Martyn Percy is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, a frequent contributor to British radio and broadsheets, and a theologically literate sociologist of religion of international repute. I have just finished reading his latest book Clergy: The Origin of Species (2006). Debunking “a kind of ‘creationism’ at work in ecclesiology, in which the ordering and functioning of the church is held to be above ordinary critical scrutiny” (p. 1), and deploying the Darwinian categories of natural selection and adaptation to explore the cultural history and contemporary social location of ministry, including the crisis of clerical identity, Percy has written a serious yet scintillating book, full of narrative and anecdotes, that is a must-read for ministers, and indeed for all those looking for an intelligent and informed treatment of the church and its leadership.
Connoisseurs of Connexions will be particularly challenged by Percy’s nine-page case study of Methodism, which, beginning as a radical intra-church movement combining missionary zeal with passionate social concern, has become “mired within the process of bureaucratization and routinization” (p. 128). “If any evidence of this were needed,” Percy continues, “one need only turn to the Millennium edition of The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church. As Angela Shier-Jones notes:
‘Pythagoras’ theorem cane be stated in 24 words. The Lord’s Prayer in traditional English form has only 70 words… the Ten Commandments can be listed using 179 words… [but] The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church requires no less than 225,966 words - to tell us what?’”
Observing that “Methodism has experienced a relatively recent collapse in its theological confidence” (p. 130) - a crisis he relates, in part, to the “mixed fortune” of contemporary hymnody and the decline of “the Methodist monopoly of ’singing theology’” (p. 130) - Percy suggests that, returning to its roots, it may be as “a movement rather than a church” that “the spirit of Methodism” (p. 131) might best be conveyed in the future.
However Percy reserves his sharpest scalpel for an anatomy of Charismatic Christianity, which he describes as an enthusiastic but fissiparous movement indigenous to “times of social upheaval” and parasitic on “distinctive social and cultural genres” (p. 138), and if full of soul yet empty in the head. “This observation is important,” writes Percy, whose analysis deserves to be quoted in full:
“Why is it that there can be so much schism in Charismatic Christianity? Answer: there is no doctrine of the church, and no theological template for tolerating plurality. (All that can be said to exist is a notion of gathered homogeneity, which emphasises size.) Why is evangelism so poor, numerical growth usually coming from ‘converting’ people who are already Christians? Answer: Charismatic Christianity has no soteriology of its own. Why does Charismatic Christianity apparently succeed so quickly where others have apparently failed for so long before? Answer: there is no real Christology, creeds, sacramental or Trinitarian theology and praxis to burden believers with. Adherents are offered an immediate form of spiritual experience - a kind of bathetic sentience through which one encounters quasi-numinous phenomena. Faith is nurtured not through knowledge, but through a community of feeling in which one learns to appreciate power, charisma and non-order - yet often within an authoritative structure” (p. 140).
Percy adds that while not all Charismatics are fundamentalists, most will be “fundamentalistic” - i.e. pre-critical, anti-intellectual, intolerant of hermeneutical diversity; in fact, “it is never the Bible that rules, but always the interpreter. Consequently, some charismatic churches can look quite totalitarian” (p. 144). He perceives that “Charismatic Christianity is often fashion-led, consumerist religion; full of fads, a populist, culturally relative and relevant phenomenon” (p. 145). And, finally, he predicts that “the party is largely over”, for “whilst people are still crowding in through the front door, plenty have left through the back door too”, afflicted with severe “cognitive dissonance” (p. 145).
That is just a (bitter?) taster. If this book were a sermon, Percy would no doubt be greeted at the door by worshippers saying, “Very interesting sermon, Vicar, you’ve given us a lot to think about” - by which, of course, they often mean, “Boy, did that sermon piss me off!”
Clergy: The Origin of Species costs Â£15.99, which for less than 200 pages might seem over-priced. But as one wag has put it, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.