SCM Press £19.99 (0-334-02960-0)
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Putting people's faith in context: Martyn Percy admires the fruits of
STUDYING congregations can appear to be a pointless task. Is it not obvious
how they are constituted, and what they believe?
On the one hand, some sort of adherence to creeds and religious articles can
be taken for granted. But then again, many people will relate to these without
necessarily fully understanding them or even being in agreement with them.
Because theological doctrines are always filtered through people's social
and cultural experiences, what often emerges locally is a kind of "operant
religion", differing considerably from the "formal religion" of the historic
creeds. Clearly, greater attention to the former is essential, if we are to
understand how belief systems function in people's daily lives.
The study of congregations is (at last) beginning to gain something of a
foothold within academic practical theology. Though a number of practical
theologians within universities are turning away from the "clerical paradigm",
the appearance of congregational studies on the landscape is a welcome
development; for it is here, in studying the ground reality of ecclesial
praxis, that scholars are able to make more sense of how churches are shaped as
discrete cultures within their local contexts.
It is a moot point whether congregational studies is a new kid on the block
or rather, enjoying a renaissance. David Clark's exemplary
Between Pulpit and Pew (1982) offered a fine study of religion in a
North Yorkshire fishing village, based on fieldwork and a deep reading of
spirituality in local life. Robert Towler (1974), Edward Bailey (1976), and Ted
Wickham (1957) have also made important contributions to establishing basic
foundations for congregational studies.
More recently, the Kendal Project based at the University of Lancaster has
demonstrated just how valuable such studies can be for churches and academics.
Many of its insights and analyses question some commonly held assumptions about
the place of religion and spirituality in contemporary culture.
In this important new book, the editors offer a rich and varied collection
of essays that guide the reader through various tools and methods, and the
analyses and research skills, that are needed for the study of local churches.
The book is an ideal primer for those about to undertake some fieldwork, or who
are preparing to compose a Master's-level thesis.
As a handbook, it introduces the reader to four principal analytical modes
of enquiry: sociological, anthropological, theological, and organisational.
Chapters cover a range of issues, including power in the local church, worship,
and ministerial training. In other words, it is a tool-kit of a text, with
applied examples that flesh out the insights provided by the methodologies
applied. It provides a welcome range of stimulating, and occasionally
provocative, illustrations of what interdisciplinary study can achieve when
applied to the complexity and diversity of the local congregation.
Although less penetrating and perceptive than the recently published
Congregational Studies in the UK (2004, edited by Matthew Guest, Karin
Tusting, and Linda Woodhead), it makes the perfect aperitif before embarking on
a fieldwork-based study of one's own.
Canon Professor Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College,
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