Review: For God’s Sake: Re-imagining Priesthood and Prayer in a Changing World, ed. by Jessica Martin and Sarah Coakley (Canterbury Press, 2016. $27/£16.99)
Review by Samuel McNally-Cross
This book provides valuable insights into the life and work of a priest in our current social climate. I would quibble with the use of the word re-imagining in the subtitle because it feels misleading. What is presented here is, thankfully, not something reimagined, but a glorious and thoroughly old-fashioned approach to priesthood related to solid relationships, an embedding in community, and a devotion to prayer. Several authors, ably brought together by Jessica Martin and Sarah Coakley, extol the virtues of parish clergy and what they have to offer in this world.
Most readers may be familiar with the work of Sarah Coakley, an eminent Anglican theologian who was most recently Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. Although her hand is undoubtedly in the book, her writing is sadly limited to one chapter at the end, more of a summary of the text than engagement with the topic. It directly precedes a similar Afterword by Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Although any endorsement from Williams is a boon, Coakley would have been enough.
I had not encountered Jessica Martin before reading this text. As well as editing, she contributes various chapters, and hers are generally the stronger and most coherent. The book is split into three sections: “Place and Priesthood,” “Prayer and Study,” and “Faith, Hope and Love.”
Each section draws on the experiences of various priests at different stages of ministry, some serving in gritty, inner-city estates, others dealing with the demands of a multi-parish benefice in rural England, and still others offering insights from the cathedral cloister.
As with other edited books by more than one author, there is always the possibility of differences in style and voice being distracting. Martin and Coakley have managed to draw the strands together so that the book reads well and evenly. Martin’s contributions particularly help to maintain this.
Still, some chapters suffer a little. The inclusion of a seemingly random poem in the latter section of the book didn’t add anything, but neither did it distract from the text. An early chapter takes the form of a conversation, unlike the other chapters, and was weaker for it. as both a parish priest and someone who dabbles in writing poetry, I looked forward to the chapter “The Priest Attends to the Word: Parish Poetics.” I was disappointed. It came across more as a mental exercise of Rachel Mann asserting her theological credentials, rather than dealing with the subject at hand.
One of the cleverest aspects of the book is the way in which the occasional and daily offices are used as titles and a springboard for reflection, focusing on the day to day bread and butter of an incarnate priestly life. Martin begins with “Office: Daily Prayer,” the perfect opening. Including these Offices makes a hook for the average parish priest but also offers a rich source of reflection. Martin’s chapter is a well written and passionate advocacy for the importance of the parish — and for the parish priest to be found praying.
In a church saturated by books on leadership styles and mission and evangelistic programs (which should not be dismissed out of hand), it was refreshing to read such a heartfelt piece on the activity of prayer that most of us are engaged in every day.
The strongest chapter, and the one I believe will resonate most strongly with parish priests, is “The Priest Attends to the Signs of the Times: Anxious Toil and Daily Bread” by Alex Hughes, formerly of Portsea, Portsmouth (now Archdeacon of Cambridge).
Hughes comes to grips with, and gives voice to, the marginal life and work of the priest and the many social problems that the priest will face, but also the need for prayer and study. It is the only piece in the book that is footnoted. The other chapters’ references are strangely absent, which is stylistically odd. The subject is clearly something Hughes feels very strongly about, and the reader is taken into his daily life in a vivid way as he weaves in various quotations: from the great and the good of Anglican theology, such as Sam Wells and Austin Farrer, to Holy Scripture, as well as the occasional thought-provoking comment from a favorite blogger. It feels, and reads, like the work of a priest who is fully engaged in the daily life of the Church and keeping abreast of study.
In one sense, there is nothing groundbreaking in this book, but it is unlike anything I have read before in the wide category of parish ministry. It is not an academic treatise on the place of the parish in the face of Fresh Expressions (such as that written by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank). Nor is it simply a series of life stories from priests you may never have heard of. It skillfully balances content solid enough to sink one’s teeth into and ponder — no doubt in reflection on one’s ministry — with the easy readability of a memoir.
The authors propose a recapturing of all that made the Church stand out as something different in the first place. That is not to say the author refuses to see any problems, or that they mourn for the good old days. It is an honest series of reflections about the genuine nature of parish ministry written by people who wake up and go to sleep with this in mind, in practice, and embedded in their very existence.
It is a book that all clergy should read, and especially those who are on the cusp of ordination or seminary. The layperson in the pew may find it gives insight into the life of the clergy in the face of various worldly shifts, but it is clearly aimed at the ordained, to perhaps offer some solidarity, some encouragement, and a gentle challenge. It is very much Church of England. Transatlantic clergy may find occasional references to the peculiarities of English church procedure and practice somewhat alien.
The Rev. Samuel McNally-Cross is vicar of St. Thomas, Kensal Town, London.