Protect us from all anxiety: a book review

For God’s sake: Re-Imagining Priesthood and Prayer In A Changing Church

Jessica Martin and Sarah Coakley

Canterbury Press, 2016

The Church of England is a coalition of different worlds. Sometimes, as in recent weeks, those worlds collide and the conflict is as violent and destructive as any science fiction battle created by H.G. Wells. Like The War of the Worlds the occupants of our worlds can seem as alien to one another as inhabitants of different planets.

I am not sure how to describe the contributors to this book on priesthood, or how they would define themselves. The book is the fruit of a collaboration known as The Littlemore Group. Yet that claim to the inheritance of Newman doesn’t sit well with the character of the members and their writings.

Perhaps the best description would be ‘anxious middle’? It might even be, a phrase I have used elsewhere, ‘Dearmer Catholics’, what would once have been ‘Prayer Book Catholics’, now ‘Common Worship Catholics’?

The point is probably laboured already but is important in locating myself separately to this group and therefore listening in from the outside.

The book is steeped in anxiety, as Jessica Martin in the introduction and Rowan Williams in his afterword acknowledge.

Jessica Martin’s opening chapter is on the place of the daily Office in a parish of multiple parishes and settlements. It is a powerful essay which correctly stresses the necessity of daily public prayer for the priest and for the community the priest serves. The final passage of this chapter is a recognition of the place of liturgical prayer in creating the connections that make us realise we are not alone. The whole chapter is a fine account of the difficulties of this type of ministry and the different connections it creates with buildings and communities. The anxiety of this is almost palpable, the sense of being overworked, stretched too thinly.

Catholic principles come to the fore again in the chapter on the Eucharist by Edmund Newey, the ‘quiet daily celebration of the Eucharist’. Newey’s chapter is one of the most powerful in the book, he captures the spiritual atmosphere of celebrating in the inner city, in the cathedral at Oxford and welcoming into that cathedral not only the daily stream of visitors but also the homeless. But even here the anxiety seeps in. Newey has seen that old favourite of Anglo-Catholics: “celebrate this mass as if it were your first mass, your last mass and your only mass.”. “For me,” he writes, “this was and is too much.” Yet he goes on to identify the ‘attention’ that this saying calls for and wonderfully connects this with the writings of Simone Weil “every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.”

My favourite chapter in the book, rising far above anxiety, is on Parish Poetics, by Rachel Mann. Mann captures a wonderful lyric quality in priestly ministry. She  identifies the importance of the parish as being the simple fact that “To be human is to be located”, and even to be dislocated. It is poetry and its pointlessness that lies at the heart of her theology of priesthood. A rich vein which she describes passionately and poetically.

Also good is Catriona Laing’s chapter on marriage (I know Catriona a little from my days in the diocese of Southwark). She  identifies the ambiguity of ministry around weddings, those who cannot or can be married and what those asking for weddings think they are asking for. Her exposition (a good word for this) exposing the church’s difficulty over same-sex relationships is especially pointed and rare in its honesty, despite saying what many think.

Francis Ward’s chapter on church schools brings the book closest to my own area of expertise (such as it is). A helpful summary of the history of the church’s role in education sets the context and Ward is clear that church schools are not faith schools. I was thrilled to discover in this chapter an essay I have not read by Dorothy L. Sayers on education. The current debate in education that is seeing the return of a knowledge based, traditional curriculum rarely makes its way into discussion of education in church circles, which so often seem stuck in the 1970s; so it is good to see this call for knowledge as the basis of a true education:

“Sayers would say that when children have a good knowledge base, their questions in this dialectic stage are absorbed and absorbing, as they grow to have a moral framework.”

Amen to that.

Victoria Johnson’s essay on theology in the parish makes a good call for ‘seriousness’ and like others in the books summons the memory of W.H. Vanstone.

The final two chapters, by Alex Hughes and Sarah Coakley reveal the book’s hidden or subconscious agenda with  open criticism of ‘management systems’ and ‘business models’.

“We have gently pushed back against the fashionable presumption that only business models can fix such a malaise.” But this is a false claim: nowhere in the church does anyone claim that business models alone can save us.

Coakley goes on to talk of “sheer despair and exhaustion, of strength being stretched beyond reasonable limits, undermining health and hope.” Strong words indeed.

The ghost of George Herbert gently haunts the whole book with its too perfect image of pastoral ministry. But the real overarching presence is that of Rowan Williams. Although it is practically heresy to criticise Williams it is his anxious, pained presence that is reflected in so many pages of the book. It is his interpretation of R.S. Thomas (though never mentioned) and the sense of priesthood as about something oblique, a ‘presence that has left the room’, that is so powerfully woven into the fabric of the ministries described.
“What are we here for?” Asks Williams.

To make Jesus known? To bring souls to faith? To proclaim the good news?

No, for Williams, it is “To guarantee that there is  room for something not very fully or articulately understood”, classic Williams.

* There is much that is interesting in this book and it portrays a significant strand in our Anglican tradition, it is a good read. I am frequently asked to recommend reading to ordinands or priests. I’m afraid this is not a book that will make that list, it is a book that describes but does not inspire or renew. The world this book inhabits is the anxious, pained world of Adam Smallbone in ‘Rev’. I wonder when this strand of Anglicanism became so anxious? So apologetic?

In the recent general Synod debate on sexuality I found myself in the strange position of preferring the language, the vocabulary of the people that I disagreed most profoundly with. Those opposed to same-sex relationships spoke deeply and passionately of Jesus, of Scripture, of gospel living. Too much of the language among others was well meaning but embarrassed to say that equal marriage is a powerful working out of salvation history, rooted in the coming kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus.

The renewal of the church requires excellent management, which this book criticises. But most of all it needs prayer that bears fruit, that opens the hearts of priests to knowing Jesus and knowing him to love him so passionately that all around see in the priest a love, a relationship that they too want. This book lacks joy; joy in the marvellous gift of faith; joy in the marvellous gift of priestly ministry. It lacks the sense that hard work and seriousness can be great fun and deeply fulfilling.

*Update, Sunday 12/3: I am grateful to Carys on Twitter as @yrieithydd for pointing out that the non-recommendation seemed to come as a surprise after positive comments, I have modified this paragraph somewhat to reflect a slightly more nuanced recommendation.

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