Book review: Great is the Mystery of Faith

Book cover

Great is the Mystery of Faith
Exploring Faith Through the Words of Worship
Author(s): Paul Ferguson
9781848250550 ISBN-10: 184825055X
Canterbury Press Norwich, 2011

A review this time of a book that’s been around a few years, but I hadn’t come across before.

Why I picked this up: Noticed whilst browsing Church House bookshop a little while ago. The title was intriguing.

I don’t remember ‘great is the mystery of faith’ from my childhood and as an adult its – well, mysteriousness – was comforting when I began grappling again with C of E services.

Why I carried on reading: Paul Ferguson takes the familiar Prayer Book and Common Worship liturgies and helps us understand what we’re saying; why we’re saying it, and (to my mind, more importantly), what might the effect of repeating these prayers and phrases be on our faith? What happens if we look beyond the familiar, the comforting phrases and really apply them to our worship and life?

I found myself learning something new in almost every section. There were ‘ah ha!’ and ‘oh, that’s why,’ and ‘gosh I never realised that’ moments throughout the book. And a few ‘oops – I probably ought to have worked that one out,’ thoughts too. Even on the first pages, my understanding of what I think I mean by ‘praise’ means was overhauled (in a good way). What this brought home to me was just how much we may take for granted and how little we’re taught about what it is we say every week. In an amicable but ongoing disagreement with a dear friend of mine, the merits of set liturgies (you are parroting the words and do not feel them in your soul) versus spontaneity (you are making it up as you go along, those are not meaningful things to say) are often debated. I suspect if I had had this book to hand earlier, I would have made a better argument…

I am intrigued by how laden with meaning each word and phrase is. I just didn’t know – had never thought – took stuff at face value. There is a depth of meaning and power in almost every word that I had not appreciated… Beauty and rhythm, yes; meaning, yes; but not at such detail.

Ferguson uses Greek and Hebrew carefully – with no expectation that his readers are language scholars. The explanations do not interrupt the flow of the text. He unpicks the familiar phrases and show the layers of meaning behind them.

It would take a library, not a 200-page paperback, to explain the whole history of our Common Worship. Ferguson does a good job of outlining the basics – where our creeds came from and how disagreements shaped the phrases they use is, for example, described in a few paragraphs. His approach is in some places to tell us that there are different opinions, highlight the key argument and then get back to the texts in hand. But this is enough to set the scene and flag up areas that might be worth further attention.

The book has a five-part structure and each part deals with different aspects of faith and worship:
Relationship with God: praise, confession, scripture
Believing: Understanding the creeds
Telling God’s story: Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc dimittis
Signs of power: Baptism, Eucharistic prayer
Faith and life: Lord’s prayer; prayer of thanksgiving.

Who would I give it to: Anyone near me who has ever been in church, either as participant or leader.

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