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Lent books 2022: courses and reflections

21 January 2022

David Wilbourne looks at courses and reflections

A PHOTO from 1950 features my young uniformed father, standing beside five other Church Army officers pushing a handcart, bowing their heads to be blessed by the Bishop of Worcester. They will criss-cross England, sleeping on church-hall floors and evangelising game villagers, before ending up in Cleethorpes, startling shivering sunbathers with Christ. Mindful of my father’s pilgrimage, I enjoyed Wicked Weather for Walking, in which Bishop Stephen Platten prayerfully juxtaposes the winding, perilous pilgrimages that brought Christianity to these Isles with Christ’s Holy Week pilgrimage in Jerusalem.

He packs a great deal of ecclesiastical history into just 66 pages — a single skilful sentence breathes life into Augustine, Paulinus, Edwin, Aidan, Oswald, Cuthbert, Dewi, Patrick, Hilda, Wilfrid . . . Platten highlights major pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago de Compostela, or minor ones of our own devising, drawing out the spiritual implications of journeying, arriving, and new life beyond — shades of resurrection. He proves to be a genius at weaving apt quotations seamlessly into the text, be it Bede’s sparrow’s flight, Kipling’s “Eddi’s Service”, “St Patrick’s Breastplate”, Eric Milner White’s Passion Prayers, or W. H. Auden’s “Some say that love’s a little boy” (”O tell me the truth about love”). A classic.

Desert pilgrims thirsty for intellectual and spiritual stimuli will enjoy lush pools in What Were You Arguing About Along the Way, ably edited by Pat Bennett. The former leader of the Corrymeela Community Pádraig Ó Tuama drew together an edgy writing group from across Britain and Ireland, whose experience of conflict was rooted and hard-won. Their brief was to read the RCL Sunday Gospels through the lens of conflict, and read conflict through the lens of the gospel.

This book gathers together ten writers’ meaty reflections for Years A, B, and C from Advent to Easter, including responses to contemporary mores (I loved the idea of putting on a carol service using only post-2010 pop songs) and arresting prayers, à la Janet Morley. Ó Tuama wryly observes that even peace groups breed conflict; this book’s skill is to make such conflict constructive rather than destructive, a rich resource for preachers, house groups, sixth forms, and troubled cathedrals and dioceses, driven to encounter “Jesus, our sometimes discomforting brother”.

Along with many pearls of great price, Greta Thunberg’s “How dare you?” is pure John the Baptist redivivus; Jesus would not have been interested in being a conflict mediator; when the God you worship has the same enemies as you, you know you are worshipping an idol.

alamyA 2019 Broadway production (at the Richard Rodgers Theatre) of Hamilton: the theme of Rose Hudson-Wilkin’s course

Lent in 50 Moments combines depth with a light touch. The eucharistic lectionary from Ash to Easter Wednesdays springs 50 arresting charcoal-and-pen illustrations by Ted Harrison, accompanied by Liam Kelly’s explanatory gloss and personal reflection. Substantial quotations include 12 from Pope Francis, three from Cardinal Hume, two from Pope Benedict, and one each from Archbishops Welby and Sentamu, Cardinal Nichols, and Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. “Kill wars with words of negotiation rather than men with the sword,” John Paul II admonishes UK and Argentinian cardinals during the Falklands War.

Of the three women cited, the Queen’s intensely moving reflection on lockdown Maundy Thursday vies with St Teresa of Calcutta: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss — of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not really existing.”’ A few more appetisers: fast from gossip and slander; hell is the enjoyment of your own way for ever; am I stopping Christ from coming in or getting out? “Either take the menu or go to another restaurant,” Cardinal Hume warned: more than enough here for a Lenten feast.

Basil Hume also claimed that a bishop comes to where people are and takes them to places where they never dreamt of going. In The Room Where it Happens, Rose Hudson-Wilkin comes to house groups, wherever they may be, watching the smash-hit musical Hamilton with them, and introducing staid Anglicans to hip-hop. She parallels her own immigrant experience with Alexander Hamilton’s, blisteringly honest about her humble origins, the ensuing hurts, and the dreams that fired her.

