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Be still and know

04 November 2016

David Wilbourne on a challenge to the busy


The Contemplative Minister: Learning to lead from the still centre

Ian Cowley

BRF £8.99


Church Times Bookshop £8.10


THOUGH saved by grace, we act as if we are saved by works, busily ministering in a hyperactive Church and hectic world. Ian Cowley’s counter-cultural book presents a heady foil to frenetic activity, questioning the need for it, seeing being contemplative as non-negotiable, even seeking it when busyness just cannot be avoided.

In his bracing foreword, Desmond Tutu urges us simply to accept that we are accepted. Quoting Evelyn Underhill, “Christ was trained in a carpenter’s shop, but we persist in preferring a confectioner’s shop,” Tutu fears that frantic activity is both a distraction and avoidance of faith’s core demands — whereas being assured of God’s love fires you to truckle to no man, and even face martyrdom.

Cowley presents an immensely readable tour de force through vocation; several methods of prayer; being rooted in Jesus; letting go to enable our ministry, living, and Church to be grounded in contem­plation. Priests are called both to be and to do, finding what is life-giving and doing it; but also, by their sheer holiness, drawing in others to do tasks they cannot or should not do.

With poignant examples from his ministry in South Africa, Sheffield, Cambridge, Peterborough, and Salisbury, Cowley is blisteringly honest about when ministry was sheer hard slog, when he projected a “false self” and failed to “let go and let God”. The varied strategies that he outlines to reconnect with contemplative ministry have a hard-won and grounded feel.

There is a galaxy of quotations. Billy Connolly sees vocation as akin to wandering through a city centre and noting which shop window you are drawn to. Eugene Peterson avoids burnout by diarising two-hour appointments with FD three times per week. FD stands for Fyodor Dostoevsky!

The best was from Henri Nouwen: “The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.” That rules Henri out of the Lambeth Talent Pool, then.


The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.

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