Shaping the Church – Dr. Martyn Percy
“But the central foci with which we are concerned is how might we locate an implicit theology within a church, denomination or congregation, particularly if it is hidden?”
Shaping the Church is a collection of essays on ecclesiology, ministry, and sacraments particularly within the Anglican Communion in England with a view towards answering this question.
Dr. Percy calls theologians to dig deeper into the significance of seemingly trivial practices of church life. These factors are actually indicators of “deeply held convictions, contested theologies, and changing ecclesial structure.”
Part 1 – Sacraments
The dominant approach to theology has been from official documents and texts. Dr. Percy asks theologians to have the “courage to begin with the miscibility and contingencies of ‘story knowledge’ rather than with formal theological propositions.” The average person sitting in the pew does not know much about the theological and philosophical arguments for ecclesiology. People, whether they are regular church attenders or not, live their theology in their culture. Theology should instead be constructed from the ground up. A focus on implicit theology is needed especially as it relates to ecclesiology because it recognizes the way the culture shapes the church and the church shapes the culture.
The sacrament of the Eucharist provides an example of how the culture and church influence each other. The sacraments, in the Anglican communion, have been public in character. Many people will come to church one or two times a year just to receive the Eucharist (Christmas and Easter). We should not underestimate the hunger for the church in the culture based on decreasing weekly church attendance. Belonging and believing should not be confused. Religion is remarkably resilient. At times of death, birth, love, and loss the church is there “for the liminal moments in life, where transition and change often demand a transcendent point of reference.”
Part 2 – Church
Individualism and secularization have contributed to declining church attendance. Dr. Percy believes that we should not be too alarmed. Church growth can be measured in other ways besides numbers. In a recent article on church growth in Eastern Europe, the author borrowing on the work of Grace Davie, agrees with Dr. Percy.
“Around the world, different ways of being religious.
Believing. Behaving. Belonging.
Three words, three distinct ways in which people connect (or don’t) to religion: do they believe in a higher power? Do they pray and perform rituals? Do they feel part of a congregation, spiritual community or religious group?
Research suggests that many people around the world engage with religion in at least one of these ways, but not necessarily all three.”
There are also other ways to measure growth – maturational, organic, and incarnational. Congregations should concentrate more on worship, discipleship and outreach and less on numerical size. Believers plant and water, but God gives the increase.
A very interesting chapter in this section was chapter 4 – “Fresh Expressions: A Critique of Consumerism”. Of course it brought to mind Dr. David Male’s presentation last fall. “FX” churches are for people who are not yet churched. Christian communities, David Male said, should reach out to the 93% of unchurched. Jesus told us to go and seek the lost. The church should not just exist for itself – it is to be missional, relating, loving, and serving others. Their motto – “Come & See, Go and Be”.
Dr. Percy offers many reasons why the Fresh Expressions churches can make only a “modest and positive contribution to the mixed economy of church life.” One example is of a concept we have discussed in our course – “brandscaping” that is a pure but subtle from of consumerism. FX churches offer something different and newer which is taken to mean better. But “new is not necessarily better than old; fresh is not necessarily superior to established; and effervescence is not a substitute for substance. …. A wisdom is needed that can draw on the past, and help shape the present and the future.” Dr. Percy states that the Fresh Expressions churches offer a fit for a post-institutional culture that does not want to invest in large organizations.
I think that God brings people to Himself in many ways. There have always been splinter groups within the larger body of Christ. I believe that FX churches have a place in today’s individualistic society. However, having grown up in the Roman Catholic Church I also see a place for the staid and true large denominations. In times of national scale distress for example people have looked to the Church for grounding and strength.
Part 3 – Ministry
In this section Dr. Percy speaks of the formation of church leaders in the Anglican communion.
Leadership is much more than management. Christian leaders are like conductors of God’s local orchestra. Each member must be able to hear the others; all must be allowed to play their own instruments (use their gifts). Leaders are coaches as well as conductors and mentors. All of the diversity comes together to make beautiful music for God.
Dr. Percy believes that spiritual and emotional intelligence should be highly prized by leaders. He comes to grips with the “climatology of religion”. Some faith groups are like their climate – Cold Scots and Hot Mediterranean Catholics. “Anglicanism is born of England, and like its climate, we don’t do extremes well.”
I have to say that I’ve always appreciated the way the British handle conflict differently than us brash Yanks. I think the idea of manners is a great one.
