Monday, 22 October 2012

Tokens of Trust

Philip Harvey

Rowan Williams encourages us to read the creeds as means of living in trust with God and the church, including or even especially when all reasons for trust have vanished. He downplays a dogmatic reading in favour of one that inspires life and growth together. ‘I believe’ means for him ‘I have confidence; I take refuge; I have come home.’

The Archbishop knows how to speak to our personal understanding. In talking about God he spends little time on proofs, but gets us thinking about people in our own lives who embody God or live out God in their lives. Instead of the predictable ‘God takes responsibility for us,’ Williams makes us look at those who take responsibility for God, that is who make God credible in the world. Further, he is likely at any moment to say something like this to you: ‘Belief in a Creator of all things visible and invisible is … about the possibility of an integrated life.’

This book (Tokens of Trust : an Introduction to Christian Belief, by Rowan Williams, Canterbury Press, 2007) interprets the two main creeds of Christianity, but it is not about who had the numbers at Nicea. If you wonder how anything surprising, deep or original can still be said about the creeds, then this is the book for you. We read Rowan Williams for the surprises. Then for the depth of his teaching and the originality of his views. When we go looking for his purpose we find ourselves standing right in the middle of our own traditions. ‘Jesus says himself that people are cured by their trust in him; and when that trust isn’t there, he can’t do so much.’ Elsewhere he states, ‘Jesus builds on the whole pattern of establishing that God is to be trusted’. Interesting, with the present tensions in the Communion, is his forceful emphasis on trust.

How does Williams do it? His gift for drawing us into rewarding thought is achieved through a style that is by turns conversational and confronting, wry and risky, deeply spiritual and highly learned. This is well-illustrated by his many definitions of Church. He can start with a simple definition like ‘church is meant to be the place where Jesus is actively visible in the world’, and arrive in a short space at ‘We are holy because we stand in the holy place, where Jesus stands; we are rooted in heaven where the Son adores and gives himself in love to the Father.’ He challenges us with this: ‘When the church is most clearly committed to the work of transforming the earth, heaven becomes most clear.’ He would even add a fifth mark of the church in the creed, a Church ‘that is one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and repentant.’ We are invited into a world of greater possibilities.

Pictures by the Welsh artist David Jones augment the text. Layout and size are friendly. The author writes for the initiated, the uninitiated, those who live in the church and those uncomfortable with institutional religion of any kind. This is made clear in the following idea, a meditation and parable in one, found on page 76: ‘Only three human individuals are mentioned in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilate: that is Jesus; the one who says “yes” to him; and the one who says “no’ to him. You could say that those three names map out the territory in which we all live.’

This review first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican

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