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Pegs for holy holes

26 September 2014

Kevin Scully considers the priestly vocation

Being a Curate: Stories of what it's really like
Jonathon Ross-McNairn and Sonia Barron, editors
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT529 )

Steel Angels: The personal qualities of a priest
Magdalen Smith
SPCK £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code CT529 )

THERE is a joke in our house: What do Anglicans do when someone asks them a question? Give that person a book. Certainly that was close to the truth when I served as a director of ordinands. More often than not, literature would be dispensed or recommended to get candidates to think more deeply about some aspect of themselves or church life.

Those seeking to discern a vocation to the sacred ministry have a wide range to draw on. Some books stand out from the pack: Michael Ramsey's The Christian Priest Today has never lost its classic status; more recently, The Life and Work of a Priest by John Pritchard has joined it. Others strive to reach the gold standard.

Being a Curate and Steel Angels are two of the latest releases from SPCK aimed at the vocations market, and each has elements to recommend it.

Being a Curate is a collection of short essays in which individuals reflect on various aspects of their time in the run-up to, or in post after, ordination. One contributor looks back on training; a former principal looks down the other end of the telescope; a bishop writes of the week that ends in the laying on of hands; and a college tutor writes about when curacies go wrong.

But it is, for the most part, the personal recounting of stories, from the mundane to the extreme - Bruce Goodwin recalls the murder of his training incumbent - of first steps in public ministry. There is inevitably a lot of "I" in these accounts, and the quality of reflection, from the banal to the pompous, and much in between, may be a result of that.

One peculiarity is the nature of the closing contributions from the editors: Jonathan Ross-McNairn, who has penned a rationale of what has gone before, which might have been more appropriately placed as an introduction; and Sonia Barron, whose canvassing of practical issues draws on preceding parts of the book.

Its diversity - though there is something of a preponderance of contributors from the Gloucester diocese - commends the book. No one angle dominates. Readers do get an idea, as the subtitle suggests, of "what it's really like".

Steel Angels by Magdalen Smith is an excellent contribution to the discernment canon. Drawing on the nine criteria for selection for ministry in the Church of England, Smith, a director of ordinands in the Chester diocese, takes the reader on an entertaining journey that combines the practical with the theological, anecdotal, and startling.

The title evokes Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North, and it is an apt metaphor for clerical life. The clergy are called to be deeply grounded, have a wide span of insight and experience, and be someone worthy of looking up to, but be able to remain firmly in place, whatever the conditions.

Smith uses a range of techniques to look at the spiritual, emotional, pastoral, and administrative aspects of the life and work of a priest. Drawing on appropriate personal experience, church politics, art, and the Bible, her beautifully written book offers many delights. Her capacity for taking the mundane and finding an illuminating illustration from scripture, literature, the visual arts, or popular culture ensures that there is no dryness of approach.

I have two quibbles: while the subtitle of the book is The personal qualities of a priest, more often the text speaks of "leaders", reflecting the changing managerial and Evangelical view of the clergy; and some passages are heavily peppered with the word "folk", arguably another tribal usage.

Notwithstanding those reservations - and they are tiny - those setting out on the discernment journey, and many who have been serving as priests for short or long periods, will find Steel Angels an engaging and stimulating read.

The Revd Kevin Scully is the Rector of St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, in east London.


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