Each of the five two-hour sessions includes prayer, reflections based on her ministry and family, discussion, Bible-study, and Hamilton extracts — on YouTube and Disney+ in the absence of the DVD. The sessions focus on identity and belonging, acknowledging that we are all wandering Aramaeans, pilgrims, and pioneers desperately seeking home; on ambition and temptation, mindful that the tragedy of life lies not in missing your goal, but in never having one to start with; on forgiveness and redemption; on love and sacrifice; and, finally, on hope and courage during Holy Week. In 22 years of parish ministry, I ran many Lent house groups, and, as a bishop, I addressed larger Lent gatherings. I sense that this course will work brilliantly.

Reflections for Lent is a veritable TARDIS, containing Morning Prayer, Night Prayer and daily collects. Hardy perennials by Rachel Treweek and Stephen Cottrell on matins-saying and Bible-reading are sexed up by Mark Oakley musing on Bruegel’s The Fight between Carnival and Lent.

Converting daily commentaries by Philip North, Treweek, Angela Tilby, and Christopher Herbert delve crisply into the characters of Joseph and Moses, and these are worthy warm-up acts for Rowan Williams’s lamenting Lamentations in Holy Week. Guess who wrote these bons mots: just as mighty Pharaoh needed Joseph the jailbird, 21st-century powers need with all their hearts the man nailed to the cross; God who is mystery, whose name cannot be named, addresses us by name; kneeling in a darkness so dense it can be felt, all we can do is await the light of grace.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Sally Welch reincarnates C. S. Lewis in Sharing the Easter Story, using the lens of resurrection to sharpen our lives’ focus. Each week of Lent, she unfolds a different aspect of Easter and how to share it, each day including a piece of scripture, a heartfelt reflection followed by group questions and prayer, often whole-body rather than just cerebral.

Welch proves a wonderful fellow traveller, informed by decades of rooted ministry — committed to dialogue, not a diatribe — pulling no punches over ministry’s highs and lows. Immensely human, honest, humorous, compassionate, and wise, she believes that transformation leads to belief in the cause of transformation, her eyes fixed throughout on her risen and ascended Lord. And on the company he keeps, such as John Newton: “If I ever reach heaven, I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet someone I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there.”

Ros Clarke celebrates 40 biblical women with some lovely turns of phrase in Forty Women. When Sarai’s actions are disgraceful, God’s response is grace; in God’s eyes, there are no bit-part actors; the first word that reveals Jesus as the risen Christ is a woman’s name. Black humour abounds: the inconsequential housewife minding her business at home might turn into Jael (Judges 4.21).

Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba and Tamar prove pale shadows compared with their feisty selves in Joseph Heller’s God Knows, but Clarke gives Ruth, the woman bleeding for 12 years, and John’s woman at the Samaritan well authentic and moving voices. Featuring dark deeds done to and by women, Clarke admits that her book is hardly family friendly. But I was more scared by blood propitiating God’s anger, God’s punishing Miriam with leprosy for doubting tiresome Moses, and divine retribution that is so much worse than Covid: need God made in women’s image be quite so toxic?

© 2021 Ted HarrisonA gallery visitor stands before Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son in one of Ted Harrison’s illustrations for Lent in 50 Moments

And Yet strives to find joy in lament, juxtaposing waiting, celebrating, grieving, lamenting, hoping, and rejoicing with Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, and more Ordinary Time. Surviving depression and attempted suicide, Rachael Newham seeks joy (to which the New Testament alludes 326 times) in the very darkness rather than as an alternative or antidote to it, drawing us to light. She sees the word “yet” as pivotal in cheering the studied misery of Lamentations 3.21-23 and Psalm 42.7, a trust that though Holy Saturday is truly dark and terrible, yet Easter Day will dawn.

