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Michael Ramsey Prize 2019: shortlist

09 August 2019

Our reviewers introduce the shortlist of contenders for this year’s prize

THE Michael Ramsey Prize was established in 2005 by Archbishop Rowan Williams to celebrate the most promising contemporary theological writing from the global Church. Previous winners include Luke Bretherton, David Bentley Hart, and John Swinton. This year’s winning book will be announced at Greenbelt on 25 August. The judges will assess each of the shortlisted titles against the key criteria for the prize, including the degree to which each book deepens their faith, makes them think, inspires them to action, and is an enjoyable read.

The 2019 judging panel comprises the Archbishop of Canterbury; the First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella; the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally; the Team Rector in the St Luke in the City Team Ministry, Liverpool, the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes; the author and humanitarian Terry Waite; and the Senior Lecturer in African Christianity and African Indigenous Religions at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Emma Wild-Wood.

The following are extracts from independent reviews of the shortlisted books, all of which were published in the Church Times.

Making All Things New: Catholicity, cosmology, consciousness
Ilia Delio
Orbis Books £20.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.90

Sister Ilia Delio OSF, a Franciscan in Washington, DC, holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of the bestelling The Unbearable Wholeness of Being (Obris Books, 2013).

“PUT on the mind of Christ”: a simple instruction, easy to repeat, easy to accept. But do we know what it really means? Ilia Delio’s answer to this question emerges out of her understanding of the evolution of consciousness in our mysterious and ancient universe. Her theology is not limited to the traditional, sometimes closed thinking of academics within the institutional system of the Church. She takes a wider, more open view, informed by the best of contemporary science, from cosmology and quantum physics to evolutionary biology. The contemplative life comes naturally to her (she began her career in a Carmelite monastery, later moving to an open religious community); so she speaks with authority as she explores ways in which we might reimagine the Church. . .

The language, bringing together the insights of prayerful contemplation, theology, and science is necessarily mystical, causing some amusing anxiety among more traditional theologians and excitable Evangelical scientists.

Reviewed by the Revd Adam Ford, a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

The Theology of Everything: Renaissance Man joins the 21st century
Keith Eyeons
Ellis & Maultby, £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

The Revd Dr Keith Eyeons is a Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, where he is the Chaplain and Director of Studies in Theology, Religion, and Philosophy of Religion.

THE subtitle channels Renaissance Man (sic) as the archetype of a mindset committed to a comprehensive and all-embracing account of reality. Modern dualisms that attribute what is physical or spiritual, objective or subjective, religious or scientific, to separate silos need to be roundly challenged. . . Eyeons describes this as “a journey across the breadth of human experience”, and he certainly covers plenty of ground. From the complexities of particle physics to the banalities of school league tables, no stone is left unturned.

Furthermore, beyond human experience in this world, we are transported to a dimension of ongoing God-directed development, where goodness ultimately displaces evil, and love conquers all. . .

Religion and science, so often seen as separate and distinct accounts of reality, are synthesised through a theological filter, just as Renaissance Man believed — and we can believe again.

Reviewed by the Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee, a former Bishop of Lincoln.

God Beyond Words: Christian theology and the spiritual experiences of people with profound intellectual disabilities
Jill Harshaw

Jessica Kingsley Publishers £50
Church Times Bookshop £45

Dr Jill Harshaw is Lecturer in Practical and Disability Theology at Queens University, Belfast.

HER entry point is God’s desire for self-disclosure to human beings, and how God enacts such disclosure, not least to people with profound intellectual disabilities. Christian theology has generally embraced a theory of accommodation whereby God’s self-revelation must accommodate the capacity of people to receive and experience it for themselves. So God, as God, must self-disclose to people with profound intellectual disabilities — but how?

Perhaps some theological themes associated with the baptism of those who cannot answer for themselves may help, but of greater significance is the work of the Holy Spirit, blowing where it wills, and, presumably, how it wills. . . An experience of God can precede and always supercedes a belief about God.

