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Five Events that Made Christianity, by John Pritchard

01 February 2019

Peter McGeary on what five holy days stand for

THERE are some clergy who like to keep active in retirement, and John Pritchard (formerly Bishop of Oxford) is evidently one of them. I have already reviewed two of his books in these pages: one on the Christian life (Books, 30 August 2013), and one on the basics of what it means to go to church (31 July 2009). Now Pritchard turns his attention to five events that at heart of the Christian narrative: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, the ascension of Christ, and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Like nervous students in the seminar room, afraid to display ignorance to their peers, the believer can all too often feign knowledge and understanding of his or her faith. And, if enough Christians do that enough of the time, it at least makes the parish priest’s life comfortable.

Pritchard will have none of this. His book wants the believer to dig deeper. Each of his five main sections is grounded — literally — in his experience of being on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Walking in the places where the events happened, or at least very close to them, leads to a consideration of what did happen, and what the biblical texts say or do not say. This is followed by a section asking “What does it mean?”, which is followed in turn by a section asking “What does it mean now?” Examination of an old text or a past event always has implications for the present.

Anyone looking here for an extensive exegesis of texts and doctrine will be disappointed: Pritchard is interested in clarity and simplicity, without being simplistic. Anybody looking here for simple answers will be disappointed, too: Pritchard asks questions, and points towards the mystery hinted at by an event. I believe this is called “theology”.

All the time I was reading this book, I was thinking of a particular member of my congregation in the East End. He is in his late twenties, very intelligent, and with no inherited religious vocabulary other than television, the cinema, and Dan Brown’s novels. He has no guile, and is unafraid to ask about anything and everything to do with Christian faith and life. He takes nothing for granted. He has a very literal understanding of language, and so finds the more poetic use of language in the Bible difficult. I believe that he will be the next recipient of Pritchard’s book: highly recommended.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

Five Events that Made Christianity: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost
John Pritchard
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