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The wilderness, Bunyan, the Cross

03 February 2017

David Winter on courses and daily fare for Lent

Place to pause: St Cedd’s remote mission church, the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall or ad Vincula, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, in Janet Gough’s new book Churches of the Church of England

Place to pause: St Cedd’s remote mission church, the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall or ad Vincula, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, in Janet Gough’s new book C...

Wilderness Taunts: Revealing your light
Ian Adams
Canterbury Press £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


The Passion and the Cross: Dailing readings for Lent
Ronald Rolheiser
Hodder £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


The Living Cross: Exploring God’s gift of forgiveness and new life
Amy Boucher Pye
BRF £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


Cover to Cover: At the Cross
Abby Guinness
CWR £4.99
Church Times Bookshop £4.50


To Be a Pilgrim: forty days with “The Pilgrim’s Progress”
Peter Morden and Ruth Broomhall
CWR £4.99
Church Times Bookshop £4.50


Live Lent with Christian Aid: Into the wilderness
Church House Publishing £2.99
Church Times Bookshop £2.70


Receiving Christ (in five different ways)
Canon John Young
York Courses £3.99 (booklet)
Church Times Bookshop £3.60

(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516).


Worship for Lent and Easter: A complete parish programme with all-age and Celtic options
Annie Heppenstall
Kevin Mayhew £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40


AS USUAL, the Lent books under review here fall into three categories. The first is books for group study. In fact, almost all the books reviewed include some suggestions about their use by groups — testimony to the widespread practice of holding church-based discussion groups in Lent. The second category is the straightforwardly devotional, usually offering a biblical reading for each day of Lent with reflection and prayer. The third group is the more demanding treatment of a relevant Lenten theme for daily reading.

Taking the last group first, there are just two books, vastly different in their approach. Wilderness Taunts by Ian Adams is an extraordinary book, perhaps best suited to those with a robust spiritual constitution. It is a genuine Lent book, being based on the wilderness temptations of Jesus. Adams sees those particular temptations as “taunts”, a reasonable inference from the repeated phrase “If you are the Son of God”.

Having looked at the taunts that Jesus faced and his answers to them, the author then extends the idea through the book’s 40 very short chapters. In these, he imagines the taunts that the Adversary might throw at us, in our modern world. They are mostly cleverly chosen and powerfully, if briefly, presented. Probably your reviewer’s experience of reading them at one sitting was not wise, because many hit all kinds of sensitive weak spots. The author is not offering counsel or advice — and definitely not sympathy. His objective is to make us aware of our shortcomings, to which the only answer he offers is “love” — God’s for us, and ours for the neighbour we too readily ignore. This is a disturbing little book, in the true sense of the word.

The other book in the “demanding” category is The Passion and the Cross by Ronald Rolheiser. While providing readings for every day of Lent, it has as its great theme the Passion and resurrection of Jesus. The author is an American Roman Catholic priest, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. In many respects it is a classic example of Catholic spiritual writing, orthodox but not afraid sometimes to shock, theological but not academic.

Some British readers, including this pedantic reviewer, may find certain Americanisms distracting. All can be forgiven, however, for several passages of memorable spiritual insight, including this, on how Jesus, the Lamb of God, “took away the sin of the world”: “He did it by taking in hatred and giving back love, by taking in anger and giving back graciousness, by taking in envy and giving back blessing . . . by taking in chaos and giving back peace, and by taking in sin and giving back forgiveness.”

There are four books that could be described as devotional reading for Lent. The Living Cross: Exploring God’s gift of forgiveness and new life, by Amy Boucher Pye, explores the whole idea of forgiveness as seen in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Christian Gospels, and also in anecdotes of remarkable epiphanies experienced by people today who have at great cost learnt to forgive. Both the stories and the exposition of biblical examples serve to demonstrate how forgiveness is central to the teaching of Jesus and the meaning of the Cross.

The book has the inevitable discussion material, here involving some unusual requirements: “Make a well”, for instance, for which “you will need scissors, thin card, pens and tape, or a plastic water bottle or aluminium tin can.” If Messy Church for Adults is not your scene, there is plenty of material for spiritual reflection and discussion of a more traditional kind. The whole book is a celebration of the transforming power of forgiveness, given and received.

Cover to Cover: At the Cross, written by Abby Guiness, who is closely associated with Spring Harvest, uses the Gospel narratives of the Passion to resource thoughtful pen-pictures of people who were present at the crucifixion. Her style of writing is engaging, and so are the imaginary monologues that, she suggests, could be performed during group sessions. I found the one by the Penitent Thief, for instance, genuinely moving.

Some group leaders may find the pattern of the chapters — designed as the layout for a weekly session — too prescriptive: an “ice-breaker”, an opening prayer, an introduction, a Bible reading, the imaginary testimony, and a short homily, followed by discussion-starters, final thoughts, and a closing prayer. It makes liturgical worship sound positively spontaneous. Nevertheless, the author, who has a theatrical background, tells us at the start that she wants the material to be used, whether by individual readers or a group, with imagination and creativity. There is plenty here to encourage that. Every picture, as the saying goes, tells a story, and these are some of the greatest of all pictures.

