Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory
Tate Modern until 6 May 2019
This is a large show of a hundred paintings plus drawings and photographs. The photographs are very small. It is also the first major show in London for twenty years of the work of Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947). And it’s been well put together, though the labels for the paintings can be hard to find in the crowds and the quality of the catalogue reproductions is disappointing. Bonnard is such a colourist—and one who painted from memory, hence the show’s title—that it is painful to leave the show and be confronted by poor quality prints when the memory of the real thing is fresh in the mind.
In his Paris show of 1933 it was his colours which led to Bonnard being called the painter of happiness, though he himself commented that just because you’re singing doesn’t mean you’re cheerful. And it would be easy to think of Bonnard as the painter of La France profonde: comfortable, well-fed, slightly naughty and upholstered with frightful wallpaper. Some of the paintings do fit that mould and are dull. Bonnard was always best painting an indoors scene or an outdoors scene from indoors; at the Tate the early Parisian street scenes just don’t work very well. The weakness of the street scenes is exacerbated by his feeble portrayal of human beings and animals, a weakness shared with other great landscape painters—the great Claude said he threw in his figures for free. This is a problem for Bonnard because human beings, especially his eventual wife Marthe de Méligny, play an important role in his best works. Bonnard painted Marthe obsessively, especially in the bath. You might describe her appearance as hieratic, but you would be hard pressed to recognize her if you saw her in the street. This is surely down to a weakness in Bonnard’s technique as much as a chosen element of his style. One picture of Marthe against a fireplace makes it clear how much better Whistler did that sort of thing. Another canvas shows her naked figure in typical pose in a doorway. The composition is a mess, the towel carried by Marthe is not in the mirror image of her even though the arm it covers is in the mirror. There is no sense of her skin tone. And yet it works.
And then there are occasions when Bonnard does get the human figure, especially in the late self-portraits. These half-length or shorter pictures show the artist in old age and in an attitude of fatigued defiance or fear. They have all the Bonnard colour—especially yellows—and the framing devices of windows and tables and shutters, but they have a strong emotional charge which makes them unusually intense and primitive.
An earlier, equally intimate painting of ‘The man and the woman’ (himself and Marthe, presumably post-coital) pays similar attention to framing but shows the confidence of middle age, as well as a sense of chosen separation, in the two figures. It has something of the seediness of Sickert about it, as if throwing over bourgeois convention carries a price.
Maybe that sense of melancholy and intimacy is what prevents at least the indoor works from becoming merely an extraordinary interplay of colour and light. Picasso reckoned that Bonnard was a leftover from the Impressionists. It is easy to see something of that in the build up of paint on the canvas or the way the same scene was painted in different light. As Bonnard himself said, he wanted to capture the first impressions of someone entering a room.
But Matisse was, rightly, more sympathetic than Picasso when he recognized the way horizontals and verticals, never quite plain lines, held together those wonderful, saturated colours. In old age Bonnard reckoned he was only just beginning to understand the colour white, and the way he took many years over his paintings and was so hesitant with his markings does suggest a continual struggle to understand. Picasso, not a painter for hesitation, reckoned that this showed feebleness.
Some of the late interiors, especially the bath scenes, show Bonnard was right to take his time. The colours are both very beautiful in themselves and give an impression of light rippling and reflecting off both water and hard, shiny surfaces. And there is a mystery to Marthe as she lies in the bath. What is she thinking? What illness does she have? (No one actually knows.) How changeless she is, how ageless, how boneless. And for all that the eye is still drawn into and held by the canvas.
It may take as long to understand Bonnard as he took to understand the colour white, but the wait is worth it, probably.
The Coddling of the
Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
Penguin 2018 £9.99 (Kindle)
ASIN B07B3LLRSH 352pp
Are good intentions and bad ideas setting up a generation for failure? This is the proposition in the subtitle of this provocative critique of western society. The authors see an increasing polarization in US society and a number of connected trends: increased adolescent depression, overprotective regimes in universities, pursuit of justice that makes the best an enemy of the good, obsessive use of phones and tablets, widespread play deprivation and more fearful parenting.
‘Paranoid parenting… convinces children that the world is full of danger; evil lurks in the shadows, on the streets, and in public parks and restrooms. Kids raised in this way are emotionally prepared to embrace the Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people – a worldview that makes them fear and suspect strangers. We teach children to monitor themselves for the degree to which they “feel unsafe” and then talk about how unsafe they feel. They may come to believe that feeling “unsafe” (the feeling of being uncomfortable or anxious) is a reliable sign that they are unsafe (the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings). Finally, feeling these emotions is unpleasant; therefore, children may conclude, the feelings are dangerous in and of themselves – stress will harm them if it doesn’t kill them (the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker).’
