Casting Off: Finding Faith for Change

Hilary Campbell reviews 'Casting Off', by Ruth Scott, SPCK. London. 2005. £7.99. ISBN 028105696X. Hilary Campbell is an Anglican priest, newly appointed Team Vicar in the parish of Kidlington with Hampton Poyle, in north Oxford.

This book has a ringing endorsement from Terry Wogan. But don’t let that put you off! Ruth Scott is an Anglican priest, writer and broadcaster (occasionally for Radio 2’s Pause for Thought on Wogan’s morning show). She has been involved in interfaith dialogue for some years, and lectures at Leo Baeck College, a training college for rabbis in Finchley. She runs workshops in the UK and abroad, using her training in mime and physical theatre, and acts as a facilitator for various Christian communities. In her spare time she eats fire.

This book explores the picture of faith as a raft that can be used to navigate the turbulent waters of uncertainty and change that seem to characterise the nature of life today. It is a picture deliberately chosen to contrast with the traditional picture of faith as fortress, rock, standing unmoved, unaltered by ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world’. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20) are words that have become central to the author’s faith. (pxii). This is a picture of living transitionally and of exploring a spirituality of homelessness.

This is a book which tells a personal story, and that explores tools for a travelling faith that may be useful for others. There is emphasis on facing uncertainty, of ‘living the questions’ (a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke). What maps and charts might be useful for this journey? The author explores the Bible as a map to liberate, seeing it as story to connect with, individually and collectively. She encourages an imaginative engagement with scripture, a wrestling and arguing with the texts. Travelling into unknown places requires the learning of different languages, of listening to the experiences, the stories of other people, and of helping them to express themselves in language that communicates their hope and belief. The line between sacred and secular language becomes indistinct or even invisible. For the priest this might be particularly focused in times of accompanying people through times of loss and grief.

For many families traditional doctrines about life after death make little sense. They are more concerned with expressing hope in humanity now, not on the basis of some perceived reward or punishment in the future, ‘but because to live out love is the creative and life-giving way to live. Their hope lay in the belief that out of this terrible tragedy the human spirit could make something meaningful… all these things seemed to me to be gospel values, whatever the language we used to express them.’ (p40)

Other chapters explore travelling light, valuing companions along the way, letting go of baggage, travelling hopefully and with humour. They explore the sense of finding faith in the fear of the unfamiliar, of the encounter with the other (in the author’s case this has often been with the encounter with those of other faiths). She describes her journey as a woman seeking to ‘sing the Lord’s song in the strange land that is the Anglican Church’ (p67). And there is exploration of the God-word, of why the author continues to make space for God. A question she asks of herself: ‘Can I call myself a Christian when my faith focuses increasingly on humanity rather than divinity?’ (p103). Her response is that her sense of God has become a shorthand for human qualities valued by all religions, and she sees her travelling as always wanting to follow ‘such “godliness” or, as Jesus embodies it, such deep humanity.’ (p106). She remains someone deeply committed to her faith, a wandering pilgrim, seeking to carry a sense of home with her as she sails her raft.

I found this a very accessible book, of a thoughtful following of faith. It is an honest personal story and an encouraging one for those who may continue to despair of the institution of church (which they still believe may be redeemable!), and the lack of such honest sharing within that institution. For some Sea of Faith people, this book will not be radical enough. It could provide a starting place for those who are beginning to wonder how to travel faithfully and transitionally. I enjoyed the personal story telling and I found much to resonate with my own faith journeying, with a celebration of the depth of humanity, a faith that lives the questions, and a seeking of religious language that is liberating.