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THE GESTURES OF GOD: Explorations in sacramentality

02 November 2006


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 Supper.

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 Jenkins.

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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