Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a fascinating figure. Variously reviled and loved by different folk at different times, he is also a renowned and accomplished theologian, who is curiously capable of turning his hand to highly cerebral academia and popularly accessible prose. Today’s book is of the latter form, a book aimed at thoughtful readers, but not overly-weighed down by theological jargon. ‘Being Christian’ is a short, careful look at four key elements of Christian living; Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer. For those clamouring for a definition of ‘the Gospel’, it isn’t that kind of book. Rather, I think, this is a book that thinks through these vital and ancient hallmarks of what it means to be Christian.
This is an attractive and readable little book, published recently by SPCK in a format that is 2/3 paperback and 1/3 hardback, with flaps on the inside of the covers. This, with the simple and attractive design, makes ‘Being Christian‘ a rather nice book to handle, and feels a little better in the hand that many glossy, tacky paperbacks I find myself perusing. With a range of endorsements, as one might expect for a former Archbishop of Canterbury, I was intrigued to see what words and themes we might find inside.
Regular readers will know that, whilst I have a soft-spot for Rowan, I am not naturally a fan, nor part of his theological camp. That said, I appreciate his perspective, and have enjoyed (even if not wholly agreed with!) those books of his that I have read. It was something of a pleasant surprise, then, to note that this book (for the most part) represents something of a ‘Mere Christianity’ approach, faithful to the faith as once delivered, and moving from that core to what it actually looks like.
As an evangelical, I appreciated Rowan’s inclusion of the Bible as a key element – given that there are some Anglicans (and other Christians!) who tend to ignore it or downplay it in their exploration of spiritual things. I didn’t entirely agree with his understanding of Scripture is, but his thoughts on its depth, truth and power, as well as the encourage to really saturate one’s life with it, were very welcome. I also enjoyed his emphasis on Prayer as a vital element of the Christian life. Using the liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer as a springboard, Rowan is in his element as he describes the power and importance of prayer.
Readers will know that I value the sacraments, even as I refer to myself as ‘low-church’, ‘evangelical’ and ‘Charismatic’. Rowan is coming from the other end of the candle, so to speak, but I found myself thoroughly enjyoing his reflections on Baptism and the Eucharist, which I would prefer to call The Lord’s Supper, or Communion. I particularly appreciated the emphasis in his discussion of baptism regarding our union with Christ, and the way in which he meets us and frees us and leads us.
Each of the chapters closes with three or four discussion questions, and this is perhaps a clue as to the most helpful usage of a book, particularly in Anglican churches where there might be much diversity of belief and understanding. The questions relate to the discussion of the topic in the chapter, as well as point the way forward, and demand reflection. I could actually see myself using this as the basis of a discipleship ‘plus’ course, or something as a centring and provoking practice in a more diverse church.
Overall, then, I thoroughly enjoyed this little book. There is a lot of literature about ‘evangelism’, and ‘discipleship’, but this book is a helpful consideration of what it actually looks like to be ‘Being Christian’, in a way that is in touch with the text and tradition, and points forward to practical ways of living and being in this world. I would recommend it to those thinking about the place of these various elements in their own Christian lives, to those interested in some key parts of the Christian life, and to those who find themselves in diverse-but-essentially-Christian contexts, as this could form the start of some fascinating conversations.