In The Coddling of the American Mind free speech campaigner Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt challenge these three “untruths of fragility, emotional reasoning and ‘us versus them’”. They show them as contradictory to both ancient wisdom and modern psychology, besides being harmful. A presenting problem is the use of social media by the passionate to rubbish people – no more giving people the benefit of the doubt. A deception that the world is made up of ‘Us versus Them’ is promoted by the same media, and people live in ‘self-confirmatory bubbles, where their worst fears about the evils of the other side can be confirmed and amplified by extremists and cyber trolls intent on sowing discord and division’. Coupled to this deception is promotion of a safety culture in which people’s need to feel comfortable is put on the same level as their need to be protected from physical danger. The consequences for the rising generation is a certain naivety as they grow up protected from the life experience they need to develop resilient living.
The authors cite critically a quotation from an essay on EverydayFeminism.com: ‘In the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?’ Such an understanding makes bigots of all of us who upset others with our views however pure our intentions. Paradoxically distinguishing hurtful talk from harmful talk, a distinction widely accepted in ancient wisdom traditions, serves to help address the roots of conflict. This is why universities have been up to now loth to protect their students from ideas some of them find offensive: to make them learn to think and engage with them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is commended for rebuking a ‘pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically … divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad. You are either one or the other.’ Western society is being crippled by disrespect shown in debates lacking humility in which people rubbish one another, blind to the truth that, whatever opinions they hold, all human beings possess both fragility and beauty. The authors mention unfavourably the oratory of Donald Trump and some of the things being said in the Brexit debate.
What strategies can bring the world out of such error? The authors look particularly to religion as a source of transformative vision quoting Martin Luther-King: ‘Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend… Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that’. It’s ironic that the vision that impelled King is getting increasingly obscured by those offended by religion’s immemorial place in the public square. This is a challenging, inspiring and timely book.
Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?
SPCK 88pp £9.99
This book comes recommended by many distinguished intellectuals including – perhaps surprisingly? – Melvyn Bragg, whose name appears in bold red lettering on the front cover. I recognised all but one of their names and they are all members of the left-liberal establishment of interfaith studies. They take themselves very seriously, so don’t pick this book up if you’re of the sort that likes theological discussion to be leavened by a little light-heartedness. Their commendations come down to us as from a very great altitude. The author has pretentions, if not pretentiousness, and a certain po-facedness: a man for whom jokes are no laughing matter.
The title itself begs the question. Does religion do more harm than good? It all depends which religion we’re talking about, doesn’t it? A few approaches to the study of religion are mentioned, if not discussed with any great rigour, and these approaches – philosophical, ethical or aesthetic – are dismissed as more or less inadequate. One analytical method alone provides what Dr Casaubon called “the key to all mythologies.” Shortt declares firmly: “Sociological spadework is needed to place the insights expressed by defenders of religion on a surer foundation.” It is hard to resist the conclusion that the author’s religion is sociology, with Max Weber and David Martin among its prophets. The book is even dedicated to two contemporary sociologists.
Shortt is a rationalist fan of the 18th century Enlightenment which, “formed a protest against unaccountable authority.” Yes, but only by setting itself up as a new, equally unaccountable, authority based on rationalistic abstractions of the sort first criticised by Kant and, more recently and with sublime eloquence by R.G. Collingwood in his Essay on Metaphysics.
The style and examples chosen are frequently whimsical and fey. For instance, discussing creativity, he says, “Carpenters can pass on the articles they make, never seeing them again. But a song is, by definition, an emanation of a singer.” This is plain snobbery. A fine chair has Mr Chippendale written all over it quite as much as Erna Berger’s rendering of Die Holle Rache is entirely her own.
Shortt claims: “Three-quarters of humanity possess a faith.” That is a pretty shallow judgement – or are we to suppose that Marxists and other atheists have certainty? In reality, every worldview starts from its own particular absolute presuppositions; and these presuppositions cannot be demonstrated but must simply be assumed.
He cites the famous description of religion in the Roman Empire, that it was “…regarded as true by the ignorant masses, as false by the philosophers and by the magistrates as a convenient method of social control.” Is there any perspective which allows us to escape this class-based subjectivity?
Shortt leaves us in no doubt that the universal salve is the practice of sociology – and pursued with all the rigorous intensity of Ignatius Loyola’s Exercises.
