Book Review: What Clergy Do

I wrote this book review for our diocesan newspaper, but thought I would put it here as well.  

Emma Percy. “What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing,” SPCK, London, 2014.

Emma Percy is a priest in the Church of England who has worked as a deaconess, a deacon, a parish priest and a university chaplain. She and her husband (also a priest) have raised two sons, and her doctoral thesis was on the theology of mothering. In this book, she draws on her wide experience to reflect on the role and work of the clergy. Percy uses mothering as a metaphor for exploring parish ministry; not to discuss the tasks clergy do, but the attitudes and habits of thought which she sees as shared between “good enough” mothering and good parish ministry.   She integrates her own reflections with insights drawn from the worlds of philosophy, psychology, spirituality and worship.

She reflects on being a priest-in-charge, and how being “in charge” might be more about having a responsibility to care for and nurture people, than about being “the boss.” She discusses how clergy inhabit a role which is more about relationship than it is about activity; the need for attending to the concrete reality of these people in this place in order to nurture them and draw out their gifts; and issues of dependence and interdependence. She also reflects on how clergy integrate their lives and their work, and discusses the very maternal arts of “weaning” (managing change) and creating and keeping a spiritual “home.”

The maternal metaphor, Percy acknowledges, is not the only or an exhaustive one. But, she says, “it does offer a rich way of integrating the mundane and the mystical, the practical and spiritual, the being and doing, the highs and lows, the thinking and feeling, the joys and heartaches present in taking on the responsibility to care for real people in real places.”

The book is thoughtful but accessible to a popular audience, with reference to more academic works for those keen to explore the topic in more depth.

As a deacon ordained this year, and as the mother of a toddler, I found this book gave me vocabulary for the continuity I felt instinctively across those two roles. Reading it, there were moments when I thought, “Yes, it’s exactly like that!” The importance of Percy’s contribution for me is that it reflected on ministry in terms which were very familiar from my own lived experience, and gave me a richness of resources for my own continuing reflections. I would warmly recommend it for clergy looking for fresh language and insights into their work, for students preparing for ordination, and for anyone who would like to better understand what their clergy actually do, especially when it looks like nothing.


Not a zero-sum game

This is the text of a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Matthew 25:14-30 and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.

At first blush, this morning’s gospel reading might seem a bit grim. What was all of that about harsh masters, outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth? Where’s the good news in that? And what does it all have to do with what we’re here for today, particularly William’s family, bringing him for baptism?

Well, I think it does have something encouraging to say, but it needs some careful attention, so let’s take a couple of minutes to do that.

So in today’s gospel reading Jesus told a story about a master and his slaves. And – as with all stories – to understand his point, it helps to know what kind of story this is. So many of Jesus’ stories start with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” that we get used to it, and can listen to all of his stories as if they start that way. But this one doesn’t. It starts with “For it is as if…” This story isn’t telling us about God and his reign. It’s telling us about the world as we experience it in everyday life.

So that’s the first thing to notice. The master in this story isn’t God. And if we identify with the slaves, then the harsh masters we experience in life are the constraints in our social system; the powers that be; the unjust economic forces, the tyrannical employers, perhaps even dominating patriarchs and matriarchs. But whatever form they take for each of us personally, this is not a story about how God relates to us.

I should also explain that the slaves in this story are being entrusted with money. Where the reading talks about “talents,” the word doesn’t mean talent as in aptitude or ability, but is referring to an ancient commercial weight. In effect, the master in the story has entrusted each of his slaves with money, and expects to receive a return on investment from them.

So what, then, is Jesus saying about this world, in which we can – and often do – experience fear, oppression, exclusion and deprivation at the hands of forces greater than ourselves?

I think the key really comes at the end of the story, where Jesus has the master saying, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance.” The master in the story recognizes one of the great principles of life; and that is, that we don’t inhabit a closed system. Life is not a zero-sum game. Money invested earns interest; crops produce more seed than was sown; and clutter expands to fill the available space.  (Okay, maybe that last one is just at my house).

But recognize the basic point; the reason the master in this story is angry with his slave is that he has missed out on something he could reasonably have expected. His money should have increased in the time he was away, and it was the fact that his slave didn’t recognize and act on that, that made him “worthless.”

Now this might be a principle in everyday life, but it points us to a profound truth about the way God has created the universe. Theologians sometimes call this truth the “law of increase,” and – here’s where it gets interesting for us – it is as true of spiritual matters as it is of money in the bank.

In a few minutes, Billy’s family are going to present him to be baptized. In that baptism, Billy is going to receive a visible sign of the promises of God. We could think of this as a spiritual deposit being entrusted to him – and those responsible for him – today.

But we know, because he is still only a small baby, that what happens today is just the beginning. As he grows and matures as a person, what is begun here today can grow as part of him, so that he can know God’s love and respond to it in love and joy and faith. And just as the master in the story could look for growth and a return on investment for his money, we – and particularly Billy’s family – can look for, and have a responsibility to nurture, that growth in him.

And it’s not just about Billy. Each of us, living out our baptism, has a similar responsibility to nurture what’s been entrusted to us. And here’s where I want to mention briefly what Paul had to say in our second reading.

He wrote to the people in the church at Thessalonica: “you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober… and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

Let us not fall asleep… be sober… hold on to faith and love and hope. This is how Paul tells his readers to tend the deposit of faith entrusted to them in baptism.

This has some implications for all of us. In a world where we often find ourselves caught up in oppressive systems, the spiritual life is not a zero-sum game, but an aspect of our lives which can flourish despite whatever else might be going on. We can find supports for our spiritual lives in community with others, we can be strengthened by prayer, we can make sure we educate ourselves about the bigger picture of how God is at work in the world. We can come to recognize our own gifts and how to use them to contribute to the common good.

These are ways in which we can build up what has been entrusted to us.   So let us come now to baptize Billy, with all of these things held in hope, for Billy’s future and for each of us, as the light to which we are called, which will shine ever more brightly in each of us, until we reach the full day.