Usually when I engage with Oliver O’Donovan I am either standing wide-eyed and open mouthed in response to his amazing ideas or gently mocking his inability to communicate with normal people. He is a very smart man, and if you are a Christian you should really listen to what he has to say about ethics and politics. It’s just that it’s hard to actually listen to what he’s saying when his writing and speaking is intellectual to the point of inaccessible. I honestly have no idea what he’s saying almost all of the time – most of what I understand from him has been translated into normal English by other people.
I’m not sure what compelled me to pick up his book The Word in Small Boats: Sermons from Oxford. I was looking for some inspiration for a talk I am writing on mission, and there were fifty other books, not written by O’Donovan, that I could have picked up first. Oh my goodness. I am very glad I did! This book is full of tiny treasures. There are thirty sermons, each no more than a few pages long and written in such beautiful and evocative language. I don’t think I’d ever bother hearing him lecture again, but I would definitely listen to him preach if I could!
One of the sermon’s Frideswide’s Place is a perfect three page excursion into the idea of place and space. It asks how Christians engage in the local community: when do we move? When do we stay put? How do we engage with the place we are in. My heart fluttered wildly as he explored the geographical implications of the gospel, and it set on fire again a deep conviction in my heart – that Christians should always be ready to move, to belong to many places and to take the gospel into new and unfamiliar communities.
The sermon was given in 1991, reflecting on the patron saint of Oxford, St Frideswide, and the relationship between her history and the Oxford of today. I wish I could replicate the whole sermon here but I’m pretty sure that counts as plagiarism. Instead I will point you to the book and encourage you to read it there.
In the meantime, to stir up your appetite, here are some of my favourite quotes.
Firstly, the best definition of space and place I have ever read:
Space and place are both given us; we don’t make either of them. But they are given us in different ways. Space just lies there before us, bounded only by its natural features. It waits for us to move into it, to do something to it, or perhaps just to pass through it… Place, on the other hand, is a human gift, formed like sedimentary rock by the slow deposit of neighbourly experience through successive generations. Place consists of buildings, institutions, conventions and authorities, of stories that recall what has happened and explain how things came to be as they are.
Secondly, the tension between the call for Christians to be on the move, and to commit to a place:
One thing the gospel teaches us is not to be imprisoned by our place. From Jesus’ first proclamation of the Kingdom we are called to be up and off. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants. A gospel love of neighbour is always on the move; like a hungry fire, Saint Austine described it, consuming every next thing that stands in its way, carrying us from where we were to where we have not been. Frideswide too had to flee before she could settle, cutting herself loose from the bonds of family loyalty which restricted her obedience to God. But that is only half the story. The other end of the parabola of mission is coming to rest. That is why I left you in Crete, Paul wrote to Titus (1:5), to build a community into a self-conscious reflection of the rule of Christ. To give that gift of ministry requires and act of identification.