‘It’s Not About Me’ : Reading Cottrell on Priesthood over a lockdown weekend.

 by The Revd Canon Professor James Woodward, 19 April 2020

I wonder what you are finding absorbs your time and attention during these strange hours and days? My table at home is gathering some small (and neatly organised) piles of books. Some associated with work and lectures to prepare. Some for pleasure and others (I hope) for self-improvement! 

Stephen Cottrell’s book On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards (Hodder and Stoughton 2020) arrived last week. I read its 176 pages over two days. It has a deceptive lightness of touch but do not be fooled – its fluent prose reflects careful study and research. It is grounded, focused, and artistically weaves Scripture, tradition and experience with skill and (at times) searing honesty about self and others. It keeps a sense of adventure and fun alongside a commitment to ask its readers some serious questions about discipleship, vocation and ministry. 

So – what is in the book? 

Three parts and eight chapters with an introduction and afterword. Cottrell sets the scene with a plea for an excitement and curiosity about God. Where might we see what Christ can do and where God’s Love can be found and claimed. “Being a priest has nourished my own humanity and helped me to see the world as God sees it and to make the world are as God would have it to be.” (p7)

Chapter 1 opens up a conversation about the nature of priesthood and ministry. It articulates a theology of the church grounded in scripture and the ordinal.  It both critiques and offers a different interpretation of the much-contested concepts of leadership and management. Cottrell understands the nature of good order but takes a wider view of what kind of church human flourishing. Priests are two in body and live out the apostolic ministry which they share with the Bishop. Priests are women and men under authority living within in an Anglican tradition that has charism and wisdom developed over centuries of presence and service service – and encapsulated in our liturgy.

Chapter 2 opens up the main section of the book with an exploration of the ways in which the priest is a servant – charged to lead and guide. This is a ministry of the diaconate that should always be open to surprises both from the questions that those we serve ask of us and is through our service the constant discovery of the goodness and grace of God.

Chapter 3 enlarges our sense of the biblical metaphor of Shepherd as those who are called seek to follow the example of Christ and the ways in which goodness is demonstrated. Knowing the people and loving the people become key hallmarks of the outworking or priesthood. We need to belong and in that belonging, be known – these are the hallmarks of church growth and church health. However this isn’t priesthood as platforming or performing solo! This needs to be shared. The whole people of God need to be equipped to engage in care. This isn’t about a careful disposition or an attitude – priests need to be knowledgeable, self-aware and to a degree, proficient. There are key messages here and throughout the book for those of us involved in theological education and formation.

Chapter 4 opens up the theme of priest as messenger. What are we to share with others? What are we proclaiming? Cottrell warns against formulas and slogans – he asks his reader to go deep and to explore what it might mean for us to bear Jesus himself. He invites us to describe that in a nutshell. What does forgiveness mean? How do we tell the story of God’s love? In these bold and ambitious invitations, the reader is also asked to consider the limitations of who they are and what they can do. What might it mean to discover and rediscover our places of replenishing? We are invited into a movement out of the shallow end of populism and be theological reflectors of creativity and depth (p75). This has all the potential for bringing us joy and lies at the heart of all effective evangelism.

Chapter 5, which during this first reading spoke most powerfully and generatively to me, opens up the image of Sentinel. So, what is a Sentinel?  ‘The job of sentinel is to scan the horizon. To look. To discern. To see what is coming. To interpret. To guide. To announce. To warn.’ (p84). How do we inhabit the world? What does it mean to watch and to listen? What we need to do in order to stand in that place where we have a big capacious heart for the pain of the world? (p99) quoting Bishop Jack Nicholls. This chapter also contains a warning for those priests who are constantly seeking approval ratings! Whose affirmation are we seeking– God’s or the congregation’s’?

Chapter 6 opens up the metaphor of steward using the arresting metaphor of the priest as conductor. Presidency of the Eucharist with all its trappings and rituals is discussed with care and pragmatism as we are asked to all serve to play and love the music of the gospel. I think it is important to note that in this chapter and others Cottrell does not create or perpetuate hierarchy or patriarchy. There is a strong sense of a faith working together as baptised followers of Christ seeking to serve the world.

Part 3 opens up a moving and powerful meditation on ministry as carrying the cross (Chapter 7) and develops the arresting comments of an Anglo-Catholic retreat conductor offered many years ago to Cottrell – find enough time to sleep, enough time to pray, then do what you can. The truth of this simple invitation for ministry – is discussed with (now) characteristic insight and humanity. None of this work is done in our own strength but it is hard, costly and sometimes wounding.

The afterword is the sermon preached the consecration of two bishops in 2012. It is a sermon that attracted some publicity and criticism, but it moves into a conclusion for this book which invites the reader into a deeper reflexivity about our shared ministry for the kingdom of God.

Finally, it is worth noting that the acknowledgements run over three pages. Here we have listed and described a range of people and places that have shaped thinking and practice. Happily, the list includes Sarum College and a reference to Stephen’s time working in our glorious library. 

All of us need to spend some time to step back and think about who we are, what we are doing and what is that is life-giving about vocation, discipleship and ministry.

I promise you that this book will be a faithful but sometimes very unsettling guide for you if you are ready to dig deeply into your identity, your flaws, the ‘work in progress’ which is every human being as we seek to embrace Grace and search for wholeness in Christ.

At Sarum it will not be recommended reading for our ordinands in formation – it will be required reading! And to model that I offer you my copy of this book (see photo) which indicates the parts of these pages that I need to go back to in order to dig deeper, order to change so that character, wisdom and faithfulness may continue to grow and develop.

The Revd Canon Professor James Woodward is Principal of Sarum College. This post originally appeared on his personal blog.

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