TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, TREE OF LIFE

by
02 November 2006

Morehouse £9.99 (0-8192-8123-9) Church Times Bookshop £9

THIS collection of sermons by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, is something of a curate’s egg, if one may say that about an episcopal offering. Some of the addresses are brilliant, probing insistently a question that haunts the whole book: what is wisdom, and how does it relate to knowledge?

A few are, frankly, ferial: they are adequate for the occasion. All are serious: the Bishop of London doesn’t do levity. And just once or twice the seriousness slips over into what is dangerously near parody: “I was sitting next to someone at a City gathering . . . and they turned to me with that elaborate politeness which expresses the condescension of a superior being so far removed from the vulgar prejudices of a mere bishop.” A mere bishop?

Certain notes recur throughout these sermons. Clearly, Richard Chartres is impatient with calls to modernise the Church, to make it relevant, or improve its image. Why, some people would wish our services “to be led by people like you and me in lounge suits”. The result? “Dumbed-down versions of visionary language.” Here is the voice of a preacher who clearly prefers the King James Version of the Bible. For him, it is condescending to deny the “person in the street” a “capacity to understand, once their wonder is engaged”.

Yet even here there is a balance. In the same sermon he warns against “in-house preoccupations”: the relative length of the lavabo towel, and all such “fuss about churchy things”. It is also fascinating to find in this apparently traditionalist bishop a warm appreciation of the part played by the Charismatic revival in the Church.

In an address for the London Centre for Spirituality, he tells us what his own priorities would be for the Church: to be “spiritually credible, and to speak the word of God as if it were a transforming event and not simply a description of what it is. It is impossible to convey spiritual electricity by reading from the wiring diagram.”

One gets the feeling that here is a man who feels somewhat adrift in “now”— in an age in which there is a general absence of depth and mystery, where the world is seen as “just a theatre for unrestricted human willing”.

He doesn’t seem to be much concerned with new ways of being church, but with how the Church we already have could once again begin to fill this spiritual vacuum in our society.

Canon Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.

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