A Guide to Social Justice
Activist, healer, ecosexual otherkin, and author of intersectional slam poetry Titania McGrath has now published her long-awaited first book, Woke: A Guide to Social Justice. The content is indicated by chapter headings such as F**k the Patriarchy, The Tyranny of Facts, Brexit and the Rise of the Fourth Reich, Wedlocked, Islamofeminism and The Androcaust. Titania burst on to Twitter early in 2018 and followers have flocked to her ever since. With a ruthless politically correct logic all of her own, she triumphantly calls out social conservatives of all kinds as bigots, transphobes, Nazis, etc.
Woke is not, however, so much of a parody as it may at first appear: Titania rarely strays far beyond what real-live commentators have actually said and she quotes throughout a range of politicians, academics, celebrities as well as the doughty ‘keyboard warriors’ of social media. We hear, for example, the observations of presidential hopeful Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that many people are more ‘concerned about being precisely, factually and semantically correct than about being morally right’; of activist Rudy Martinez that ‘white death will mean liberation for all’; and of David Lammy MP that ‘the government’s “will of the people” mantra is b***ocks’.
How extraordinary it is that in an age when science and reason as represented by Richard Dawkins and co have supposedly triumphed that public discourse is increasingly being taken over by the mass of fantasy and self-contradiction that Woke deftly exposes. In the clunky view of some commentators, this is because ‘Woke’ views have themselves become a new ‘religion’ which appeals to those who continue to be perversely attracted by irrational, absurd and fanciful ideas. In fact, the opposite is true. As Saint John Paul II put it at the start of his eponymous encyclical, ‘Faith and Reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’. Once you fatally weaken Christianity, with its commitment to an ultimately rational and intelligible universe that God has created through his ordering logos, the result turns out not to be a universal commitment to enlightened rationality but rather the unreason, confusion and self-contradiction that Titania so splendidly parodies.
Christians of many sorts, accustomed to a relatively easy ride in western society and schooled by our Lord in habits of forbearance and peacefulness, may be tempted to try and make an accommodation with Woke thinking: to be tolerant, see the good points and come to terms. However, Titania and her allies advocate an explicitly utopian programme that will brook no compromise or half-measures. ‘I will not rest’, she writes, ‘until we have achieved our diverse intersectional socialist decolonised polyamorous genderqueer pro-trans body-positive anti-ableist privilege-checking speech policing hate-free matriarchal utopia’. In all such thinking, individual men and women are liable to be sacrificed to the grand plan to re-shape society. In the words of the philosopher Josef Pieper, ‘the claim to erect an imperturbable permanent order in the world must necessarily lead to something inhuman’. Traditional Christians are likely, then, to find accommodation with ‘Woke’ ideas increasingly less possible, and the Church will need to develop a more robust and more fearless critique than has been managed so far.
Founded in the Christian tradition’s ample reflection on the virtues of justice and charity, such a critique will, however, avoid unhelpful polarisation, because Titania and her supporters need to be met with the grace and truth of Christ, rather than equal and opposite incoherent polemic.
I had one or two slightly Woke moments of my own when, shortly after the book’s publication, it was revealed that Titania is in fact the academic, journalist and commentator, Dr Andrew Doyle. Without wanting to succumb to extreme identitarian politics, his authorship of poems with a variety of gynaecological titles made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. If he occasionally goes a little bit far, Doyle achieves through extraordinarily powerful wit what he never could in an angry rant. And humour is an important weapon, because it’s one that Titania herself simply doesn’t understand. ‘I should say from the outset,’ she tells us, ‘that I’ve never been interested in comedy. I haven’t smiled since nursery school, and I regret that moment even now’.
Love makes no sense
An invitation to Christian
Jennifer Strawbridge, Jarred Mercer and Peter Groves
ISBN 9780334057284, £12.99
This book sets itself the ambitious aim to provide a series of distinct but closely-connected essays, which explore the main Christian doctrines with an emphasis on how they are experienced by Christian people in the course of their everyday lives. In total there are six different authors of ten essays which explore aspects of doctrine, ranging from the person of Jesus and the love of God, through the problem of sin and suffering, to the sacraments, scripture and the church.
Using the linking theme of ‘Love makes no sense’, the essay titles include Love Overflowing, Love Personified and Love Inexhaustible. The writers are all connected with the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology in Oxford, which was founded to provide people – lay and ordained – with the theological resources for an active Christian life. It has grown out of a parish church in the catholic tradition of Anglicanism and is ‘a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith’.
