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The Sacramental Sea: A spiritual voyage through Christian history, by Edmund Newell

20 December 2019

John Pridmore allows a scholar to pilot him through a sea of ideas

“I MUST go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” So begins John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever”. Those of us who are now old were made to learn the poem by heart. Few today read Masefield’s poetry, let alone memorise it. Yet — deep calleth unto deep — there is still something within us touched by these words, still drawn to the sea, whether to sit on the beach in a deckchair or to circumnavigate the globe in a small boat.

The sea and our love and dread of it are the subject of this altogether fascinating book. It is, as Rowan Williams comments on the cover, “an oceanically wide subject”. Newell ranges across the image of the sea in scripture and tradition, in literature, hymnody, and the history of ideas. Lesser scholars would have been soon out of their depth.

Newell begins at the beginning, with the biblical account of creation. He confronts us immediately with what mainstream Christian orthodoxy has preferred to overlook. According to the first verses of Genesis, “the deep” was already there before it all began. Creation is not ex nihilo. It is the provision of a tiny and precarious bridgehead thrust into hostile waters that always threaten to return and overwhelm us. To this little parcel of dry land we cling under the pitiful illusion that here we are safe.

The image of the sea as “other”, as a reservoir of all that is recalcitrant to the divine purpose, persists throughout the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the sea is portrayed as the home of all manner of monsters, Leviathan and the rest, of which Jonah’s “great fish” is only the most famous. Job, scratching his boils, asks: “Am I a sea, or a sea monster that thou settest a guard over me?” (7.12).

Turning to the New Testament, Newell reminds us that behind the stories of Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm is the same persistent conviction that the sea is emblematic of all that opposes the divine will. To be sure, one day we shall rejoice that the sea is no more (Revelation 21.1), but we are not there yet.

Newell concedes that there is “a noticeable absence of references to the sea and chaos in patristic and later texts”, perhaps because the waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean are relatively calm. But, as soon as Christian peregrinati — monks, missionaries, and mystics —ventured into the wilder waters of the Atlantic and made landfall on its inhospitable coasts, the ancient awe and terror of the sea reawakened. Medieval maps, such as Hereford’s famous Mappa Mundi, show us where we are, surrounded on all sides by a menacing ocean.

Later chapters steer us through “the Age of Discovery”, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and our own troubled times. Newell illustrates how the preoccupations of successive periods in our story are reflected in our changing attitudes to the sea. It is all superbly done. As guest lecturer on our cruise, Newell more than earns his passage.

This absorbing study leaves us with a troubling question. What if we suppose that there is something true behind the old myth, scriptural but suppressed, that creation is not the making of all that is, as we dutifully affirm Sunday by Sunday, but the holding at bay of what always was, the primordial chaos, immemorial and malign, the deep ever bidding to engulf us?

It’s just a thought and possibly heretical, but it would explain an awful lot about how things are.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney, in east London.


The Sacramental Sea: A spiritual voyage through Christian history
Edmund Newell
DLT £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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