Book Review: Face to Face: Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger
One Sunday last year, as I was helping set up for outdoor church, my internship supervisor passed a slim teal book called Face to Face: Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger across the altar to me. “This is for you,” he said, “It isn’t homework.” Wells is a very well known priest, theologian, and author, especially in Anglican circles—his book on Christian ethics was the core textbook in my seminary Ethics course—but for whatever reason he isn’t one of the authors I read regularly. The headline on the back described Face to Face as “A book of epiphanies offering encouragement for Christian counselors, pastors, and ministry leaders.” I appreciated the gift from my mentor, but I don’t usually like books that are self-consciously encouraging, and since I told myself that I had plenty of “real” theology to read first, I stuck the book into the ever-growing pile of books I am planning to read at some point, and didn’t come back to it for several months.
I finally picked up Face to Face after finishing something long and technical, purely because it was short. I read it through in one sitting, and was in tears by the time I finished it. Wells’ book is not the overly earnest book of encouragement or or self-help inspired ministry manual that I had expected. It is tender, self-deprecating, humorous, and insightful. It is the sort of book that can only be written after many long years of faithful ministry: after years of groping after Christ and discovering over and over again that His grace picks up right where our own strength fails.
The body of the book is made up of 20 short reflections—usually only a page or two—based on encounters Wells has had with people over the course of his long ministry. He reflects on the way Godly Play, the Montessori-inspired Sunday School curriculum, taught him to listen to people’s stories in pastoral settings. He talks about reuniting with a troubled youth from his first parish, who taught him —a priest—about the meaning of forgiveness and resurrection. He writes about the banality of “clergy failure”: failing to remember a name, or that a parishioner’s husband was having a medical procedure, and how it exposes the facade that we in ministry hide behind far too often.
Wells’ ability to tell these personal and emotional stories without schmaltz or self-importance stems from his delightfully dry, precise and oh-so-British way of reflecting. For example:
It’s an unswerving law of church that, while people don’t much listen to announcements, they do take profound offense at them. Clergy, who pour over ever semicolon of a sermon text assume that they can just wing it with the announcements. Which is how, with clumsy attempts at humor, dismissive remarks about the youth program, or forgetting to thank the flower arrangers, they end up revealing far more than they intend to.
In a lighthearted and disarming tone, he uses an encounter we’ve all had in church to set up a story about what happens when clergy reveal more than they intend to, and the way God’s grace can transform even human blunders (and even church announcements.)
I enjoyed each of theses stories—which can be read quickly but which also benefit from re-reading— but my favorite part of the book was the Introduction. This is the longest single section of the book, and like the shorter chapters, is a reflection on ministry, and on the great weight, privilege, and joy of this calling. “It might,” Wells writes, “make a suitable piece to read the night before one’s ordination, or before one’s twentieth anniversary; or in a moment of exhaustion or humiliation. Like the encounters themselves, it’s about power: but power as exercised by the Holy Spirit.”
Because Sam Wells has been a priest for 30 years, his meditations are primarily about the work of ordained ministry. But that does not mean that this book is only for those who are in “professional” ministry. All Christians are ministers of the Gospel, by virtue of their baptism. All Christians, I think, struggle to find Christ in their every day lives. Wells shows us that clergy are not exempt from this struggle. This makes this book a perfect gift for someone graduating seminary or college, or preparing for ordination.
Face to Face is not a book or advice or positive thinking. Wells asks questions and offers reflections that do not all have neat answers or positive resolutions. It is not a book outlining different interpretations of doctrine or theology. It isn’t a handbook on pastoral care or parish management. These are one man’s memories of a life in ministry, which may or may not have much in common with our own lives. It isn’t a “useful” book designed to make you better at your job. It is, in the end, a sort of prayer designed to encourage the reader to look around in the hopes of discovering that they too are face to face with God.