The opening essay by Peter Groves studies afresh the story of the prodigal son. He eschews an exercise in biblical scholarship and instead focuses on a simple reading of the text. He concludes that the actions of the father towards his younger son seem ludicrous, and thus the actions of God towards us are similarly ludicrous, ‘The love of God…makes no sense…unconditional love, love poured out unthinkingly upon someone who does not even begin to deserve it’. This chapter emphasises that the love of God as seen through the person of Jesus is often rejected and is met with righteous indignation by those who consider it unfair. It turns all our preconceived ideas about how things should be upside down. This radical new world view is explored in the context of the Christology of John’s Gospel, and the trajectory is set for the following chapter on the Trinity by Jennifer Strawbridge, ‘Love in Excess’.
Later, Jarred Mercer writes on the Incarnation, acknowledging that for some the concept of God becoming ‘enfleshed’ is ‘impossible, or at least ridiculous’. Mercer maintains that this view derives from regarding God as a creature who is many times greater than we are. But once that premise is rejected, it becomes ‘unreasonable for God not to be free’ to unite divinity with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. The idea of the Incarnation as ‘just a cute Christmas story’ is also rejected by insisting that it is ‘about the entire human existence of Christ’.
Jonathan Jong contributes an essay in this collection on the doctrine of Creation, while Judith Brown explores teaching on the Holy Spirit. Melanie Marshall’s contribution to the book is centred on the sacraments where she defends the traditional seven sacraments as pledges of love which link the earthly life of Jesus with ‘the special actions where we can be sure of meeting him today’. She emphasises the transformative nature of the sacramental economy, where an ordinary thing in creation is transformed into something different and life-giving, while an already existing institution, for example marriage, is also changed into a Christian sacrament.
All ten essays in this collection are written in an accessible and engaging way and cover much Christian teaching, against a background of lived-out Christian experience. They would provide an excellent basis for a parish study group or adult confirmation class, and as an added bonus each chapter ends with very helpful suggestions for further reading.
The Life You Never Expected
Thriving while parenting special needs children
Andrew & Rachel Wilson
IVP 2015 £8.99 ISBN 978-1-78359-352-1 160pp
People take other people’s advice more seriously when it comes from experience. We can all appreciate the importance of a testimony that comes from a struggle in real life instead of a theory worked out in a quiet study. It’s the same with Christianity which is often caught more than taught. I have read philosophical defences of God in the face of suffering and much ecclesiology but ‘The Life You Never Expected’ surprised me with its deep insight on God and the Church flowing from parenting autistic children.
Part of the leadership team of King’s Church in Eastbourne, Andrew and Rachel Wilson share experience of grief and worship, struggle and hope whilst raising two children with special needs. Their short, readable book will be helpful for any couple so blessed and challenged. It is also a fantastic commen- dation of Christian discipleship as fit for life at the sharp end. Andrew and Rachel struggle as they pray and seek healing for Zeke and Anna. ‘God gives you everything you would ask for, if you knew everything he knows’ (Tim Keller). They compare their experience to emperor penguins huddling over their eggs through months of frozen darkness (reflected in the cover image): ‘This is almost unbearable, and it’s almost worth quitting, but the sun is on its way. Hang in there’.
A section on the ‘individualitis’ that plagues contemporary culture, and parts of church life, witnesses to how vital the sense of the church is to this couple and should be within Christianity. ‘In God’s global mission, the role of extraordinary people doing exceptional things is probably far smaller than we imagine – and the role of ordinary people doing everyday things is probably far greater than we imagine. If you think you’re exceptional, that will come as a nasty shock. But when you get mugged by life, and find out just how ordinary you are, it’s thoroughly liberating. Carl Trueman was right: ‘My special destiny as a believer is to be part of the church; and it is the church that is the big player in God’s wider plan, and not me’’.
The book was written to remedy an omission the authors discovered when their children were born: they looked for a book about spiritual survival as a family with special needs, but in vain. And as they have written to address this gap as members of a church with a special emphasis on healing ministry, their reflections on unanswered prayer have powerful resonance. What I particularly like about this book is its humanity and humility in the face of one of life’s very great challenges. This is coupled to bold engagement with serious questions, and all set within the eternal perspective.
Brief Answers to the Big Questions
John Murray 2018 Kindle edition £7.99 ASIN: B07D2ZKPL2 256pp
‘Newton gave us answers. Hawking gave us questions. And Hawking’s questions themselves keep on giving, generating breakthroughs decades later. When ultimately we master the quantum gravity laws, and comprehend fully the birth of our universe, it may largely be by standing on the shoulders of Hawking.’ So said Professor Kip Thorne in 2018 at the interment of Stephen Hawking’s ashes between Newton and Darwin in Westminster Abbey under a stone engraved with Hawking’s equation for calculating the temperature of a black hole.
