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Meaning in the slow times

08 September 2017

Penny Seabrook on John Swinton’s challenging book Becoming Friends of Time

Jonathan Addie

Gentle disciple: the award-winning author John Swinton

Gentle disciple: the award-winning author John Swinton

WHEN time is at a premium because of the pressures of daily life, spare a thought for those who cannot function at speed: people like Elizabeth, whose memories of the past come and go like leaves blowing in the wind; or Floyd, who went to sleep one day and woke the next to find that his entire brain had been reorganised by a viral infection; or, perhaps, Lorraine — that warm affable woman who finds it difficult to make friends because no one has the patience to communicate at her pace.

This wonderfully thought-provoking book by John Swinton takes its cue from such profoundly disabled people to argue that many of the challenges they face would be overcome if time were on their side. The world might call them “lost souls” or “neurologically impaired” or “mentally deficient”, but behind the label there is a person made in the image of God and so just as worthy of love as anyone who is weird enough to think himself or herself normal.

As Swinton demonstrates in the first half of the book, pausing to pay attention to time quickly reveals that the use to which it is put rules the judgement of its value. Ticking on relentlessly, the clock casts the shadow of slowness on anyone who cannot keep up with the productive demands of the rat race. As “time becomes money,” so the worth of those who are unable to contribute to society, and have little self-awareness, is discounted. In the eyes of some they become “non-persons”— burdens rather than assets — best written off as promptly as possible.

This brutal analysis of the logical end to which Western capitalist society is tending is countered by the theological understanding of time which Swinton offers in its place. Reasoning carefully, in well-signposted steps, he traces the profound difference between temporal and eternal time, locating the connection between the two in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who walked his way to Jerusalem not at speed, but slowly and gently.

Picking up the striking idea of a “Three Mile an Hour God” from the theologian Kosuke Koyama, Swinton observes how far modern perceptions of time deviate from the purpose of Christ’s vocation, which was to draw people back into the here-and-now of God’s eternal love. Jesus taught his disciples by example, giving time to the paralysed, marginalised, and rejected; using time to pray; surrendering his time to ensure that God’s will might be honoured.

To be faithful to him today means giving back the time that we have been given to both God and neighbour. If we insist on travelling at speed, it is highly likely that we will pass them by, without becoming friends of either. As Swinton says, it is in the slow times of Jesus’s life and death that we discover the shape and meaning of love.

This Christology opens up a whole new way of thinking about the experience of living with disability, and the relationship between the fit and healthy and those who are not able to participate in life at the same speed as them. To be truly inclusive and loving towards the latter is not just about making access to buildings easier: it is about valuing the part that they play in the whole instead of regarding them as a charitable cause; about recognising their vocation and enabling them to fulfil that by serving others — not by doing anything in particular, but by being who they are: a source of timely revelation.

The second half of the book explores what this might look and feel like from the perspective of people who, like Elizabeth, Floyd, and Lorraine, are living with limited intellectual capacity, an acquired brain injury, or dementia. Without spending much time on the tragic dimension of their plight, Swinton urges those who are in full possession of their body and faculties to listen more attentively to the compromised word of those who are disabled in such ways. Giving the latter time to express themselves verbally, and observing carefully what bodily habits and movement might indicate about the person when the capacity for speech is limited or absent, opens up the possibility of a relationship that is reciprocal, loving, and uplifting.

Such attentiveness is costly in terms of time and character, because it does not come easily to those who like to be busy, but, as Jean Vanier, Frances Young, and others who have lived in intimate relationship with the profoundly disabled bear witness, there is a simple joy to be found in learning to live well in the time that has been given to us by God, without making any judgement about what is normal or abnormal.

Seeing my demented mother smile when I arrive to visit reminds me that she is still my mother, even though she cannot remember who I am. However fleeting the moment is, there is reward to be had — on both sides — despite the frustrations that each of us experience in living with the disease that blights the lives of so many.

We are not machines, to be consumed by the tyranny of the clock, or buried before our God-given time, but human beings, made in the same image as the One whose body was broken, blessed, and shared, to keep hope alive.

My hope is that this radically challenging book receives the recognition that it deserves. Swinton was awarded last year’s Michael Ramsey Prize for making an outstanding contribution to theology with his book Dementia: Living in the memory of God (News, 2 September 2016). Becoming Friends of Time is as good, if not better — not least because the first half of the book offers a stand-alone critique of the unthinking ways in which we normally use time.

It is a winning and eye-opening read, and is capable of prompting lively discussion about our capacity for the gentle discipleship that Swinton advocates.


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

Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, timefullness and gentle discipleship by John Swinton is published by SCM Press at £19.99 (CT Bookshop special offer price £14.99); 978-0-334-05557-0. Listen to John Swinton speak about the book on Episode 14 of The Church Times Podcast: www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.


“Disability issues are of interest to all people because at some stage all people will become disabled. It is just a matter of time.” What do you make of this statement?

What are the implications of living as a Christian in a “hypercognitive” world?

How far did Becoming Friends of Time change or challenge your thinking about the way people with disabilities are treated?

Does the Church today embrace enough “the fleshy nature of learning to be a disciple”?

“Time is best conceived as an aspect of God’s love for the world.” How has this book affected the way you perceive and spend time?

How can Christians challenge “the tyranny of normality”?

Do you agree with John Swinton’s definition of healing as “finding a place in the world where one is comfortable with who one is and what one is in the world for”?

What did you make of Swinton’s idea of “before”, “after”, and “after after” as a way of considering one’s relationship with God?

How useful do you find the distinction between “theological effectiveness” and “experiential effectiveness” in thinking about pastoral care?

What did you think of the “lived funeral” outlined in the book’s Appendix?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 October, we will print extra information about our next book, East West Street by Philippe Sands. It is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-1-4746-0191-7.

Book notes
East West Street is a meditation on family, guilt, and international law. A visit to the Ukrainian city of Lviv leads Philippe Sands to pursue the connections between four people: his grandfather; Hans Frank (the Nazi governor responsible for the murder of thousands in and around the city); and two lawyers, Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials whose respective coinings of the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” redefined the way the law interprets the evil that people do to one another. Described by Antonia Fraser as “one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read”, East West Street won the 2016 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

Author notes
Philippe Sands is a barrister practising in international law, and Professor of Law at University College London. Called to the bar in 2005, he has played a part in several important cases, including those involving Pinochet, Rwanda, Guantanamo Bay, and the Yazidis. His book Lawless World (2005) examined the United States’ contentions with the global legal system in the run-up to the Iraq War, while Torture Team (2008) dealt with the ethics of “enhanced interrogation” in the war on terror. Sands lives in London with his wife and three children.

Books for the next two months:
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
December: The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

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