Yet I can agree with Dr. Percy that it might be more mature to “allow differences and feelings to surface, and thus generate more dialogue” than to arrange a compromise “in which no-one was hurt.” Surely the church can learn how to let everyone express their beliefs in a way that shows mutual love and concern for all in spite of hotly held convictions.
Along with learning “how the appropriation of anger and aggression can enable the work of the church” I wondered about another strong emotion – laughter.
Dr. Percy notes “how the gaiety and warmth of Catholicism in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days (1985) contrasted heavily with the solemn coolness of the author’s own Brethren upbringing.” My husband and I listened to “Prairie Home Companion” for over 30 years. Garrison Keillor told many stories about Lake Wobegon where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average.” We enjoyed the banter about the Lutheran minister, Pastor Ingqvist and the Catholic church – Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.
What if we could learn not to take ourselves so seriously? Can we admit to our foibles and laugh with each other? My own denomination, Dutch Reformed, God bless ‘em are not exactly known for their raucous sense of humor. (How’s that for British understatement?) They would find this typical Garrison Keillor quip less than amusing.
To sum up, Dr. Percy calls the church to practice more implicit theology, paying attention to the often overlooked dimensions of ecclesial life that make up our beliefs and practice. Things like dress code and manners all have a bearing on the church’s vision of God. This is because “the shape of the church is partly brought about by the subliminal as much as by the liminal; and by the implicit as much as by the explicit.” Theologians should look beyond the formal and explicit and value the informal and implicit. Jesus asked us to be one body. That body is knit together (Col. 2:19) from many strands to form a strong church. “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” (Eccl. 4:12).
We are beneficiaries of God’s love and forgiveness. We know the joy and peace of a relationship with Jesus. We have a distinct message that we desire to share with others so that they too can experience life with Christ. How can we as future leaders help to shape the church to respond to God’s call to help those in need?
 Martyn Percy. Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology (London: Routledge, 2010). 12.
 Ibid. 13
 Ibid. 18.
 Ibid. 62.
 Ibid. 78.
 Ibid. 76, 160.
 Ibid. 143.
 Ibid. 147.
 Ibid. 146.
 Ibid. 154.
 We lived in Minnesota then and actually met Garrison Keillor in a record store once in St. Paul in the 70’s..
 Percy, Shaping. 173.
7 responses to “Shaping the Church – Dr. Martyn Percy”
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A lovely piece as always Mary – I enjoy your insights. I agree with you on the need for laughter, humour, and taking ourselves less seriously. I have seen some very uptight Christians, and have witnessed arguments and factions over the most ridiculous of things. Some Christians have the spiritual gift of misery and look like they have been baptised in lemon juice. Lord help us.
Haha!! “Spiritual gift of misery and baptised in lemon juice.” Geoff, you crack me up. I love your way with words.
Insightful as usual Mary. I so appreciate your educated perspective and personal reflection throughout. My question to you is: how do you thrive in a denomination where you have an excellent sense of humor and they do not? Clearly, you find ways to nurture that with other relationships because there is never a dull moment with you. Good ending question too. What would you suggest? Develop a sense of humor? 🙂
Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories are the perfect example of implicit theology, where the details of the upcoming prom or gossip in the Chatterbox Cafe speak and the potato salad and jello at potlucks are what give identity to the community and a deep theology that grounds the place.
[Like you, Mary, I’m a big fan of PHC– we listened to it every weekend on the satellite radio in Kenya (danced to “Powdermilk Biscuits”), and even attended his very last show ever at the Hollywood Bowl.]
You have a future with Spark or Cliff notes if you want it…. great, thorough summary.
I love this quote, which is an important reminder…. especially for those of us that tend to implicitly believe the opposite:
ut “new is not necessarily better than old; fresh is not necessarily superior to established; and effervescence is not a substitute for substance. …. A wisdom is needed that can draw on the past, and help shape the present and the future.”
You would be the one to read the whole book. wonderful summary.
I remember Percy’s comment on dress codes, etc. I must say that some churches have abused the implicit theology in that area. In our culture, some churches will not allow you to worship with them if you do not fit their dress codes. This is not what Jesus died for. We turn away people because they don’t fit our interpretation of godliness.
We must be careful.
Ah the subtle humor of the Dutch Reformed! I love your insight, Mary. There is something special about a church that loves to laugh together and can laugh about its own quirks.
I love the phrase “story knowledge.” I think it encompasses not only the implicit theology, but also the things only a congregation knows about itself and shares from generation to generation, just like families do.