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Bishops in and out of season

22 December 2016

Anthony Phillips joins a guided tour of the Christian year


A Good Year
Mark Oakley, editor
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


BELIEVING that bishops have a “calling to feed the Christian Church and to secure its integrity”, seven episcopal authors were asked what would make a “good” observa­tion of a particular season in the Christian year. In a splendid and highly individual introduction, Canon Mark Oakley explains the piecemeal origin of the collection. Some derive from lectures to be heard, others from essays to be read.

For Sarah Mullally, “Advent is a time not to examine ourselves but to examine God and his hope.” It demands waiting on God: no passive act, but a deeply active one.

Rowan Williams, in a typically innovative look at three popular carols, mediates on the nature of God, a God who holds nothing back, who delights to be human alongside humanity, who changes things by letting go. Above all at Christmas, we must not lose the sense of surprise at the nature of our God or the potential for humanity in his scheme of things.

Libby Lane finds that hospitality lies at the heart of Epiphany. She examines the narratives of the baptism of Jesus, the conversion of St Paul, the wedding at Cana, and Candlemas. Here again, surprise is key, “the surprise move” that God makes towards us in the sheer extravagance of his self-giving.

Justin Welby urges us to stop seeing Lent “simply as something that is individual”. It’s not about ”tu” but ”vous”. We are to be con­cerned with the transformation of not just ourselves, but our com­munity, indeed “the global family”. Both the importance of listening and silence are emphasised.

In the most practical of the con­tributions, Stephen Cottrell suggests how to celebrate Holy Week in all its fullness. It is like an opera. Attend everything, and “revel in a sensuous and hands-on re-­enactment of liturgical drama”. He advises punctuating the liturgy with other voices, and playing it slowly.

Stephen Conway argues that Easter invites us “to be transformed, even transfigured by resurrection life”. By imaginatively reflecting on four images that in different ways illustrate the extent and power of God’s love, he shows how this can be achieved. “A good Easter is life lived shot through with grace and glory, hoping for that transfiguring by love which makes us the healed and forgiven community of the resurrection”.

Finally, Karen Gorham argues that Pentecost begins with waiting in hope for God to empower us which can be both an unsettling and threatening experience. Again, God is seen as a God of surprise who enables us to do and be what we could never have imagined possible. She concludes by noting that Pentecost leads us into Ordinary Time, “and so the ordinary can be made extraordinary each and every day by the Spirit of God”.

These contributions are much to be welcomed. But Oakley’s tantal­ising introduction, imaginative and fearless, indicates that he himself should be persuaded to produce his own connected narrative of the Christian year. There can be little doubt that it would surprise: but, as the God of surprise knows, that is what Christians need above all else.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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