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Fr Christopher Jamison has the gift that all theologians strive for

His excellent book Finding Sanctuary manages to communicate the riches of Christianity to an audience that knows little about it

By on Monday, 28 May 2012

Fr Jamison, former Abbot of Worth, has 'done a Bonhoeffer' (Photo: Mazur/

Fr Jamison, former Abbot of Worth, has 'done a Bonhoeffer' (Photo: Mazur/

One thing that theologians often ask themselves, or should, when they go to conferences to talk to other theologians, is how theology can be communicated to those who are outside the charmed circle of the theologically literate.

This is a major question, and it is getting more and more urgent, as the number of those who are theologically literate shrinks year by year, thanks to, among other things, plummeting education standards. Once people, including children and those thought uneducated, could be counted on to grasp some quite complex ideas – things like the hypostatic union and transubstantiation – but nowadays these are increasingly terms that make little sense to anyone.

One solution to the problem was put forward by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945. His idea was that Christianity should “make the existential turn”. This phrase, that I use myself, does not really help the average person in the pew, but what does help is an example of someone who has actually done a Bonhoeffer and made classical Christianity with all its riches accessible to contemporary people in a language that they can understand and in a way that fits with their experience. In popular terms this is sometimes called “finding the God-shaped hole” in people’s lives.

One person who I think does this admirably is the Rev Nicky Gumbel who pioneered the Alpha course. I am a great admirer of the Alpha approach. So too, I gather, is Cardinal Koch. There are dissenting voices. The Rev Ian Paisley has spoken of “the dodgy, Church of Rome endorsed Alpha Course”.

Another person who has made the existential turn successfully is Fr Christopher Jamison. I did not see the television programme The Monastery, but I have recently read the book Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everyday life. It is excellent. It makes the timeless wisdom of St Benedict and the Benedictine way accessible to a modern audience which may, frankly, know little about religion, and less about God – and that little they know may in fact be a barrier to belief. I’d recommend this book to all who are seeking truth, or looking for spirituality: it is wise, orthodox, and its method of approach is the right one.

What the former abbot and Nicky Gumbel have in common is the strong belief that there is nothing wrong with the traditional Christian faith, along with the realisation that we cannot get people to change before they can believe – we need to speak to them as they are at present: and that means recasting the message without compromising its content. It means an inculturation of the Gospel for the modern age. Fr Jamison’s book might be of help to all who are planning catechesis in our parishes, showing a way of making theology real to learners.

  • Alan

    Excellent article.  Of course we have to meet people where they are, not where we think they ought to be.  The way the faith is presented will vary enormously in different communities, and to different people.  St. Paul knew this very well.

  • Aidan Coyle

    This sort of translation into accessible terms is so difficult to do well. It’s easy to end up sounding patronising or to distort the theological ideas that you’re trying to put across. This makes Christopher Jamison’s achievement all the more noteworthy. Incidentally, I’d put the writings that Timothy Radcliffe has produced for a general audience into the same category of achievement.

  • Diego

    Alan the problem is we do meet people where they are, but then we leave them there.
    Christ is the Way, the way forward, our problem is we have forgotten our past and therefore do not know how to move them forward.

  • paulpriest

    No: He doesn’t.

  • paulpriest

     You mean they’re as equally trite, patronising and devoid of anything other than self-indulgent narcissism and appeal to a worship of this inspirational ethereal ‘earth-spirit’ who nurtures and makes me feel special. Developing my ‘interior’ relationship with the Spirit in ‘soft places’, giving myself a group hug and being aware of my neighbour by hand-wringing over poor starving African kids, drug-abusers or AIDS victims…and contemplating how much Jesus loves them and how I can be special too if I think about them and love them in my own special way…

    Sorry I don’t buy this 1970s neoprotestant, sub-Buddhist baloney where there’s no sacrifice, no neighbour, no cross, no Church and ultimately? No Christ!

    Where’s the theology in any of this?

    There isn’t much – oh there are appeals to theological tenets to justify some praxis or the beginnng of some vanity-exercise meditation – but otherwise it’s theodoxy – wishful thinking about what I’d like my world and my God to be like….no need for any One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church or any of its awkward teachings and demnds…

    I refuse to give any credence to the ex-Abbot when he adamantly states the media is no place to evangelise….
    …and Fr Timmy Radcliffe?
    God bless the pair of them but I wouldn’t know where to begin…Their vocations are supposed to be a Preaching of the Gospel of Christ – not the gospel of their latest fad. bugbear or personal favourite….

  • Benedict Carter

    You don’t mean “orthodoxy”, do you Father?

    Surely not.

  • Sweetjae

    When you are dealing with apologetics (defending and explaining the Faith) to both fundamentalist protestants and other non-catholics , we can use anology-typology because it much better to convey the real Message of the Gospel understandable to them,  like the Immaculate Conception of Mary with the Ark of the New Covenant, her sinless nature anology by Dun Scotus, Holy Truine God as the anology of a shamrock by St. Patrick to the driuds and so more.

    Of course there is a danger of the  Teachings being  watered-down, but it will never happen if the person (clergy) is well grounded and faithful to Christ and His Church.

  • Parasum

    “One solution to the problem was put forward by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945. His idea was that Christianity should “make the existential turn”.”

    ## I have no idea what he means by that phrase. And I read theology all the time.

    “plummeting education standards.”## If people are too idle to use the minds God gave them, they don’t deserve to be able to understand Catholic teaching. The Church can go only so far before popularisation becomes distortion. This is partly because there is not a long tradition of lay theology-writing in English Catholicism, as there is for Calvinists.

  • Lazarus

    A lot depends on how you unpack ‘existential turn’: (eg) Alpha is one thing; Bonhoeffer quite another. But here’s two problems with most versions of it. First, it too easily becomes the ‘existentialist turn’: you choose blindly and without any reason. So one day it’s Christ. The next day it’s Dawkins. The day after that it’s a cream cake. Second, it too easily becomes the ‘experiential turn’: if you’re good, God will appear to you and it will be just fabby. And that leads to a desire for spooky signs and wonders and imagining them when they’re not there.

    I don’t think there’s any one recipe for evangelism -so I’m sure variations of the above do have their place somewhere. But any version which doesn’t point people further into the depths -into the exploration of the fullness of God’s goodness beauty and truth in the Catholic tradition of spirituality, art and philosophy- is only going to produce short term success at best.

  • theroadmaster

    Jesus stated in Matthew 18:3, that unless we become like little children, we will not see paradise.  In other words, unless we adopt the generous hearts and open minds of young kids, we will remain oblivious to the transcendental and life-changing nature of the Christian message.  Theologians are dedicated to exploring and explaining the doctrinal truths which the Church expounds as part of the sacred deposit of Faith.   Sacred revelation can be obfuscated or distorted by the clever use of language and this cause a disconnection to exist between the layman in the pew or the street and the giver of the message.  Theology can be relayed in a comprehensive and elucidating manner without the need for tautological or tortured words or sentence structures.  The message has to penetrate into the wider society beyond the study halls of Academe.

  • Fr.Thomas Poovathinkal


  • rjt1

    Let us use all our gifts, humbly, including our intellect, and drink from the Word of God.

  • Parasum

    Xaying “It can’t happen…” is what allows it to happen. A lot of errors are the work of just such people 

  • Wychwood Circle

    Aso recommend Finding Happiness – Monastic Steps to a Fulfilling Life. So far proving good material for discussion in multi-faith/inter-faith/non-faith discussion group. 

  • Emanuel

    Reading some of the comments below is really heart breaking…there are still people out there living in the Middle ages. So sad.