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Every Sunday Mothering Sunday

11 July 2014

Philip Welsh looks at a view of priesthood

What Clergy Do: Especially when it looks like nothing
Emma Percy
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"PARISH ministry, like mothering, is a way of life. Its rhythms do not conform to traditional boundaries between work and home, on and off duty, public and private space. . . Those who move in these practices learn to move to a different beat."

What Clergy Do uses the author's experience of motherhood as a lens through which all of us can take a fresh look at ministry, though aware of the danger of overloading the analogy: "Parish ministry is not the same as mothering. . . Yet the likenesses can provide insights into what it feels like to be doing parish ministry."

Accordingly, Percy attends not so much to the tasks of ministry as to its character. She is clear that being a priest is a relationship, not a status: "a priest is only a priest for people." She affirms "the ordinary day-to-day stuff of parish ministry", using the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott's slogan about the "good enough mother" (though not, unsurprisingly, his contention that "The mother hates her infant from the word go"), and she takes comfort from Aristotle's understanding of virtue as a balance to strike rather than an ideal to strive for.

She reclaims the image of the church as family, a challenge to get on with the people you have been given. She points out that "servant leadership" can disguise a reluctance to take proper authority, and uses it to advocate "setting [the congregation] free to focus on their primary task of living out their Christian discipleship in the world". She knows the pastoral value of chatting, and of going about the parish on foot.

She builds on Iris Murdoch's assertion that the discipline of attention is part of the structure of loving (though Murdoch is herself building on Simone Weil). She knows that you can't disparage meetings if you are serious about collaboration, and links the valuing of housework to keeping church buildings in good order (because they are about God) and to good administration (because it is about people).

She recognises that in ministry, as in motherhood, "the interruptions are as central to the meaning as the organised and planned elements" (as I read that chapter, the cat threw up on the carpet - QED). Alongside the call to comfort others, she knows the importance of delighting in their joys and achievements, and shrewdly notes that this is more likely to happen where the clergy themselves feel affirmed.

Percy's reflections are full of pastoral wisdom and affirmation. They describe good practice rather than break new ground, and with a clear grasp of parochial reality. They raised two questions for me. Is mothering as a metaphor for ministry (the title of Percy's Ph.D. thesis) in danger of being the new paternalism? The author certainly recognises that it might "imply a desire to infantilise the laity", and wants us to look again at our attitudes to dependency and to autonomy. It would be interesting to pursue her basic analogy beyond the age of her young adult sons into later life.

My other observation is about fathers. Percy mentions briefly but with feeling her problematic relationship with her own mother and stepfather, and fathers receive little mention in the book. Of course, the author is writing about mothering; but is the father's relationship with mother and child not part of that experience (even in those situations where it consists of a "real absence")? I was reminded of Richard of St Victor on the Trinity: "Shared love is properly said to exist where a third person is loved by the two persons harmoniously and in community."

That said, Percy uses her experience as mother and as priest to good effect in this refreshing and encouraging evaluation of "good, honest, parish ministry" - especially when it looks like nothing.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

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