The final work of cosmologist and disability campaigner Stephen Hawking tries to address these questions: Is there a God? How did it all begin? Can we predict the future? What is inside a black hole? Is time travel possible? How do we shape the future? Will we survive on Earth? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Should we colonise space? Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? The first six answers brim with astronomical terms, the last four draw on wider wisdom and are easier reading. All the questions are captivating even if the answers given vary in substance on account of using a rigorous scientific approach to issues at times beyond human research or imagination.
Hawking speaks with academic authority heightened by the moral authority he’s carried living with motor neurone disease. ‘We could have a base on the Moon within thirty years, reach Mars in fifty years and explore the moons of the outer planets in 200 years’ he writes. ‘The only way to get from one side of the galaxy to the other in a reasonable time would seem to be if we could warp space-time so much that we created a little tube or wormhole. This could connect the two sides of the galaxy and act as a shortcut to get from one to the other and back while your friends were still alive’.
Undoubtedly Hawking’s greatest achievement was weaving together the two great scientific theories of the twentieth century, quantum theory and the theory of relativity. He demonstrated that the compacted masses known as black holes aren’t completely black (i.e. non emitters of radiation), but emit what is now called Hawking radiation. ‘The human mind is an incredible thing. It can conceive of the magnificence of the heavens and the intricacies of the basic components of matter. Yet for each mind to achieve its full potential, it needs a spark. The spark of enquiry and wonder. Often that spark comes from a teacher’. He pays tribute to his own inspirational teacher as readers of this last testament are sparked by Hawking himself into thinking ahead for ourselves and the cosmos.
So few words on such immense topics are bound to have inconsistencies. He is optimistic about Artificial Intelligence serving to eradicate disease and poverty and developing nuclear fusion whilst admitting our best hope is finding other planets on which to live. On theology, he claims that since matter and time began with the Big Bang, No One can exist before it – an argument which rather misunderstands the way in which God is understood to be. Unlike Einstein, whose comment ‘God doesn’t play dice’ hints at purposive wisdom underlying creation, Hawking says if there is a God, which he doubts, he’s got to be a gambler. ‘The universe is like a giant casino with dice being rolled, or wheels being spun, on every occasion’.
‘Brief Answers to the Big Questions’ is a bold thesis from a great mind who, though an inspiration to thousands, admits his main sustenance is in loving and being loved. ‘I have experienced highs and lows, turbulence and peace, success and suffering. I have been rich and poor, I have been able-bodied and disabled. I have been praised and criticised, but never ignored. I have been enormously privileged, through my work, in being able to contribute to our understanding of the universe. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me.’ He was on to something there – and now doubtless knows why, and from Whom, that ultimate meaning comes
A Practical Guide
The obituary of Lord Habgood published in The Times on 8 March recalled him, not long after becoming Archbishop of York in 1973, ‘having lunch with Edward Heath, the prime minister, and announcing his intention to visit a mine. “He looked at me and said, ‘What on earth do you want to go down a coal mine for?’ I said I thought it was quite important to know something about the minds of the people you’re ministering among. Heath replied, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t bother about the miners.’” The next year Heath was put out of office by a miners’ strike.’
This story chimes with a stimulating and incisive new book on non-stipendiary and self-supporting clergy by John Lees, an SSM himself in the Diocese of Exeter. Self-Supporting Ministry: A Practical Guide is a welcome review of those whose main work is beyond the four walls of any church and often the parishes to which they are licensed, how much unpaid clergy do in the Church of England, and how they are often perceived. It is also a diplomatic call to a sleepwalking institution in denial over its resourcing crisis. I was aware myself when made deacon in London in 2016 that for some years roughly a third of the diocese’s ordinands were SSM, but Lees gives the overall picture, which is more stark.
Lees is good on numbers. He quotes extensively from Teresa Morgan’s 2011 survey and research on the SSM cadre, and from national ministry statistics — most recently in 2016. Stipendiary clergy are down to 7,788 (from 9,509 in 2002), 2015-16 SSMs represented 29% of parochial clergy — the highest ever, and over the same two years 51% of SSMs were women; the balance of ordinations between stipendiary and non- varies, but is at least a third SSM. Back in 2011, Teresa Morgan was more emphatic: ‘In 60% of dioceses…SSMs form what we might regard as a typical 25-40% of clergy.’ If she runs her survey again to give a ten-year benchmark we probably don’t need a crystal ball as to the direction of travel.
