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Glory of God and misery of Mammon

03 February 2017

Philip Welsh considers themes and treatment in the new Lent books

© james O. Davies and Rebecca Lane 2015-16

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Thou hast crowned him with glory and honour”: a detail from the westerly window by Tom Denny in the Chapel of St Catherine and St John the Baptist in Tewkesbury Abbey, discussed by William Packer and illustrated in Glory, Azure and Gold: The stained-glass windows of Thomas Denny, edited by Antonia Johnson and Josie Reed Reed Contemporary Books/Lund Humphries, £40 (£36); 978-1-84822-228-1)

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Thou hast crowned him with glory and honour”: a detail from the westerly window by Tom Denny in the Chapel of St Catherine and St John the Baptist in Tewkesbury Abbey, discussed by William Packer and illustrated in Glory, Azure and Gold: The stained-glass windows of Thomas Denny, edited by Antonia Johnson and Josie Reed Reed Contemporary Books/Lund Humphries, £40 (£36); 978-1-84822-228-1)

Hanging by a Thread: The questions of the cross
Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


Glimpses of Glory (The Mowbray Lent Book 2017)
David Bryant
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99


The Things He Did: The story of Holy Week
Stephen Cottrell
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


Let Me Go There: The spirit of Lent
Paula Gooder
Canterbury Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


The Way of Christ-likeness: Being transformed by the liturgies of Lent, Holy Week and Easter
Michael Perham
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30


Dethroning Mammon: Making money serve grace (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2017)
Justin Welby
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


THERE are two odd men out in this year’s Lent round-up (and, indeed, all but one are men): Michael Perham, for a volume that is not really a Lent book, but a helpful guide for the clergy in using Common Worship resources from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost; and Justin Welby, for claiming a sharp public issue as proper material for Lent.

The shortest book is Hanging by a Thread, in which Sam Wells offers six thought-provoking meditations on the cross. He is impatient with theories of the atonement, and starts with the claim that “The cross is not an answer that leaves us comfortable and assured: it’s a question that leaves our faith hanging by a thread,” moving towards the conclusion that this is a story about “how deeply we resist God being with us, yet how willing God is at any cost to be with us regardless”.

The book reads as if its origin was in the pulpit on Good Friday, and the brevity of his addresses makes them suggestive rather than conclusive. These are, however, searching reflections that challenge superficial thinking, and at their best when they help us to feel afresh the shock and sheer subversiveness of the cross. Wells has a gift for using simple language to make us look at familiar ideas in a new way. Occasional slang and word-play probably worked better for his original hearers than in cold print. He is fond of references to films, and the book ends with an extended consideration of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, where he treads a fine line between reading theology out of the story and reading his book back into the film.

Hanging by a Thread would be excellent for individual slow reading during Lent, and its chapters could lend themselves to group consideration.

The late David Bryant, in Glimpses of Glory, offers 40 short meditations for daily use (and possibly by groups), in almost every instance weaving together scripture, personal experience, insights into the Christian life, and reference to literature.

He wrote these, aged 78, as he found himself living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. This is not, though, a book about dying, and the author refers to his situation only at the beginning and the end. He recalls the different phases of his life — boarding school, theological college and first curacy, parish visiting and prison visiting, schoolteaching, a decade in the personal and spiritual wilderness, and finally his sense of the manifest presence of God in the high-dependency ward where he was a patient. The background of the author’s dying serves to call the bluff on cheap talk about living, but in the end this is a book not about Bryant but about God.

He draws on theologians that reflect his generation — Paul Tillich and Martin Buber, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the process theologians — and insists that Christian doctrine must be held together with lived experience. He makes copious reference to classic novels, and also to poetry, reminiscent of Alan Ecclestone in the way he forges a humane and incarnational spirituality out of a lifetime’s companionship with literature, as well as in his celebration of sexuality.

Glimpses of Glory is a sustained plea for us to open our eyes to the presence of God’s love in the everyday life around us, and to rejoice in the adventure of our existence: “Rethink the spiritual journey. Question every aspect of faith, search always for new paths and fresh visions of God’s glory.”

