Driving northward on the M5 motorway, the Mendip hills are passed on the right hand side. Visible to the east, there is a deep cut in the steep ridge of the hills, Cheddar Gorge. If one approaches from the north, a less dramatic gap in the hills is found at Burrington Combe.
Burrington Combe is the place where it was said that the Anglican priest Augustus Toplady took shelter in a cleft in the rock in order to find shelter from a storm. The experience was said to have inspired the writing of Toplady’s hymn Rock of Ages.
Lines from the hymn emphasise Toplady’s belief that humans could do nothing to achieve their own salvation, that forgiveness depended entirely on grace.
All for sin could not atone
Thou must save and thou alone.
The journey toward Fishguard gave time to reflect upon Toplady’s theme. Atonement, how does one try to make up for the things that one has done wrong? Are there things for which one can never atone?
Searching for forgiveness for personal wrongdoing, Toplady’s words find resonance. There is nothing that can be done to alter facts, that which is done cannot be undone, those words that have been said cannot be unsaid.
In the years of parochial ministry there was never a sense that the Church of Ireland had any firm belief in atonement coming through grace alone. Salvation was to be achieved through being good, or having some esoteric religious experience, the notion that one could do nothing more than throw oneself upon God’s mercy was not frequently encountered.
It was perhaps ten years ago that I read Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock. A reviewer once commented that such works of Greene could not be understood apart from Greene’s Catholic faith.
Pinkie, the principal character is a violent murderous sociopath, but after it all, the priest suggests that there is still hope of redemption. Rose, the woman who had loved Pinkie and who had remained faithful to him until the end, goes to confession, and the priest says to her,
‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.’
Graham Greene’s words are filled with hope for those of us who stand outside the church, those of us who encounter neither forgiveness nor grace in the church.
If God’s mercy is appallingly strange, then where now may it be found?