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Untamed Gospel: Protests, poems and prose for the Christian year by Martyn Percy

01 December 2017

Christopher Irvine on a dean’s miscellany

THIS book is something of a miscellany, and consists of four parts, the last being a shorter selections of poems and prayers. The whole exercise is a gathering of fragments of writings, short pieces, sermons, and stories written by the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Martyn Percy and his distinguished professorial colleagues.

Some pieces here are republished. The first part of the collection consists of a series of short pieces, mainly on topical issues; the second part contains sermons and homilies for the Christian year; and the third, sermons for other occasions.

Sermons are generally written in a spoken language that addresses both the heart and the head of the listener. The memorable sermons are those that spin a compelling narrative and leave the listener with a striking image that somehow fuses the word of the biblical writer with the contemporary experience of the listener. Whether the sermon can function as a written rather than a spoken text is for the reader to decide.

There have certainly been hugely influential and helpful books of sermons: one may conjure, for example, the name of Austin Farrer. There are definitely some sermons printed in this collection which deserve a place on the shelf. Indeed, scattered here are gobbets of wisdom to which the preacher and the thoughtful Christian could return to stimulate their own thought and prayer.

Carol Harrison’s sermon for St Luke’s Day simply zings, and Nigel Biggar, as always, is deeply nuanced, and invites the reader to enter imaginatively into the experience of others. Percy, in a timely piece, rescues the theme of Christian martyrdom from the blasphemous parody of the fanatical suicide bomber, and Sarah Foot writes of mission in a way that gives it a substantial historical grounding.

There are some very occasional lapses. The Ascension is not technically a season of the Christian year, and the expression, from von Rad, I think, is the thin and not the thick sound of silence. But these are very minor quibbles.

This final section of the book includes a short paraphrased psalm and scripture reading for each day of the week, penned by Jim Cotter, who died in 2014. Cotter had a gentle, arresting style, and a sure poetic turn of phrase which makes even the most familiar scripture come alive in unexpected ways. In one sense, the whole collection here is a tribute to Cotter’s memory.

The poems by Sylvia Sands, in contrast, may strike the reader as being just a little too didactic and self-consciously relevant. But this of course, is a subjective judgement, and it does not seriously detract from this intelligent collection of Christian reflections.


The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst Green and Bodiam, and Teaching Fellow at St Augustine’s College of Theology.


Untamed Gospel: Protests, poems and prose for the Christian year
Martyn Percy
Canterbury Press £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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