MANY years ago, as a theology student, I can remember my delight in finding a copy of Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline going for a song and thus providing me (I hoped) with a succinct and inexpensive way of avoiding having to read his massive Church Dogmatics. The prose was dense and hard — great stuff, but difficult to read — but at least it was brief.
Barth’s book, written in 1947, was an attempt to write a short summary of the Christian faith, and took its structure from the Apostles’ Creed, familiar to Anglicans of a certain vintage from its daily use at morning and evening prayer, besides being used again today in its ancient position in the Rite of Baptism. And Barth’s example has been followed by many others in one form or another: the structure of the Apostles’ Creed seems to provide a good template for expounding the faith as no other. (Interestingly the Church of England’s Pilgrim course does not do this. It deals with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds together, with the Lord’s Prayer, in the same volume: possibly too much in one place?).
Into this context comes the present volume. John-Francis Friendship was for many years a member of the Society of St Francis, and is an experienced spiritual director and retreat conductor. Like many others before him, he takes the Apostles’ Creed as his overarching framework, grouping his material in three sections: Creator (the idea of God, creation), Redeemer (the life and meanings of Christ and his mother, the life to which we are called through Christ), and Sanctifier (the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and ourselves, the sacraments, the Bible, being a follower of Christ).
This is not the work of a systematic theologian setting down the right things in the correct order. This is the work of an experienced pastor writing from the heart. The essentials of Christian faith and life are well covered, but never without the warmth that comes from the author’s own experience.
I finished The Mystery of Faith around the time as the canonisation ceremonies for one John Henry Newman, who talks about the life of faith as being one of “heart speaking to heart”. Intellectual prowess is all very well, but not worth much in a relationship with God unless crowned by the giving and receiving of love. I suspect that this author would agree. It is a splendid book to give to a serious enquirer.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.
The Mystery of Faith: Exploring Christian belief
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £10.40