Book Review: Being a Curate

Being  A Curate
2014
Jonathon Ross-McNairn, Sonia Barron
9780281070961
SPCK Publishing, London

Unlike previous reviews, I can be a lot more honest about why I was interested in reading it now my own plans are out in the open! (see here for details if you missed the announcement).

No surprise, then, that at first I practically inhaled the words off the page – it’s been a while since I read non-fiction so fast. The book looks back to the discernment process as well as forward to curacy and beyond so I could easily locate myself in that chronology. I imagine reading this pre-BAP would be incredibly powerful (and gut-wrenchingly terrifying). Reading this in the week I resigned my job prior to starting training I found myself wanting to ask the difficult questions the book posed…but not really wanting the answers…not just yet…

I particularly enjoyed Rob Keane’s stories of the ministry of presence in the pub…definitely one for me to model and something I could identify with. Will someone let me know if he ever gets the bar tab as an expense, please?

Everyone is different and everyone’s circumstances are different so Ross-Nairn and Barron could never edit a book of this ilk that will be completely comprehensive. In fact one could argue that it would be pointless to try to enumerate all possible options. If the process of formation is so individual, perhaps trying to do anything more than present a range of stories is counter-productive.

But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ ambling into view at the end of that last sentence) I was nearly reduced to tears on the train one morning when I seemed to read again and again the phrases ‘…and of course your spouse…’ or ‘…the ordinands’ families…’ Michael Perham, for example talked about the potential deacons arriving…accompanied by their families for the pre-ordination gathering. Ouch, I thought.

Is this really still the assumption? There was no-one in this book with whom I really identified, no-one I could point to and say ‘that’s a bit like me.’ Given the editors have gone to some trouble to include many voices, would it not have been possible to find a single person? Or a few more less obviously well-off people? Or does the fact there were no straight, single, 40+ women willing to talk about being a curate mean I really am as unusual as some would make out? (I am looking at you, Diocesan finance department).

Each curate’s story has a particular focus, and so the extra colour about their story is sometimes lacking. I guess that had each person had free rein to talk about themselves there’d have been several volumes, and it’s far better to hear a range of voices briefly describe a variety of situations than one or two in-depth. And despite the lack of mirror images of me, the stories are good reading.

There’s a great spread of experience from the curates. There’s all the joy and pain, happiness and frustration I think we would expect…with some deeper pain, and more rewarding happiness along the way. Good, practical wisdom, with the battle scars to boot. Some situations – a murder, sudden death, casual racism, deception in the appointments process – stand out for their awfulness. I found myself greatly admiring the ability of the curates to shoulder the unexpected and get on with it – and wondering, of course, how I would fare in their shoes. Which, presumably, is part of the point of the book. After having read many of the ‘discernment list’ books about the nature of ‘being’ a priest, I really enjoyed hearing how the curates learned to balance that with the demands of the ‘doing’ they had to get on with.

The chapter from the clergy spouse was disappointing. A brief sketch of some of the issues (how much to be involved, maintaining neutrality) but the assertion that ‘God did not really ask very much of us’ was a bit depressing. And his being asked to be on the PCC as a bit of ‘routine talent-spotting’ sounded, to my ears at least, a bit arrogant.

On the whole, the book feels honest – key issues have been allowed to stand out, undisguised. And there is rawness and pain here – from mismatched curacies, to the sense of fear and failure, and of an uncaring institution. The section that covers most of this is titled ‘Dealing with Thorny Issues’ – possibly an understatement. In a key sentence, it is admitted that ‘Church is essentially patriarchal, hierarchical and slow to change. These factors can easily combine to bring about a structure that is abusive to its most vulnerable clergy…’ (p136) – not something one would necessarily want to hear, but something that needs to be said, and understood. Power is not equally distributed, and it would be folly to pretend otherwise. Alongside this is an insistence that one ‘owns’ what happens to ourselves – that one should stay centred on God, and find our strength from there. I cannot decide whether I cynically think this is another way of blaming the curate for failure, or a realistic way of ensuring survival throughout a life of ministry. Answers on a postcard.

