RECENT years have brought the rise of the sabbatical book. It happens when busy, thoughtful clergy finally get the chance to knock into shape an idea that has been buzzing around their head, look back over long experience of ministry, draw on the writers who have sustained them, often — as here — from their formative years, and wonder what is to be done about today’s Church.
Paul Bayes (News, Features, 1 February) has produced a lively and challenging addition to the genre. He aims at a general readership and writes very personally, against the twin horizons of his ministry as Bishop of Liverpool, with its inheritance of community engagement, and his sabbatical in the different world of the Episcopal Church in California.
He introduces his controlling metaphor of the table of Jesus in a striking inaugural sermon that he delivered as Bishop of Liverpool. His vision of the church is an open table, around which gathers “a group of people who know Jesus, and who proclaim justice”. He longs for the church to grow, “Not so that we can have a bigger church, but so that we can make a bigger difference”, in the name of “Jesus, the poor carpenter” — a phrase used rather a lot in the book (untroubled by textual variants of Mark 6.3).
The approach to faith that he then outlines takes his early Evangelical and Charismatic experience into a richly attractive and properly Catholic celebration of Christian living with a firm centre and open boundaries, embracing “the mystery and the hope of Jesus” and responding to the hunger of many “for justice and wonder”.
He describes four marks of faith: Meeting at the Table (with a debatable relish for “permanent and intense small-group meeting”); Drinking from the Fountain, nourished by scripture and worship; Watching in the Moment, with the prayer that values silence and attention to God; and Stretching for the Kingdom, a phrase inspired by a painful sabbatical experience of yoga, and a chapter in which he gives sustained attention a Christian issue of “inclusive social justice”, the need for full affirmation of LGBT people by the Church.
In welcome contrast to so much equivocal episcopal affirmation of gay people, Bayes insists that he can with integrity as Bishop both accept the need to work within the Church of England’s current policy, and also energetically and publicly advocate change to that policy and name homophobia in Church and nation alike.
The Table is not a systematic treatment (it ignores the tables that Jesus overturned). It is a polemical and vivid testimony to a faith that is grasped by the provocation of “the undefended table”. Next time Bishop Bayes takes a sabbatical, there is work to be done in relating this to the other wooden object that dominates the New Testament.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.
The Table: Knowing Jesus: Prayer, friendship, justice
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