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Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer

Theo Hobson

Rowan Williams, SPCK, 84pp

Opinions differ as to whether Rowan Williams was an effective Archbishop of Canterbury. (I think he did pretty well on the homosexuality issue, holding the Communion together, or together-ish, and less well on the whole 'place of religion in society' debate, failing to reassure the liberal majority of the Church's affinity with liberalism.) Opinions also differ as to whether he is a good communicator. He is too obscure, too hesitant, too woolly, some say. I think they are being unfair: of course his academic work is impenetrable to most of us, but that's not the point. In his preaching and public teaching, he has a rare gift for communicating the essence of Christianity, and for making church worship feel like the vital centre of things. This little book, based on some Holy Week lectures, is an example. It tackles baptism, Bible, eucharist and prayer, as the four essentials of Christian life. Baptism originally just means dipping, or immersion, he explains. Because Jesus speaks of his suffering as an 'immersion', the ritual carries a meaning of being symbolically 'immersed' in the dark-side, the 'watery chaos'. The baptized Christian is not marked out as superior, purer, set apart, but exactly the opposite - as someone who accepts 'a new level of solidarity with other people'; who accepts being 'contaminated' by the mess of humanity. He or she 'ought to be somebody who is not afraid of looking with honesty at that chaos inside, as well as being where humanity is at risk, outside.' Baptism is a special Christian way of being honestly human, alert to the plight of humanity. This is a brilliantly fresh take on the subject. To many of us Protestants, 'Bible' carries a tang of guilt: are we reading it enough, or at all? Instead of watching that stupid sit-com you could be hearing directly from God. But Williams doesn't emphasise solitary Bible-reading: hearing the Bible in church is the more normal Christian tradition, he says. We must think of ourselves as hearers of God: 'Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God.' But isn't much of the Bible full of ugly violence in God's name? Yes, but God means us to learn from this, to ponder how his will has been badly interpreted in the past, to see that we are part of a long and difficult tradition. We should find analogies between our own attempts to be faithful and 'these bizarre and exotic figures from the ancient Near East.' Predictably, the best chapter is on the eucharist. It is the means by which 'Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.' It reflects Jesus' hospitality in the gospels, where as well as being generous, 'he draws out hospitality from others.' I like this idea that the ritual can help us to become more generous, for it often feels as if generosity is a gift that some of us just don't have much of. We can acquire it, says God. But what is this ritual about? Williams uses one of his favourite quotations (from the Jesuit writer Maurice de la Taille): at the Last Supper, Jesus 'makes himself a sign'. In identifying with the bread and wine, he enables us to participate in his forthcoming suffering, death and resurrection, and therefore consents to them. Jesus is adapting a thanksgiving ritual, an act of praise for creation. By making his killing central to such a ritual, he says that everything in the world can signify God, it can be twisted to good. No hell-on-earth is untwistable. Which makes this ritual the unique site of hope. 'Sometimes, after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have a sensation I can only sum up as this is it - this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and when they are equipped to go and do God's work. And what is the appropriate response? I have already said: thanksgiving.' In this ritual we glimpse the world from God's point of view. 'And the job of a Christian is constantly trying to dig down to that level of reality, and to allow gratitude, repentance and transformation to well up from that point.' The chapter on prayer is also surprisingly fresh. Prayer is not about believing that our most pious thoughts somehow reach God. It is Jesus who enables us to call God 'Father', and so in a sense he speaks through us. To pray 'is to let Jesus' prayer happen in you'. In a sense we are putting ourselves in the place of Jesus. We pray because we have to - 'it's like sneezing - there comes a point where you can't not do it'. I like the shift of emphasis from pious effort to something that naturally happens in the Christian life. It chiefly happens because we experience an acute sense of needing God's help. Williams is a great communicator of the sacramental Christian vision. He helps us to see that the truth of this religion doesn't happen on the level of philosophy or politics, which is where our secular minds want it to happen, for surely the true cause must be some sort of idea that changes history. No, it happens on the level of worship, or as I prefer (because it sounds a bit edgy), cultic action. It happens on a level that seems to the majority to be mere hocus-pocus, empty superstition. We must inhabit this level of reality, speak from within it. And (though I cannot pretend to know how this is possible): we must find a new way of inhabiting it and speaking from within it, one that communicates more widely.