The Parish Handbook

I have just finished writing a book! At the moment I feel as if I could write a book about writing a book such is the effort involved. There are two particular challenges in my doing this while also running a busy parish. How do I get the time to do it and how do I find the words to write it? The first question is more easily answered. I have stopped watching TV, changed from long baths to short showers and I am at my desk four mornings a week by 5am. When the parents arrive at 9am with their children at the Church School I have been long awake.

The second question is less obvious. The book is called The Parish Handbook. It is an A-Z of parish life. It will have 26 chapters, each of 2,000 words and each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. I argue that a parish church is relevant to society precisely because of its non-conformity to contemporary culture. In gathering people together from across the community the parish church is a site of resistance against the individualized, segregated and often-lonely society in which we live.

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The book is not however be about the vagaries of parish life. It is about the ways of God in the world and therein lies the challenge - how do I write about the one thing that cannot be described? How can I use representational language for God when God is the one thing that can never be represented?

I am not writing about God per se but giving expression to how we perceive God. Theology is watching what we say in front of God. It is a work with words. God used words to reveal himself and we use words to respond. John (1:1) identified Christ as the pre-incarnate word. Christ himself gave [to the Church] the prophets, the apostles, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers (Eph 2:11). They talked, made announcements and gave testimonies.

We use words for absence of anything else and words are a limited in what they can do. Generations of clergy would have found Trinity Sunday easier to contend with if they realized that St Augustine himself openly admitted (De Trin V 9 VII 4) that to call God by what [we understand as] ‘person’ is simply a necessity or protocol for speaking; a really suitable term for it does not exist. He said that we still uses the expression three persons, not because it has any value in itself but simply so that we might not be altogether silent.

I am finding that words for someone to read are more precise than words in a sermon. When I preach I have eye contact. I can smile at people but what might be a challenge in a sermon can come across as hectoring in a book. I am finding that words for someone to read are more demanding than words on the Internet. In a blog or on a website I can be anecdotal in the name of accessibility but what might be anecdotal on the Internet can appear random and disconnected in a book. In a book the ideas are king and the author their servant. If I can’t explain something simply then I have not understood it well. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

The early hours of the morning have become my secret garden in which ideas germinate and take shape. My three golden rules of writing spill into my daytime parish life and are making me a better priest in the process.

My first golden rule is not to start sentences with a negative. I say what something is before I say what it is not. I now tell people not to define their day by the worst thing that happened. My second golden rule is to write the book without using the words ‘should’ or ‘ought’. People don’t wanted to be hectored in a book of theology and there is nothing gracious in my doing so. The ethos in Scripture is that something is either done or it is not done. Ideas are not left hanging as a possible course of action. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) is a command not a piece of advice. There is a therefore but there is no should in grace. My third golden rule is that I write in order to live more fully. ‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory’, wrote Kurt Lewin, ‘if you want truly to understand something, try to change it.'