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Everyone doing episcope

28 July 2009

Mike Starkey considers a model for parish life

Parish Priests: For the sake of the Kingdom
Robin Greenwood

SPCK £14.99 (978-0-281-05538-8)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

THE Church needs to rethink its un­derstanding of parish priests. We must move away from the tradi­tional concept of priest as a lone service-provider and parishioners as passive recipients. The role of the clergy is, rather, to stimulate and sup­port the ministry of the whole Church.

So says Robin Greenwood, author of Transforming Priesthood and Practising Community; and this new book extends and reinforces the thesis of the earlier works. In dia­logue with John Zizioulas, Miroslav Volf, and a range of feminist and eco-theologians, Greenwood wants to redefine the essence of Church and priesthood along a relational, Trinitarian model.

Specifically, he explores the meta­phor of episcope, not as hier­archical oversight of one person over others, but as a calling of the whole Church. He also explores the image of priest as navigator, in conversa­tion with the post-modern mis­siolo­gist Leon­ard Sweet and recent management theorists.

Along the way, he has quotable quotes of his own that bear further pondering: tradition is the rediscov­ery of how to be church in ever new places; society needs a Church committed less to its own survival than being a navigator of hope.

So far, so good. Ultimately, though, this proves a rather unsatis­fying book. Greenwood doesn’t so much develop his metaphors as amble around them, admiring the same view repeatedly. Sometimes metaphor is piled upon metaphor, to the point where they all collapse under their own weight: “Refracting the irregular rhythms of the Trinity, a learning Church will have the humility to let go of all the struc­tures and behaviours that are too bulky to pass through the eye of a needle.”

Sometimes the metaphors are not only mixed but slightly bizarre: God is a “vibrating mystery”; leaders should stay “on the cusp where God the Father continually breathes out new and vibrating possibilities”.

Towards the end of the book, Greenwood promises concrete ex­amples of how his models of minis­try have played out in his own parish of Monkseaton. I could find only three: asking church members to stand around a nave altar to receive holy communion, setting up a “year of spiritual growth” group, and inviting people to use their talents in church. After all the theo­logy of relation, navigation, and vibration, I had expected something a little more radical.

The Revd Mike Starkey is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Twickenham.

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