I felt this was an all-round look – with contributions from people at all stages and experiences – the cast has clearly been well put together in terms of level experience, if not class or geography. I recognised some of the names, and wonder if I know any of those under aliases, which also made this book feel at times like a helpful chat in the pub might be.

My church has just acquired a full time stipendiary curate and I’m tempted to suggest this should be compulsory reading for all our congregation.

Book review: Lord and Saviour: Jesus of Nazareth


Lord and Saviour: Jesus of Nazareth
Part 3 of Christian Belief for Everyone

Alister McGrath
SPCK: London
ISBN 978 0281068371

This is the third in the series ‘Christian Belief for Everyone’ and I looked at the first part last year here.
I rather enjoyed this one. It felt like a canter through a theological library, with McGrath pointing left and right to the big thinkers, the classic works of literature, whilst shouting out doctrines and ideas as we went. “Heresies! Look what Athanasius says!” or “Atonement! Crashaw, 1612! Incarnation! CS Lewis!” whilst occasionally lobbing a well-known hymn which made the same theological point at our heads. (There were also a few “You at the back, Dawkins. I heard that. Come here and make that point about science again please where we can all hear you.”) There are more in-depth considerations of other writers’ ways of putting fairly complicated points across, so we meet a range of recent and ancient voices. All help to present the Big Picture of who Jesus Christ was.

I can’t count the number of times I have stood in church and stated my belief. I believe in Jesus Christ. God’s only begotten Son. Crucified, dead and buried. This book reminds me I need to think about the man I am affirming belief in; and the words I use, and ultimately what the implications for my life of faith are. We are invited to take a look at the ideas of salvation, atonement, incarnation, sacrifice, ransom and others; and understand how the ideas and evidence and parts of the puzzle come together.  What does Messiah mean? or Saviour? What about Lord? Words we use often, in church-talk, but it’s rare we are given a chance to think about what the words might actually mean, or uncover the layers of connotations they might have.

I loved the pace of this book. I valued knowing there was a picture being sketched out here, that gave options for more indepth reading or just to become familiar with some of the arguments. The personal stories and illustrations of the tricky theological points also helped. The books were borne out of a series of sermons – perhaps that pace arises from the fact these were talks, not essays, originally, making them well structured and simple to follow. That’s not to say the ideas are simple, they are not; and in places things do seem to be glossed over. One that particularly struck me was the idea that the Jesus’ death changes the nature of the OT God to the benevolent NT version. McGrath states this is not so. I’m fairly certain an entire sub-book could be written about this, and I’d have perhaps preferred to see a bit more of this elaborated. I’ve just finished reading Joshua; that’s pretty bloodthirsty and hard to reconcile with the NT God.

This is a useful book. The final two will definitely be making their way to my bookshelves. I can see myself using these a lot in the future when leading housegroups, etc: a good resource to say “try these ideas for size.”

Book Review: What Clergy Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing

Book image

 

What Clergy Do: Especially when it looks like nothing
Emma Percy

ISBN: 9780281070244
SPCK Publishing, London

 

 

 

 

Clergy have a pivotal role in creating and nurturing church communities in which all people can grow up into Christ.  This book explores the nature of that role by considering key similarities with the essential but often conflicting demands of motherhood.”

Emma Percy draws on her PhD work and experience as a priest to describe how Church of England parish priests might function – using the model and language of motherhood. This is in deliberate contrast to the more business-oriented language of management and appraisal which others have also criticised as inappropriate for parish ministry.

As neither a mother nor a priest I was interested in finding out how this model would work on the page and in my head. I know plenty of priests, thanks to Twitter – I have heard to all the jokes about endless meetings, only working one day a week, resistance to change, and so on. On the whole, the book was interesting and gave me some useful insights into what the average vicar might be trying to accomplish when they are not standing at the front of a church in a frock. It wasn’t, however, particularly comprehensive: if you really did want a list of what it is that clergy do, rather than how they might approach it, you would feel misled by the title.

