Continuum £18.99 (0-8264-7782-8); Church Times Bookshop £17.10
THIS welcome collection of essays brings together 11 papers delivered at an
ecumenical and interdisciplinary conference at St George’s House, Windsor, in
September 2003. By any standards, publication has been swift — complete with
one of those incisive theological thumbnail-sketches at which Rowan Williams is
so adept, as a foreword.
The conference, the brainchild of Geoffrey Rowell and Christine Hall, teemed
with ideas and insights across the various spectrums. “Sacramentality” is a
wider concept than “sacraments”. A useful term, it prevents getting bogged down
in discussing how many sacraments there are, as the Latin Church fixed on only
seven in the wake of the writings of Peter Lombard in the 11th century.
“Sacramentality” indicates a broader approach that tries to look at the ways
in which creation and religious experience intermesh, over and above the focal
points of the Christian life as these are celebrated in baptism and the Lord’s
Collections of essays are, of course, potentially erratic sources, and human
tastes vary as well. Rowell’s opening contribution has all the marks of his
ability to travel into other minds and cultures; the Eastern Fathers take first
place, with their confidence in creation already redeemed, and (tantalisingly)
he glimpses some Buddhist insights.
David Brown takes up the cudgels, in his gentle but firm manner, in
addressing the particular context of British theological academe today, with a
Barthian ascendancy that should, on its own terms, be more than a mite
suspicious about a generous view of sacramentality.
John Drane takes an even broader perspective, saying that contemporary
culture has had enough of conceptual deconstruction (on the one hand) and
religious individualism (on the other); there is much life left in even secular
culture for physical and emotional expressions of a religious character. This
point is made forcibly from a social anthropological viewpoint by Timothy
Other essays bring other perspec-tives: feminist (Susan Ross), orthodox
(Bouteneff), Indian (Sahi), liturgical (Power), and musical (Begbie). There is
also a characteristically tell-it-how-it-is contribution from Ann Loades, in
which she warns against turning sacramentality into a new religious consumerism
that has to deliver specific spiritual goods — or else.
That warning note might, perhaps, provide a context for the ongoing work of
this fertile conference. Imagination and human experience can be given too much
of a free rein — and that represents the conundrum of much contemporary
Christianity, as it tries to break free of concepts and approaches that are
over-confident about definition, and whose zealots, Roman Catholic or
Protestant, can be over-ready to exclude, when the words that are spoken do not
match the style or the culture of the particular authority that is invoked.
Each of these essays, in its own way, relies on an Eastern reluctance to
foreclose the debate on exactly how many sacraments there are.
For Anglicans as well as others, this mixed bag of conference-papers,
revised, as they have been, so that they should openly dialogue with one
another, opens up paths in a refreshingly imaginative way. They are not the
last word — more work needs to be done. But they provide much food for thought.
Dr Kenneth Stevenson is the Bishop of Portsmouth.
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