(John V Taylor, The Go-between God)
As with other recently retired ministers I have had to reduce the size of my library. Its books have mapped the course of both my ministry and my spirituality. In some cases it has been a sad parting.
Following an invitation from Andy Goodliff to reflect on my ministry (see here), I have selected two books from each decade of my ministry which have meant a lot to me (read about my books of the 1960s here).
The two I have chosen for the 1970s, covering my first five years as a minister, started my journey to the discovery that spirituality must be rooted in compassion and justice. Without both it is ‘mere spirituality’. They are:
- The Go-Between God: Holy Spirit and Christian Mission by John V Taylor
- Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World by Kenneth Leech
The Go-Between God
Bob Morgan was the local vicar in Ely, Cardiff. He got the local ministers reading Taylor’s book, published in 1972. It was the time of ‘charismatic renewal’ when many churches experiencing the gifts of the Spirit. It was a period of instability, vitality and new voices demanding to be heard. Taylor offered a measured and re-assuring commentary.
‘I am not looking for a recovery of exotic supernaturalism, but an extension of the range of our empirical enquiry’
For Taylor, the Holy Spirit was the energy in all matter and could not be reduced to certain religious experiences. His calm, thoughtful scrutiny became a model for my own preaching from Scripture. In this early book there was a breadth of reference to science, art and music, which always characterised his style. It introduced me to a way of reading the Bible which went beyond the meaning of its words or understanding its context. The Bible provides a pathway of different landscapes. It is most helpful when we do not get lost in its detail too often. He was not afraid to add his own experiences and those of others to support the ideas that he proposed. The book ends with a story which has become famous. It describes the deep compassion shown by one woman to another in which Taylor sees the true of the Spirit and a profound insight into the nature of God. He also connects it to the importance of prayer for others which he regards as part of the outreach of the Church.
‘It is the embrace of God, his kiss of life. That is the embrace of his mission and of our intercession. The Holy Spirit is as close, unobtrusive and irresistibly strong’
Taylor died in 2001. But his first book had started me on a path which would be shaped further by my other choice from this decade.
Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World
Looking back it was a strange selection. Kenneth Leech was an Anglo-Catholic Church of England priest who would spend much of his time in East London. I had just left my first church in Ely, Cardiff and was wondering what I was meant to be doing. However, Bob Morgan’s earlier recommendation and Taylor’s broad-minded approach to the Holy Spirit had prepared me to go beyond my Baptist background to seek a purpose for staying in the Ministry; Soul Friend offered this.
Leech’s first book Youthquake had been about the drug culture of 1960s youth and whilst writing often about prayer and spirituality he founded Centrepoint which has proceeded to become an important charity for tackling youth homelessness and eventually became involved with the Runnymede Trust.
In Soul Friend, Leech examines the historical development of the work of Spiritual Directors. He believed spiritual directors were people of experience, discernment and learning who were possessed by the Spirit whilst being prepared to give way to the Spirit (you can read more about his theology and work here). For me this was a novel way of looking at Ministry and, although it would be many years before I trained as a Spiritual Director, the seed had been sown. Looking back I can see that Taylor had given me abroad scriptural perspective with which to reconsider the work of the Holy Spirit. What I had picked up from the charismatic renewal had not done this. At the same time, Leech grounded the work of the Spiritual Director in the context of the grim realities of inner city life; some of which I had experienced in the council estate on the edge of Cardiff.
The meaning of Christian faith
What also impresses me at this distance is that both authors, settled and secure in different traditions of prayer and liturgy, were able to explore the meaning of Christian faith for the final years of the last century.
Many Baptists, on the other hand, have spent many of those years debating and falling out over their own tradition of worship – what we sang, with what instruments, led by whom and for what purpose seemed to be the sum total of what too many thought they came to church for. In my experience this could be very tiresome, enervating and missed the point of ‘charismatic renewal’.
Both Taylor and Leech became prolific writers over the next three decades. Though it might now seem rather humdrum, much of what they wrote in the 1970s was ground-breaking. It certainly wasn’t humdrum for this (then) young minister as I was being bounced about by my early inexperience and forceful Baptist voices telling me the way I should go.
Next up the 1980s and two authors everyone was talking about.