Studying Local Churches: A handbook

by
02 November 2006

SCM Press £19.99 (0-334-02960-0)
Church Times Bookshop £18

Putting people's faith in context: Martyn Percy admires the fruits of congregational studies

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.

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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, Cuddesdon.

To place an order for this book, contact CT Bookshop


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