by David Driscoll
from Signs of the Times No. 56 - Jan 2015

When going on retreat I invariably packed The Christian Priest Today by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, which is full of spiritual wisdom and common sense. I only wished I’d been able to take Emma Percy’s book too because, by a long way, it’s the best description I have come across of a vicar’s ministry.

I vividly recall, in my first incumbency during the early 1980s, doing lots of things by trial and error. If I’d had the chance to read this book then I’m sure I’d have avoided many mistakes I made. I was always grateful for a very understanding congregation when they happened.

Throughout her book Percy uses the analogy of motherhood, describing a variety of activities and qualities mothers need for bringing up children which have obvious parallels with the ordained ministry. She carefully avoids overplaying the analogy, however, and I found her examples extremely helpful. This was partly because I became a father shortly after becoming a vicar. Most important of all, Percy clearly points out the danger of creating an immature dependency on the part of the congregation, just as children have to grow up. However painful this might become, the purpose of motherhood, eventually, is to enable children to be able to leave the nest.

Percy has her gurus, to whom she frequently refers:
  • Naomi Stadlen, What mothers do: especially when it looks like nothing (London 2014), hence the title of Percy’s book;
  • Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking (Boston 1989);
  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago 1958, 2nd ed 1998);
  • Bruce Reed, The Dynamics of Worship (London 1978).

I should also include in this list her husband Martyn, former Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon and now Dean of Christ Church Oxford, who clearly has influenced her thinking.                                               

She covers an enormous amount of ground in such a relatively short book, for example the need to maintain the right balance between serving and leading, giving proper attention to the congregation by cherishing their gifts, attending to the needs of the stranger, especially taking proper care in the ministry of baptism, marriage and conducting funerals. She also points out the necessity of understanding the parish context, collaborative ministry with the congregation and other clergy, the management of time with constant interruptions, and importantly the art of managing change. There’s such a wealth of wisdom in her book.

Percy is well aware of the contemporary pressures that are placed on clergy with church discussions on reaching targets and ticking boxes, and shows that ideas borrowed from business aren’t always appropriate when applied to the ordained ministry. I also like her description of being a ‘good enough vicar’, just as it’s perfectly OK to be a ‘good enough mother’. Percy clearly knows all about the danger of mothers competing with each other, and like her I’ve also had plenty of experience of competing clergy!

That’s why the phrase ‘when it looks like nothing’, when referring to ministry, is so significant. At the end of the day ministry is much more about the people we are than the things we do.  Percy rightly stresses the importance of prayer and spirituality undergirding every activity of ministry.

Do buy this book; if you are an interested lay person you will learn much about ministry, especially the parish context in which vicars live and work, and the pressures they face each day. But after reading it, you must lend it to your vicar in case they haven’t yet got round to buying a copy. The only problem is they might not want to give the book back!