The following is a discussion started for a group looking at Sarah Coakley's introduction to Praying for England, 'Prayer, Presence and the Poor':
I want to start by picking out one word, which occurs twice in the opening paragraph. The word is ‘re-imagining’. Some of us will know that ‘re-imagining ministry’ is one of the priorities the Church of England has set itself for the next five years. So it is something of a political word. In this chapter, the word is linked to something Rowan Williams said at his very first press conference immediately after he had been announced as the Archbishop-elect of Canterbury. Heady days! And something of an irony to be considering it as he prepares to step down from that role.
But the title of the book, I think, encourages us to drop the prefix, and to imagine. There is a gentle sporting metaphor in ‘Praying for England’ and for two minutes now, I’d like to crudely take that gentle metaphor and play it for all it’s worth. Only two months ago, England were manager-less and ‘re-imagining’ how English football would work was needed. England, of course, went out on penalties to Italy. But what was unusual was that for most of the game, they looked like they were hanging on for penalties (which never turns out well for England!). Last night, the Euro 2012 final was held and we were treated to a display from an attractively playing, technically superb and high scoring Spanish team, who set several records en-route to winning the title. Everyone else, it seems, now needs to re-imagine how to play football.
I make the contrast between these two teams, England and Spain, because I am really not sure whether Sarah Coakley’s three-fold description of the priestly role as involving prayer, presence and the poor is more like England’s re-imagining, or more like the Spanish team! On prayer, she says absolutely nothing that I disagree with, and much that I think is vital. The decline of the Daily Office (if it is so) will have marked consequences for the Church and its ministry, and raises a whole set of questions for those of us involved in formation. But I’m not sure about the reduction of prayer to the daily office, and to the daily office said by the clergy at that.
Similarly with presence. This is clearly in tune with the Church of England’s stated ambition to provide a Christian presence in every community. There’s much to be said about presence, and I hope we’ll start to say some of it. But I fear that this reduces presence to church buildings. I’m not against church buildings, but is that all priestly presence is?
When we come to the poor, again I agree with the sentiment. But, to mix my sporting metaphors, it feels a bit like the tag-line of the film ‘Field of Dreams’: “If you build it they will come”. This starts to make me ask questions about what’s missing from Coakley’s piece. There is (despite the questions I want to ask of it) an account of formation and an account of rootedness in place (which we might term ‘incarnation’, although that might just leave us with more questions!). But where is the theology of mission? The very beginning of the service of ordination of priests says that “Priests are ordained to lead God's people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel”. This seems a important omission.So is Coakley re-imagining ministry in a way that resembles the England football team, playing for penalties, or more like the Spanish? I fear the former, but I’m given hope by the observation that the Spanish flair is founded on technical ability, and prayer, presence and the poor are perhaps not a bad place to start with the technicalities of priesthood.
First given to a reading group in Derby Church House