Today, I watched and listened to a wonderful interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. It’s more than 40 minutes, but it’s worth listening every minute.
Let me share with you what striked me along this interview. It’s most of all the Christ-centeredness of his words and thoughts troughout the interview. “It’s all about Jesus; that’s what matters”. That may not sound very special, but in fact it is. Right in the beginning of the interview, being asked about the way he experienced his enthronement, he says: “It’s not about me, it’s all about Jesus…”. It runs through the whole story, whether he is speaking about the vision for the church or about his own experience of grief and loss.
Let me single out three moments which striked me particularly.
- The most impressive moment is when Welby tells about the loss of his daughter by a terrible accident (14.00-17.30). He is deeply honest about the painfullness of this experience. You can hear and feel the grief in the words he speaks. But at the same time, listen to what he says as well: “We were deeply surrounded by love and most of all by the love of Christ, who sustained us through that. It’s still a pretty rare day I don’t think about Joanna. (…) And yet it’s never to think about her, without remembering the almost tangible way in which Christ held her and us and holds us still.”
- The second thing I’d like to underscore his vision for the church. Take for example his words: “It’s natural for a church to grow”. But in his mouth, it’s not a new law, imposed on church-leaders. It’s embedded in a strong emphasis on the work of Christ and his Spirit. God uses and transforms our ideas for the church with great love. Talking about his vision he says: “The vision was a clear proclamation about who Christ is and a deep commitment for the transformation of society. (…) The vision was about taking risks. We need to be a risk-taking church. There is no safety in Christ. There is absolutely security, but there is no safety. But we have to make a big difference between knowing that we are in his arms and knowing that he calls us to do risky things. So the vision is about a risk-taking church and finding ways of liberating people to be risk-takers in the service of Christ.” (30.45-31.40). Very inspiring!
- The third highlight for me was the closing part of the interview, when Justin Welby talks about his prayer life. A few things appealed to me. First, the honesty in the opening words, when being asked about his prayer life: “Not good enough…”. Second, the way he talks about his meditating prayer in the early about a passage of Scripture, usually with a commentary in order to understand better. “When God is speaking to me through a passage, I don’t move on till I’ve exhausted that passage”. And finally, I was struck between his words about the role of confession in his prayer life. “Most of the early part of my prayers is repentance and seeking the forgiveness of God and the knowledge of that forgiveness in my own life; and being honest with Him about who I am and where I am.”
Once more, the interview made a deep impression on me. It inspires me to work in the Lord’s service with vision and honesty. “It’s all about Jesus”.
Somewhere in the 1990’s an interesting article appeared in our faculty-bulletin in Utrecht (called ‘Areopagus’). One of the most promising students then wrote about a theological book: ‘Praktische Theologie‘ from Gerben Heitink (in translation: Practical Theology: History, Theory, Action Domains). I’ve lost the context of his article, but I remember he wasn’t impressed at all. His chief complaint was that it didn’t help you to find your way on the road to ministry. I had to study this book for my exams and agreed wholeheartedly with him.
However, in his article he presented to his readers a couple of alternatives. He mentioned in the first place the name of the Dutch phenomenologist of religion and theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw. His book ‘Sacramentstheologie’ (‘Sacramental Theology’; no English edition available) was a much better choice according to him. More theological, more inspiring, more in touch with the vital tradition of Christianity. At that time I hadn’t read the book, although I was – to some degree – familiar with the thoughts of Van der Leeuw. But his recommendation was sufficient for me to start reading the book at once.
He mentioned another author, of which I had never heard at that moment: Susan Howatch and her Starbridge novels. Since that moment I began to look for her books. It took a bit of time before I could lay my hands on them, but finally I read nearly the complete series (except for one). They struck me, especially the first three (‘Glittering Images‘; ‘Glamorous Powers; ‘Ultimate Prizes‘), with a leading role for the charismatic priest Jon Darrow. Are these novels excellent literature? No. To mention one thing: the plot is too predictable. Are they a good read? Yes, at least for me they were. They are indeed brilliant in the sense mentioned by my fellow student in Utrecht. Compared with Heitink’s Practical Theology for example the reading of these novels was much more inspiring. I know, these books are products of fantasy. And identifying with, for example, Jon Darrow might be tempting, but dangerous as well. Imagine yourself hunting for demons in your congregation… It is all true, but in the end I found myself wondering how I could serve, in my own modest way, but nonetheless such that it was somehow infused with the same presence of Christ.
When I saw that I realised that the link between Van der Leeuw and Howatch was less coincidental then it seemed. Both authors show what a sacramental theology might look like. Van der Leeuw wrote a phenomenological and systematic account of sacramental theology. Susan Howatch shows how it can look like in ordinary life. That is what I needed when I was reading the article in the nineties. That’s what I’am still in need of, working in the church as a minister. This work is not glamorous, nor glittering. But it still might be ‘sacramental’. At least, that’s my desire. With the word ‘sacramental’ I have in mind what Van der Leeuw wrote in another book of his (Liturgiek): “In the sacramental act God uses our actions for His”. That’s what I’m still looking for in practice and in Practical Theology. Thanks to Van der Leeuw, thanks to Howatch and thanks, of course, to the impeccable taste of my fellow student.