by David Driscoll

from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017

Most of us appreciate the benefits of having the Church’s seasons as a framework for liturgical worship, so it is good to have this collection of essays to reinforce that experience for us. What is unusual about this collection is that all the essays are all written by bishops – three of them women.

Mark Oakley was a wise choice to edit the book. He is Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral and a good friend of Modern Church.

He is also an acclaimed writer of well received books including The Collage of God (DLT 2001) and The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry (SPCK 2016). His varied ministry included serving five years as chaplain to the Bishop of London. In his excellent introductory essay, he writes on the importance of the bishop’s teaching office, therefore it is a highly appropriate collaboration.

Sarah Mullally, Bishop of Crediton, writes about having a good Advent, a time of waiting in the church, even though for most people Christmas has already arrived! We wait in genuine hope for the change we long to see,

‘straining like children on tiptoe to get the best view.’

As one would expect, Rowan Williams’ essay on having a good Christmas doesn’t disappoint. In his inimitable way, he enables us to delve into the meaning of the Incarnation through a serious reflection on the words of three well known Christmas carols. Libby Lane, Bishop of Stockport, shows how to avoid the anticlimax of post-Christmas and enjoy a good Epiphany. She explores ways of discovering meaning and hope because of Epiphany’s important link between the wooden manger of Christmas and the Cross of Good Friday.

Justin Welby provides insights from Isaiah 40-66 and the Rule of St Benedict in his recommendations for a good Lent. As a discipline, he invites us to read the whole of Luke during this season when we are called afresh to reflect on the reality of sin and evil lying deeply within our individual lives, and importantly, in the life of the church and society. Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, addresses his remarks primarily to people responsible for planning services to enable congregations to have a really good Holy Week. He strongly encourages them to attend everything, in order to experience ‘one incredible liturgical drama spread over the four days of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day’.

By contrast, Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely, presents us with four works of art to illustrate how to have a good Easter, with accompanying footnotes directing us to see them online. He guides us through each in turn, with the hope of perceiving that

‘a good Easter is life lived shot through with grace and glory, hoping for transfiguring by love which makes us the healed and forgiven community of the resurrection.’

Finally, Karen Gorham, Bishop of Sherborne, suggests how a good Pentecost can be a season for both comfort and challenge. She recommends churches plan significant events like confirmations for spiritual empowerment, and set aside a specific period in the church’s year for deliberate inactivity in order to listen to God’s Spirit and thus enable individual and corporate spiritual growth, as she says, ‘preparing Christians for a lifetime’.

On occasion, I felt some of what was being said was a little flat and unexciting. I was also disappointed not to find any imaginative suggestions about how the seasons might be celebrated at home. Unfortunately, little is said or written on the subject of prayer and worship in a domestic setting, although there is plenty of evidence that these things went on in the past. They were a key element in traditional Celtic spirituality and still are in contemporary Judaism. One notable exception is a book by Marjorie Freeman, We always put a candle in the window: Celebrating Christian Festivals at Home, published by the National Society and Church House Publishing in 1989 and still available on Amazon. Bishops perhaps could be encouraged to revive this practice in their dioceses?

On a positive note, there is much wisdom to be gained from these essays, and I am sure readers will receive some fresh insights into the meaning of the seasons. Those who are called upon to preach will also find a lot of useful sermon material!