It cannot be long before some dioceses go beyond the tipping point when non-stipendiary clergy outnumber the stipendiaries. Without wishing to labour it, this raises very grave questions about how the Church of England continues to organize itself and deploy resources. On this basis, ‘many English dioceses are planning increased dependency on SSMs largely for two reasons… a projected decline in church attendance and income… [and] fewer stipendiary clergy available.’ Each page is peppered with little revelations: we have a considerable proportion of clergy over 50 and many will retire by 2025; SSMs are now working as paid incumbents; evidence suggests they are reasonably resistant to burnout; annual costs saved through SSM hours run to tens of millions of pounds.
Specific chapters break very helpful ground. Some welcome theology on this type of ministry and its vocation considers the pain and peculiarity along with its character connects to ‘something indubitably apostolic and primitive… [the] inner meaning of priesthood’ (Michael Ramsey). It’s nice to see it said that a priest is not one who does but who is. I know from experience how hard it can be to balance the various demands and obligations. One SSM speaks of his desk as an altar, and mine is often where I say the Office. Likewise, my office (space) is regularly a confessional where people come for a pastoral chat or to unburden themselves. Lees frequently makes the point that SSMs are there where people are most, in the workplace, relating and witnessing to them as a quiet ordained presence in their midst.
The management and deployment of SSMs is another matter. By and large they receive the same training and assessment as stipendiaries (although the majority understandably undergo non-residential training). Sadly, it can go a bit awry after that. Some incumbents don’t quite know how to work with SSMs or appreciate their para-parochial ministry. Shallow descriptions of ‘hobby priest’ and ‘cherry picking’ abound, along with ‘second-class treatment’, all of which lacks courtesy and theology. Is a stipend or the lack of it really a theologically grounded way to delineate clergy?
Communication is key. Ensuring SSMs have a clear contractual agreement with their incumbent and parish is vital. And whilst most SSMs are strongly self-motivated and entrepreneurial, having parishes understand a little more of their holistic ministry and skillset aids better understanding. Lees makes much of SSMs’ interpersonal skills which are germane to ‘second-chair leadership’, maintaining integrity, and avoiding others feeling threatened. There is good direction: SSMs can help provide stability during a parish vacancy, or bring a workplace perspective into what any parish is trying to do. For this we see descriptions like ‘integrated, bilingual, bi-vocational, bridge’. And far from being helicopter clergy, committed and priestly SSMs absolutely ‘smell of the sheep,’ as Pope Francis would have it.
But it’s still a patchy situation. The system remains stacked wholly in favour of the stipendiary context: Chapter meetings and training sessions habitually happen during working hours with small concessions here and there to SSM availability. We have an arguable surfeit of deans for women or BAME ministry but no consistent appointment for the SSM constituency. Is this wanting to have it both ways? Not really. When you’re running things at least a third of your people cannot attend then you risk their goodwill and engagement, and possibly set them up to fail. It’s said that we could have SSM bishops and archdeacons (a questionable strategy in my eyes), but a representation on bishop’s council, in the General Synod, in cathedral honorary stalls? Until then, this largely invisible ministry will remain so to the decision makers.
It would be petty to quibble about omissions or elisions. I might have liked a little colour by way of Leslie Hunter and his Sheffield Industrial Mission, or more on Ted Wickham’s own contribution (for they surely would have influenced Habgood). St Benedict and his theology of ‘work as worship’ gets one mention. The Continental ‘worker-priest’ movement is name-checked a few times but without unpacking its key thinkers, impact or status. Topography is hardly touched upon, be that where SSM boots currently are on the ground or where they might be needed the most, and for what. As a result, we have a tightly-focussed tour d’horizon of the present scene recounted with clarity and calm. It’s not afraid to pose difficult questions, which essentially the data does itself, and is not confrontational. There’s a pragmatism: we’re in it together but need to face up to the realities.
This book needs to be read by all bishops, archdeacons, DDOs, college principals, and anyone involved with training and deployment. Each chapter concludes with an SSM case study in their own words, and the final quarter gives practical coaching tips for any SSM setting with a particularly helpful section on questions for key players and how to frame a working agreement. It’s all good management, and from someone truly at the coalface. John Lees was recently installed as an honorary prebend of Exeter Cathedral – worthy recognition of a ministry to which we can now add this book.