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From the pulpit

The Word in Small Boats: sermons from Oxford Oliver O’Donovan

EERDMANS, 172PP, £11.99 ■Tablet Bookshop price £10.80

Punch cartoon – “I know what you’re all thinking,” the good man observes, “Sabellianism!” Professor O’Donovan certainly assumes a high level of theological literacy in his hearers. Most of these homilies were originally preached in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where O’Donovan was canon professor, an office he held for over 20 years, alongside that of Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology in the university. Christ Church Cathedral, we are drily told in an editorial foreword, is where “a preponderantly older body of worshippers gather, happier, perhaps, with the finer points of intellectual striving and not given to spontaneous vocal response”. It sounds as if there were not many undergraduates there to hear their canon professor. These sermons would not have made for easy listening. O’Donovan believes that preaching never should. “A sermon”, he insists, “is hardly less hard work to listen to than to write … The hearing of a sermon is an act of attention, like any other attention; and in worldly terms either may be done well or badly.” That gladly granted, we may still wonder whether the professor does not sometimes make the task of those beneath his pulpit unnecessarily difficult. Some may have stumbled over his reference to “a typically powerful clausula of St Augustine of Hippo” or have wondered what we are doing – although we gather we mustn’t do it - when “we entrust our epistemic credit to others”. More seriously, there are passages of dense argument where – were “spontaneous vocal response” welcomed in the cathedral – a cry of “Please say that again more slowly” would perhaps have been heard from the pews. Fortunately, now that we have the text of these sermons, we can put aside the question of what would have been made of them when first preached. We must be deeply grateful for their publication for they abundantly repay reading. Above all, they repay slow reading – now widely recognised as a discipline we must recover if we want our minds to stay receptive to more than pap. The 30 or so sermons gathered here are marshalled into four groups, each broadly representing an area that has occupied O’Donovan’s mind as a theologian and teacher. The first, “The Mission of God’s Word”, brings together reflections on God’s working in history, above all in God’s mission to us in the coming of Christ. In “The Community of God’s Word” the focus

J 28 | THE TABLET | 2 October 2010 01420 592974

ust occasionally in these sermons one hears the preacher immortalised in the


Spiritual Masters for All Seasons by Michael Ford (HiddenSpring, 179pp, £12.99). Michael Ford’s book traces the legacy of some of the most influential spirit - ual writers of modern times – Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Anthony de Mello and John O’Donohue. Merton’s under- standing of solitude informed his life as a monk and peace activist. Nouwen’s time as a pastor at L’Arche opened him to broken ness and love. De Mello’s integration of Western and Eastern spiritual traditions stimulated incisive reflection on how to look at reality prayerfully. O’Donohue, the Irish philosopher and poet, explored the wonder of the beautiful. These are four impressive figures and their stories are well told. Tablet price £11.70.

is on the Church as a body subject to the canon of Holy Scripture. O’Donovan’s roots are in evangelical Anglicanism. “At the heart of Christian worship”, he writes, “is not the pulpit, but the lectern.” (Not the altar, we notice.) In “Tradition, Truth and the Public” we hear O’Donovan the political theologian. Here he addresses world events ranging from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. He may have ruffled feathers with his references to the service – the “notorious service” as he calls it – in St Paul’s Cathedral after the Falklands Campaign. For O’Donovan, the service “reflected a deep spiritual impotence to grasp in thankfulness the meaning of what God had done”. For many commentators that service testified, more, to the courageous refusal of Alan Webster, Dean of St Paul’s at the time, to fall in step with the triumphalism of Margaret Thatcher and the right-wing press. The final section, “Launched upon Life by

God’s Word”, takes its title from a sermon about the sea, a homily preached during a conference of sailors hosted at Christ Church. This sermon is Christian preaching at its finest, deeply felt, rich in arresting insights, making the connections we would never have noticed, weighty without being heavy. The sermons in this last group are about how a Christian should live and die. In them Canon O’Donovan satisfies more than the “intellectual striving” we are told his congregation enjoyed. These sermons move the heart. What do we take away from a sermon? Rarely the extended argument, sometimes the memorable remark. Oliver O’Donovan does not generally preach short sermons – but he can say a lot in a very few words. He will surely have recalled the wandering mind to the task in hand with comments such as these: “It is worth reflecting that the Bible does not end with a church.” “We need to learn to be old in a young way and young in an old way.” “Wealth attracts parasites as dung attracts beetles.” John Pridmore

Transformation in Prayer: 99 sayings by M. Basil Pennington ed. Jean Maalouf (New City Press, 112pp, £9.95). This inspir- ing book collects short extracts from the works of the Trappist monk and writer in the title. It describes the practice of “centring prayer” as bringing about a trans- formation of consciousness, and extols the simplicity, depth and fullness of a life lived focused on the centre of our being. The book is an invitation to be faithful to the “prayer of the heart and prayer in the heart”. Tablet price £9.

The Advent of Peace: a gospel journey to Christmasby Mary C. Grey (SPCK, 160pp, £9.99). Looking at contemporary tensions in the Holy Land, Mary C. Grey argues for a “praxis of reconciliation”, to be achieved through a close reading of the gospels. Mary at the Annunciation inspires resist- ance to violence against women, and the Nativity provides encouragement to peace- making initiatives in Bethlehem. Grey pleads for a Christmas Day transformed to a time of hospitality, in which “the vul- nerable God walks with her [sic] children”. There is here much food for thought and action. Tablet price £9.

Climate and Christ: a prophetic alternative by Edward P. Echlin (The Columba Press, 136pp, £9.99). This book, by an ecological theologian, is timely. It looks at the influ- ence of climate change on food growing, water and the forests, and at Teilhard de Chardin’s mystical response to evolution. Jesus’ lifestyle was dependent on God’s providence and on human fellowship, and he preached the reconciliation and restora- tion of all things. He can be a model for our own prophetic lives, as we adapt our houses for environmentally friendly living and follow the “proximity principle” of drawing only on local resources. This is a clarion call to change. Tablet price £9. Rima Devereaux

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