At times, the argument seemed a bit stretched – as if the idea just about worked as a model, but fell down in some places. Some of Percy’s examples of what might or might not happen in different situations felt very academic and impersonal – theoretical situations, rather than stories about real people. For there were some examples that were clearly about lively characters, three dimensional people – and they were all the more interesting. Perhaps this is a result of these being well anonymised as an academic thesis would need; perhaps they were fictitious illustrations. The ideas definitely came alive to me more when I felt that a real story was being told.

Several of the concepts Percy uses resonated with me. Her suggestion of the need to attend to people as they are not as we think or fear they are – the real person, not the type of person – touched a bit of a nerve with me. This is definitely something I have been guilty of when dealing with people in my working life. Trainee solicitors are not, it transpires, all the same type of person. In a previous relationship we coined the phrase ‘baggaging…’ as in, bringing your emotional baggage to a situation. That partner expected me to react in the same way as his ex-partner would have done (and vice versa) so we ended up borrowing trouble, or assuming a discussion would head in one direction because that’s what the baggage suggested would happen. And often being pleasantly surprised.

I thought this book would be challenging: as someone that struggles with lack of motherhood, I was concerned that the imagery would either be painful or make no sense, but I did not find this to be the case. I was more comfortable with the ideas of mothering around older children and one that particularly interested me was the parallel between home-making and church-home-making. Percy says that with her children now older, her role is to keep the fridge full and offer them a lift when needed. She describes the various ways that the fridge needs to be stocked: staples, favourites, treats & food for festivals – things that her children can learn to cook from or just help themselves to. Her role as mother was to make this happen. This was then a servant ministry – and a very helpful way of thinking about servant ministry when in modern parlance I think we tend to assume ‘servant’ is a synonym for ‘doormat’ or ‘will do exactly as demanded at all times.’ I found Percy’s reflection on ‘servant’ as someone who frees up the time of others intriguing. But back to the ‘food is in the fridge’ – I think this part of the whole book was the most meaningful to me. I could read through and see where my experience of being in church could be viewed through this framework. It’s not my vicar’s sole role to stock the fridge and cook every single meal for everyone. It’s more her job to select what goes in – to make sure there’s stuff that the different generations would want…to try some unfamiliar things…and the wherewithal to make a staple meal to fill and feed on a regular basis.

There’s something therefore about being able to feel at home in a church – I remember clearly being new to my current church and longing for it to feel as familiar, as much of an extension to my home as had the church I grew up in. When I was on the cleaning rota I usually did the kitchen because I was terrified of breaking something fragile, important or valuable in the sharp end of the church. Now I do feel at home in the building – but it took a trusted friend to make me feel that way.

Percy also highlights the tension between a focus on church growth as a marker of success and the need to ‘keep the show on the road,’ sustaining a congregation’s faith and community. That isn’t advocating church as cosy club, but recognising that much of the daily work is not measurable as an output – that the language of business does not have a way to measure the value of a chat or a funeral visit or a chance encounter. Her thesis is that the language of value needs to change, so that the unmeasurable – skill in comforting, for example – can be described and valued. This is much the same way that a parent of a small child can spend the whole day absorbed by his care, and yet feel they have achieved nothing.

In some places, this book is perhaps a bit too abstract, a bit too descriptive in terms of model ministry. If you picked it up looking for an exploration of vocation, for example, it would probably not help – but that is not necessarily the key focus of the book (and it could well give an extra dimension to reading). It certainly helps contrast the male-led model much writing, and presents new ways of thinking about 21st century church. It would be easy to read the model as mothering in terms of control, and power – that needed for small children – perhaps that is why the more hands-off mothering of the teenagers’ fridge resonated with me more than the ideas about nurture and weaning did, because the relationship described is more equal. I would imagine that actual serving clergy would find this articulation of a different model of leadership to be helpful as a counter to a target-driven culture, as much as curious lay people would begin to understand more of how their priest operates.

