For God’s Sake: Re-imagining priesthood and prayer in a changing Church
Jessica Martin and Sarah Coakley, editors
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
FOR GOD’S SAKE is another excellent production by the so-called Littlemore Group, clergy committed to holding together “the lived experience of ministry with the rich and fruitful tradition of Anglican theology”. They value the parish system, set prayer at the heart of ministry, and are sceptical about church-growth orthodoxies.
Nine years ago, this was the group that generated another encouraging assessment of priesthood, Praying for England. Several contributors are common to both books, but have moved on to new posts, and moved on in their thinking. The co-editor, Jessica Martin, was an English don, and now is a country priest. She had written a very personal chapter in the earlier volume about the spirituality of just coping. Now she persuasively reminds us of the neglected duty of saying the daily office publicly.
She remains convinced that the rationale for the parish system is true, but, after six years in her multi-parish benefice, has come to feel “it’s not true enough.” A tipping-point has been reached; so “this is a transitional book”. Her chapter on funerals and memory may reflect a stable rural community, but is of general application, not only in her sharp critique of the Common Worship funeral service, but in her evaluation of the now customary eulogy (her academic speciality had been the narration of life stories).
Edmund Newey has also moved on, from the gritty Handsworth parish that he previously described to not-so-gritty Christ Church, Oxford. He compares the experience of the eucharist in these two communities, and concludes that the real contrast is not “between Christ Church and Handsworth, but between the world seen eucharistically and the world seen flat”.
Also in a new post is Rowan Williams, supplier of Afterwords, who helpfully informs the clergy that “God is indeed God, and that therefore they don’t have to be God.”
Cheryl Collins also writes from a rural benefice, but her challenge to parochial possessiveness deserves wide attention: that the ministry of lay people should not prioritise “preparing them for roles in leading in church worship rather than worshipping in the rest of their lives.”
Richard Sudworth is an urban Evangelical. He longs for conversions and church growth, but refuses the anxiety-driven utilitarianism that tends to go with this, and seeks to be anchored more contemplatively within what he aptly calls “this new vista of fragile establishment”.
Matthew Bullimore provides a thoroughly biblical basis for an open baptism policy, and Catriona Laing offers sound reasons to “ease my theological conscience” about the pastoral compromises of church marriages. Rachel Mann opens up an engaging discussion of what she, as a poet herself, calls “parish poetics”, the “patient work of being attentive to the rhythms and patterns of lives and relationships, and the form our common life takes”.
All church-school governors should read Frances Ward’s compelling case for replacing the usual waffle about Christian values with a distinctive pedagogy, rooted in a Christian understanding of human flourishing, that challenges prevailing social values that are “individualistic, tribal and instrumental”.
Victoria Johnson writes inspiringly and realistically of the parish church as the place for doing theology, in what she calls “a democratisation of theological learning”: “There is no more extraordinary educational context than a parish church. There is no place where such a diversity of people gather week by week to learn of God and learn from one another.”
Alex Hughes, meanwhile, is determined not to become a parish manager. He resurrects Monica Furlong’s wonderful 1966 essay (I can still remember sentences from the copy my DDO gave me), in which she says of clergy: “I want them to be people who are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think.”
Furlong wrote, of course, as a lay woman, and a book like this about priesthood needs to take care not to talk too much about clergy in themselves, if priesthood is to be understood as a relationship within a cure of souls. Sarah Coakley picks this up when she says that “parish priests just as much need the laity to encourage and goad them in the disciplines of prayer as vice versa.”
I couldn’t work out, though, just what she meant by “that sustaining incubus of prayer”; my dictionary defines an incubus as a “demon, supposed to descend upon persons in their sleep, and especially to seek carnal intercourse with women”.
For God’s Sake is a confident, grounded, lively, and timely book. Like the poem it includes by (mis-hyphenated) Michael Symmons Roberts, it celebrates the local as the place of the eternal.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the London diocese.