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Putting on Christ as a priest puts on vestments

by
08 September 2009

A thoughtful book on human fulfilment, says Bruce Duncan

Between Heaven and Charing Cross: Finding a way to faith
Martin Warner
Mowbray £9.99
(978-1-84706-538-4)
Church Times Bookshop £9

MARTIN WARNER, formerly Priest Administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and now Treas­urer of St Paul’s Cathedral, has de­veloped a series of retreat addres­ses and sermons into this slim book (136 pages) of extended meditations on five themes.

The subjects are described in the chapter titles: “Handling Reality”, “Knowledge and Nostalgia”, “Power Dressing”, “Binding Time”, and “The Art of Celebration”.

These themes derive from, but in fact fit quite loosely to, the vesting prayers traditionally said by a priest preparing for the celebration of the eucharist. I suspect that, in common with many other priests, I have used these prayers over the years as I have washed my hands, and then vested with amice, alb, girdle, stole, and chasuble, all with very little thought beyond their surface meaning. In this book, Canon Warner discovers connections between the prayers and actions of vesting and what it means to be human and what we would wish to be.

“We are fearfully and wonderfully made; that is the Christian convic­tion and it has been the tenor of the prayers that form the spine of these reflections. If people who had no ex­perience of Church discovered in church an invitation to seriousness about what they would wish to be, with some expectation of its perfect accomplishment, I think we could make progress towards a restoration of the practice of belief and trust in God.”

The title of the book, from Francis Thompson’s poem “The Kingdom of God”, indicates Warner’s conviction that humanity has the capacity to apprehend heaven, even now on earth.

O World invisible, we view thee,

O world intangible, we touch

    thee,

O world unknowable, we know

    thee,

Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

. . .

Shall shine the traffic of

    Jacob’s Ladder

Pitched between Heaven and

    Charing Cross.

The subtitle, Finding a way to faith, is a little misleading; for this is no route map, no kind of Alpha course. There are no doctrinal guidelines, no apologetics: just an encouragement to pay greater attention to the ordinary things of life and to use them to explore Christian faith, hope, and love.

In each chapter, we are swept along the author’s stream of con­sciousness. Ideas, thoughts, visual images, illustrations, and quotations well up from Martin Warner’s life experiences and from his own deep spirituality.

So, for example, the chapter “Handling Reality” begins with the mundane task of hand-washing. The author then leads us along a fascinating line of thought concern­ing the “handling of our own lives in ways that allow ourselves to be open to God and transformed by God”. He begins with Mary Poppins and leads on to Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters, and then connects to the place of imagination in faith, to parenting, Abraham’s encounter with the three angels, the preparing and cooking of meals, sustainability, literacy, the hands of Jesus, the handwriting of God, paintings by Caravaggio and Stanley Spencer, the signing of the Munich Treaty, Robert Bolt’s novel The Mission, the use of our hands in worship, sign language, and Epstein’s figure of Christ in majesty in Llandaff Cathedral. Finally, all is summed up by Alice Oswald’s poem “The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile”.

Sometimes a reviewer’s task of reading a book through for the second time is a duti­ful chore. But not so with Be­tween Heaven and Charing Cross. It is a most unusual book, inviting readers to join the author in push­ing out boundaries, to use their imagina­tion, and to make their own con­nec­tions be­tween the common­place things of life and the glory of the Holy Trinity.

Canon Bruce Duncan, a retired priest, is a former Principal of Sarum College.

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