 

Book review: Raising Children in a Digital Age


Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst
Dr Bex Lewis
Lion Hudson
9780745956046

Bex offers a mix of practical advice and introductions to new services, plus resources, questions and strategies for helping us raise this generation. It’s a starting point to find a solution that works for you and your family, not a one-size-fits-all instant cure. I think it would be helpful for all kinds of families to read & work through – whether you have concerns or not. It’s like having a guidebook for a foreign land, helping you navigate paths through unfamiliar territory and spot the landmarks, ideas, resources you will need. I’m not a parent, so I don’t have to deal with children’s digital problems on a daily basis (though heaven knows I have enough of my own making!) so on a very superficial level, Bex’s book has helped me to see what some of the pressures look like that today’s teenagers are facing.

I tend to want to read past headlines, which we are encouraged to do: for every toddler ‘addicted’ to an ipad, there are probably a hundred using such a tool sensibly and beneficially. There is so much negativity around kids’ use of digital that this book is like a breath of fresh air, recommending sensible strategies for both parents and children. And as you might expect from an academic researching digital media, Bex provides the actual evidence to counter the scaremongering and headline-grabbing half-truths.

Sometimes I am frustrated by others’ fear of the internet & all things digital. I’m guilty myself of near 24/7 attachment to my iphone (I don’t have it by my bed, but it’s the last thing I look at and the first thing I do in the morning is tweet). Understanding a bit more about how the world is for those who are either not completely immersed in it, or are unquestionably so, was illuminating.

There probably isn’t room in the book for everything, but I might have wanted to see the arguments about sex and porn online to be framed in a wider context  – Bex acknowledges the society we live in has ‘relaxed’ standards in these areas – but for children on- and off-line, are there wider conversations to be having? I suspect there are, and that the digital manifestations are but one part of a media that puts sex, and body image, first.

Some of the advice is obvious: talk to your children. Perhaps that’s only obvious to me as a non-parent, not dealing with a recalcitrant teenager who resents my interference. Bex offers some good advice on how to start those necessary conversations at any age, not just about the absolute rules about who can use what websites, but about truth, suitability, and provenance of online content. There are ideas and examples from parents dotted throughout the book to help understand how people have been tackling problems already. Bex suggests talking to one’s children not as a quick fix, but as a long-term investment in time, trust and openness. And if you want to know how to behave online well as a parent, Bex also suggests how to interact with your children on Facebook (don’t embarrass them! I guess this is the digital equivalent of the lick-wash your mum gave you outside the school gates…)

The book finishes with a helpful jargon-buster and further resources. In fact there are lots of resources throughout the book – following up on half of them would probably take as much time again as reading the book in the first place. But – that’s necessary, in my opinion. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well – and what job is more worth doing that steering children through to adulthood?

In the interests of full disclosure I should probably say that Bex is a friend of mine, and I was sent a review copy of the book.

Book Review: Exploring Christian Doctrine

Exploring Christian Doctrine

Tony Lane
SPCK, 2013
9780281064496

I was interested in this book for two main reasons. Firstly, as a new and mostly ignorant housegroup leader I wanted a source of answers to the sort of ‘why do we do this/ that?’ kind of questions that crop up from time to time. And secondly, as a generally inquisitive person I have my own questions about where particular manifestations of beliefs come from, or what specific doctrines mean.

So it seemed to me that an entry-level textbook such as this might do the trick and I would broadly feel it does. I’m definitely one of the target audience as an ‘educated lay person who has had no formal theological training.’

Designed as a broad survey (and based on an undergraduate course) sections deal with method (knowing and speaking about God), creation, sin & evil, redemption and future glory. For the purposes of this review I had a read through a few of the chapters, looking at Speaking about God, Holy Communion, and The Spirit World.

