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THE PARISH: People, place and ministry, a theological and practical exploration

02 November 2006


Canterbury Press £14.99 (1-85311-586-X) Church Times Bookshop £13.50

I REMEMBER taking part in one of those exercises in which people position themselves around the room according to how they relate to one another. It was a diocesan group, and the bishops placed themselves at the centre. The Parish is a book for people who want to turn that model inside out, so that the diocese becomes the umbrella for the parish, rather than the parish’s being a local branch of the diocese.

The book consists of essays by 15 members of the Woolwich Area Theology Group in the diocese of Southwark. Each chapter is written by a different individual, but shaped by discussion with the group. It recalls Giles Ecclestone’s influential collection, The Parish Church? (1988), but has a crucial difference: Ecclestone’s group were distinguished theorists, while The Parish is written by
local practitioners, most of them incumbents.

It’s a tribute to the Church of England that one area of one diocese can bring together from among its clergy such a lively range of thinking about parish life: about liturgy, pastoral care, buildings, race, ecumenism, daily work, art, mission, youth, evangelism. Each chapter is a vote of confidence in parish ministry, and (in words of the essay on mission) “more about remembering than inventing”. Almost every essay is personal, local, anecdotal and theological, helping the book fulfil its hope of having a coherence that is more than the sum of its parts.

The book has its feet firmly on the parochial ground, but the feet are clerical feet. The nature of the Theology Group as a clergy forum (together with the absence of NSMs and assistant curates from the contributors) means that the parish is inevitably viewed from the perspective of those in charge, those with the strongest investment in the worthwhileness of the parish system. And although the book is consistently theological, there is little on what it means to do theology with the parish rather than about the parish. 

A book like this should be enjoyed for what it includes rather than for what it leaves out; but one omis *sion I regretted was any real mention of schools, particularly church schools, as a crucially important dimension of parish ministry. That said, The Parish is a timely, stimulating and, above all, encouraging account of urban parish ministry by practitioners who clearly believe in it, enjoy it, and are good at it. It’s warmly recommended, despite the stiffish price.

The Revd Philip Welsh is Vicar of St Stephen with St John, Westminster.

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