Anthony Philips

It’s a story, stupid!

(A Review by Christopher Laurence)

The Revd Canon Anthony Philips has an interesting past and by chance two bits of it were sitting on either side of me at his lecture to the Lincoln Theological Society. On my right the former professor who married, not without raising a few eyebrows, a friend of Anthony’s Cornish childhood; on the other a former Dean of Canterbury who had plucked him from academia to become a remarkably successful Headmaster of The King’s School Canterbury: a post for which his only qualification, as a friend wrily commented, was his wife who happened to be a teacher.

In retirement to Truro Canon Philips was able to return to his work as an Old Testament scholar. For all his learning, his lecture, “Genesis 1&2 – not Science” at Bishop Grosseteste University was straightforward and without specialist terminology. When he had finished he was asked how he had managed to maintain his faith in God. He answered not as a scholar but as a believer. It would be untrue to himself, he said, if he were to deny his experience of the call of God which had drawn him out of the legal profession into christian ministry. He was speaking about the fundamental meaning of his life: how he made sense of it.

And the creation stories in Genesis, he said, are attempts to make sense of the world in which we live. They are not about the scientific question, “How does it work?” but the deeper human question, “What does it mean?” The question is still alive and contemporary for all of us, and these ancient stories contain wisdom which can still illuminate.
Adam – humankind – is of the earth, earthy. He comes from dust and returns to dust. Genesis knows nothing of the idea of an immortal soul. But Adam has a special role in creation. He is God’s representative and he is responsible to God for his husbandry of the earth and its creatures.

But Adam aspires to be like God, to know as only God can know. And forever Adam is doomed to fail; the mystery remains. “If you don’t know life as a mystery you haven’t lived”, remarked our lecturer. It is this aspiration to penetrate the mystery of God – to discover meaning- and never to succeed, which makes us fully human.

The second creation-story appeared centuries after the first. It was needed because Israel was undergoing a crisis in its understanding of its meaning. How could it be that the people whom God had specially chosen and placed in the land of his promise, could be smashed to pieces and removed to captivity in a foreign land? Out of this experience of devastation comes the awareness that, just as creation comes out of nothing, so it can return to nothing: surely an understanding which is needed in our time as we are made aware of the fragility of the earth’s eco-system.

But a greater insight of the Babylonian story is of God’s mercy. He forgives. And crushed and punished Israel is still his chosen people, carrying his message to the world.

“We are living through a time of rapid change”, observed Adam to Eve as they left the Garden of Eden. Our situation is not dissimilar. It was good to be reminded by Canon Philips that our faith is rooted in stories that hold profound and timeless wisdom. There were a lot of dog-collars in evidence at his lecture but the fact that the majority of his hearers were of the laity demonstrated that theology is much more than a merely clerical interest.

Christopher Laurence