|Publication Date: 17 Apr 2014|
|Publisher: SPCK Publishing|
|Page Count: 176|
|Author: Emma Percy|
|ISBN-13: 9780281070244, 9780281070251|
What Clergy Do
Lucid and concise, What Clergy Do introduces us to a rich store of work on
motherhood, inviting us to enjoy a satisfying many layered metaphor for ministry
which opens up well-defended areas of embattled priestly hearts.
Each chapter states its aim, says it well, then summarizes it. That apparent
tidiness, though, sets free all sorts of imagery. Motherhood’s ordinariness is,
of course, pricelessly rich. A priest wouldn’t hesitate to encourage a mother
who feels undervalued. The more Emma Percy compares it with the ordinariness
of parish ministry, the more we are reminded how rich and moving is our
For instance, using Arendt’s subtle differentiation between ‘labour, work and
action’ in motherhood, she traces our shifting roles between completed tangible
tasks, those sustaining, nurturing and impossible to measure, and those involving
professional skill. We are offered a way of describing this odd combination that
makes enough sense for us to carry on. Emma Percy hopes to move us away from
‘the rather empty language of leadership into richer metaphorical language which
connects to what people do’ (p. 160). More than analysing what we ‘do’, in fact, she
uncovers who we might crave being.
Understated feeling allows us to charge these images with our own emotional
experience. Sometimes I felt I had read a series of truisms about ministry, then
realized that I had been faced with some very challenging realities. Rather than
solutions to particular predicaments, Emma Percy offers a way of tuning the heart.
Infused with Sara Ruddick’s study of Maternal Thinking (1995) and workaday
experience, pairs of qualities or risks mark out spaces in which we can take responsibility,
finding our own place between ‘dependence and maturity’, ‘transitional
dependency and generous inequality’, or, best of all, ‘the art of comforting and
virtue of delight’. There is a challenging chorus line about not treating people as
types (which I needed to hear) and an encouraging one, quoting Winnicott, about
being ‘good enough’ mothers and priests.
It would be their real loss if some found relatively few biblical references in this
work an excuse not to take it seriously. It rings with biblical chords: the section on
weaning enriched my feeling for 1 Corinthians 3.2; Isaiah 49.15; 66.13. The powerful
passage on body image (p. 155), exposing neuroses about church growth, gave 1
Corinthians 12 a new resonance. With the habits of mothering Emma Percy points
us toward a virtue ethic which I found timely, providing an oblique critique of
consequentialist tendencies in clergy selection.
Unqualified, such a powerful metaphor could develop unhealthy priestly superiority.
We might egotistically conspire with a congregation’s desire to project group
inadequacies onto an emotionally absorbent parent-priest, but Emma Percy knows
this (Chapter 4). I would like her to explore more explicitly the most attractive,
subversive word in the title: ‘nothing’. I wonder if the key theme of motherhood
was omitted from the title in case defensive male clergy wouldn’t pick it up.
Who is it for? A hard-pressed archdeacon; a bullish chair of board of finance;
DDOs lending it to enquirers before giving them grids of competencies that suck
the Spirit out of discernment; the newly ordained; PCCs in interregnum tempted to
pepper a Church Times advert with words like ‘energetic . . . communication
skills . . . [and] . . . successful’. It is a gift for people who have slogged in parishes
for a couple of decades and feel on a cusp of disappointment. Just when you
wonder if anyone’s noticed, asking, ‘Is this it, then?’; when you’re tired, but still
sure you are doing something good; when you’re unsure if your favourite metaphors
for ministry can hold up for another decade, and you’ve finally admitted that
no one else will organize your sabbatical: just then, this could be a wonderful read.
It is never hectoring, very encouraging and, as a male priest, it gave me permission
to explore feminine imagery without a hint of pretence or awkwardness. Those
of us who are not mothers should feel refreshed, not marginalized, by this exploration.
If we use it to recalibrate priorities and retune our pastoral heart, noble but
frustrated ministries may rediscover their calm integrity, offering our neighbours
what they need in their priest. I have a hunch this book is written by a priest who is
rather more than ‘good enough’.
I was looking forward to this book. I liked the subtitle, “especially when it looks like nothing” (sometimes it is!), but now, having read it I think Emma Percy has been a bit devious. I’m not absolutely sure whether the book is about ministry, as would appear from the title, or motherhood. In spite of Dr Percy’s protestations to the contrary, I think we might have a bit of feminist propaganda here. After 30 years in the ministry I’d hoped we might have outgrown those rather childish playground arguments between boys and girls about which was better, now I’m afraid it’s still being fought. Anyway, I do think it’s a bit dishonest to choose that name for a book and then, in the very first paragraph state that you’re “not going to discuss the tasks clergy do but attitudes and ways of thinking……” Later in the book she admits the title comes from a book on mothering by N. Stadlen “What Mothers Do etc”.