Lane writes from an explicitly Evangelical perspective. Alternative viewpoints are there but I did at a couple of points wonder whether if I knew more, would I wonder if some of the questions take this viewpoint implicitly. If that is not too meta- a question! I’m very much not qualified to think too much about that one. Equally, I don’t know enough to know whether the general characterisations of different theological approaches are accurate or caricatures. I suspect part of the problem may be that I am not used to reading at undergraduate level and so I am asking questions that are ‘beyond my pay grade’ as it were – so not really taking statements at face value as they should be. This caused me to stumble in another way. In the chapter looking at sin, I noticed that ascribing a psychological problem was listed as resulting from ‘being dropped on the head as a child.’ Now, this might be tongue in cheek, and I’m going to hope it was a throwaway remark, rather than characterising Lane’s understanding of the roots of problems. The trouble is that mentally it tripped me up (one of my degrees is actually in Psychology) so I took a slight step back from the other assertions of fact the book make. If that one is demonstrably untrue, but presented as a fact/ reason, what about others…? ran my thinking.

Criticism aside, I found it a useful resource. At least once on each page I had an ‘aha!’ moment as something joined something else up, or a bit of historical explanation made something else make sense. I particularly liked the ‘Errors to avoid’ which prevent us from accidentally believing six heretical things before breakfast. Also, as one would expect from a textbook, there are good footnotes and pointers for further reading.

I would be confident using this as a reference book to turn to during those discussions in the housegroup or for when my curiosity gets the better of me, albeit with one eye on further sources. I am still just as likely, though, to ask questions of my vicar friends, so it won’t stop me idly tweeting when I’m inquisitive.

Book review: God, Church, etc

9780281070213

God, church, etc: What you need to know
Jane Maycock

ISBN 9780281070213
SPCK Publishing

Gladly, our friend the cross-eyed bear, and Our Saviour’s tortoise both feature in this book (thanks, Peter God). Jane starts with a couple of funny, common misunderstandings to explain why a book that talks about the words we use is so important. There is, it seems, a tension between people who want to ban ‘church’ words, and people who want to ensure that ‘church’ words are understood – and people who are so steeped in ‘church language’ that it would never occur to them to explain what ‘incarnation’ meant or that ‘Aumbry’ was not, in fact, the name of the very posh kid in the corner. I think this book will help the first two groups (the latter lot won’t even read it… they already know everything).

This book is real. This book relates the things in and about church to actual real, contemporary life. And any book that talks about Gladly gets my vote. 

Three sections – the God stuff, the church stuff and the etc – list a whole range of ideas, concepts and technical terms. They’re explained in plain English, and sometimes with the Latin, Greek or Hebrew origins so we can really see where our words come from. And as well as the where, the why: as Jane Maycock points out, understanding the reasons a thing is important can ensure that we are putting the emphasis on the right part of the proceedings, and we are able to change our words or actions knowing what it is we are dealing with.

This is a basic primer (although your idea of basic might vary: there was more than one ‘aha!’ moment in there for me) and is good for teenagers as intended. Jane uses examples that relate to young people’s experience – but not exclusively so, and she does not try to be overly ‘down with the kids’ and use wacky (and therefore embarrassing) language. Lol. It’s easy to dip into and find what you need. My only two criticisms would be that more Dave Walker cartoons would have been nice to have. Also, that I couldn’t quite at first see how the cross references worked, I flicked through book looking for one that was in same section and it took a little while to find.

Who would I pass this on to? I will give a copy to Mia, our German youthworker volunteer. I think it will help her understanding of English church-related words but more importantly be a way for her to understand more about our faith.

And I will also take it to our housegroup with me – we have a lot of ‘why?’ questions that I think this book will help answer (and we are not teenagers).

Book review: Rescuing the Church from Consumerism

Book cover

Rescuing the Church from Consumerism
Author: Mark Clavier
ISBN: 9780281070381
Publisher: SPCK Publishing

I’ll nail my colours to the mast at the outset and say I am fairly anti-consumer culture. In fact, I had qualms about acquiring a book that has at heart a critique of consumption. I have felt for a long time that Christians have a role in promoting a different way of life. We are stewards of our environment, so we should use resources wisely. The world is my neighbour, so I should not turn a blind eye to others’ lack whilst I have plenty. So I was interested in the idea behind the book, setting out a way for the Church to reclaim its identity from a Western consumer culture.

