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Talks are gold-dust

02 May 2014

Peter McGeary looks at the 'basics' with Rowan Williams

Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, eucharist, prayer
Rowan Williams
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RETIRED archbishops are not meant to be like this. Rowan Williams is a disturbing man. No longer obliged to lead a Communion that all too often did not appreciate him, he continues to produce a steady flow of material that consistently enriches and challenges contemporary spiritual, ecclesiastical, political, and artistic discourse. This present volume may be one of the best. How does he do it?

Based on Holy Week talks originally given in Canterbury Cathedral, Being Christian examines four things that, in one sense or another, we might suppose to be the basic components of being part of the Church.

This is a book remarkably free of tips for self-improvement or spiritual gain. There is no trace of the individualism that can so distort Christian belief and practice. Williams's emphasis is constantly on Christ and his example, and how we might be changed by it within the fellowship of the Church.

Thus he suggests that baptism "means being with Jesus 'in the depths': the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need - but also in the depths of God's love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be". The Bible, for most of its history, has not primarily been read but, rather, heard. The text is declaimed to a community, who then try to work out what it means for them: hermeneutics is a communal exercise.

With the eucharist, we are reminded that this (like all the sacraments) is not something that we do for God, but rather something that God gives to us. And the gift is meant to be a sign of how we are meant to see the world around us.

Prayer is "growing into the kind of humanity that Christ shows us", a way of allowing ourselves to be re-formed by Jesus. We are given here splendid summaries of the teaching of three early writers on prayer (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian).

This is a work of enormous substance, boiled down to 80 pages of gold dust, for less than the price of a packet of cigarettes. It is impossible for any review to do it justice; so you must buy it and read it. And then read it again. And again.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey. 

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