Review of Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (SPCK, 2014)
There are those who complain about Rowan Williams’ writing and suggest that he can’t write simply. Mostly those people are journalists, lazy, reading the wrong stuff, or some combination of these. This book decisively gives the lie to the complaint. It is a model of clarity and something to put in the hand of those beginning to explore what it is to be Christian. I plan to give it to someone being confirmed this Easter.
The four chapters each tackle a basic element of Christian life, just as the subtitle has it. From their origins in talks at Canterbury Cathedral, these chapters have been edited for the page and retain most of their freshness and clarity. They are full of enlightenment and practical insight.
For me the opening and closing chapters (on baptism and prayer respectively) are the best moments of the book. In baptism, we learn that we are dipped into the suffering and death of Jesus. Baptism recalls the chaos that preceded creation, when the Spirit brooded over the waters. The renewed humanity that we are given in baptism is one that is associated with chaos, and to be baptised is to be in the vicinity of chaos. For Williams, on the basis of baptism, “you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy” (p. 4). And Christians are also in touch with their own chaos. To be baptised is not to be superior to other people, but we are baptised into a deep solidarity with others. And it is to be a sinner who doesn’t panic, but who relies on the depth of God’s love into which we are immersed. This is a rich account of baptism, but not an inaccessible one.
One prayer, Williams turns to Christian history and to Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. But this is not a lesson in patristic theology, it is a very practical account of prayer and praying the Lord’s Prayer. From Origen, Williams speaks of the way that prayer forms part of the whole of the Christian’s life; from Gregory, he learns that prayer is about healing relationships; and from Cassian, that prayer is what God does in us more than anything we do. All this is surrounded by very practical advice: prayer can be done anywhere; silence and stillness matters; be freqyuent and brief; have a formula of words to return you to concentration. Williams concludes that “Prayer is your promise and pledge to be there for the God who is there for you. And that, essentially, is where prayer for the Christian begins and ends” (p. 81).
This short book opens itself easily to the reader, it is full of simple and practical wisdom about the Christian life, and it floats on the depth of prayerfulness and wisdom that is our former Archbishop. Highly recommended!