Friday, August 12, 2016

The Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 - My winner

So I did it:  All six books on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist have been read and reviewed.  The reading was fairly constant, the reviewing was a bit rushed towards the end!

The reviews are here:
Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain
Healing Forgiveness
Children in the Bible
God's Presence
I've thoroughly enjoyed it.  They are a set of excellent books, and not necessarily ones I would have read otherwise.  It leaves me in very good heart regarding the health of theology written in English.

But on the Sunday of Greenbelt, one and only one of the books will be declared the winner.  So I thought I'd give it a go and pick the single title that I think should win.

But first, something I have noticed from previous years shortlists.  For the past two shortlists, I have found bookmarks featuring all the shortlisted titles.  On both occasions, the book in the bottom left-hand place has won.

This is 2011:

And this is 2013:

So, arranging the titles for 2016 in similar fashion, would produce this:

And John Swinton's Dementia would be the winner.

And it would be a worthy winner.  In fact there is only one book that I would be disappointed to see win.  It is a good book, the other five are outstanding books.  But it would be invidious to name it.

Instead, I want to name the book I would choose were I a judge and it is this one:

Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain by Benigno Beltran

For sheer variety and readability, for challenge and commitment, for being the book I simply enjoyed the most.  For all these reasons, I would choose this book.

The actual winner will be announced on Sunday 28th August.  I look forward to seeing who it is!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

God's Presence: The 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize Shortlist 6

Review of Frances Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

The final book on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist for 2016 is a work of systematic theology.  Frances Young is a very distinguished theologian.  Her writing on the New Testament and early Christian theology is well known and is part of a corpus of writing that dates back to the 1970s.  This book is an integration of all the different concerns of her theological life, as an academic, a theologian of both the New Testament and the early church, a Methodist, a preacher and the mother of a profoundly disabled child, Arthur.  All of these different aspects to Young’s work and writing inform and shape this book.

That theme of integration is also the way in which Young approaches the topics of her theology in this book.  In each chapter she offers a prelude of snapshots, showing the way the subject is rooted in the life of individuals and communities.  There is an account of the way in which the early Christian theologians used the Bible, and the way in which the themes they drew out relate to our understandings today.  There is an account of preaching using the theme and discussions, and a final postlude of poetry.  At some stage in each chapter, the significance of experience, and specifically Young’s own experience as the mother of Arthur, is explored.  This is a very Methodist theological approach, and a very rich one.

This insights that Young draws out from the fairly traditional topics of a systematic theology are deep and often profound.  There is a humility about her approach, not least because she is properly insistent upon the creatureliness of herself, other human beings and theology.  I was struck profoundly by insights into ecumenism, and the necessity of the body of Christ to be broken; the need for Mary to be taken more seriously by Protestant theology; the need for Christian theology to re-shape intellect; and the need for accounts of atonement to embrace metaphor deeply.  But above all, the whole book is pervaded by a deep humility, an understanding of the brokenness of human lives through which God is seen, and a rootedness in praise of the creator.

This is a very British systematic theology.  It is not a programmatic work beginning a theological career.  Rather it is a reflective work, drawing together the threads and the wisdom hard won through life and theological work.  It is a privilege to read this book, and I can’t help feeling I have only scratched its surface.  I will return to this book again and again.  It is a very worthy entry on a very high calibre shortlist.

General Synod Reflections - July 2016

This was the Synod when we had the ‘Shared Conversations’ about sexuality. All the build-up was about this.  As well as the normal bundle of papers, Synod members were sent three books – all about sexuality, from different perspectives.  I did read them all!  This Synod also stood in the shadow of the vote to leave the EU.  The Archbishops called an emergency debate, and the shadow of Brexit was long.

The actual business of Synod, however, had to happen first.  We were addressed by a German Bishop, who reflected on the implications of Brexit and reminded us that the continent of Europe could not be voted away.  The Archbishop of York spoke about his Pilgrimage around his diocese, praying and speaking about the Gospel. 

Duly fortified by this, we held the emergency debate on the EU.  The Archbishops proposed a motion that called ‘for all to unite in the common task of building a generous and forward looking country’.  We heard a moving speech from the Bishop of Europe, on the effect of the vote on Anglican churches across the continent.  Many people living in Europe felt hurt and betrayed by the outcome.  The speech of the synod was made by a vicar from Darlington, speaking of how this was a vote in which people who had felt ignored had made themselves heard.  There were concerns expressed about racism, about those who felt excluded from the political process and more.  The motion was passed easily.  The harder work of being the church in a very different political climate remains.

Saturday morning was given over to legislation.  This is one of the real jobs of the Synod, if not the part that folk usually get excited about.  We debated a mission and pastoral measure that simplifies how changes are made to church structures; a legislative reform measure, which provides for the tidying up of the laws affecting the church; and a measure about the inspection of churches.  All progress along the path to becoming part of the church’s rules.  Rather unfortunately, two revisions to the canons had been put together.  One concerned the wearing of vestments, the other the funerals of those who have committed suicide.  Of course, we spent the most time debating what clergy wear in church, a subject that probably heard the most debate in the formal proceedings of Synod this time. 

