What does being Christian entail? What distinguishes the Christian community from other communities? What do the diverse Christian traditions hold in common? If you are responsible for catechesis, no doubt you have discovered there are many ways to approach these questions. You might, to cite an obvious and venerable example, use the Apostle’s Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer to display Christian doctrine and discipline. Many catechisms and introductions to Christianity share a roughly similar approach, namely, to begin with and emphasize what Christians believe.
Another approach — less common perhaps because it’s difficult to do well — is to start with what Christians do.* Rowan Williams does this masterfully in his Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Based on Advent talks given in Canterbury Cathedral, Being Christian is an elegant series of meditations on essential Christian practices: dipping in water, reading the Bible, sharing bread and wine in memory of Jesus, and praying to “Our Father.” Williams looks at “what those activities tell us about the essence of Christian life, and what kind of people we might hope to become in a community where these things are done.” The result is a deceptively simple, creative, and frequently profound presentation of what it means to be Christian.
Being Christian means, first, being baptized. As Williams puts it, “baptism takes us where Jesus is.” To be baptized is to be “dropped” both into the depths of the mystery of Christ’s Passion — and therefore into solidarity with all human suffering — and also into the depths of God’s love, “in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.” Being Christian is about being with Jesus in the deep joy of the Trinity and in the suffering of a devastated world.
To be Christian is to listen to God by reading (or hearing read) the Bible with others, because “the Bible is the territory in which Christians expect to hear God speaking.” The Bible, Williams suggests, is like a parable God is telling; to read it well you must let it work on you, ask where you are in its story, and let the Holy Spirit make the story of God’s coming to Israel and the Church your story. Above all, “reading the Bible is about listening to God in Jesus.” Being Christian is about making Christ the center of your reading of Scripture, discerning in the story of his life both God’s “terrifying compassion” and the paradigm of faithful human response to God.
Christians know themselves as guests, those who accept the invitation of the risen Jesus to eat and drink with him and who are set free to share in his hospitality. In the Eucharist, Christians see Jesus’ suffering and death as “the final, the definitive, sign of God’s welcome and God’s mercy…an open door into the welcome of the Father.” In the Eucharist, Christians pray, “Here we are, in the company of Jesus: Father, send us the Holy Spirit that as these people share these things, the life of Jesus may fill them all.” Being Christian is about accepting God’s hospitality, to be welcomed where “Christ, the Son, gives his life to the Father in the Spirit” and receive a foretaste of the new creation.
To be Christian is, finally, “to let Jesus’ prayer happen in you.” Williams understands prayer in terms of growing to be more like Jesus, growing into “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). He draws on the reflections of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian on the Lord’s Prayer to bring out three essential aspects of Christian prayer. First, “prayer is God’s work in us.” So there is a sense in which prayer is “like sneezing — there comes a point when you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father.” Second, prayer has to do with the healing of relations and is intimately bound up with justice and reconciliation. You receive your daily bread, says Gregory of Nyssa, “if no one goes hungry or distressed because you are satisfied.” Third, prayer is about our faithfulness to remain with God, our persistence in crying, “O God, make speed to save me.” Being Christian is about letting Jesus’ prayer transform you into his likeness.
There’s more to Being Christian than I have been able to show. But I hope to have suggested something of the richness and beauty of Rowan Williams’s display of the deep grammar of the Christian life.
Being Christian makes a good companion to Williams’s exposition of the Apostle’s Creed, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, which draws out similar themes from the opposite direction, as it were. The meaty discussion questions following each chapter of Being Christian make it a good option for small group study.
This little book deserves a large readership. First, because it is beautifully written. Second, because it shows “the grandeur of God” flaming out in the most basic of Christian activities. In other words, “it makes the familiar strange,” and this is, as Stanley Hauerwas teaches, the proper work of theological writing. Thirdly, because writing it took a lifetime; it has taken Williams a lifetime of training to see clearly enough to write this profoundly simple book about being Christian. Finally, because reading it has stirred up my love for the Lord.
* Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith is a notable recent example.