some insightful comments about platonic friendships too). It charts the range of ways in which societal perceptions, advertising, history, biblical teaching and modern culture affects Christians trying to navigate romantic male and female relationships. Relatable’s 12 chapters cover many topics, including the changing perceptions of marriage and singleness, how married and single people are supported (or not) in church, conflicting Christian relationship advice, abuse and domestic violence, sex and sexual frustration/awkwardness, and modern dating. The book is written by a woman and, as the survey respondents were mainly women, most (but not all) of the stories quoted are from women too.
The stories and statistics are interesting, and Walker’s own observations are often astute. Stats and analysis are delivered with humour and a light touch, giving the book a non-academic tone. But it wasn’t a page turner for me.
Relatable promises ‘wisdom on how to navigate a changing world for healthy, joyful connections of all kinds’. There is certainly wisdom. But advice is not this book’s focus, and it pretty much exclusively covers romantic connections between men and women. There is nothing about non-binary or non-hetero relationships or connections, and very little about platonic relationships or friendships between people of the same gender.
Relatable will appeal to anyone wanting an overview of modern male and female relationships and the factors that have influenced them. It might be particularly educational for church people wanting to understand why some Christian attitudes about sex, marriage, singleness and relationships might be unhelpful, damaging or isolating.
Charissa King is Production and Marketing Officer for Reform
Stories of reconciliation
Between the Bells: Stories of reconciliation from Corrymeela
Over 50 years ago, the Presbyterian minister Ray Davey radically declared that ‘if we Christians cannot speak the message of reconciliation, we have nothing to say’. Ray was the founder of Corrymeela – Northern Ireland’s oldest centre of peace and reconciliation. The idea for Corrymeela was birthed in the midst of devastation – the razed eastern German city of Dresden. Ray witnessed the before and after of the allies’ 1945 bombing campaign. Amid apocalyptic scenes, he asked: ‘Who are the good guys?’ and saw the need to create safe spaces for the work of reconciliation – rest, dialogue and engagement. He was called diabolical for his efforts.
Between the Bells is an engaging telling of Corrymeela’s continuing work. Paul Hutchinson, a former Director of Corrymeela, is a captivating narrator. The book is episodic, containing ordinary stories of the life and routine of the centre. Yet the telling of these stories is anything but mundane. There is humour, charm, provocation, impatience, poignancy and truth. On almost every page there is a nugget, a gem, a truth so sharp that I either winced with pain or whooped with delight. Hutchinson has a poet’s eye and a playwright’s ear – we encounter the people he meets, the instances, the insights, the frustrations and satisfactions through these heightened senses.
Don’t spend your reading of this book looking for a definitive definition of reconciliation. There isn’t one. There is, however, the lived reality of reconciliation, the ongoing story of the work of peace. There is the lesson of a beachcombed, dirty nappy and the challenge of a massive, candle-wielding Germanic pilgrim. There are the bells – restive, rescuing and rhythm. There are the delightful and dangerous misunderstandings that include foreskins and copious amounts of tea. There are the silences that can outrage or sustain, the humour that can disarm, the hosting of the stranger that can enrich or estrange. There is the Irish politician Martin McGuinness, a swear-prayer lady and a bolshie Palestinian who’s gentler than a kitten.
In these divisive times, the message of reconciliation still needs to be spoken. Between the Bells will hearten and encourage you.
Rosie Benjamin attends Brentwood United Reformed Church, Essex
These reviews were published in the October 2019 edition of Reform