As the title suggests, in The Things He Did, Stephen Cottrell directs attention not so much to the words of Jesus as to six eloquent actions that he performed between his triumphal entry in Jerusalem and his arrest.

For each, Cottrell simply retells and elaborates the story, graphically supplying background detail (with a surprising amount of horticultural information), and imaginatively entering the thought-world and motivation of those involved. The Jesus he presents is a disruptive and provocative figure, whose firm sense of his mission does not imply psychological implausibility: “this was the hour God had led him to. He couldn’t see it as you might imagine. He couldn’t see the future in the same way that we see the past.”

The author’s aim is to get the reader inside the biblical scene and inside the skin of the participants, and he holds back (in general) from drawing conclusions and pointing morals. That is the reader’s job, and each chapter is followed by an exemplary set of largely standard questions designed to prompt thinking or discussion while leaving the reader to make the connections. In this way, Cottrell occupies the space left in the Evangelists’ accounts, in turn inviting readers to cross the space between the world he depicts and their own.

He uses the device of the omniscient narrator, who knows the characters’ unspoken thoughts, and also (more than his Jesus) knows what the future will hold: “‘Do this to remember me,’ he had said. They didn’t know what this meant. But they would remember. For the things he did that night would unlock the meaning of what he did next.”

In conveying the drama and urgency of the final week, Cottrell favours the hard-boiled, paratactic style — “Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted. One of them stumbled and nearly fell. Everyone laughed. . . They pretend that this is how it is meant to be. Life goes on” — over which the spirit of Raymond Chandler seems to be hovering (“It was going to rain soon. There was pressure in the air already. I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble.”).

The author thanks his family for putting up with his writing on his day off — not, one hopes, an example that he would commend to his Chelmsford clergy, even though the outcome is a lively and challenging exercise of the sanctified imagination.

Paula Gooder is well-known as a biblical scholar who writes for a popular readership. In Let Me Go There, she supplies daily reflections on short passages of scripture, taking as her twin themes the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and the calling of the disciples. The author is very good at unobtrusively weaving her scholarship into her writing as she fills in the biblical context, and in each case draws out something of relevance for the Christian life. She also provides helpful questions for possible weekly discussion.

An attractive Introduction outlines her themes of wilderness and of discipleship in relation to Lent. The two horizons against which she writes here, as in the book as a whole, are the world of the Bible and our contemporary world, not seeking to draw on intervening ground. The distinctive line that she takes on discipleship (via its etymology) is one of ongoing learning: “Following was what enabled them to learn; learning was what made them disciples.”

What is scarcely referred to is the Church. She may warn us against the danger of individualism, and urge us “to look beyond our own selves to a world in so much need of love and compassion”, but there is little acknowledgement that discipleship is not simply individual but held in common as the Church.

Gooder mentions that she has not found it possible in this book to supply her customary anecdotes, but her personal voice is heard throughout. Occasionally she sounds a bit like an unwise counsellor who can’t resist relating an issue to her own experience, and at times her casual asides feel rather anxiously introduced to put us at our ease (including the preacher’s last resort, “I know I do”). But there will be those for whom this popular writer and speaker’s personality and experience are part of the book’s attraction.

In the 1980s, Michael Perham was closely involved in the production of Lent, Holy Week and Easter and the accompanying guides to this new liturgical provision. These are now out of print, and almost all of Lent, Holy Week and Easter has been incorporated into Common Worship: Times and Seasons. In The Way of Christ-likeness, Perham has now built on his earlier material to provide a very useful and realistic guide to good practice in using the present resources (he also enjoys the opportunity to point out an error in the Common Worship text and to suggest an improvement to some clumsy language).

His conviction is that liturgy should connect with our lives and change our lives, as worshippers are “formed in their Christian discipleship and moulded into shape by the liturgy of the Church and in particular by the celebration of the Christian year, which is at its most compelling in the days before and during Easter”.

