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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Take a look around – it’s more interesting than you think

Written by: on June 8, 2019

Martyn Percy is possibly one of the most interesting ministry leaders I have met. I have every reason to doubt that he will remember me, but I did spend a day with him while I was Dean of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul. Being the Dean of a cathedral is one thing, while being the Dean of Christchurch in Oxford is quite another. I was appointed by a Bishop; he was appointed by the Queen. I was interviewed by 7 people, he was interviewed by 50. I had a ministry contract; he had no contract because no-one has a contract with the Queen – you are there at her pleasure. I had a known stipend; he had an unwritten allowance.  All that being true gives credence to the claim that he is a remarkable Christian leader, thinker and educator. And given his current stoush with the old guard at Oxford University, he is no wilting flower.[1]

What struck me most about Martyn Percy was how ordinary he is in person. Certainly, he is a man of great faith with an encyclopaedic understanding of the church, theology, politics and geopolitical history, but he has a disarming ordinariness in which he captures the meaning of big theories of everything, then looking at how they fit with current affairs. He is indeed a contextual theologian.[2]

Reading the book Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy was easy from my point of view. Percy is a thorough going Anglican with a commitment to churchmanship that is formed in the acts of church history and history of Christian thought. He also writes in an Anglican way, which can be a little peculiar to those unfamiliar with his tone. Richard Lawson puts it rather well.

There is something intrinsically Anglican about Percy’s tone of voice. For Percy, Anglicanism is—in part—perspective and tone. Its “peculiar genius is not to have solved the problem of its own identity—although that looks increasingly ragged as a virtue, at present. Anglicanism is episcopal, yet synodical; Catholic, yet Protestant—the via media.” Anglicanism is scripturally engaged but not in a narrow way. Likewise, Percy’s voice is rarely preachy or prescriptive, although scriptural imagery and stories influence how he sees the world.[3]

The book also helps readers of Percy’s writing to understand how he draws from the humanities, especially sociology and anthropology in particular. Anthony Bash, in his own review of the book, summarises this point when he writes that Percy only wants to enrich the dialogue of ecclesial, spiritual and intellectual traditions.[4] However, in the excerpt from his writings, Percy himself points out that despite his commitment to theological dialogue within the thinking of sociology and anthropology, he wary that the driver of Christian thought is not supplanted. Theology informs sociological engagement, not the other way around.[5]

Perhaps most importantly, the book shows how Percy understands Christian and doctrinal thinking are formed. They are not simply rational considerations fixed for all time but are continually shaped contemporary culture and spirituality of the day – what he calls, ‘theological constructions of reality’.[6] And I like that about Percy. In person he is much the same as he is written form. I think he lives what he thinks and is rather courageous with it. Though many would disagree with me, I think there are similarities with my other contextual ethicist and practical theologian, Stanley Hauerwas. One is a mild-mannered English Anglican, the other a somewhat brash American United Methodist (almost Mennonite). Both have been critiqued or criticized because the church they envisage does not exist and perhaps never has. Percy has been accused of ‘nostalgic Anglicanism’ and Hauerwas of the ‘non-existent non-violent church’.[7] [8] However, most of the critics miss the point, context is everything, alongside localised social and anthropological arrangements. A big theology has to make sense in a local community, so the local expression must work it out for themselves – that’s what good leaders do – they know who they are, to whom they belong and where they come from. They engage carefully with modern thinking. They understand the contest in which they pull it all together.

Of all the chapters in the book, the one entitled ‘Practically Priests’ was worth indulging at the present moment. Percy’s pedagogy is a little hard to comprehend because it’s not clearly stated, by he does reveal a certain irony in the significance of priestly character against other professions. He writes,

A trainee doctor who has failed medical school will probably not make a good doctor; an accountant or lawyer that fails their professional exams is unlikely to proceed in that line of work. But a person who is perhaps not a good theologian or fine preacher may, nonetheless, be an excellent priest.[9]

To this end leaders are formed in character not instrumentalised measurements of success. A first-class degree is no measure of personal formation and character-based leadership that will shape a community of faith in whatever context it serves. Why? Because character rises beyond mindless prescriptions to incarnate the gospel in its unique missional, social and anthropological context (that was a mouthful).

Much of the book is laudatory. However, Kate Blanchard takes a more critical approach toward Percy’s commitment to churchmanship in that he appears more concerned about unity than sexual Justice.[12] But personally I’m with Percy. Issues of sexual justice will work themselves out contextually and sociologically over time. Schism, however, never works itself out and tends to negatively define faith for generations.

Notes:

[1] Harriet Sherwood, “Reformist Dean At Oxford ‘Medieval Fiefdom’ is Being Bullied, Supporters Claim,” The Guardian, 2018, Accessed 7 June 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/17/oxford-bullying-claim-dean-christ-church.

[2] Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel, eds., Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Kindle ed., (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018). loc 150

[3] Richard Lawson, “Three Sketches of Symbols and Sacraments an Appreciation of Martyn Percy’s Perspective and Tone,” in Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, ed. Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel, (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018). loc 2026

[4] Anthony Bash, “Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy,” Journal for the Study of Spirituality 9, no. 1 (2019). 74

[5] “Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy”. loc 5835

[6] Martyn Percy, “Response to Part I on the Vocation of the Contextual Theologian,” in Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, ed. Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel, (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018). loc 1817

[7] See Stanley Hauerwas, The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018). 108

[8] “Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy”. loc 450

[9] Ibid. loc 4791

[12] Blanchard, Kate. ““Secondary Indicators of Emphasis” Sexuality and Gender in Martyn Percy’s Writings.” In Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, ed. Ian S. Markham, and Joshue Daniel, loc 3868-4363. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018. loc 3870ff

 

Bibliography:

Bash, Anthony. “Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy.” Journal for the Study of Spirituality 9, no. 1 (2019): 74–75.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018.