In some ways I feel underqualified to properly comment on the thesis presented here. I don’t know if the theology or the solutions are sound or realistic. I suspect one argument in return might be that realistic is defeatist – this is a radical call to a new way of thinking about Church, and nothing radical is realistic. It is a hard line prescription for a church that should not give away membership lightly but educate its members into faith, looking to past structures of family and household to provide a structure in which our identity is more than a selfish consumption.

At one point I found myself wondering whether the analysis for the church today as described really is the equivalent of the child who sees the emperor is naked, or whether it is a dystopian and perhaps unhelpful criticism of the way the church is. But perhaps that is because I feel I want to defend the institution against the criticism. Yet I know I approach the debate from a place of relative ignorance.

The first part of the book sketches the history of the consumer society we find ourselves in. Clavier compares the rites of society to those of the church, suggesting that children are baptised into the consumer lifestyle via early exposure to branded goods, as they once would be baptised in the church. Consumerism and individualism has therefore pervaded all parts of society. Spirituality is conflated with well-being; both are now located within the therapy culture where we pay professionals to fix us. Individual self-actualisation is now less a psychological process and more a process of creating an identity based on what we wear, eat, shop and drink. This very ideas of self, and choice, and freedom for us consumers has the effect of locking the poorly-paid producers into a life of no choice or freedom. And the church, now peopled by second- and third-generation consumers, has become completely absorbed into this culture – and by being absorbed is being diluted and fading away. The argument therefore is that the church needs to find a distinct way of being – rediscovering its place as a community anchor, the household of God.

Clavier criticises current thinking as being too rooted in the very consumerism the church needs to be retreating from, so the ideas of Messy church or café church are not distinctive enough – to paraphrase, they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And speaking of babies – Clavier suggests those who freely baptise all comers are cheapening the sacrament, and that baptism ‘needs to be reclaimed as a sacrament rather than perpetuated as a cultural relic.’ (p118). Earlier in the book he suggests that the families’ narrative – a significant event – collides with the church’s narrative – a sacrament – “resulting most often in awkward moments in which families and the regular congregation dance clumsily around each other as each gropes for different goals: the families for a significant event and the congregation for new membership” (p78).

Clavier’s battle cry is thus:

It is long past time for the Church in the West to open its eyes to the world in which it now ministers, to see how much it abets the very forces that have diminished its witness and to begin to be a home for those called by God into his kingdom. Consumerism is arguably one of the most destructive forces ever devised by humankind…Only when the Church is again the alternative to dehumanizing forces in human society can it once more proclaim Christ crucified to a world that yearns, as it always has, for the generous and eternal embrace of God (p129)

I can’t decide if the five guidelines are genius or a prescription for a decline – again, I feel my relative ignorance precludes me from an opinion (well, there’s always a first time…). The tentative roots the church puts out via Fresh Expressions and church that is relevant to the unchurched is criticised for pandering to consumer culture – but it is the language people speak – so how do we get people into a place where they can be catechised into faith, to experience the ‘strange and foreign’ Eucharist (p120) before they feel at home?

Even if you did not agree with Clavier’s prescription for the Church, I believe we all need to hear the message about the way we are assimilated into a consumer culture without even noticing it. I think it is time for someone to expose the emperor, as it were – to call us to a distinctive living, to be the ‘resident aliens.’ And the discussions and debate that disagreement might spark off do, in themselves, have a role to play in how we understand our role in society.

(I was also pleased to find this blog post looking at how we can, individually,  think more about our own consumer behaviour)

Book review: Living Faithfully

Living Faithfully: Following Christ in Everyday Life

John Pritchard
9780281067626
SPCK Publishing, April 2013

This is an easy read. I skimmed through it in about 24 hours, enthused and captivated by the challenge laid down to ‘live faithfully’. But of course it is not an ‘easy’ read at all – one of the hardest, most gripping, reads. Every page sends me back to my own life and behaviour, examining my choices, motives, desires and discipleship.

