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Book review: The Spirit of Witness: Liturgies, prayers, poems and reflections for dissenters, edited by Martyn Percy

by
07 July 2023

This book bears scars of an Establishment ruckus, Graham James finds

IN HIS introduction to this book, Martyn Percy (whose own pen provides roughly half its content) comments that “witnessing” has been “tamed, domesticated and emasculated” by some modern Christians, who regard it as something done to others to convert them to Christ.

He quotes Dorothy Day, who described being a witness as “living the mystery”. Following Christ involves living as he lived, and doing things that bring no obvious immediate missional results or rewards, e.g. caring for the poor and marginalised. It soon becomes clear why Percy dislikes the centrally driven mission strategies of the Church of England; for they seek an explicit reward through the numerical growth of the Church. Witnessing, by contrast, may lead to ostracism and exile; for Christians live “in a constant state of conviction and eviction”.

Any reader even modestly informed about the traumas at Christ Church, Oxford, during Percy’s tenure as Dean will not be surprised that this collection of addresses, poems, and liturgies is for “dissenters”. There is no explicit commentary on those events, however, beyond indirect references in the final sermon, a valedictory one, for St Matthias. And yet much of this volume seems to have been wrought out of that experience.

This is particularly so in the poems of Emma Percy, which add greatly to the value of the book. “Suspension” and “When You are Ground Down” are two good examples. There is a considerable amount of self-disclosure from both the Percys. We learn that Martyn was born “unplanned and unwanted” to a single mother who had four children by different men. Emma’s parents divorced when she was eight. And, during their time at Christ Church, Emma’s brother Chaz lived with them when he was dying of cancer in his late forties. A poem by Emma and a Christmas homily by Martyn both “witness” to what was discovered through that tragedy.

The liturgical resources (which include some from the late Jim Cotter) seek to complement the rest of the material. It would be a pity, however, if the inclusion of liturgies for same-sex unions or prayers for Pride Week limited this book’s appeal; for what is so striking is the creative theological orthodoxy to be found in the reflections and homilies. Martyn Percy’s defence of the bodily character of the ascension of Jesus may surprise some readers, but it is driven by his belief in the bodily incarnation of Jesus and his “return to heaven with our humanity and his”.

Close and revealing attention to the text of scripture is evident in several reflections, notably on “leaven” (which shows a great familiarity with the process of bread-making, too), and in another on “the nature and nurture of Jesus”. Emma’s reflection on Acts 8 — “Can a eunuch be baptized?” — is worth the cover price alone.

The spirit of witness in this collection is very Anglican, which is perhaps why this son of a Congregational manse wasn’t really persuaded that it was for “dissenters”. “Outsiders” may be the better category, regrettably, but this is also a book that has plenty to offer to those of us still within the Church of England’s tent.

 

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.

 

The Spirit of Witness: Liturgies, prayers, poems and reflections for dissenters
Martyn Percy, editor
Canterbury Press £18.99
(978-1-78622-445-3)
Church Times Bookshop £15.19

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