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Grasping the Heel of Heaven, edited by Aidan Platten

13 July 2018

Michael Sadgrove reads essays in memory of Bishop Michael Perham

MICHAEL PERHAM was admired, respected, and loved as a man, priest, and bishop. He is much missed. This book is an affectionate tribute in memoriam from friends and colleagues. Too slim to be called a Festschrift, it contains essays on topics that were close to Michael’s heart throughout his ministry: church governance, liturgy, women in the ordained ministry, and Christian unity.

The volume is bookended by personal reminiscence. The editor, Aidan Platten, introduces it with a personal reflection on his years as Michael’s chaplain when he was Bishop of Gloucester. Rachel Treweek, the current Bishop of Gloucester, offers an afterword with her own memories of her predecessor. Other contributions include cameos of Michael’s involvement in their particular areas of concern. There is a reproduction of a winsome portrait commissioned by the diocese of Gloucester. It’s a pity that it lacks a biographical chapter that could have traced Michael’s spiritual and theological development and listed his chief publications.

To cut to the chase: William Fittall takes a historical look at the Church of England’s governance structures, after which Mark Chapman criticises the complex relationships between bishops, laity, and synods. Paul Bradshaw asks whether modern Anglican worship is based on an historicising tendency among liturgists.

There are essays by two former chairmen of the Liturgical Commission. Stephen Platten writes about the process of liturgical change in the Church of England, while David Stancliffe reflects on the underlying theologies that helped to shape Common Worship. In an essay on liturgical practice, Tom Clammer explores how liturgy acts on human beings by “transporting” and “transforming” the worshipper.

Turning to ecclesiology, Charlotte Methuen dispels the notion that a disunited Church is anything new in Christian history. Paula Gooder focuses on how the Church of England made the journey towards the ordination of women as deacons, priests, and bishops, while Christina Rees charts Perham’s own contribution to this narrative of “intensity, complexity, and passion”. Finally, Nicholas Holtam sets out a vision of the Church in which diversity is held within inclusion, not least in relation to same-sex relationships.

These essays are accessible to any thoughtful reader, the kind of person whom Perham himself wrote for so successfully. Some of them cover well-trodden ground in a textbook kind of way, whereas others strike out in more original directions. Clammer, for example, draws engagingly on his personal experience as a Christian and a priest to shine a light on what liturgy can do with and for us. Bradshaw sees off the commonly held belief that contemporary liturgy is enslaved to precedents from the first four centuries of the Church’s worship. On the contrary, he argues, liturgical texts have always been abundantly inventive, and contemporary Anglican liturgy is no exception.

The essays by Gooder and Rees offer refreshing insights from people who were closely involved in the debates and campaigns surrounding women in the ordained ministry. Their respective “takes” on the 1993 Act of Synod and the Five Guiding Principles make for thought-provoking reading about how dissent is handled in a divided Church.

I particularly liked Chapman’s piece with its no-nonsense challenge to the bishops to rethink their relationship with the General Synod and the national Church. “They have to learn the art of trust and the politics of compromise, and also . . . the art of public disagreement rather than an imposed collegiality that few . . . believe to be more than an effort to avoid conflict at any cost.”

In Rees’s essay, Perham himself is quoted as saying to his own diocesan synod: “episcopal collegiality and confidentiality prevents me from sharing with you what my advice to the House [of Bishops] was on this matter.” I wonder what he would have made of this intriguing essay.

The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove is a former Dean of Durham.

Grasping the Heel of Heaven: Liturgy, leadership and ministry in today’s Church
Aidan Platten, editor
Canterbury Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

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