My problem with her writing, apart from being unwillingly pulled into a bit of rival gender “tit for tatting”, is that she is so desperately anxious to justify her chosen analogy for ministry, that or mothering, that she had allowed the analogy to take over from the thing it’s supposed to illustrate or illuminate.
When Emma Percy tears herself away from motherhood and writes about ministry, she is extremely perceptive and has some very wise comments. I particularly appreciated her closing chapter when she mentions the role of the church in the lives of the elderly. Like others of us she way probably under constant pressure to attract young people to church, when, in fact, it was usually older people who wanted the service the church could provide. I remember one minister who always says she didn’t mind that most of her congregation were elderly, because when they passed away there was always a new generation of elderly, waiting to take over!
As she is so committed to the language of mothering, let me consider its success as an analogy – and I do feel a bit sad that she has tied the book so closely to the analogy, that it stands or falls on that success.
Firstly, mothering can be very appropriate for some aspects of ministry. It is excellent to describe the care and concern a priest/minister feels for his/her people. It can also work as a comparison of the teaching or organisational role of the priest and of the aspirations he/she has for them. But, there are other times it is less helpful and I think the author, when she comes up against aspects of a minister’s life that don’t fit into the analogy of motherhood, she simply ignores them. I apologise, if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember any real mention of the overwhelming challenge of every minister’s week, the preparation and delivery of the Sunday service!! I think work in the community, charity work, campaigning on social, ethical or welfare issues wouldn’t fit too easily either.
Secondly the role of motherhood suggests a much more intimate and closer relationship – spatially, emotionally, physically than most ministers would have with their congregations. Emma Percy’s parish in Sheffield appears to have been much closer knit geographically than many. I know I could go to visit my local shop every day for a year and not see any of my members, except two who happen to work in it! The next day after that lapse of time, I could meet half a dozen! But most are scattered over many miles and I would only see them occasionally – I’m sure there are some who claim a connection who wouldn’t even remember my name! There’s also the degree of permanence. Most priests/ministers may only stay around for a few years – a mother is for life!
Thirdly, motherhood as an anology can be quite narrow and exclusivist. Dr Percy assures us that many people who aren’t mothers have found her analogy very positive and helpful – and she has some very complimentary reviews listed on the back cover to prove it! But I’m afraid I’m not one of them. I was a total and abject failure when assessed according to womanly virtues – no children, can’t cook, can’t sew, can’t garden, burns shirts when ironing. I found it self-affirming and liberating to enter the ministry, because I found some things I could do reasonably well without being reminded of my failures. Now, it it’s being suggested I can’t understand ministry unless I know about motherhood, it brings back my guilt complex. (Don’t worry, I’ll survive). Also I do realise that this book seems to have had exactly the opposite effect on others, precisely because it does emphasise feminine virtues as so important in ministry!
Finally just a couple of points. The crime writer, Elizabeth George, entitled one of her novels “Missing Joseph”. The title is very significant in the denouement, when the identity of a previously unnamed father is revealed, but it appears much earlier in the book when a major character muses over the fact that most of the Great masters, when depicting the Holy Family, relegate Joseph to the obscure, shadowy background or leave him out altogether. As I read “What Clergy Do” I missed Joseph more and more. I felt I wanted to ask in all this basking in matriarchal supremacy, where the father was. Surely children need fathers, too. Emma Percy gives us a wonderful – really clever – example of a very familiar scenario. Mary, a young mother, has brought her toddler son, Joshua, to church and he’s disturbing the peace (not surprising, that young man has been playing havoc with formal worship doe 2,000 years!) Anyway, to illustrate my point, I hope she won’t mind too much if I extend her lovely image a bit further. The priest greets people at the door afterwards – “Hi, Joshua, Hello, Mary. Where’s Joe today?” knowing perfectly well that Joe has found a thousand better ways to spend a morning off than be dragged out in his Sunday best to be bored by some preacher droning on about total irrelevancies. (Help! – surely St Paul took time off to support a football team!! – anyone know? – it would make a fantastic difference to the sermon!!).
I admit that when I first started to feel frustrated with so much about breast feeding, I looked up the quote from 1 Thessalonians – and it is Chapter 2, not 1, as it appears in the book – to see if Paul’s feminine side extended as far as breast feeding. It doesn’t. Mother, yes. Nurse, yes – breast feeding, no.
Does priesthood/ministry really need an analogy? To me it stands on its own. It’s unique, just like being a mother. Now Emma Percy’s two boys have flown the nest, maybe she’ll write a book about what clergy do. I really think she would be very good at it. Honestly!