Praying for EnglandPriestly Presence in Contemporary CultureEdited by Samuel Wells and Sarah CoakleyContinuum, $29.95, 208 pp.
Five years ago, Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin and a certified friend of Bono, said that Irish Catholicism had “to move from being a doing church to being a listening church.” He continued, “We must never be obsessed with doing...” for “there must always be an element of abandonment in our activities, of seeking first the kingdom.” Noting that the Irish church was renowned worldwide for its schools, missions, and works of mercy, he recalled that the nineteenth-century founders of the great Irish religious orders were first men and women who listened to God in prayer.
Archbishop Martin’s words came to mind as I read Praying for England, a collection of essays on priesthood in the Church of England. The book grew out of the Littlemore Conference in August 2005, organized by the priest-theologians Samuel Wells (now at Duke Divinity School) and Sarah Coakley (now at Cambridge, formerly at Harvard Divinity School, where I was her student). Inspired by Rowan Williams’s call at the beginning of his ministry as archbishop of Canterbury to recapture “the imagination of the [English] nation” for the gospel, the participants met at Oxford’s Littlemore College—where John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church—for four days of prayer, conversation, meals, and artistic performances. Mostly Anglican parish priests, they shared a commitment to parochial ministry (especially among the poor), to academic theology (all hold doctorates), and to the centrality of imagination in religion.
The book’s nine essays range in subject from a funeral for a murdered teenager to drug addiction to soccer. Three of the essays—those by Grace Davie, Rowan Williams, and Sarah Coakley—provide the general framework. Davie, a sociologist, sees the Church of England straddling two self-understandings, one based on public utility, the other on choice. Public utility emphasizes parochial stability and the provision of religious “services” such as baptism and burial. The state church is here regarded as a given, and most of its members are expected to practice vicariously through an active minority. The “choice” model rejects the public-utility model as an imposition or a mere inheritance and instead values personal choice. This emphasis on the voluntary, though, can easily lapse into consumerism or sectarianism. The implications of each of these ecclesiological models differ in many important ways from those of the other. For example, the public-utility model conceives of baptism mainly as a social initiation, while the choice model understands it as a personal commitment. Which of these two models best serves a country where most people seem to want the church to exist but don’t want to go to church themselves?
Where Davie shows us the lay of the land, Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley, whose essays bookend the volume, offer a theological vision. Williams’s epilogue, which has clear affinities with the thought of René Girard and James Alison, suggests that religion is tempted by the frantic desire to “do” something, to make ourselves (and God) useful, whether through moralism, sectarianism, or civic religion. Christianity, however, is ultimately about surrender to God: In Jesus, God submits to violence and death while humanity yields itself wholly to the divine presence. Refusing to protect himself from God or humanity, Jesus the priest overcomes the rivalry and fear provoked by what Williams calls “territorial anxiety”—that fundamental human desire to define and secure one’s identity by opposing it to someone else’s. In so doing, Jesus opens up an “undefended” space in which humanity can flourish. The Christian priest bears witness by recalling Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice and by “hold[ing] the door open” for men and women to enter into this space of renewed creation.
Coakley’s introduction is the book’s finest essay, and her directness of expression is a welcome counterpart to Williams’s circumlocution. She describes the priesthood as a “main drainage system” for church and society. Dealing with what the public would rather avoid, it is invisible, deep, effective, and unappreciated until it fails and emits a “horrible smell.” This stench often correlates with sexual or financial scandal, but Coakley pushes deeper: much of the contemporary Anglican crisis, she argues, comes from an erosion of classic priestly commitments to place, the poor, and especially prayer—both private and public. Advertisements for clergy openings, she notes, seek “leadership,” “energy,” and “efficiency,” but rarely “prayerfulness”—and precisely at a time when people hunger for spirituality. The old Anglican tradition of offering daily morning and evening prayer at parishes is weakening, partly because of the clergy shortage. The church is thus deprived of a key public witness to the primacy of prayer in the priesthood and in the life of the community.
Coakley suggests that many priests (and parishioners) flee from prayer because it can be difficult, painful, seemingly useless, or even impossible in the face of daily responsibilities. What does prayer do, after all? But, again, Christianity is primarily about not what we do but what we receive: gift precedes task. Coakley’s essay reaches its theological core in a reflection on some poetry by the Anglican priest and Welshman R. S. Thomas: “patiently / we must pray, surrendering the ordering / of the ingredients to a wisdom that / is beyond our own. We must change the mood / to the passive.” Such passivity—or abandonment, to use Diarmuid Martin’s term—may seem like pastoral abdication; in fact, it makes ministry possible by allowing God to reshape our desires and kindle our imaginations, gradually, often imperceptibly. People look to priests for a public witness of this prayerful transformation, and yet, Coakley concludes, “We clergy are often the last people to realize what has been lost when we abandon it.”
Describing the perennial challenge of Christian engagement in the world, Cardinal Newman wrote, “It is not reason that is against us, but imagination.” How do we bring the word of God to the modern imagination? The answer will be revealed not primarily by better structures or mission statements, but by attentiveness to the divine voice, which often prefers to whisper. As Praying for England reminds us, listening for these whispers is the church’s most important task.