Perham writes from considerable expertise and experience, but does not aim to be technical, historical, or particularly innovative. Thirty years ago, he helped many of us with Liturgy Pastoral and Parochial, and once again his emphasis is on the pastoral potential of good liturgy in a parish context realistically understood.

Perham is a sound guide, though, no doubt, the clergy will occasionally enjoy taking issue with him, and may bridle at mild outbreaks of liturgist’s assertion (“It needs to be a proper washing of both feet”). I am not convinced by his insistence on reading the whole Passion narrative on Palm Sunday on the weak grounds that many people won’t turn up again until Easter Day: a better reason is needed for narrative gazumping, in anticipating the story that Holy Week is designed to unfold. And his strong endorsement of Maundy Thursday foot-washing might acknowledge that reluctance to participate goes deeper than a distaste for untidiness, and explore the roots of embarrassment (which his earlier book does mention).

His recognition that the observance of traditional times on Good Friday may need to change as patterns of social and working life have changed is welcome; and there is particular resonance to his writing about the tentative reawakening of hope on Easter Eve, given the brief reference he makes to the way in which the traumatic personal events that hit him three years ago have affected his understanding of Holy Week.

Parish clergy, and those preparing for ministry, will find The Way of Christ-likeness an invaluable guide in their planning of worship, set in the context of Christian formation and pastoral ministry.

Commentators will naturally look at Justin Welby’s Dethroning Mammon for indications of the Archbishop’s views on hot topics of social policy. They will find him dismissive of the trickle-down theory of wealth, and clear that it is the poorest “who have borne the brunt of spending cuts”. He wants Christians “to say positively what tax should do for human flourishing”, writes positively of “market economics of the post-Second World War era”, and comes close to seeing the establishment of the Welfare State as an example of a society “in which Christ is enthroned and Mammon is dethroned”. The book concludes (a bit abruptly) with his well-known advocacy of credit unions as a Christian response to payday lending.

Welby finds in Scrooge an example of a change of heart by someone in the grip of Mammon, but he goes well beyond Dickensian sentimentality in some of his analysis. To be on the side of the poor “does not mean paternalistically sharing their sufferings, but challenging the reason for them”. “Mammon told us that the answer to poverty was to spend more. Mammon lied.” And he subtly reminds us that, for all the undoubted benefits of major philanthropy, it is based on the fallacy “that what we’ve got is ours to dispose of as we choose”.

Yet the great achievement of this book does not lie in its particular observations, but in its fundamental claim that the world of money is a subject of central theological importance and a key indicator of spiritual values: “a budget is applied theology expressed in numbers.” Welby’s radicalism is in claiming that the only true realism lies in prayer: “We must be sure that we see the world as it is, and the only way to do it is to see it through God’s eyes. . . Seeing correctly is one of the greatest spiritual disciplines. . . So how do we challenge Mammon’s lie? We begin with worship.” Worship will not be captured in any utilitarian calculus, and guards against “the degree to which we often disproportionately value the things we can readily measure” (including, one could add, some approaches to church growth).

His unlikely allies in this project are the religious communities, in particular the l’Arche communities in their profound challenge to conventional assumptions about human value, and the more recent Community of St Anselm at Lambeth, embodying the integral place of prayer in the Archbishop’s domestic economy.

Each of the six chapters would provide good material for group discussion. The questions that punctuate each chapter seem more designed for individual reflection. Throughout the book, Welby relates his themes to scripture. Sometimes his approach is unusual (the raising of Lazarus as an account of people reacting in different ways to the same reality); sometimes he offers an unconventional reading (the pearl of great price as a parable about God’s seeking us); amd on occasion an application seems forced (the Palm Sunday crowd “see a coming Messiah, but the lens through which they see is one that is about political liberation and not spiritual change. There is a parallel with the problem of the Western economies in the run-up to 2008”).

Dethroning Mammon does not seek to be a closely reasoned work of theology or economics. It is an attractive, accessible, and provocative book that offers a thoughtful Christian perspective on how to make money serve grace. If we are to live faithfully by what the Archbishop calls “God’s ridiculous economics”, we may all be called to be odd ones out this Lent.


The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the London diocese.

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