This is not a book about growing in a holy huddle. This is a book about God being the point and purpose of everything we do, and understanding we spend most of our time in an aggressively secular world… our failings, our successes, our humour and our tragedies.

I suspect I found it a thumping good read because it confirmed and echoed many of the things I think are essential ‘fall-out’ from being a Christian. I am commanded to love my neighbour: and so that colours my decisions about how I spend money, vote, work and play in ways others might find extreme. Or perhaps never considered. I was the one raising questions in our PCC about which advertisers our parish magazine should take money from – or sticking with a frustrating but ethical bank – or walking to a supermarket that is slightly less exploitative: because these things need thinking about. And I pay attention to politics and my local community, because these things matter. I sometimes find myself looking askance at other Christians who might be super-spiritual in their own way, but who seem quite happy to conform to the standards of the world when it comes to the latest shiny gadget, or their car, or their designer label clothes. This book would be a challenge for many of them.

Each chapter tackles a particular aspect of life. Money, sex, addiction, death, the environment, the internet, work, church, consumerism and politics, to name a few. We are faced with the problems these may pose. Then taken through some ways of thinking – do we agree with the problem statement? If we do, how might our professed faith be translated into every day life and every day decisions? The chapters conclude with quotations – some funny, some thought-provoking; and then suggestions for Bible study and prayer. So each topic is wrapped up in teaching, thinking and prayer.

Two things would have made me like this book more. First, if it had come with a free gin. Second, if there had been a more in-depth look at living faithfully as a single person. There’s a chapter on relationships and marriage; and there’s a chapter on friendship. And the church is at one point exhorted to think single, not family, as default. But neither quite touch on some of the specific issues around living live on one’s own and some of the other chapters have embedded assumptions about money or family that suggest the default thinking is still about a family unit.

I was honestly gripped by the first few pages. I was unable to stop reading and go to sleep – it was really that inspiring. Now I have this brief review posted, I can go back to the book and digest it slowly; following the suggestions for reflective Bible study and deciding what my rule of life might look like. Do excuse me any failings of spelling or grammar in this piece – I am short of sleep!

Who will I pass this on to? I think @watfordgap would like this. We often find ourselves suitably frustrated by a ‘Christian’ community that is not serving the needs of the community, one that forgets the ‘love your neighbour’ command is ubiquitous.

Book review: Inside Grief

Inside Grief
Stephen Oliver (ed)
SPCK Publishing 2013
ISBN 9780281068432

This is not a book that gives magic, or easy answers on how to deal with grief. Nor is it overtly Christian – there is no theology of bereavement, no attempt to explain the purpose of love, pain and loss. It is, however, a very practical collection of essays which explore some of the pain, practicalities and contexts of grief.

The chapters vary in tone and style. Three are deeply personal accounts of grief – the death of a beloved wife and the aftermath of two car accidents which killed a father and a son. All were a tiny insight into the blackness; all seemed to say ‘this isn’t eloquent – there are no words that explain this – it’s as close as I can get.’ I thought I had some understanding – it is clear from this that I know little of the reality. Mary Slevin’s chapter, in which she reflects on how the death of her son led her into bereavement counselling, is instructive both in learning about the horrendousness of this situation and also in her very practical advice over what are unhelpful phrases that pretend to show empathy but are in fact just hurtful, or trite. Comparing losing a son to having a dog put to sleep?

I skimmed Howard Cooper’s chapter on Jewish rituals, but it seems to provide a good guide to the traditions and ways of marking death and grief. Ben Rhodes writes with advice on supporting people of varied or no faiths from his experience as a hospital chaplain. The point that the NSS in its anti-chaplaincy campaign fails to see is that acceptance of chaplain as person to be approached, and approachable, regardless of people’s faiths is widespread; that their understanding of spirituality is not limited to Christianity.

