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Love without a price tag

14 April 2022

Rod Garner celebrates the 45th anniversary of the publication of Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense


Crucifix (detail) by Cimabue, 1267-71, Basilica of San Domenico, Arezzo, Tuscany

Crucifix (detail) by Cimabue, 1267-71, Basilica of San Domenico, Arezzo, Tuscany

IT WAS the practice at my theological college to invite a former student back after his first year in parish ministry — to share his experiences with those about to be ordained.

The speaker on the occasion that I now recall with particular clarity had been well respected during his training. We paid careful attention as he recounted the rituals, routines, and challenges that he had undertaken, and the personal cost involved.

Concluding his talk, he recommended that, if we managed to read only one work of serious theology in our coming year as deacons, it should be W. H. Vanstone’s Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense.

After reading it, I wanted to learn more about its author. Against my hope or expectation, Vanstone agreed to act in a supervisory position as part of my post-ordination training. For my first assignment, I was to prepare a short paper on Jurgen Moltmann’s influential book The Crucified God.

The appointed day came, civilities were exchanged, and then, sitting less than comfortably, I began, “Moltmann thinks. . . ” Barely two words in, Vanstone interjected, “Mr Garner, I don’t want to know what Moltmann thinks. I want to know what you think.” There began a friendship that lasted until his death in 1999.

THE obituaries recounted Vanstone’s intellectual pedigree: first-class degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, followed by a hugely formative period of study under Paul Tillich at the Union Theological Seminary, New York.

Despite the outstanding gifts that suggested a future in the academic world or high office in the Church, Vanstone chose instead to serve parishes in the north-west of England. This he did with uncommon personal discipline, and a deep commitment to the lives of ordinary people. He became a trusted person, who made time for the small talk that masked deeper issues, and provided an open door for the burdened or the sorrowful when their worlds went wrong.

As a host to friends and visitors, Vanstone was courteous, congenial, and frequently amusing. Decent sherry, strong cigarettes, and a talent for home cooking figured in his enthusiasms, along with the writings of the 18th-century English writer and moralist, Dr Samuel Johnson.

Chief among his dislikes were superficiality, stupidity, and self-importance in all their manifestations in the Church of England. As a preacher, he prepared sermons meticulously, and they were only ever preached once. Written as a specific “offering” for each occasion of worship, they were then thrown away, their task completed.

A serious heart attack ended his parish ministry in 1976. In his final sermon, he told the congregation: “My heart has a lot to cope with at the moment. Please forgive me if I do not perform very well the last and most difficult task of leaving St Thomas’s.”

A PERIOD of recuperation gave Vanstone the time and space to write about the issues that had long preoccupied him: the place and purpose of the Church and its ministry in a secular age, and the need for popular Christian devotion to think again about the power of God in a theologically coherent way — in other words, to ponder more deeply the immense cost entailed in sustaining and redeeming the creation which Christianity proclaims as the work of divine love.

Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense is a concise but exacting meditation expressing its author’s conviction that “to love is to create and to create is to suffer.”

For Vanstone, God is not some inscrutable or imperious monarch detached from his handiwork, but one who is passionately involved in the laboured endeavour of integrating tragedy — that which has gone wrong — into the overall divine purpose.

W. H. Vanstone

Divine control will not necessarily prevent earthquakes, floods, and cancers, because that’s the way a world with ragged edges is; but it will seek to redeem it. This is the hallmark of God’s love.

The world is not to be understood as a pleasing bauble in the hands of the Almighty. It is a costly, precarious thing, for ever caught between the possibilities of triumph or tragedy, and calling forth from God unceasing commitment.

BY WAY of analogy, Vanstone describes the self-giving of God in creation with an eyewitness account of a surgeon performing an intricate and prolonged brain operation on a patient of great promise. The smallest mistake on the surgeon’s part would have had fatal consequences.

In the event, the operation was successful, but when it was completed, “the nurse had to take him by the hand, and lead him from the operating theatre like a blind man or a little child.”

The story, as Vanstone concedes, does not sit well with the Christian assertion that God in the absolute perfection and completeness of his own being should not be so affected by the world. But it is, nevertheless, he insists, entirely compatible with the fact that Christianity also teaches that God, in Christ, has been crucified by the world.

The anguished figure of Christ on the cross is, therefore, not a picture of God at one uncharacteristic moment in the past. It is instead a disclosure of a God who so loves his creation that, for all time, the world — in its tragedy, sin, and suffering, and in its readiness to respond to or reject his love — bears upon him.

Paradoxically, and not withstanding its proven capacity for self-absorption and shallowness, it is “the peculiar privilege and burden of the Church”, as one small, yet also sanctified part of the material order, to recognise itself and the universe as love’s work. A love that lays itself open to manipulation, corrosion, and decay, but also, in its limitless expense, enfolds all that is, “even to the edge of doom”.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian. His new book, Outsiders: Marching to a different drum, will be published this month by Liverpool Hope University Press.

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