MARTYN PERCY is an exceptionally gifted priest. He is best known in this country as, until quite recently, the highly effective Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, which he transformed for the better — he is one of the church’s great entrepreneurs.
Latterly, he has become famous as the scourge-in-chief of the leadership of the Church of England. I am one of the present bench of bishops whose “weakening of theological acuity” he bemoans. He tells us that it has made the Church “over-managed and theologically under-led”.
Fortunately, if you count deans as part of that leadership, theological acuity is alive and well in its midst, in the Dean of Christchurch himself. This book amply demonstrates that fact. Percy has published prodigiously over the years, and the breadth of his writings is truly impressive, as is the thorough manner in which he engages with other disciplines. The span of his scholarship and its depth are, perhaps, not properly recognised.
This is an unusual book. It is not a festschrift, although it contains an interesting selection of Percy’s writings. Because of the inclusion of the latter, it is not just a collection of essays about his work, although those that it includes are fascinating and discerning. They originated as papers given at a conference on his work organised by the editors, Ian Markham and Joshua Daniel, in September 2016, at Virginia Theological Seminary, where Markham is the President and Dean.
The essays are mostly laudatory in style, though they make perceptive observations and push forward Percy’s project in various constructive ways. Percy has been given the right to reply, which he does with characteristic grace. The almost entirely positive tone of the essays is perhaps not unconnected to the fact that they are all, with a couple of exceptions, written by North Americans; Percy’s work is perhaps both better-known and appreciated there.
Kate Blanchard adopts a more challenging tone than anyone else, wondering “whether an Anglican dean can be radically Christian”, and observing that she “can’t help finding a bit of an irony in his musings, coming as they do from someone who has doubtless jumped through multiple hoops to achieve a prominent position of authority in the Church”. She suggests that, “despite his personal profession of tolerance, it is difficult to discern whether Percy cares as dogmatically about sexual justice as he does about keeping the Church together”.
Percy again graciously accepts that this tension, and variations on it — one very familiar to bishops — is found in many of his writings. He points us helpfully to its partial resolution in his use of the motif of jazz.
All of us are improvising in one way or another, badly or well. Percy does so supremely well, making use of a first-rate mind, engaging imaginatively with the Church “as it is”, as well as other disciplines. I believe that his writings will, in due course, be seen to be of lasting significance. Although this long and dense book is not for the faint-hearted, it is a good introduction to them and to him.
I first met Martyn Percy shortly after reading James Hopewell’s seminal Congregation, which had a profound impact on Percy, as it did on me. Hopewell asks us to look behind every theological and ecclesiological argument to discern what is really at issue in church life. We would do well to do the same for the lives of individuals, and, as well as more engagement with the content of his writings, there is room for a book which does just that for Percy. I might attempt to write it myself, were I not so busy over-managing the church.
For the moment, I rejoice in the witness and ministry of Percy, great gift that he is to the Church — even if a rather uncomfortable one at times, particularly for us bishops. Keep on being a thorn in the side, Martyn!
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.
Reading the writings of Martyn Percy
Ian S. Markham and Joshua Daniel, editors
Pickwick Publications £31
Church Times Bookshop £27.90