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So, who reads a book of sermons?

10 August 2010

Cally Hammond did, and was transported back to her youth


The Word in Small Boats: Sermons from Oxford
Oliver O’Donovan
Eerdmans £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

TO READ this book is to encounter a vigorous mind, arguing complex answers to serious questions.

Some­times, preacher merges into prophet, as when he foretells the con­sequences, after 9/11, of prosec­uting a vengeance-driven war. It is energising to view such themes through the eye of a scholar who is also a practical theologian.

But for me the book was more than this: it was a revisiting of my­self as a young adult who listened Sunday by Sunday to the Canon Professors of Christ Church as part of the congregation or the Volun­tary Choir or, until I left for Cam­bridge, as an altar server.

In one of the sermons (and it is an engaging selection, carefully arranged), O’Donovan reflects on the gulf — visible from a mature perspective — that divides our younger selves, wrestling and ex­perimenting with faith, from our older selves, prone to colluding in

a spiritual status quo. This encap­sulated the similar gulf between what I was when I heard some of these sermons (and, doubtless, others not included in the book) and what I now am, as a preacher

of the Word.

Hearing him then, I thought him clever, but sometimes dry, often difficult. Reading now, I find him fresh and sharp, a master of the vivid metaphor or simile, sparing

in his employment of the grosser arts of rhetoric. Perhaps this is be­cause I can re-read, whereas in the Cathedral one chance to hear was all I had. Certainly it is because, as O’Donovan himself more than once remarks, he is preaching to a con­gregation of mature Christians, who do not need spiritual milk, but who are hungry for solid theological food.

But even when I listened and got lost back then, I knew he was worth hearing — a useful reminder that a preacher’s demeanour is part of his or her argument; that, as listeners, we are always reading the person, as well as his or her words.

There is much here that every reader will be the richer for having attended to; but on page 162 I found myself unexpectedly invited to stand on a hillside in the Lake District close by a dying man, a

man everyone at Christ Church, Oxford, in those days will re-member — the Cathedral Registrar, John Norsworthy. O’Donovan describes the scene with charac­teristic brevity: “a man of Christian faith confront­ing death amid the unperturbed beauty of the moun­tain scenery”.

When I left Oxford for Cam­bridge, I did not know that priest­hood lay ahead of me, or that it would take the form of a calling to be Dean of Caius, where I dis­covered that John had, while an undergraduate (and a friend of

Eric Heaton, who went on to be Dean of Christ Church, and who took his old friend with him tothe “other place”) been Chapel Clerk (an office that now lies in my gift).

I remember John’s generous goodness to me at a time when I was very unhappy; and now at Caius I give thanks for him each year among the dead on All Souls’ Day. It is a small world, we like to say; and that glimpse of an old friend reminded me how, as members of the body of Christ, our lives are knit together in un­expected and beautiful ways.

That is a personal reaction to the book, I know, but all will find some­thing here to move them.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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