Sometimes you need to be reminded of why you do what you do, and to have someone say to you that it’s worth doing. Clergy conferences can be about acquiring new skills and ideas – and they should be (even if the congregation groans with all the wild proposals that the Rector makes on return, charged up and raring to go). But it’s also just good to be recalled to the roots of your call and to its joys.
Martyn Percy, Principal of Cuddeston Theological College, is a master of the quiet but passionate summons not only to ministry but to the gospel itself. He was upbeat not so much because the state of the Church is better than we think (he says that we don’t really know how things will develop, though he says it was just as bad in the past), but because we are called to attend to what we need to attend to – faithfulness rather than ‘success’ perhaps.
One of the dimensions was his exploration of ministry in terms of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between ‘labour’ and ‘work’. Labour is the on-going, repeated and renewed activity that just keeps life going. It’s not dramatic, but it sustains natural existence. Work is making something new, creating something that will last.
Martyn Percy argued that so much of Christian ministry is about labour: the equivalent of cooking meals that are endlessly consumed, or the daily nursing care of children or the elderly. This is the reality, and it’s where we co-labour (collaborate) with God and others. Work can be a seductive diversion, to the intense and immediate. He pointed to the temptation to create building plans or, indeed, Fresh Expressions of church.
What he excelled at was the exegesis of passages about ministry, which opened up shafts of light on familiar parables and narratives, and made you see that the ordinary labour is in fact extraordinary and the place of transformation. One image he used was one of Stanley Spencer’s series of Christ in the wilderness (above). He said that though Christ looks a bit chubby anyway, his fingers do look swollen. Has he in fact been stung by the scorpion he is gently cradling? And are we prepared to be stung by those we try to nurture and love? Can we absorb the hostile sting, as Christ did throughout his life and in his death?
I suppose the basic thrust of what Martyn Percy had to say was that Christian ministry needs to be modelled on Christ, and can only do so as Christ is made alive in us. That seemed to happen a bit as he shared the good news with us.