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Book review: The Precarious Church: Redeeming the body of Christ by Martyn Percy

23 June 2023

Martin Warner on the gauntlet thrown down to the ‘management’

MARTYN PERCY’s The Precarious Church is not for the faint-hearted. It is a hefty pebble cast into a pond, with the intention that it create ripples that will upset the status quo and bring about profound change.

The structure of the book reflects its origins in a series of blogs for Modern Church, an international organisation that promotes liberal Christian theology. The introduction by the Acting Archdeacon of Liverpool, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, understandably expresses a hope that the book will invite theological reflection more wide-ranging than the specific issues that prompted the original blogs.

Percy adopts a journalistic style that is condensed and hard-hitting. The 20 chapters are short, arranged into seven parts, each of which ends with guidance for discussion, though the text is generally strong enough to prompt its own questions, as does the book’s curious subtitle, Redeeming the body of Christ.

The titles for each part are enigmatic: “Leaps and Bounds”, “Nuts and Bolts”, “The See of Faith”, etc. The overall purpose is clear, however: it is a relentless critique of the contemporary Church of England.

The book takes issue with a formulaic approach to mission which is obsessed with numerical growth, thereby engendering a managerialism that pervades every aspect of the Church’s life. Percy defines the Church’s true vocation as being led by the Holy Spirit, the wind that blows where it wills. He sees the commodification of that calling in structures of governance and regulation which suffocate the life of the spirit.

Safeguarding and spending are areas that come under scrutiny, as is evidence of a fearful and self-serving exercise of episcopacy, symptomatic of an institution that is more concerned about self-preservation than the divine mission of salvation entrusted to it.

Lack of engagement with the culture and needs of contemporary society draws stinging comments from Percy. Whatever we might think about his style or the content of the book, we have to acknowledge that, as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, he was ministering where Generation Z is prominent and articulate. There is a self-consciously prophetic tone in his call to recognise how very different Gen Z is from the experience of many clergy and laity who have a voice in the Church of England’s structures.

Throughout the book, his sharpest observations focus on the bishops responsible for the way in which the household of faith lives its life. He is right to criticise, where failure is wanton and egregious. Though I share some of Percy’s misgivings about the Church of England right now, some of his critical observations encompass the writer of this review. I felt rightly judged by his demands that we be better pastors, teachers, and practitioners of Christian faith.

The book resonates with Percy’s anger and hurt at how he has been treated. This is sensitively and robustly addressed in a generous afterword from Bishop Peter Selby. As a background to the book, Selby states that the treatment of Percy calls for single-minded confrontation, courage, solidarity, justice, and repentance.

In response to the book’s foreground, that touches on the Church and the world, on holiness and salvation, Selby invites “reflection and debate, the virtues of wisdom and careful analysis”. Therein lies hope for us all.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.


The Precarious Church: Redeeming the body of Christ
Martyn Percy
Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99

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