She cites 54 authors — I recognised only seven, had read none — with the following quotations catching her grand theme: looking at the world through tears, perhaps I will see things that dry-eyed I could not see; the tears of Good Friday were still wet on the faces of Jesus’ friends when he returned to them; Easter demands a tending to wounds even though the wounding is over; joy can be found in the most unexpected places because God’s fingerprints cover everything he’s created.

Daniel Horan’s scholarly The Way of the Franciscans explores the spirituality behind eight diverse Franciscan saints. “I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours!” dying Francis declares. Cloistered Clare at prayer tastes the hidden sweetness that God reserves for his lovers. Prophetic Bonaventure anticipates Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, imagining ourselves in the stable, nourished with virginal milk, kissing the boy’s feet.

The mystic Angela of Foligno washes festering lepers on Maundy Thursday, drinking their soiled water as if it were communion wine, swallowing a scab as if it were the Host. Jacopone da Tode pens “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping.” Catherine of Bologna tenderly addresses Christ Crucified, shades of Julian of Norwich: “O abundant sea for those who row on you in their derelict boat”. Solanus Casey encourages us to thank God, ahead of time.

Best of all, Scotus refreshingly liberates God from our sin-centred view of atonement. No longer constrained to the Shakespearean tragedy that we thrust upon him, God proves to be Slartibartfast SSF, simply delighting in creation, incarnating himself just for the sheer fun of it. Eight Franciscan paradigms prayerfully inhabit a world pregnant with God, teeming with grace: a deeply converting book.

In York Courses’ God Has No Favourites (Acts 10.34), the theologian Carmody Grey presents five 1500-word reflections: the best picture of God; neither Jew nor Gentile; neither male nor female; neither slave nor free; what is a Christian? She accessibly weaves substantial theology with Bible study, emphasising that we need to unfamiliarise ourselves with the Bible, letting its sheer strangeness jolt us. Plenty of personal glimpses and fascinating detail include an Orthodox priest protesting that a prostitute is not a sinner, but an icon in the dustbin; and the Muslim practice of filling the next available space in the mosque rather than skulking in the back pew.

The reflections are accompanied by more than 70 margin quotations, proving that God has no favourites by juxtaposing the famous with ordinary people, sandwiching Barack Omaba between “a Christian” and “a Reader”. The famous prove more punchy and funny: sure, Fred Astaire was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did — backwards and in high heels; justice is what love looks like in public; we must love one another or die; people do not change: they are merely revealed; there is no path: the path is revealed by walking.

In the accompanying CD, the broadcaster Canon Simon Stanley, a veritable Columbo, disarmingly draws Grey to reveal all. He also interviews three “bold voices”, a cocktail of the mouthy, humdrum, and occasionally breathtakingly perceptive, without which no house group is complete. I preferred it when Stanley brought the great and the good into our living rooms, but, I suppose, if God really has no favourites, you can’t have everything.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese.


Wicked Weather for Walking
Stephen Platten
Sacristy Press £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.19


What Were You Arguing About Along the Way? Gospel reflections for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter
Pat Bennett, editor
Canterbury Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.99


Lent in 50 Moments: 50 daily reflections
Liam Kelly
DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69


The Room Where It Happens: A Lent course for groups or individuals based on the musical “Hamilton”
Rose Hudson-Wilkin
DLT £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.29


Reflections for Lent: 2 March-16 April 2022
Christopher Herbert, Philip North, Angela Tilby, and Rachel Treweek
CHP £4.99
Church Times Bookshop £4.49


Sharing the Easter Story: From reading to living the gospel
Sally Welch
BRF £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.09


Forty Women: Unseen women of the bible from Eden to Easter
Ros Clarke
IVP £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99


And Yet: Finding joy in lament
Rachael Newham
SPCK £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99


The Way of the Franciscans: A prayer journey through Lent
Daniel P. Horan
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


York Courses: God Has No Favourites: An ecumenical course in five sessions
Carmody Grey
SPCK £4.99 (booklet)
Church Times Bookshop £4.49
(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.spckpublishing.co.uk)

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