Legislation done, we moved to debates on Renewal and Reform, which is the wider programme the Church of England is following to change and grow for the future.  A debate on a Vision for Education was significant, if not without controversy.  Derby Cathedral’s experience of trying to establish a church school, as distinct from a faith school, resonates with much in the new vision.  After an evening meal, we then heard from the Archbishops’ Council and passed their budget for 2017.  Then the Archbishop of York prorogued the Synod – business was over.

But the work of the Synod was not over.  The regular Sunday morning service in York Minster was followed by a three-line whip not to linger over lunch in York.  We were back in the chamber for 48 hours of shared conversations.  These are governed by protocols drawn up by St Michael’s House at Coventry Cathedral.  This limits what I can say about the conversations (and rightly so).  The conversations were a mixture of plenary sessions, where panels of people with different opinions on the issues at hand spoke about the Bible, their personal journeys, the changes of culture, the Anglican Communion, and walking forward together.  Together with these were small group sessions in which we shared our own journeys, read the Bible together, and talked about how we might walk together. At the heart of it all was prayer.  A very few members of Synod refused to take part in the conversations, which is deeply disappointing.  Experiences of the conversations very varied.  I can honestly say that I found them a deeply moving and important part of the life of the Synod.

So where now?  I am simultaneously hopeful and pessimistic.  I am hopeful that we have begun to talk honestly and openly in a way that few Synod conversations have been.  If we can carry that on, then whatever happens will be better than it might have been.  I am pessimistic, because the challenge remains to bridge a gap that for some seems unbridgeable.  After the conversations, the bar on debating issues of sexuality is now lifted.  Please pray for the Synod as it moves into the dangerous area of these debates.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Dementia: The 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize Shortlist 5

Review of John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (SCM, 2012).

I confess that I approached this book with trepidation.  What I feared was a well-meaning but dull account of the symptoms and basic pastoral needs of those with dementia – worthy, but not very interesting.  What I found was quite different.  This book is a mixture of deep theological accounts of what it means to be human, and important reflections on love and living.  All of this is explored and brought to the surface in Swinton’s reflections on dementia.  All has repercussions far beyond caring for those with that illness.  This is another truly excellent book on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist.

Swinton starts with a question of identity.  He wants to be loved and cared for, just for who he is.  So the question becomes who is he?  This is, of course, compounded by issues around dementia, where people lose memories, act differently, fail to recognise loved ones and family members and so on.  A common place of dealing with dementia is to suggest that the person has ceased to be themselves.  Swinton strongly disagrees.  He argues that ‘devastating as dementia undoubtedly is, the human beings experiencing it do not dissolve.  They are certainly changed, and there is much suffering and cause for lament.  But these people remain tightly held within the memories of God.  It is our ideas about what humanness, the nature of the self, and self-fulfilment mean that will have to be dissolved and re-created’ (p. 15).

What follows is a challenging and moving attempt to rethink these categories of humanness, identity and fulfilment.  There are insights from philosophy, science, medicine, psychology as well as theology.  All are handled carefully and persuasively.  Swinton’s chapter on memory is particularly well done.  He refuses the simplistic understanding of memory as recollection.  Rather memories are constructed in the present, with a historical sense but also a connection to present needs and desires.  They are ‘collages or jigsaw puzzles rather than pictures or tape recordings’ (p. 208).  Divine memory too has a transformative power in the present.  Human memory is one mode of participating in this, but we are all dependant on divine memory to give us truth and identity and hope.  To suggest that those with advanced dementia are remembered by God is not, then, a bit of pastoral fluff.  Rather it is a statement about a common humanity.  Remembering people with dementia, by visiting them, praying for them, treating them with care and attention is a way in which the pastoral task participates in the activity of God.

There is rigour and steel in Swinton’s pastoral theology – this is no well meaning piece of hand-wringing.  But it is coupled with a humanity and a pastoral sense that means that all of the careful, deep and detailed argument never forgets that those who suffer with, or alongside, dementia are human beings.  This is pastoral theology at its very best.  Swinton has done a great service to the church, and to those in need of its care.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Unapologetic: Michael Ramsey Prize Shortlist 4

Review of Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Faber and Faber, 2012).

This is the only book on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist that I had already read.  In the spirit of the enterprise, I re-read it so that I could review it alongside its fellow nominees.  I enjoyed it as much on the second read as I had on the first.

