Being Christian by Rowan Williams
To recommend a book by Rowan Williams is generally to provoke a look of caution and the expectation of immensely scholarly thought expressed in sentences so complex that even after a second reading their meaning will remain obscure.
On the contrary, however, Being a Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (SPCK, 2014) is lucid and thoroughly enjoyable. I would recommend it as equally suited to a Lent course, as preparation for adult baptism or confirmation, or the bedside table of any Christian reader. (Or, come to that, a reader of any faith or none, minded to discover the staple elements of Christianity.)
Dr Williams deals with each subject separately, giving its history and describing its value in the Christian life. About the Eucharist, for example, he points out that to share in it ‘means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted … In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.’ By analogy with the passing of bread to Judas Iscariot, we are also there as ‘those who have the capacity to betray.’ The Eucharist is not a reward for good behaviour but food to ‘prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our own self-absorption.’
Through baptism, we inherit ‘a life of prophecy and priesthood and royalty’ – the threefold identities of Jesus which will grow in us as we grow in his faith.
An important section of the chapter on the Bible is the reminder that until fairly recently Christians did not read the Bible, but heard it read to them. This, says Williams, is significant – ‘Christian life is a listening life. Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God. And there are many parts of the world whose people are unable to buy a Bible.
It is composed of many different types of writing and much does not seem to be addressed to us: ‘The Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables. God is saying “This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made … Where are you in this?” ‘
On prayer, Williams cites three early Christian writers: Origen (‘The whole of our life says Our Father‘; Gregory of Nyssa (‘Prayer heals relations’); and John Cassian (‘O God, make speed to save me’). This is the section I found most valuable because it addresses, with humility, skill and clarity, what I find most difficult: and I commend it, and the book, most highly.
Reviewed by Julia Taylor.