When I was at theological college in the early 1990s, Bill Vanstone’s book was spoken of with awe, as a profound essay on the risk of love. I think because of that reputation, I held off from reading it for years, fearing I’d be disappointed. But I needn’t have done. It is an extraordinary tour de force of theological reflection, beginning with the most unpromising of material, the apparent trivia of parish life and his impatience with it, and going on to develop a penetrating analysis of the costliness of divine love, and its imbrication with all the seemingly minor endeavours and disappointments by which our lives are structured.
Despite a brilliant academic background and predictions of a glittering career, Vanstone chose to spend much of his ministry working on a Lancashire housing estate, giving practical effect to the attentiveness and patience (his next book was called The Stature of Waiting) that is an important theme of this book. He waited until his mid-50s to publish it, and the word is that it was turned down by a number of publishers, until it was taken up by DLT and became a prize-winner and best-seller.
It’s a bold argument. Without conceding anything to theoretical challenges to divine impassibility, Vanstone supposes that the risks we see inherent in love as we know it in our own terms – its willingness to recognize its own limits, its renunciation of control, and its openness to unforeseen change – must also be characteristic of the love of God. Whilst the love of God is an infinite outpouring, the endeavour of God’s love is itself fraught with risk, with self-limitation and the denial of coercive control. We see this supremely in the tragedy of the cross (for those in the know, there are echoes of Donald Mackinnon), but also in the life of the Church.
Vanstone’s God is a God of small things. We are constantly tempted by the grand gesture in the Church today. 10,000 new congregations! Don’t think small, think big! Grand strategies are what we need, aren’t they? Yet the skeletons of failed grand initiatives litter the historical landscape – the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917, Towards the Conversion of England in 1945, the decade of Evangelism, Mission-Shaped Church, perhaps even Renewal and Reform? Well, few of these were or are outright failures. Perhaps they all have their place. Perhaps they all have helped to slow decline.
But for Vanstone, I suspect, they would all have been beside the point. What he learnt in his years of serving the people of his parish was that there was no disjuncture between the significance of the little action or gesture, and that of the great. Where God’s people are, whatever the seeming triviality of their concerns, each one of them is fully the preoccupation and end of God’s love. God’s grace is alive and working in each of them, and he is to be encountered where they are. For me, this is the touchstone of parish ministry.
The book ends with the poem – ‘Morning glory, starlit sky’ – which has become a well-known hymn, set to Orlando Gibbons’s ‘Song 13’. All is good, but the verse that sums up the gist of Vanstone’s essay is the fifth:
Drained is love making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.