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Clergy, Culture and Ministry by Ian Tomlinson

06 July 2018

Graham James reads theological reflections from a parish priest

I NEVER met Ian Tomlinson, who died in 2016, but this book (his first, published posthumously) makes me wish I had done so. He served for 37 years as the incumbent of a multi-parish rural benefice. Tomlinson was a thoughtful and enquiring pastoral theologian, and he addresses a number of critical incidents in his ministerial life with the question “What is happening to me, and why?”

Much was once made of the necessity of “theological reflection” in ministerial training, though it sometimes felt a vague and ill-defined concept. Tomlinson shows how it may be done very effectively. Alongside his parochial duties, he was also the Director of Pastoral Care and Counselling for his diocese. Hence, the behavioural sciences inform his theology, as do the categories of thinking in the writings of Wesley Carr, sometime Dean of Westminster, who died last year.

Tomlinson quotes Carr so extensively that this book forms an excellent introduction to Carr’s theology. For this alone it is valuable, since the Church of England seems in danger of forgetting Wesley Carr too quickly. Martyn Percy has edited Tomlinson’s manuscript sensitively and included a moving address preached at his funeral. It’s a pity that the cover price means that few parochial clergy are likely to buy it.

Carr’s focus on the priestlike task and his ability to help clergy and lay people understand how dependence works in ministerial encounters are well illustrated by examples from Tomlinson’s ministry. Intriguingly he comments that the popular sitcom Rev. reflected accurately the issues about ministry which Carr examined. The Revd Adam Smallbone, the central character in that series, is faced by critical incidents in every episode. Both the humour and depth of the series are found in the way Smallbone ponders “What is happening to me, and why?” Rev. struck chords with many Church of England clergy. They recognised themselves.

If “What is happening to me, and why?” seems too self-absorbed a question, Tomlinson answers that it is not simply for the Church or the priest to determine the character and content of Christian ministry. It is a matter of negotiation. The Church of England does not control her own destiny, but is called to respond to the people she serves. What they ask of her may not always be what the clergy or the Church want to give. That’s why there are so many territorial disputes over baptisms, marriages, and funerals on the boundaries of church life (and why Carr wrote a book on the occasional offices, Brief Encounters).

This is an unfashionable book in the sense that it fits uncomfortably with Renewal and Reform, mission action plans, and much of the contemporary emphasis on leadership. The Church of England may well need to become more intentional, but also needs to understand how to listen and respond to the needs of the people she serves. There is much here (and in Carr’s writings more generally) to help us do so.

If we turn a deaf ear to priests such as Tomlinson, we will soon find ourselves ceasing to be the Church of England, and simply become a Church in England, no matter how vigorous and renewed.

The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.

Clergy, Culture and Ministry: The dynamics of roles and relations in Church and society
Ian Tomlinson
Martyn Percy, editor
SCM Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

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