This challenging and potentially life-changing book is . . . testimony to the power of theology to illumine the lives and lighten the load for those whose duty of care can also be, by God’s grace, a positive joy.

Reviewed by Dr Saxbee (see above).

God is Stranger
Krish Kandiah

Hodder & Stoughton £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Krish Kandiah is founder and director of the adoption and fostering charity Home for Good.

THIS is not, in any sense, an easy book, although the author’s style is engaging. He takes as his central theme a dark corner of religious experience, when believers discover that the God they thought they knew suddenly confronts them in strange and unfamiliar ways. . .

The harsh experiences of life inevitably challenge that assumption. What happens to us when God shows us, as William Cowper put it in his old hymn, not his “smiling face” but his “frowning providence”?

Is this “another” God, a Stranger who is concerned with wrath and retribution, who flattens cities and raises floods to teach his wretched creatures lessons? Or are these dark experiences the consequence of living in a creation where events have consequences through which God may well speak to us, but are not necessarily divinely ordered?

Reviewed by Canon David Winter, a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.

Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, ritual, memory and God
Rachel Mann

DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

MANY publications exist about the military strategies and battles of the Great War. Rachel Mann’s outstanding book eschews the narrative style in favour of what she describes as an “extended” meditation. Her imaginative approach is well-informed, theologically aware, and beautifully composed.

The chapter titles invite the reader to visualise, for example, a chapel, a wallet, and wounds; and each pithy subtitle defines a searching question or theme to ponder. The author skilfully grounds these reflections with family references (her grandfathers fought in that war), and with battles and wounds of her own life

­journey. These enrich a moving consideration of “identity” and the unavoidable symbols and rituals of memory we use to shape it. . .

But, although incisive questions are posed about the culture and meaning of Remembrance, with all its ironies and clichés, the purpose is never to undermine.

Reviewed by the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, Head of Remembrance at the Royal British Legion and a former Bishop of Manchester.

The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry
Mark Oakley

Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

I FOUND this book interesting, instructive, and spiritually helpful: a happy combination not often found. A 35-­page introduction sets out the reasons why Mark Oakley believes in poetry. In brief, this is because there are some truths so profound that there is no chance of their being conveyed in prose. This is especially the case with religious truths, which can be killed stone dead by any kind of literalism. As Les Murray put it: “God is the poetry caught in any religion, caught, not imprisoned.”

Oakley, like any modern preacher at all sensitive to the culture in which we live, finds himself continually struggling to convey what he passionately believes, and the only help he finds this side of total bafflement and silence is poetry, and religious language understood as poetry. . .

The author writes freshly and vividly.

Reviewed by the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.


Miranda Threlfall-Holmes writes:

I was delighted to be asked to join the judging panel for the Michael Ramsey Prize this year. Reading six books that have been shortlisted as the best new theological writing over the past couple of years was always going to be an exciting prospect, and the range of subjects covered has been fascinating.

It has always been a particular concern of mine that we should think about our faith with the same academic rigour and critical analysis that we bring to other subjects. But so many people are turned off the idea of reading theology because they assume that it won’t be either interesting or accessible; so having a prize like this, that seeks out and highlights books that are at the top of their field, and that communicate their ideas in a way that is very fresh, accessible, and readable, is so important. It’s a delight that there are so many talented authors putting their gifts to work in this way.

One of the things that I’ve found particularly interesting in reading this shortlist is that, while there’s a huge breadth of subjects covered, there are also some common themes that emerge.

These seem to suggest that there are areas here that are particularly worth reflecting on, and that might be of especial importance to the ways in which our churches and spirituality develop in the coming years. For example, I’ve found that each of these books, in different ways, have both challenged me to look much more holistically at faith, science, and the whole of life, and have challenged me and invited me to be surprised afresh by the imaginative creativity of faith.

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