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The Study of Ministry, edited by Martyn Percy, with Ian Markham, Emma Percy, and Francesca Po

10 May 2019

Christopher Irvine takes the measure of a big book about ministry

IF SOME books are bricks, this volume, with more than 700 pages, is a breeze block.

It claims to be a comprehensive survey of ministry, but there are lacunae. There are two chapters touching on health and healing, for instance, but educational chaplaincy is lacking. Gender is covered, but surprisingly little on sexuality and the person of the priest. The reader is treated to the different ways in which clergy are reflected in literature and film, but those looking for a theological exposition of ministerial priesthood as embedded in the Ordinal would be disappointed. So, given its size and broad range of interests, what kind of book is this?

Previous generations are credited with the “professionalisation” of the clergy, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the editors of this volume are seeking (and please forgive the ugly neologism) the “academisation” of the study of ministry; for, overall, what this volume presents tilts towards being a collection of essays on how to study ministry rather than a study of ministry itself.

There are 46 contributors. The book is divided into five distinct parts, and the first two parts focus on how we see and approach the study of ministry. Tellingly, the shortest part is “Ministry in Christian tradition”, and the longest is “Issues”. These divisions work fairly well, but a part dealing explicitly with the exercise of public ministry would have made this collection a more widely used reference book. As it is, here is a volume for the libraries of theological colleges (TEIs) and for the shelves of those who are responsible for the delivery of Phase Two (post-ordination) training and other ministerial schemes and programmes.

Although the book is weighted towards methodology and theory, there is some coverage of the practice of ministry in individual chapters. When it comes to practice, I am reminded of one of Anne Stevenson’s poems in which she says: “we need the minister to give us the words.” The challenge today is to find the language to speak convincingly of God, and for ministers, ordained and lay, to embody the Word in our corporate liturgical celebrations. This volume provides both an excellent account of the meaning of liturgy and a presentation on preaching as a liturgical act. But what is missing is the exploration of what it means for the minister to be a performer of the Word as one who both preaches and presides.

But there is much that is good here. Chapter 36 on safeguarding, the chapter on ministerial stresses and strains, and Norman Doe’s chapter on canon law in global Anglicanism are necessary reading. Some chapters, such as Fraser Watts on psychology of ministry (Chapter 6), are insightful, and the two essays by Stephen Pickard are especially thought-provoking. (Addressing a conference of newly ordained bishops from around the Anglican Communion, Pickard effectively deflated the rhetoric of leadership by saying that the Church was episcopally ordered and not led.)

Robin Greenwood adeptly maps out the ecumenical hinterland of ministry, but a more systematic treatment of the Orthodox writer John Zizioulas and the Roman Catholic Anthony Dulles would have given a greater ecclesiological depth to the discussion. A detailed analysis and appraisal of Fresh Expressions and other more recent initiatives for “growing and being church” is provided by Justin Lewis-Anthony in his aptly titled chapter, “Contested Church”.

Lewis-Anthony provides a comprehensive review of the literature, and his conclusions are sobering. He writes: “After 20, 30, 40 years of restructuring and reimagining the practical mission of the Church to participate in the missio dei, the question remains the same.”

What is required are not more initiatives from the “national Church” (whatever that may be), but a more searching analysis of the social and cultural factors that are inimical to living a full and faithful Christian life within the Church. To put the matter bluntly, what are we to make of “new monasticism” when men and women today find it nearly impossible to give their whole lives, and the whole of their life, to “seeking God” as monks and nuns? Whichever way we read the statistics and crunch the numbers, it seems that strategies in themselves are not enough to halt, let alone reverse, the decline in church membership.

Finally, and again this is an editorial matter, it may have been better for there to be a select bibliography at the end of each chapter rather than a cumbersome bibliography at the end of the book. The book could be a door stop, but, far from stopping discussion, this book should stimulate lively and informed discussions of ministry in the Church today.

The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst and Bodiam, Rural Dean of Rye, and a Teaching Fellow at St Augustine’s College of Theology, in Kent.

The Study of Ministry: A comprehensive survey of theory and best practice
Martyn Percy, editor, with Ian Markham, Emma Percy, and Francesca Po
SPCK £60
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