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A metaphor goes its rounds

26 September 2014

Christine Worsley on an argument set in a parochial context

Mothering as a Metaphor for Ministry
Emma Percy
Ashgate Publishing £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50 (Use code CT529 )

IN THIS engaging and thought-provoking work, Emma Percy provides a scholarly reflection on the significance of the metaphor of motherhood for the practice of priestly ministry within a parish context. The metaphor is explored in dialogue with the biblical and theological tradition of priesthood and the Church, with ethics, and with psychological and psycho-social theories on mothering, gender, and child development.

Divided into three sections (Part I, "Exploring Ministry"; Part II, "Mothering: Gender Theory and Practice"; and Part III, "Mothering as a Metaphor for Ministry"), the arguments unfold gradually throughout in a way that gives the reader space to reflect and make connections with personal experiences of ministry, of mothering, and of being mothered. In Part II, Percy outlines convincing arguments for the inclusivity of mothering as an aspect of the experience of women and men - thus enabling her to use the metaphor to explore the part played by all parish priests in nurturing relationships that enable flourishing and growth in individuals, congregations, and wider communities.

The book is potentially a rich resource, primarily intended for the parish clergy, but also helpful for those in training for ordained ministry. As a whole, the book opens up the possibility of creative freedom in the practice of ministry, and gives permission to the clergy to relax through acceptance that they need not be perfect, only "good enough", to use Winnicott's much quoted words about the mother-child relationship. Parishes, like children, the author argues, are more resilient than our anxiety often allows: mistakes can be a source for reflection and the development of wisdom for both parties.

In spite of the book's primary focus on parish-priestly ministry, Percy brings a clear commitment to the importance of collaborative ministry. She illustrates this most notably through a powerful critique of ontological and functional theories of ordained ministry in Chapter 1, and through her emphasis on mothering as a shared activity. Nevertheless, there is a predominant focus on the laity in relationships of pastoral need.

A question to be asked of all metaphors is what and whom they exclude. In this case, it is to some extent the laity, specifically in relation to their calling, with the ordained, to care for each other, to bear one another's burdens, and to respond together to the presence of God's Kingdom in the world. The book also left me with questions about the nuances of the relationship between mothers and adult children and between those who have mothered and find themselves dependent through ageing or illness, when the asymmetric intersubjective relationship of mother and child is reversed.

But these questions are areas for further exploration. This book is an invitation to play with ideas and questions, and to take the rich metaphor of mothering and use it further to understand our calling as God's people in the particular places and times in which God calls us to serve and to grow to maturity - "to the measure of the full stature of Christ".

Canon Christine Worsley is the Kingdom People Development Officer in the diocese of Worcester.

See also "Every Sunday Mothering Sunday" (Books, 11 July).

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