Learning from ethnography, where an anthropological lens assists in clarifying spiritual questions, seems to be a key approach of Martyn Percy, Anglican theologian and ecclesiologist, and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. “Show us what you do, and I will tell you what you believe,” he seems to be saying. In a collection of essays and responses on Percy’s theological writings, Ian Markham and Joshua Daniel compose a rich and diverse assortment of provocative essays which grapple with postmodernism, feminism, sexuality, the role of church in society, and revivalism. They seem to position Percy as a “reasonable radical” gifted at interpreting culture to the church, and church to culture, aligned with a progressive yet thoughtful and faithful approach to change in the church in Western society.
In the study of the church, Percy says, “The data is overwhelming: human interaction, aesthetics, performance, ritual, symbol, culture, ascription – to say nothing of power, authority, and charisma. And we have not even mentioned doctrine in this list. To study the church is to encounter the “ethnographic dazzle”: sights, sounds, taste, touch – a veritable sensory overload of the social-sacred.”
Rather than starting with doctrinal statements which define faith in objective, antiseptic terms, Percy asserts we can deduce belief from the situated actions of the body of believers. He layers an understanding of culture over phenomenological data within a congregation. I’d like to focus in particular on Percy’s research on a church I am well-acquainted with, the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. (We lived ten minutes away.) This church is the location for what was termed the “Toronto Blessing”; it continues to this day under the name “Catch the Fire”, though with much less intensity than in the initial years of the outpouring beginning in 1994. Originally a Vineyard congregation, it was ejected from the denomination in 1996. Percy states, “[T]he “Toronto Blessing” needs to be understood in its own (postmodern) cultural context of revivalism … The discreet branding of manifestations created a consumer-led market hungry for larger and more powerful spiritual epiphenomena, which might just achieve what the previous manifestation only hinted at.”
Understanding the cultural and geographic milieu is a necessary part of interpreting meaning of the symbols, discourse, and actions at play at this church. Consider these qualities that enabled the Toronto Blessing to thrive for a time:
- Location next to a major international airport with hotel infrastructure in nearby proximity facilitated long, intense visits to the church’s daily services
- Launch of the movement in the early 90s as the internet and email began to be commonly used facilitated wide dissemination of news of the revival
- A postmodern environment that was increasingly open to supernatural manifestations (eg. holy laughter, being slain in the Spirit, golden fillings or dust, etc) and uprooted from historic theological doctrines and practices
- General decline of the typical evangelical congregation in Canada leading to a hunger for something new
- Availability of merchandise (CDs, videos, books, curriculum, etc.) to train others and replicate the movement elsewhere
- Anonymity of attendees, allowing for the controversial renewal to touch individuals and leaders from many denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Alliance, Anglican, and more
- Physical expression was encouraged (dancing, waving flags, raising arms, doing ‘carpet time’, laying on of hands, crying, laughing, etc)
- Cultural attitudes within capitalist society which encourages “church shopping” – going to where one will receive a blessing
But what is the fruit of such phenomena? After returning to TACF a second time, years later after the novelty of the initial outpouring had abated, Percy states, “Perhaps all that can now be said is that the experiences of those attending the Toronto Blessing meetings since 1994 seem to have been primarily cathartic; one could almost describe the effect of the “blessing” upon worshippers as having been something like a cleansing spiritual enema.” Other than that, very little long-term transformation seems to have occurred. Instead, one greeter admits to Percy that “We’re all tired.” Revival fatigue plagues those who used to attend, and one wonders in retrospect what it was all about.
In the Journal of Contemporary Religion, Percy writes that to better understand a church’s life “[T]he focus shifts from ‘blueprints’ about the way the church or congregation could or should be to that of ‘grounded ecclesiology’ … It is through a matrix of conversation, interviews, observation, and the savouring of representative vignettes that one can begin to piece together a more coherent picture of what it is like to belong to a group, to be a pilgrim, and to believe.” The official dogmas of a church mean little when grassroots practices reveal the true priorities of the people.
 Ian Markham and Joshua Daniel, eds. Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2018). Kindle, loc. 3752.
 Ibid., Kindle, loc. 318.
 Ibid., Kindle, loc. 7437.
 Ibid., Kindle, loc. 1200.
 Martyn Percy, “Adventure and Atrophy in a Charismatic Movement: Returning to the ‘Toronto Blessing,’” Journal of Contemporary Religion 20, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 71–90, Accessed June 6, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/135379000313918.
6 responses to “Grounded ecclesiology”
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Excellent introduction and summary of Percy’s contribution to this week’s book review and analysis. I like your reference to ethnography and how Percy connects his idea of “doing church” to all our senses, perceptions, and understandings. How does a church get “ejected” from a denomination? I mean, it kind of goes with airplanes and airports, and I almost ejected a couple of times in my aviation careers, but huh?
Thanks for the detailed church qualities expressed by the Toronto Blessing, it was a very interesting review. I guess there is some wisdom in “too much of a good thing” sayings. However, in God’s economy, I am convinced that nothing goes to waste. In my experience in observing how churches fall there is always the tell-tale symptoms and signals that principalities and powers somehow gained access to the Christian only party.
“If the church is permanently in crisis, necessarily so in light of its eschatological character, then it requires lucid and shrewd interpreters like Martyn Percy to mediate its critical engagement with society.” I found a reviewer on Percy’s contextual theology who said this, and I am drawn to the implications for my dissertation research. What does it mean for the church to have an eschatological character?
Wow, you have taught me something so new this week with the “Toronto Blessing” and the church there. Again, I say, wow! And for Percy to call it a spiritual enema. Wow tripled…
Such a powerful ending of yours, “The official dogmas of a church mean little when grassroots practices reveal the true priorities of the people.” Amen and Amen.
It’s interesting how Percy is considered a reasonable radical because his passion is to connect Christ to culture. For many, contextuality is considered relativistic because they base their findings on the “biblical text” and refuse to associate it with the characteristics and temperaments of humanity.
However, one of my favorite lines in the book was, “Diverse cultural sensibilities have to be taken into account in the mission of the church” (Location 5576). This includes adapting one’s practice and presentation in order to present Christ’s presence. What are some ways that the church as a whole is changing within Canada? Do you find the push towards universal conformity as a stumbling block for pastors and leaders to be relevant to their own audience?
This– “Show us what you do, and I will tell you what you believe,”–is why reading Percy seems so convicting. Rightfully convicting, but convicting all the same. And yet, as you read him you get no sense that he is condemning or judging. Just speaking truth in a way that inspires reflection and self-examination.
Spiritual enema- 😀 Not that we don’t need one of those from time to time !
Mark, “We’re all tired.” Did that quote come from a George Fox Seminary student who was working on their dissertation? Just wondering.
“The official dogmas of a church mean little when grassroots practices reveal the true priorities of the people!” Woah. thats a quoteable mark’ism if I ever heard one. powerful ending. Im sure I will steal this and use this in my own minsitry, especially in teaching about the growth in pentecostalism. One thing pentecostals struggle with is how much should we allow experiences to dictate our theology. Some say it’s equal. Yikes! that scary.
I think it should defintely affect our theology, as long as its under submission to the written word of God.