Dark and cheerless is the morn . . .

08 February 2011

Penny Seabrook traces the rainbow through a prophetic downpour


Cuttle Fish, Clones and Cluster Bombs: Preaching, politics and ecology
Michael S. Northcott

DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

CUTTLEFISH, clones, and cluster bombs may not shape the substance of many Sunday sermons, but Michael Northcott’s passionate and prophetic preaching points up connections that the Church and the world can ill afford to ignore.

As Professor of Ethics at the University of Edin­burgh, Northcott is a self-styled “hairy left-winger” who makes no attempt to disguise his political sympathies; so Conservative readers will find this collection of sermons ideologically challenging. But that is the down­side of a book that other­wise offers a powerful critique of our ecological, political, and eco­nomic complacency.

The contents page is as eclectic and ethically wide-ranging as the alliterative title, with seasonally inspired sermons dedicated to topics as diverse as foot-and-mouth disease, in Lent, the hallowing of time at Easter, and the arms trade in Ordinary time.

This scope is a gift, not only for his congregation, but also for under­graduates studying ethics who are looking for essay-writing tips.

Unlike most preachers, Northcott goes way beyond the headlines or topical stories that typically provide his hook, and is particularly good at drawing out the relation­ship be­tween local and global facts. So an oil spill off the Galician coast, for example, leads, via the weak­nesses of single-hulled tankers, to a critique of oil giants and deregulated capitalism, allowing him to draw the theological contrast between a human world structured by sin and coercion, with the non-coercive, mutual, worshipping com­munity, modelled on the non-competitive Trinitarian being of God.

There are no disciplinary boun­daries here. Northcott is as well versed in politics, economics, and philosophy as he is in the history of Christian thought, and the practice of liturgy. It is the latter, however, that clearly grounds his faith. Most of the sermons conclude with reflec­tion on worship. They are not, how­ever, to be recommended for the spiritually faint-hearted, because his analysis of what is going on in the world is profoundly depressing, and makes Christian hope feel very frail.

Salvation, for Northcott, is closely linked with the idea of cultivating Christian virtue, and with the con­tribution that worship makes to that change of heart. So he sees church as the place where we go to be re­minded of an alternative vision of society. Although he is candid about its failings, and sees God active out­side its walls, it is here that we find the Christ who can save us from hubris.

Facing up to reality is always costly and daunting, but this book is a plea for doing so urgently. I hope that Northcott’s newfound love of the allotment will not lead him to take early retirement. We need preachers like this to remind us that the stakes are alarmingly high.

The Revd Penny Seabrook is Associate Vicar of All Saints’, Fulham, in London.

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