The Thoughtful Guide to Faith

Ronald Pearse reviews The Thoughtful Guide to Faith, by Tony Windross. O Books, Winchester, UK and New York 2004, 224 pp. UK 9.99, USA $14.95. ISBN 1903816688. Ronald Pearse is a founding member of the Sea of Faith. At the time of writing this review, he had just celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest in the Church of England.

This is a splendid book! Its author is ambitious for Christianity and the aim of his book is the development of a voice coming from the Church that is truly radical and can be heard alongside those of traditionalists and fundamentalists, without trying to un-Church people from those backgrounds. This voice is to be meaningful to the intelligently sceptical people of goodwill who find much that is uttered in the name of Christianity makes no sense.

Following Don Cupitt's 1984 TV series and book, The Sea of Faith, I sought like-minded people with whom I could discuss matters arising from the theologically radical ideas that he had laid very clearly before the public. In time, a small group of us was urging a national conference. I naively envisaged that event as an occasion when a gathering of wise heads collectively mulled over the many opportunities and problems we shared. I imagined a mass of shared and detailed wisdom would emerge.

Did this happen? No. We (I was one of the planners) contrived, not a confer-ence, but a standard type of conference with three brilliant speakers and opportunity to discuss their inputs. With possibly one exception, SoF conferences have kept to this pattern, but now with greater sophistication.

What I hoped for twenty years ago has now happened. It is not a conference one can physically attend. It is a book, the fruits of one man's work amongst people, the fruits of his conferring with them, with his books and within himself. He has listed thirty-seven topics that he has found in need of theological rethinking. He has read around them, and thought and worked through them in his ministry as a Church of England parish priest. The first result of this was a series of leaflets for the back of his church. Now these are expanded as a book.

What sort of a book is it? It is not narrative or history, or systematic theology, or philosophy of religion. It is Wisdom literature—fortunately with a contents list. The six short leaflets had titles like Why bother to think about religion?, Why bother to think about God? The publisher's wider strategy has resulted in a change in the leaflets' (now chapters') titles from their snappy originals to Thinking about fundamentalism, Thinking about funerals, and so on.

The book's overall title, however, does justice to its contents. The book is thoughtful. It is a guide. It is about faith, understood from a theologically radical Christian base. It sympathises with the feelings of the more traditionally minded and with those whose current knowledge of religion is limited by the media's, often myopic, understanding of Christianity. It then goes on to point out what readers of this magazine may think of as a more enlightened approach, taking into account the products of modem biblical scholarship and modem historical and scientific disciplines.

Two of the three parishes the author has served as a priest are seaside towns. I can imagine him occasionally taking time from his own reading and busyness, and from his pastoral contacts (particularly those with people using holiday time to visit churches and to wonder about what goes on in them)—and looking meditatively out to sea, trying to gain a wide perspective of faith.

His book shows hope and enthusiasm arising from frustration. It is a voice urgent to be heard, but not claiming to be the only voice of the Church. Only once does its generosity seem to slip—where its justifiable enthusiasm about marriage and sex (two of the chapters' titles) involves an apparent belittling of celibacy.

What do other chapters cover? They range from God, the Bible and the Church, through holy communion, miracles and faith-and-doubt, to the soul, silence and sin, and to evangelism, evil and life-after-death. The author is to be commended for making use, if not sense, of the idea of the Trinity.

One most useful chapter—the last—is about quantum theology, which is likened to quantum physics and its way of dealing with a problem of reality. Apart from a brief dalliance with the term non-realism in the early days of Sea of Faith, I have avoided the word, but I accept the idea behind it as a useful spiritual discipline, rather than as a dogmatic statement. I cannot prove a negative and I see the dogmatic use of the term by some as unscientific. (Being dogmatically undogmatic seems un-Sea-of-Faith- ish, but it is not unknown in the SoF Network!)

But here our author uses non realism (spelt as two un-hyphenated words) delicately. He understands that those holding a conventional (or 'Newtonian') view of God may find the non realist view threatening—but says it need not be so. He sees the quantum shift in theological thinking that it represents as capable of reaching some of the people that other theological thinking cannot reach. He sees the purpose of the Church as transforming lives and thus changing the world, and that quantum theology can be another tool in its attempt to create a more open and loving society.

The Thoughtful Guide to Faith is a well-presented book. The leaflet-ethos of its origins is preserved in a format whereby each chapter begins on an odd-numbered page, thus often leaving a blank page after its predecessor, which could be used for the reader's own pencilled notes. There is a short but useful Suggestions for further reading.

Like other Wisdom literature, this book need not necessarily be read from cover to cover (except by reviewers). It can be grazed thoughtfully. Its chapters often interlock with each other and are helpfully cross- referenced. It is a book to be owned, rather than borrowed, but if it is loaned the borrower may soon want to buy it for him/herself. It is commended by Don Cupitt, by John Shelby Spong, by Stephen Platton—the Bishop of Wakefield, and by others. Hasten to your bookshop.