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Fight Valiantly: Evil and the devil in liturgy, by Tom Clammer 

27 September 2019

This study of ‘imagining evil’ in liturgy is weighty, says Christopher Irvine

THE gratuitous violence of the Nazi storm troopers was already known in the early 1930s, but it seems that there were few who recognised the evil that was emerging in Germany. The problem, according to Carl Jung, was a failure to imagine evil. The aim of Fight Valiantly is not to present a systematic account of what evil is, but to show that evil is “real enough”, and that Christian life commits us to struggling against those forces that destroy, distort, and deflect us from God’s good purposes.

The book’s subtitle indicates more specifically the terrain that is being explored here: Evil and the devil in liturgy. But this is far from a book for liturgy geeks: its thorough analysis and conclusions would repay the attention of all engaged in preparing candidates for baptism and confirmation, and in ministry to the sick and to those who are overwhelmed with a sense of gnawing negativity.

Tom Clammer is to be congratulated on recasting thesis into a book that maintains scholarly rigour and yet is both readable and engaging. There are eight chapters divided into three parts. The first part lays the groundwork and methodology; the second deals with the scriptural and liturgical texts authorised by the Church of England for Christian initiation, healing, and wholeness, and deliverance. The third sets out extensive conclusions that marshal the deficiencies and inconsistencies in the way in which the Church of England presents its understanding of sin and evil in its historic formularies, and authorised worship texts and lectionary provision.

The first part effectively sets out the context and parameters of the discussion, and opens with a discussion of the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, generally spelt out in terms of the liturgy’s encapsulating and expressing what it is that we believe. This is valid as a general principle, but I was sorry not to see a reference to a seminal article by Bryan Spinks which effectively argued from Anglican historical sources that the movement works in both directions, so that how we frame our liturgy is as much informed by our theological convictions as our prayer texts reflect what it is that we believe.

The focus on the second part is very much, though not exclusively, on the Church of England’s Common Worship provision. Clammer rightly identifies the baptismal rite as the controlling sacrament in relation to both Christian life and the subject of the inquiry. Each chapter proceeds on the basis of a structural analysis of texts, identifying key terms and themes; and what emerges from this scholarly critique is that, given certain options in the service, and permissions given in the notes and commentary, it is possible to baptise without any reference to the devil.

This is paradoxical, as an “imagination for evil” was intentionally stronger in the Common Worship baptismal rite than its precursor, the Alternative Service Book 1980. The ongoing and real struggle that the baptised encounter along the way is again fully recognised in the pastoral provision, especially the Prayers for Protection and Peace in the Healing and Wholeness section of Common Worship: Pastoral Services.

Services of Deliverance bring us into very different territory. Deliverance is a matter of proper pastoral sensitivity (perhaps even of reserve?), and liturgically it is rather anomalous, as each diocese, under its bishop, is responsible for producing the required prayer texts, which are not generally in the public domain. Clammer would clearly like to see a national agreement and endorsement of these prayer texts.

Clammer’s study delivers some weighty and important conclusions. The topic is too important to be neglected. Baptism is integral to the making of disciples, and we need both clarity and consistency in saying what it is that we are committing ourselves to and are being given God’s grace for. We live in a world where some social structures run counter to God’s purpose, and in which some individuals feel gripped by a malign force. How we articulate all this is a challenging question, but the need to do so is self-evident. Clammer helps us to see both these things.

Perhaps this could be set out again in a shorter and more reasonably priced book by the author?

The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst and Bodiam and Rural Dean of Rye, in Chichester diocese, and teaches at Sarum College and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.

Fight Valiantly: Evil and the devil in liturgy
Tom Clammer
SCM Press £65
Church Times Bookshop special price £52

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