AFTER the publication of Nebuchadnezzar’s Marmalade Pot (Christmas Books, 24 November 2017) and Archbishop Benson’s Humming Top (Books, 21/28 December 2018), Adrian Leak’s third collection — like the others, beautifully produced — both enchants and informs. Interspersed throughout the book are sermons and pen portraits of disparate characters from Tyndale and Cranmer to Dorothy Sayers and John Betjeman.
The sermons are generally short and mercifully free of theological jargon. To the author’s subsequent regret, I suspect, no attempt is made to engage in biblical criticism.
Particularly moving, and though preached more than 20 years ago painfully contemporary, is the sermon “Guildford’s Via Dolorosa”, recounting the street death of a homeless young woman. And we would all profit from taking on board Leak’s Lent address on self-esteem: “None of us and none of the world’s rogues and villains is less than infinitely precious in the sight of God.” Although not a sermon, the author’s piece on prayer could not be bettered as an introduction to this discipline.
Two sentences from the sermons I particularly treasure. “The process of conversion is never complete,” and, from the final sermon in the book, “It is no accident that the vocabulary of the aching heart is richer than the language of the cheerful spirit.” And there are plenty more gems like that.
The pen portraits previously published in the Church Times are generally of well-known people. Leak exercises considerable mastery in his usually brief summary of the characteristics of his subjects and their achievements. Three are treated more fully. Richard Hooker, whose importance for the future of the Established Church cannot be exaggerated; the complex Dr Johnson, whose defence of the poor has a distinctly contemporary ring; and John Betjeman, who is particularly identified as saving Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, threatened with demolition in the early 1970s, and where I joyfully worship when in London.
Lesser-known figures today include the eccentric William Buckland, who, as a guest at dinner, absent-mindedly swallowed the pickled heart of Louis XIV; and Athelstan Riley, sent by Benson as a young man to Kurdistan to inquire into the state of the fast-disappearing Assyrian Church, which resulted in the rescue of this pre-Chalcedonian community.
But, for me, pride of place must go to the heroic Miss Sheen, Leake’s dancing teacher at prep school — in fact, a war widow. This piece illustrates the author’s humanity, which characterises all three books and makes them something to treasure.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
The Golden Calves of Jeroboam and Other Reflections
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