Priests in Secular Work -Participating in the Missio Dei by Jenny Gage

Priests in Secular Work -Participating in the Missio Dei by Jenny Gage

 Sacristy Press 2020 (207 pages) 978-1-78959-142-2 £14.99

Sacristy Press has established itself as an innovative publishing house with a diverse, engaging and ground breaking list. Natalie Watson, Richard Hilton, Eric Sharman and Thomas Ball are a strong team. This book is an example of the good judgement and outward facing learning ecology of its the Press and its witness and work.

This book is masterful. It is well written and carefully organised. Its origins lie in the authors doctoral research. It has been re-crafted into a model of how to engage in theological reflective practice. Ten chapters cover a range of areas with skill and fluency. Part autobiography, part biblical hermeneutic, part theological reflection the book demonstrates the power of ethnographic research. Gage allows her interviewees to narrate their vocational journey, how the context of work shapes the formation of priestly identity and a theology of work and place. It is grounded in a rootedness in the Christian tradition that connects, illuminates and challenges some of the fixity of ministerial and ecclesiological norms.

It is not surprising that the work originated under the leadership of Dr Zoe Bennett at Anglia Ruskin University and her leadership of the Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology. Her rigour and expansive knowledge of the field have brought of the best in many generations of students. This work holds together a skillfull attention to the narratives of worker priests, the presuppositions and limitations of the researcher and a commitment to a a coherent theology that searches for a view of the possibilities of viewing ministry with a different lens. Honesty, reflexivity and a commitment to missional practice shape the text.

The introduction sets the scene – and a reminder to all researchers and writers that a passion for the area of study sustains motivation and can expand horizons of knowledge. Chapter 1 is an autobiographical account of the authors vocational journey, her marriage and divorce, her work as a Maths teacher and educational researcher followed by early retirement. This life experience shapes the research journey. Three key questions are asked – Who am I ? What am I for ? What am I looking for ? ( pages 11- 18). Gage concludes, ‘ I believe in …. parish ministry but I also believe there is room for other ways to be Church and to be a priest …. which are about being part of Christs kingdom in the wider world’ (page 30). This theme is explored in the next 9 chapters.

The first part ( 1: The Context {chapters 2 through to 6} and the second part (2: PSW [ Priest in Secular Work].{chapters 7 through to 10} develop the identity and shape of ministry from a range of angles. A postscript draws the book to a close and there is a comprehensive bibliography and notes.

The theological framework (from Pentecost to Parousia) this shapes the conviction that Worker Priests secular work has a distinctive contribution to the Missio Dei. Fundamental to all this is the assumption that we must be careful ( with Bonhoeffer ) not separate the sacred from the secular. Gage warns against a lazy ecclesiology ( page 40) and quoting Rowan Williams, ‘ living a religious life is not about being spiritual but about living a life in which God is acknowledged’ (page 41).

Chapter Three offers some historical background and is notable for its outline of the development of the history of SSM (self supporting ministry) particularly in the Diocese of Southwark. Chapter Four offers an outline of the theology of priesthood through asking Archbishop Michael Ramseys question ‘why the priest?’ (page 51). Chapter Five discusses the complex narratives still present when we discuss what it might mean to ‘have a vocation’. These chapters might have been enriched through an exploration of the steady professionalisation of ministry and leadership that have their roots in the 1970s and beyond. The influences on the languages and cultures of ministry are many and complex !

Chapter Six describes the research project which leads into Part Two. The voices and refections of those interviewees are curated with insight and wisdom. The interpretation is shaped by scripture, tradition and prayer. The variety of narratives are articulated in these organising areas: What does it mean to be a priest in the ‘secular’? Does it make any difference to how do we our jobs? How does this proclaim Christ to the world and what is the role of the PSW in the life of the Church? Chapter Eight takes Johns Gospel to explore identity which leads into a chapter which discusses a theology of work (Chapter Nine – What do you seek). This is developed in chapter Ten with an offering of a theology of place. The strands are drawn together with more illuminating narratives from the interviewees.

The final sentence of the book reads : ‘ We seek Christ in “ten thousand places”, and for this we are here. (page 176).

Christ the Worker

Jenny Gage acknowledges some of the realities of the present Covid pandemic. In the coming months we shall seek to reconstruct the shape of the Church in the face of probably the most significant threat to our society and way of life in a century. The challenges are fundamental at every level and not least for the role, shape and organisation of religion (and Church) in the fabric of our life.

In this we shall need a theology of the agency of God and the Kingdom where the world in all its richness is a source of theological knowledge and truth. We may even need a very different approach to the resourcing and practice of ministry. Jenny Gage invites her reader into listening to a range of stories that may have the possibility of shifting our binary divisions between the sacred and secular. It ask us all to honour those whose context is the workplace and in doing so invites us to consider the limitations of our own contexts for the work of God.

Professor James Woodward is Principal of Sarum College (

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