This is, quite simply, an excellent book.  It is very well written, by turns profound, insightful, irreverent and funny.  Spufford’s conceit is to write a book to explain why he is weird enough to go to church.  In order to do that, he offers an account of faith that draws on and speaks to contemporary culture.  There are lots of references to popular culture in here.  Don’t skip the footnotes, they are where some of his best, funniest and most barbed comments are to be found.  Take this one as an example: ‘Everyone in England has a church they can go to.  In the unlikely event that a heartbroken Richard Dawkins wants help … there will be someone in North Oxford whose responsibility it is to offer him an inexpensive digestive biscuit and a cup of milky tea, and to listen to him for as long as it takes’ (p. 184).  Apart from the slight on the clergy’s ability to make tea, this also demonstrates the ongoing argument that Spufford has with so-called ‘new atheism,’ and especially with Richard Dawkins.  With humour and the occasional barb, Spufford is keen to demonstrate that there is little new about Dawkins and that Christianity is actually a supporter of the sciences.  The Church of England, suggests Spufford, is one of the main reasons for the speed and ease by which Darwin’s ideas were spread and accepted.  This leads Spufford to the marvellous conclusion that ‘If you’re glad Darwin is on the £10 note, hug an Anglican’ (p. 102).

Spufford’s account of sin – ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’, or ‘HPtFtU’ (pp. 26-27) – is engaging, serious and helpful.  It is something that he continues to draw on throughout the book.  It helps Spufford to make sense of God, Jesus, and, especially, the church in all its idiocy and damaging reality.  Above all, it helps Spufford to make emotional sense of his faith.  This is not emotion opposed to reason, but it is emphatically not reason that is divorced from lived faith.  Spufford’s emotional apologetic is one that integrates thinking, story, and the joys and pains of life.  He can spend a long time working through the significance of an argument with his wife, and uses this reflection to ground some of his thinking.  He is trying to show that ‘The emotions that sustain religious belief are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult’ (p. 22).  I think he succeeds rather wonderfully.

Of course the very thing that makes this such a good book is also a limitation.  In this post-Brexit country, we should be more wary of assuming a single common culture.  It is also a very Protestant way of making emotional sense of Christianity.  However well expressed, the emotional sense of being released from sin and finding the freedom of being forgiven has deep Lutheran resonance. Nor will this book address people with the same sharpness in years to come.  But none of these limitations mars the force and the point of Spufford’s book, let alone the enjoyment it provides.  This book will date.  So read it now!  It is a book of the present to be devoured and enjoyed soon.  Enjoy.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Children in the Bible: Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 Shortlist 3

Review of Anne Richards, Children in the Bible: A Fresh Approach (SPCK, 2013).

This is the third of the shortlist for the Michael RamseyPrize, and wants to provide a new approach to working with children in the church.  She starts by reproducing a child’s question about God – ‘Who invented you?’  It’s an excellent question, which begs very deep and complex philosophical and theological issues.  Richards also offer’s the reply given by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  She commends Williams for his ‘simplicity, generosity and directness’ (p. ix).  That the Archbishop takes the child’s question so seriously, is important.  That he tried to respond in a way that the child could engage with is equally important.

Richard’s contention is that ‘children are worth God’s special attention and … are deeply woven into God’s purposes’ (p. xi).  In particular, she finds that God finds children ‘worthy of calling, salvation, commission, healing and blessing’ (p. xi).  These are, of course, things that adults are worthy of as well.  By attending to children, however, Richards hopes to gain insight into the depth and riches of these important themes, following the way in which Jesus used children as examples to his disciples.

Each of these themes (calling, salvation, commission, healing and blessing) is illustrated with Bible stories, including stories about Jesus’ childhood, which show God’s interest in children.  Sometimes God’s interest in children is designed to teach adults something, sometimes God ignores adults in favour of the child.  Richards grounds her argument deeply in Scripture, and highlights an often ignored theme – that of the place of children in God’s purposes. 

This has clear and important consequences of the life of the church today.  A common soundbite has it that ‘children are not just the future of the church, but its present’.  Richards gives theological and Biblical depth to this saying.  It had me thinking hard about how we offer teaching and opportunities for children and young people to teach others, to follow God’s call and to be part of the church’s life in all of its aspects. 

There is much else to commend in this book.  Her account of a court judgment resolving a parental dispute over whether a child should be baptised is insightful, and left me with renewed hope in the judiciary!  Her insight that ‘There is a real sense … that children teach us adults how do die’ (p. 133) is both moving and offers great wisdom.

This is, of course, a book about children written for adults.  For the most part, Richards remembers the paradox that this engenders.  However, there are one or two gaps in her thinking.  One such gap is around the vulnerability and danger facing children.  Adults are children who have survived to tell the tale.  There are too many children who do not survive to be adults.  The Bible knows of them, but Richards glosses over the story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11, pp. 47-48) and I struggled to find anything made of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2.

This is a good book, easy to read and with something important to say.  It has a challenge for the church and its approach to children.  How can we allow the children in our church to teach us about the ways of God?