To Be a Pilgrim: Forty days with “The Pilgrim’s Progress” as a Lent exercise sounds rewarding. Bunyan’s classic allegory of Christian’s pilgrimage from his “den” in “the wilderness of this world” through many trials and testings until he reaches the Celestial City is truly one of Christendom’s great books. The modern reader has two problems with it. The first is Bunyan’s 17th-century English (though it has much charm), and the second is his uncompromising doctrinal certainty. We all know that “the trumpets sounded for him on the other side,” but that was Christian. Poor Ignorance, misled by the wily Vain-hope, the ferryman, gets as far as the heavenly gates but is dismissed to hell through a passage right next to the celestial doors.

One does not rewrite a classic, of course, and the authors of this book, a Baptist theologian and a teacher who has written a Pilgrim’s Progress curriculum for schools, have no desire to do so. It comes across as strong meat, but seen as allegory, presented with all the skills of an imaginative storyteller, it still has something to say to readers today. In the West we live in a perpetual Vanity Fair; the Slough of Despond is never far away, and nor is Doubting Castle.

This book, attractively produced and illustrated, offers 40 extracts from Bunyan’s book with commentary and discussion points from the authors. With Bunyan’s wonderful procession of characters and insight into the struggles of the human soul, the book is worth it for the extracts alone.

The fourth devotional book is very different. Live Lent with Christian Aid: Into the wilderness is a slim volume of relatively few words. It is simple, beautifully produced and illustrated, and offers no material for group discussion — though one could see a couple of friends agreeing to meet daily to share its insights. Compiled by the Director of Christian Aid, Loretta Minghella, it offers a scripture reading for each of the 40 days of Lent followed by a challenge to action in response to it. This “action” may be focused prayer, or going for a walk with a friend, or helping at a foodbank or homeless centre.

Of course, the needs of the wider world are also presented, especially in daily pictures of people living positively in difficult circumstances. It is not in any way a disguised appeal for money, but a challenge to use Lent as an opportunity to lift our eyes (as one page suggests) to “reach beyond your church”. I was surprised by the range and relevance of the daily scripture readings. For a personal daily resource for Lent, this one seems to me to tick most of the boxes.

Many of the books under review describe themselves as “ideal for groups and individual use”. There is, however, a Lent publication that is clearly intended solely for group use, as it has been for more than 20 years. The 2017 edition of the York Lent Courses is not only edited by John Young but also written by him.

It may simply be the fruit of long experience, but the discussion material in these studies could serve as training examplars for most of the other compilers and editors. It begins where people are rather than where we want or expect them to be, and avoids the dread possibility of participants’ feeling ignorant or naïve in their contribution. Topics are not proposed in the peculiar interior language of the Church. And they open up the subject rather than seek the last word on it.

The title of this year’s course is Receiving Christ in Five Different Ways. It offers five sessions, which is all that most churches can fit into Lent. Starting with the words of the prologue to St John’s Gospel (“to those who received him he gave the right to become children of God”), it looks at five ways in which this process of reception can take place: in the Christian community, in the “stranger and the needy”, in holy communion, through specific prayer, and through the day-to-day experience of Christ’s presence.

John Young’s approach is to set out the evidence, both scriptural and through the experiences of dozens of people — believers and agnostics — in an excellent selection of quotations. The contributors to the accompanying CD (John Bell, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Timothy Radcliffe, and Bob Holman) serve to emphasise the wonderful variety of ways in which people can receive Christ. Like many of the clergy, I have promoted the York Course in my parishes since the 1990s. It is good to see that over the years it has not become predictable or stale, but still offers a wonderful tool for a lay-led home group.

Finally, something completely different. Worship for Lent and Easter offers what it justifiably calls “a complete parish programme” for the season: prayers, liturgy, reflections, services for children and all-age worship, and even “a simple ritual of bread and wine” (or Ribena, if required). The author, Annie Heppenstall, has a rare gift for shaping prayer and worship, using scripture (especially the Psalms) in a creative way and avoiding irrelevant, archaic, and repetitive language.

This is a book that will make a welcome addition to the vestry bookshelf and, no doubt, be widely used, though it is hard to imagine any church that could use all of it in the space of six weeks. One word of caution for those who cherish a slightly more traditional approach: “About the Author” tells us that she is “drawn to expressions of Earth Spirituality and expressions of the Feminine Divine”. Do not expect to find in these pages God as “Father” or Jesus as “Lord”. And start your hunt for the “Desert Mothers”. I’m still looking.

It is to Heppenstall’s credit, however, that one is seldom aware of her preferences. The impression of her work is of joyful, inclusive, God-centred worship, encompassing people of all ages, backgrounds, lifestyle, and cultural choices. I think she should be invited to join the Liturgical Commission at once.


Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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