Pat Jalland presents an academic essay outlining cultural changes in rituals and acceptance of grief and bereavement in the UK between 1850 and 1970. It helps give context to the rest of the writings – particularly the influence of war; and Pat’s discussion about expected behaviours from men and women is fascinating. Sue Smith and Jon Martin record their personal reflections on death as seen from those who are palliative care professionals. Again, a new set of insights and questions to be asked. What is it that medics know? How does their objective medical knowledge sit alongside the subjectivity that every dying person presents – because every dying person is unique?

I was surprised that the chapter I found most interesting was that which dealt with military chaplaincy. The explanation of the need for silence – not as an absence of noise, but as a definite space – in the midst of soldiers’ dealing with grief surprised me. Perhaps my interest was piqued because it is not an area of life I have – or will have – any experience of.

I chose this book for review as I am so aware of my own shortcomings when trying to be kind to grieving friends. I’m not insensitive enough to trot out the ‘it’s all part of God’s plan,’ but I am still often embarrassingly tongue-tied. I feel that I send letters and texts which effectively say nothing except ‘how are you?’ which in itself is an utterly inadequate and pointless question. I am reassured by the experiences relayed in the book that this is probably OK, that a badly-written card is better than no card. Perhaps my fairly stolid ‘you’re probably going to cry, so I brought hankies’ approach is a bit more clumsy than I’d like, but I guess it is better than never calling and being afraid of grief.

Book Review: Jesus and Peter – Growing in Friendship with God

Jesus and Peter: Growing in friendship with God
Michael Perham
ISBN 9780281067541
Publisher SPCK Publishing

I liked this book. (It’s OK, there is a bit more to this review than that).

I will admit straight away that partly I chose it to review because after reading a lot of very difficult books, something that allowed me to ponder on Peter and not my own Christian faith appealed.

No chance.

There were ways in which this engaged me in a way I hadn’t quite anticipated.

This book is the first time I’ve therefore encountered the kind of detail that is presented in the text. We’re given Greek alternatives, and contrasts between the different versions. It’s not a worthy theological tome – but an incredibly readable story, with these details along the way enriching our understanding and allowing us to see things from different perspectives. At times it felt like having a tableau in front of us, and being able to freeze-frame, walk around the situation, think about what was going on, what was recorded and why. For example, Peter’s jumping out of the boat in order to meet with Jesus on the lakeside for that post-resurrection breakfast.

I was presented with ideas I have half-thought about, but never really considered deeply. Where did Peter first meet Jesus? How does Peter’s decision to follow compare to ours? Annoying questions in some ways, since what I didn’t want was a book about call or vocation.

In talking about Pentecost, the descriptions of the working of the Holy Spirit, now it’s not all fire, earthquake and instant tongues were quiet, helpful reminders for those of us not given to dramatic experiences.

What I wasn’t sure about were the passages talking about friendship and intimacy – that might just be me, though, struggling with how those ideas work. Perhaps I’m just not sure about the idea – or even the word – friendship; maybe it makes me think more ‘playground’ than ‘deep and sacrificial relationship.’ I understood the general point – I think I just struggle with words that describe experience of Jesus in words that imply corporeality, which is how I see ‘friendship.’

I did get what I wanted from the book – more discussion on the nature of the relationship between Peter and Jesus, more insight into the motives and character of Peter. Like many people, the ability of Peter to get things wrong can be encouraging…

I’d recommend this book for a few reasons. It’s a great telling of an interesting story. It seems it would be a good introduction to looking at the Bible in more depth. It reminds us how our our actions and our faith can be modelled on the first disciples, even though we’re separated by several thousand years.

Bishop Michael sums Peter up as “follower, disciple, evangelist, witness, friend; and as such he is exemplar and encourager, [but also by] his frequent failure to understand, by his habit of saying just the wrong thing, by his struggle, even by his denial.” (p110)

That’s the man I like.