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Attention and intention

19 April 2013

Penny Seabrook reads a deep study of what vocation implies

Responding to God's Call: Christian formation today
Jeremy Worthen
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT307 )

JEREMY WORTHEN writes as the Principal of the South East Institute for Theological Education, drawing on many years of experience of training ecumenically diverse groups of ordinands, but, in Responding to God's Call, offers much more than a book for similarly challenged specialists.

His reflections on formation provide food for the journey of anyone who takes Christian vocation seriously - for personal or ministerial reasons.

Worthen starts at the point where most ordinands embark: on the outer edge of theology, where faith rubs shoulders with some of the secular disciplines that explain why people think and behave as they do. Observing that we are moulded, consciously or otherwise, by social norms that promote the idea of self-fulfilment or self-actualisation, Worthen admits that it is difficult to speak of Christian formation without also implying a loss of self.

In part two, however, he uses theology to redress that deficit by offering a richly layered, Christocentric, and sacramentally informed understanding of vocation. When viewed through this lens, formation is not about loss, or about conforming to an institutional rule book, but about renewal and freedom. We discover our true selves by responding to God's call and being remade in the image of his Son, who fulfils all human yearning.

Turning to the processes of formation, Worthen then outlines how Christian character is nurtured through worship, doctrine, and engagement with others. It is as attention, intentions, and desires are caught up by the Word of God that we become supple to respond to the needs of the world and capable of serving God's purpose.

Worthen's teaching background shines through the carefully organised argument. He never assumes too much or dodges difficult questions, and offers some exemplary ways of dealing with the latter, but will disappoint anyone looking for an experiential and narrative account of formation. The book acknowledges ways in which formation may be resisted, but deals with these difficulties in an objective and reasoned way rather than subjectively.

Although this makes the text relatively dry, it is enlivened by a keen awareness of history, and some sharp definition of thought, which makes the bulk of the book well worth a slow read, especially if years of parish ministry have sharpened the question of formation in that context.

The practical introductions to meditation and contemplation which appear in the third part are too brief to sit comfortably alongside the intellectual tenor of preceding chapters and have an "add-on", superfluous quality, in contrast to the distinctly Catholic discussion of liturgical and moral formation in the same section.

This could have borne more weight if expanded, but would have taken Worthen on to well-trodden ground, away from the chalkface encounters that are clearly the inspiration behind his admirably deep theological reflection.

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

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