Lawson, Richard. “Three Sketches of Symbols and Sacraments an Appreciation of Martyn Percy’s Perspective and Tone.” In Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, ed. Ian S. Markham, and Joshue Daniel, loc 1966-2317. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018.

Ian S. Markham, and Joshue Daniel, eds. Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018.

Percy, Martyn. “Response to Part I on the Vocation of the Contextual Theologian.” In Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, ed. Ian S. Markham, and Joshue Daniel, loc 1801-1950. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018.

Sherwood, Harriet. “Reformist Dean At Oxford ‘Medieval Fiefdom’ is Being Bullied, Supporters Claim.” Last modified November 2018, Accessed 7 June 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/17/oxford-bullying-claim-dean-christ-church.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

7 responses to “Take a look around – it’s more interesting than you think”

  1. Hey Digby. Thanks for this. In my blog I had mentioned that I had never heard of him until the book got assigned. That only shows how theologically bereft I am.

    Anyway, you cited Richard Lawson who said that there’s something “…intrinsically Anglican about Percy’s tone of voice.” What do you think he meant by that? I’d be curious what it is about a particular “tone of voice’ that makes it Anglican?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      I hardly think you are theologically bereft, Harry. The USA, Great Britain, and indeed Europe are overrun with famous scholars in their own slice of the planet. Lawson has a section on Percy’s Anglican tone in the book.
      “Tone of voice implies something about human awareness of the divine. Percy’s voice is conversational, curious, honest, and generous. It is as easy to imagine Percy in a pub as much as in a pulpit. Percy’s tone of voice is not a means to an end, however. It is not a tool for evangelism or for church growth.” Have a look in chapter 6.

  2. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thank you, Digby. You and Percy have modeled and painted a beautiful picture of Anglicanism. You make a wise and needed statement:
    “…context is everything, alongside localised social and anthropological arrangements. A big theology has to make sense in a local community, so the local expression must work it out for themselves – that’s what good leaders do – they know who they are, to whom they belong and where they come from. They engage carefully with modern thinking. They understand the context in which they pull it all together.”

    This requires deeply thoughtful and reflective leaders with a long view, big picture, rather than the shallow success orientation of many today in the U.S.

  3. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    I look forward to meeting your friend and colleague, Martyn Percy. Your personal observations concur with Percy’s literary style and make him all the more interesting and worthy of a friendly conversation in the context of a social beverage (first round is on me!) You state, “A big theology has to make sense in a local community, so the local expression must work it out for themselves – that’s what good leaders do – they know who they are, to whom they belong and where they come from. They engage carefully with modern thinking. They understand the contest in which they pull it all together.” This is what I appreciate about you and your contribution to our cohort. You are probably our strongest scholar yet you always help me understand the big theology for my local church context. Thanks again for explaining Percy both from the perspective of his writings and his life.

  4. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I really appreciate your affirmation that Martyn Percy is a pretty ordinary guy. I think to be a good contextual theologian you’d have to be. I also like your comment that “a big theology has to make sense in a local community.” I feel like my life has been about testing big theologies and then adding qualifications to them to translate them for my context. I’m interested in hearing more on your thoughts on sexual justice. I do agree we need to strive for unity and fight against schism. Wholeheartedly. But my fear is that in failing to fight for sexual justice we may avoid schism because people will slip away as a series of individuals rather than being bothered to create a separate unified group. We are increasingly conflict adverse in our neck of the woods which means people often leave rather than split. Will sexual justice be achieved in the church if we leave it to be “worked out contextually and sociologically over time”? How many people could be lost in the meantime? I ask genuinely and humbly as I continue to explore how we nurture unity, what it looks like and what is at stake.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi. Writing this from my phone because our internet ad been out or ages. The sexual stuff does work itself out in most cases. As society changes the church catches up but it does take time. It will be different in the States and perhaps Canada due to simple population size and demographics. The alternative is starting new churches. When Percy writes he rights from the perspective of an historic denomination which is enormous and episcopal. That church has threatened on occasion to split of same sex marriage it also threatens to split over the ordination of women. In the latter case the split never happened. The same sex marriage thing is a little different because it is considered a moral issue for African Nations who are part of the Anglican communion. However, Anglicans are not conflict averse. We fight and remain together, and we continue to fight at Synods where decisions are made. When the change comes it comes not with unity but with acceptance in most quarters that it needed to happen, even if some are still unhappy. Schism for the Anglican Church would not only damage the church, it would probably fail to achieve the hoped for outcomes in the gay community. As you know, church planting isn’t easy, and it’s especially difficult when it’s being done as a part of a schism on a political or moral issue. We read a book earlier this year that talked about change and that in most cases social changes required a very large and powerful organisation to shift ordinary thinking. It’s cold comfort when your at the coal face, but women at the coal face 50 years ago reshaped the world when by whittling away at social attitudes. Even now you’re whittling in your own community and denomination.

  5. mm John Muhanji says:

    Thank you, Digby, for sharing more about Percy whom you interacted with closely. I am amazed at how you did interact with him while I was just wondering what kind of a person he was. You have challenged me that you interacted closely and what kind of a person he was. thanks for giving us another enlightenment. I was reading about him and wondering how can I meet such a person who speaks to my theological condition.

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