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The Michael Ramsey Prize 2016

19 August 2016

Our reviewers introduce the shortlist of contenders for this year’s prize

THE Michael Ramsey Prize was established in 2005 by Archbishop Rowan Williams to celebrate the most promising contemporary theological writing from the global Church. Previous winners include Bishop Tom Wright, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, and Luke Bretherton.

This year’s winning book will be announced at Greenbelt on 28 August. The judges will assess each of the shortlisted titles against the key criteria for the prize, including the degree to which each book deepens their faith, makes them think, inspires them to action, and is an enjoyable read.

The 2016 judging panel comprises the Archbishop of Canterbury; the director of the Centre for Trust, Peace, & Social Relations, Professor Rosalind Searle; the writer and broadcaster Sally Magnusson; the secretary-general of the Anglican Communion (and former Archbishop of the province of Kaduna, Nigeria), the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon; and a lecturer in Catholic Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, Dr Anna Rowlands.


The following are extracts from independent reviews of the shortlisted books, all of which were published in the Church Times.


Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a planet in peril
Benigno P. Beltran
Orbis Books £18.99
(978 1 57075 975 8)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

Fr Benigno P. Beltran is a priest of the Society of the Divine Word in the Philippines, who, as priest for the parish of the Risen Christ in Tondo, Manila, lived on top of the third largest untreated garbage dump in the world.

THIS book is a reflection on more than 30 years spent living on Smokey Mountain, a giant rubbish tip in Manila where roughly 25,000 people scavenged until it was closed down in 1995.

Fr Beltran’s vocation to be with the people of Smokey Mountain came to him when, after graduation, ordination, and seminary teaching, he saw the funeral pyre of a poor Indian, and realised that his own inadequate life must be among “the wretched of the earth” in the Philippines, in relationships that were not dependent on status or possessions, and with people who longed for respect and dignity.

He wrote: “I did not go to Smokey Mountain to save the scavengers; I went there so that the scavengers could save me.”

He grew to teach and live a theology that was hopeful and shared with the people in pursuit of justice and life, towards a future in a world where God is not disgraced.

Barbara Butler is Executive Secretary of Christians Aware.


Healing Agony: Reimagining forgiveness
Stephen Cherry
Continuum £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.39

Stephen Cherry is Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.

STEPHEN CHERRY’s important and necessary book uses a variety of case studies to show how forgiveness is a deeply painful process.

Some of these were unknown to me. Others I thought I knew; but he sheds fresh light on them, or corrects a mistaken memory. Gordon Wilson’s words after his daughter Marie was killed by the IRA at Enniskillen, on Remembrance Sunday 1987, were the subject of many sermons on forgiveness. Like many others, I thought that he had forgiven Marie’s killers. Thanks to Cherry, I now know that he did no such thing. He simply said that he would harbour no ill will and no grudge. He broke the cycle of revenge. What he did was neither impossible nor easy, but it was clearly misunderstood by many who failed to appreciate the context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, out of which, and to which, he spoke.

Cherry reminds us that context matters enormously in our interpretation of what might be loosely called “forgiveness stories”, including that found in John’s Gospel of the woman taken in adultery. Cherry’s analysis of this episode ought to be read before anyone preaches on it again.

The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.


Children in the Bible: A fresh approach
Anne Richards
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

Anne Richards is National Adviser for Mission Theology.

ANNE RICHARDS put a period of leave from her day job to excellent use by drafting this wise and challenging book.

Not long ago, there was a dearth of theological reflection about children, but, in recent years, the desert has rejoiced and blossomed. Only yesterday, it seems, we were pleading for a Christian understanding of childhood. Today, we sometimes wonder what more there is to be said. Children in the Bible amply demonstrates that there certainly is more to be said, especially — and here is Dr Richards’s “fresh approach” — if we ask what the implications of a biblical estimate of childhood are for the issues facing all of us, grown ups and children alike.

Children, Richards argues, are worthy of “calling, salvation, commission, healing, and blessing”, and these five keywords set the tune for her five chapters.

A brief postscript concludes that children are “the words of God in the world”. Here is a book to help us to listen to those words.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.


Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense
Francis Spufford
Faber and Faber £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

Francis Spufford is an author, and teaches writing at Goldsmiths College.

THIS book has a brilliance that fully justified the placing of an extract from it as the main article in The Guardian’s Saturday Review. This is, first, because of its relentless honesty. Any quarrel that you think you have with the Christian faith, and more, is stated here with bitter force. No less, this honesty leads Francis Spufford to be revealing about his own, sometimes painful, experience, and the ways in which his faith does not give us what we think we most want.

The second aspect of the brilliance is the vigour and sparkle of the writing. Almost every sentence has a fresh image or analogy. The tone that he adopts is very much that of someone arguing with a belligerent mate in the pub, but, even if one does not naturally respond to this vernacular style, he gets away with it because of the skill of his writing.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the author of God Outside the Box: Why spiritual people object to Christianity (SPCK, 2002).


Dementia: Living in the memories of God
John Swinton
SCM press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

Dr John Swinton is Professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the School of Divinity with Religious Studies and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.

IN A moving interview, John Swinton voiced some of the difficult existential questions that are prompted by the experience of dementia, and gave a narrative account of how these might be answered theologically. His book describes the intellectual journey that led to the answers, and demonstrates a deep compassion for those who can no longer remember in the way they once did.

There is no shortage of personal story in Swinton’s writing, but the book is primarily academic, and impressive, because he starts in a different place from others. While medics focus on symptoms of defective neurology, and philosophers talk in terms of what might be owed to sufferers by virtue of their personhood, Swinton sees dementia as a condition that usefully teaches us who we are, in relation to God. In other words, he casts it in the light of a theological anthropology that recognises that we are all dependent and contingent, relational, embodied, broken, and deeply lost beings, but loved by God no less for that.

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


God’s Presence: A contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity
Frances Young
CUP £20.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.90

The Revd Frances Young, OBE, FBA (born 1939) is a British theologian and Methodist minister. She is Emerita Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham.

FRANCES YOUNG has given us something unusual and valuable: a profoundly patristic, and profoundly personal, one-volume systematic theology.

She begins by describing her enterprise as an exploration, with “contemporary coherence”, of the “key topics of Christian doctrine” — “informed, not by the usual dialogue with contemporary philosophers or theologians, but rather by engagement with the theology of the Early Church Fathers”. By the conclusion of the book, we see that this represents a “journey”: “a path beyond the [assumptions of] modernity with which [her] journey began”, a moving forward in the company of sources from long ago.

Her book is systematic in the breadth of its themes — creation, sin, redemption, sanctification, Christology, and so on — and also in its attention to the relation between doctrines. At the same time, Young avoids any suggestion that her book offers a complete synthesis. A strong sense of God’s abundance, over and above anything we could say, suffuses the book.

Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

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