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Going deeper into ministry

03 February 2017

Christopher Irvine on past wisdom and the future of priesthood

The Pattern of our Calling: Ministry yesterday, today and tomorrow
David Hoyle
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


IN RECENT years, there has been a plethora of new books on ministry. David Hoyle has evidently read most of the publications on the subject. In this hugely stimulating book, he rightly places vocation in the context of our baptism, but the focus is on ordained ministry.

There is much in the ten chapters of this book to be gleaned by readers reflecting on vocation, as well as those who are responsible for the selection and training of candidates, and others who need their sense of vocation to be reinvigorated. Hoyle writes about ministry with honesty and conviction.

As a historian, he is able to drill down to some key Christian thinkers and writers on the subject. An array of figures are marshalled to add their voice; some of these, such as Sts Ignatius, Irenaeus, Cyprian, and John Chrysostom, are from the distant Christian past, and others, such as H. P. Liddon and Charles Gore, from the more recent past. Michael Ramsey’s classic text The Christian Priest Today is freshly presented. Chapter 6 sets out as good and balanced an introduction to the priest-poet George Herbert as you will find anywhere. It is excellent.

Most books on ministry survey the terrain, but Hoyle invites us to look deeper and find our bearings as we look ahead to that coming Kingdom for which the Church prays and which she seeks to make visible in her social engagement and pastoral care. He sensitively discusses some of the stresses and strains of ministry, and critically reviews how theological education is continuously (and exhaustingly) reviewed by the Church of England as it faces greater financial constraint and numerical decline, and finds itself caught in the increasing tension between the local and the catholic.

In his appraisal of all this, Hoyle is realistic, and he constantly draws the reader to see the necessity of solid theological foundations and a horizon of hope. But can the centre really hold? In an increasingly uncertain world where people are displaced and communities divided, the need to recover a sense of the corporate becomes more urgent, and what is required is a more radical witness to the Christian gospel.

Hoyle’s penultimate Chapter invokes St Gregory the Great. Gregory certainly wrote what became one of the most influential books for the clergy, but he also commended the life and legacy of St Benedict and his Holy Rule. At a time of social upheaval and disintegration, Gregory saw that the shaping and sustaining of communities centred on God was absolutely paramount.

In modern times, on the eve of the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer modelled the life of his Seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde on what he had experienced in England at the monastic colleges at Kelham and Mirfield. More recently, our local regional training course has set up its centre alongside the Benedictine community at West Malling Abbey. So perhaps we should also look back to the future, and recognise that “real community” is the best context for us to do theology.


The Revd Christopher Irvine is the Canon Librarian and Director of Education at Canterbury Cathedral.

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