‘The shaping of a soul’ is full of surprises
Updated: Mar 20
BRF’s chair of trustees, Bishop Colin Fletcher reviews the autobiographical, The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise, by Bishop Richard Harries (John Hunt Publishing, £18.99):
‘Surprise’ lies at the heart of this new book by Bishop Richard Harries.
On the one hand, it reads at times like many other autobiographies, which would make it interesting enough, but it goes far beyond that as he explores the surprises that have shaped him as a person. He charts the story of his life to date, through his schooldays, university, and theological college, to a curacy in Hampstead, followed by his time at Wells Theological College, as a vicar in Fulham, Dean of Kings College, London, and then bishop of Oxford for the years 1987–2006, but, as you would expect from Bishop Richard, the book goes well beyond a dull recitation of facts about his life, which is why I am commending it warmly.
He takes the opportunity to explore the forces, the poetry, the art and the thinkers that have shaped him and made him the whole person – the soul – who he is. And within that process, the theme of ‘surprise’ erupts time and again. Surprise that he began to contemplate ordination when he looked all set to become an army officer and had so little experience of the Church of England (and even less that was in any way positive). Surprise when he first met, and then fell in love, with Jo, his wife of so many years. Surprise as he used his many talents to explore moral questions as diverse as human sexuality, the investment policies of the Church Commissioners, the ethical status of the embryo and Just War Theory and nuclear deterrence, and coupled these with his life-long passion for art, poetry and great literature, and in building relationships with members of other faiths and also of other Christian traditions.
Those who know him through his contributions to ‘Prayer for the Day’ and ‘Thought for the Day’ will not, perhaps, be surprised to find that his life has been quite so fascinating, but part of the joy of reading this book is the way that he combines beautifully clear writing with deep thinking. For those of us whose ministries have overlapped with his one way and another, it also provides a mirror to contemplate our own surprises.
But, unlike many an autobiography, some of its most profound reflections come as he contemplates the future.
The final pages, looking to death and resurrection, I found profoundly moving and full of hope. They come as a glorious antidote to the way our society seeks to ignore or gloss over the reality of mortality, and in saying that I will leave Richard to have the final word.
‘I have a passionate commitment to the good purpose of God and trust that his love cannot finally fail. All through the Bible there is the hope that one day his kingdom will come, all that is wrong will be righted and everything will flourish as God intends. I also believe that the person I truly am is known to God and is as it were lodged in his heart. In Christ he has promised that this person will be clothed in immortality. So I am not fearful of death, though like most human beings I am apprehensive about the process of dying. I hope to die with the words of Jesus in my mind, if not on my lips, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit”, the prayer from Psalm 31, which every Jewish mother taught their children to say at night. This is to face death in hope. I have no idea how this hope might be fulfilled, nor do I need to know…’
‘To let go into death in an act of trust and a spirit of hope – with everything to look forward to… God has the power still to surprise us.’
This review was first published recently in the newsletter of the Retired Clergy Association (Church of England).