The Naked Preacher

Action Research and a Practice of Preaching

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Jason C. Boyd
SCM Research
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , March
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $104.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780334056447.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jason Boyd’s monograph, The Naked Preacher: Action Research and the Practice of Preaching, is based on doctoral research in which he analysed the practice and reception of his own preaching as a pastor at Witney Congregrational Church in Oxfordshire, UK. However, this is not primarily a book about preaching, but about action research (AR) and theology. Whilst the reflexive analysis of his own preaching is done in great depth, he tends to use his learning points as a springboard to explore other aspects of AR, and through it develops his method which he terms “action research as a way of doing theology,’ and which he paraphrases as ART (xv).

The main strength of the book is Boyd’s deep reflexivity.  The first two chapters set out the basis for his position with AR in general, and more specifically with his notion of ART (xv). Using an artist’s palette as a metaphor, he adds the three “colors,”—hitherto unknown to him—of AR, practical theology (PT), and Ignatian spirituality.

Jesuit priest David Coghlan’s work, which builds bridges between Ignatian spirituality and AR, is particularly important to Boyd. The reflexivity central to both practices is clearly evident in Boyd’s work. It is not limited to a few paragraphs or so on who he is and what positions he brings to the research, though these are clearly mentioned, but is reflexive about his preaching, assumptions, person, epistemological values, and is even self-reflexive in the way he has used his method. The (slightly unjust) assertion Boyd makes of other practical theologians having left themselves off the pages of their own research (37, 55) cannot be leveled at him.

To give three examples of how his action-reflection cycle works out, Boyd’s analysis of his sermon preparation in relation to Luke 24:19 led to a reflection on the physical nature of knowing (112–6); the realization that he tended to preach without looking at his congregation led to a discussion of vulnerability and attention in the action-reflection cycle (128–147); and his reflections on where to stand within the church sanctuary when preaching led to renewed understanding of the positionality of the researcher within the insider/outsider relationship in AR (150­–179). Boyd acknowledges that these insights do not give universal insight for all preaching, but could create resonances with other preachers and congregations which may contribute to their knowledge, and perhaps even encourage them to take up AR methods in their congregational life (181, 217). In each of these, the action-reflection cycle combined with Boyd’s commitment to deep reflexivity compellingly reveal the insights that can be gained from his method.

Much of chapter 1 explores how the “disciplines” of AR and practical theology might relate to one another (36ff.). However, I question his attribution of the category of “discipline” to AR, albeit with blurry boundaries (40); he later contradicts this saying AR “resists the label” (126). Rather, AR can be seen as a methodology or family of approaches (Reason and Bradbury, The Sage Handbook of Action Research, Sage, 2015) that can be used in service of many disciplines (theology, anthropology, psychology, organizational studies, etc.). Seeing it like this removes the difficulty of the need for correlation between AR and the other disciplines, and in this case frees PT to operate with integrity within its own confessional framework, contributing action-research generated knowledge to that field.

Seeing AR as a methodology to be utilized might have reduced the complexity of how AR and PT relate in Boyd’s writing. Perhaps his reason for seeing AR this way rests in his immersion in the spiritual practices of Ignatian spirituality which require everyday commitment and are therefore daily disciplines (in the non-academic sense of the word). Nevertheless, this small difference in understanding action research as a family of methodologies would probably not have altered the practicalities of his method dramatically.

Boyd makes a good case for his form of action research being theology. The assertion that both are in the business of transformation is uncontroversial (41) and the recognition that AR and Ignatian action-reflection cycles bear similarity is essential (44). He explores the notion of habitus as a grounding. “For the action researcher who is a practicing Christian it is necessary to be fully embedded in both the AR orientation and the faith community. Conversely, the person of faith and the formal practical theologian engaging with the AR orientation has to inhabit both spheres of practice intentionally” (58). Therefore, he clearly takes a confessional position that God is active in the world and that experiences of Him can be found in the ordinary experiences of life – and that this is theology. This approach to practical theology is accepted (for example, Mark Cartledge, Practical Theology, Paternoster, 2003), but remains questionable for the action researcher in the social sciences.

A major limitation of the work, however, is in his engagement with another form of AR developed within PT, namely Theological Action Research (TAR, see Cameron et al., Talking about God in Practice, SCM Press, 2010). As a method being developed at the same time as Boyd began his research, he cannot have been expected to use it, ­but Cameron, et al’s approach, characterized as being both action research and being theological all the way through, merits more in-depth discussion in a work of this type. Apart from a brief sentence near the end of the book (204), Boyd’s treatment of this major contribution to PT methodology is found in one paragraph approached entirely through the lens of Elaine Graham’s work in PT and is dismissed as a form of “consultancy” (37).

Overall this is an important contribution to AR in the field of practical theology in how action research can be used in ministerial settings. Boyd has offered a robust analysis of his method and brings an important challenge to all who engage in post-graduate research in terms of his reflexivity, which is deep, insightful, and transformative to his practice. Whilst he would like his method to inspire AR in ministerial settings for those who wish to reflect on their practice, a more accessible book will be required for this message to spread. This book, however, is a valuable contribution for post-graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rev. Andrew Dunlop is a doctoral student pursuing Theological Action Research at the University of Roehampton, London.

 

Date of Review: 
September 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jason C. Boyd is Tutor in Theology for the Congregational Federation Foundation Degree.

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