Van der Leeuw, Howatch and Sacramental Ministry

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. Gerardus van der LeeuwHe 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). Glittering ImagesThey 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.