'I Must Go Down to the Sea Again'

by Barbara Ridpath

Posted: 24 Jun 2019

'I Must Go Down to the Sea Again'[1]

Book Review: The Sacramental Sea

A book conceived while the author was Canon Theologian of St Paul's Cathedral merits coverage and celebration by the Cathedral. It is no doubt apt, if not entirely objective, that it be both reviewed and praised by a former Director of St Paul's Institute insofar as the author, Revd Canon Edmund Newell, was the founding Director of the Institute. In addition, the book was developed and brought to fruition by preaching and writing that Ed did for the Institute's JustWater programme in 2016-17.[2] It is a delight to see this book, The Sacramental Sea, published as a further concrete outcome of that programme.

For those who perceive their proximity to God closest at the sea, this book is a must. For those drawn to the sea, but uncertain about the sea as a force for good or chaos in the Bible, and for all those concerned about how our stewardship of God's creation extends to the seas, this book is a welcome addition. The need to protect the sea, emblem of God's creative force, and metaphor for God himself, shines throughout the book. Best of all, it is readily accessible to the non-theologian, explaining clearly any relevant theological vocabulary.

Were the author not an ordained clergyman, I suspect this book might have been called The Spiritual Sea, for it surveys how the sea has touched humans through history, and how the metaphor of the sea is used in literature, art and poetry. There are three strains in the book: water in the Bible and religious practice, the relationship of humans with water, and the imagery of water.

It begins, as the reader might expect, with Genesis, and demonstrates how the use of the sea in the Bible changed through the Psalms and the New Testament as the world view of a desert people shifted and those engaged in spreading the 'good news' became more at ease on the sea and encountered those who were always at home there.The church fathers became comfortable with the Mediterranean Sea, but for centuries saw the open ocean of the Atlantic as the end of the known world, with chaos beyond. That is, until the age of exploration. While the sea was still often terrifying and always uncontrollable, increasingly not just explorers and colonists, but travellers came to better understand and use the oceans, if not tame them.

The necessity of potable water for life has always made water a central metaphor, and core to religious practices in many faiths. Later, the healing properties of mineral springs and salt water gave rise to the popularity of spa and beach resorts. The combination of the need for water and the infinity of the oceans became a source of inspiration to art, literature and music. This, together with how humankind's relation to water has evolved over history is the theme of much of the second half of the book.

Whether theological or spiritual, the book and its author try to explain why he, and others, are drawn to the sea. For those exposed to and touched by the sea or seafaring such as John Donne or Conrad, the image never leaves them and recurs throughout their work. The sea is as close as man can get to a sense of the infinite, which is why it serves as such an abundant metaphor. A Keats quote from the book:

'Oh Ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wildness of the Sea;'


has scientific truth in it that the poet perceived before it was proven. Scientifically it has been demonstrated that the muscles of the eyes are physiologically most relaxed when focusing upon the horizon. Whether for its infinite, mesmerizing or relaxing qualities, or just its beauty; whether it is to tame it or conquer it, it is clear that many of us feel drawn to it.

It takes the author until the conclusion of the book to explain clearly just how the dual nature of the sea, at once vital, pleasure giving, life enhancing but also capricious, dangerous and deadly, is so precisely relevant and powerful to Christianity. The sea exemplifies both the kataphanic or 'positive' tradition of Christianity that emphasises making the divine tangible, and the apophatic or unknowable idea of God. For the lay reader, understanding the dual nature of the sea makes these two religious approaches less contradictory.

For all those who can this summer, I encourage you to get a copy of this book and read it as you sit by the sea.

Ed Newell, The Sacramental Sea, 2019, Darton, Longman & Todd, £14.99

[1] From the John Masefield poem Sea Fever.

[2] The video of Canon Newell's sermon on his subject, preached at St Paul's evensong on 5th March 2017 can be seen here.

About this author

Barbara Ridpath is the former director of St Paul's Institute and a member of the Church of England's Ethical Investment Advisory Group.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.