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A Ray of Darkness Paperback – March 28, 1995
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Williams' standpoint is that of Catholic and critical orthodoxy . . . with an originality reminiscent of such recent Anglican divines as Austin Farrer and Donald MacKinnon. These sermons also reveal a bishop who is at the same time a serious theologian and a sensitive pastor. (Church Times)
This book of addresses and sermons given to particular congregations is accessible and sometimes very moving. His thinking is always original and deep, combining erudition and personal spirituality. There are many good things in this nutritious book. (The Julian Meeting)
These sermons aimed at deepening understanding of the faith of believers and enriching their spirituality certainly merit a place in the best Anglican tradition of preaching. (Theologia Cambrensis)
Books of sermons, meditations, ‘reflections,' etc., that actually instruct the preacher are rare indeed. What is not so rare is that these books often arise from the distinguished Anglican tradition of theology and preaching. Rowan Williams' new book, A Ray of Darkness, is one of them. It is a hefty collection of 45 pieces. The work is filled with sensitive theology, spirituality, and erudition. The book makes one want to be a better preacher.“There is great variety in these pieces, but the variety, significantly, is largely in the range of ‘occasions' for which Williams is able to shape gospel. For example, there is a jewel of a short wedding sermon here, well worth emulation. There is a striking piece here on the relation between music and the gospel titled ‘Keeping Time,' preached, we are told, ‘For the Three Choirs Festival.' There is a profound university sermon preached ‘at the outbreak of the Gulf War.' There are what appear to be tributes to ‘saints' such as John Wesley, T. S. Eliot, and Michael Ramsey; but they are, instead, gospel statements, some would say sermons, framed in a highly original and provocative manner. One comes away from the volume wanting to speak on ‘special occasions' and charged with a new sense about how to do so. . . .“Williams' book treats each Scripture text like an old grime-covered window. For him, the preacher's task is to rub a small clearing on the window through which to peer, with face pressed to the glass, into an obscure and shadowy room. Sermons have a probing, searching quality when texts are treated in this manner. As to the difficult matters of doctrine and creed, Williams demonstrates how one can explore the metaphorical, even mythic, dimensions of creedal ideas while, at the same time, affirming those ideas in fresh form for the church's life and health. (Joseph Webb, the School of Theology at Claremont)
About the Author
ROWAN WILLIAMS, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, was formerly Primate of the Church in Wales. He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge until 1991 when he was made Bishop of Monmouth. He is the author of Lost Icons, Writing in the Dust, Ponder These Things, Resurrection, The Truce of God, and Arius.
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This book is a collection of sermons; it makes for good contemplative reading as one may read only one or two sermons at a time or, instead, read through an entire section of the book in a single sitting. Being a collection of sermons, it contains neither a bibliography nor detailed footnotes. Although both would be welcome, both would probably also take away from the point of the book, which is not to be an academic work so much as it is to be a pastoral work which encompasses but is not limited to the academic.
And, it is Williams' pastoral heart that shines through in each sermon. He shows himself to be a man of not only academic learning and intellectual insight, but also full of compassion and having a deep spirituality. The universality and the particularity of Christ's saving work and message dance an intricate dance with each other throughout the book. The universal and the particular both move in grace; Williams gives his words over to embodying these movements in their depth, complexity and mystery.
My favorite sermon is titled, "Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?" Characteristically, Williams avoids a simple "yes" or "no" but instead outlines contours, some of which show their depth and fullness in the light of "conservative" thought, and others of which show these in the light of "liberal" thought. Williams resists the license of liberalism and the legalism of conservativism, choosing instead to understand the giving of the body in terms of gift, grace and love - in short, Christian *thinking*. Although he remains more liberal on the topic than I am, I remain indebted to his insights, which have pushed me to think more deeply about what is not just a complex issue, but a beautiful one as well.
For those that have not yet read the good Archbishop, this is a wonderful place to start. For those that have read him, this is an excellent place to continue. Regardless of where you are, Williams' Ray of Darkness will put things in a wonderfully new light: humbly, gracefully and with all their depth, complexity and beauty intact.
Sermons and reflections:
In his reflective sermons, where he explores related gospel issues with empathy and insight, he invites the reader to a wide variety of provocative approaches to life and living in our contemporary society of the end of Twentieth Century faith, tradition, metaphysics, self conscience, and Christian liturgy on vocation, and celebrations, to mission and spirituality. In spite of what he expresses in the introduction, I found most of the topics he reviewed within his Christian vision, not only beneficial but keep your intellectual as well as spiritual dialogue, never a sermon monologue, since it will engage the thought of the reader.
What do you want?
In his engaging reflections on real life concerns from personal suffering and loneliness, to issues of global destruction and human injustice expressed in thoughtful prose, mediating even if sometimes scholarly, he raises a core question. "The real question is about what you are really after: do you want spirituality, mystical experience, inner peace, or do you want God? If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase on God, you are still playing games." This straight forward statement by the Canterbury seeker of God is so strong, and exceeded any parallel expression by a Catholic (John of the Cross) or Apophatic Orthodox (Denys p-Areopagite), when he says, "The dark night is God's attack on religion." He declares the role of corporate religion, "The vital significance of the Church in this society, in any human society, is its twofold challenge - first, challenging human reluctance to accept death, and then challenging any human acceptance of death without hope, of death as the end of all meaning. ... That is why Jesus' death is not the end of a story, but the last point in his great struggle to free God into the world."