Postcolonial Practice of Ministry

Leadership, Liturgy, and Interfaith Engagement

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Pui-Lan Kwok, Stephen Burns
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , July
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This contribution to the important discussion of postcolonial theory and the theological disciplines emerges from papers presented in 2014 at Episcopal Divinity School. Using biblical scholar R. S. Sugirtharajah’s emphases, Co-editor Stephen Burns introduces three specific concepts of postcolonialism: historical effects of colonization, analysis of conflict and “othering,” and challenging understandings of authority. Burns notes that each author uses “postcolonialism” in at least one of these three ways. Burns argues, and the rest of the book suggests, that a need exists for “postcolonial criticism to be engaged in more intentional ways with Christian practices, events, and communities beyond the academy” (5).

Emmanuel Lartey’s chapter identifies some characteristics of postcolonial leadership, especially in the African context. Key to this work is what I might call contextualization-from-below—meaning attending to and incorporating the diverse, and sometimes divergent—identities and practices of the people originally from the area. Pastoral care providers need to hear and respect the diversity of perspectives in the community, and leadership seeks to disrupt and transform the dominant position of the colonizers.

Melinda McGarrah Sharp argues that one can never fully prepare for practicing postcolonial ministry. She notes that “postcolonialism is not so much a definition to be mastered, but rather a posture of listening in the midst of tension and challenge” (38). I found this assertion encouraging for readers new to this approach, especially as she notes that mistakes will probably happen. Mona West’s chapter looks at the Metropolitan Community Church as a prime example of postcolonial community that serves as “a third space” living in tension (55). Stephanie Mitchem provides a helpful conduit between womanist theology and postcolonial theory in her chapter.

In discussing the Eucharist, HyeRan Kim-Cragg correctly describes the need to focus on performance and ritual, rather than just the authoritative texts in the book. She also draws on noted liturgical historian Paul Bradshaw’s arguments around lumpers and splitters in highlighting the hybridity of liturgical practice. Here, her critique of some Eucharistic elements as participating in economic oppression is an important one.

Michael Jagessar continues the discussion of the Eucharist in his chapter, focusing on the issue of remembering. Drawing upon New Testament scholarship, Jagessar states that liturgical texts “with their literary constructions and representations, are already culturally and ideologically compromised” (98). For me, this raises the question: how are liturgical communities to handle tradition—that is—what has been passed down? Jagessar responds with the concept of hybridity, in which multiple identities and dis-identity occur. Jenny Te Paa Daniel narrates her experience as an indigenous lay woman from the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where her research on the prayer book serves as a case study for attempts at reclaiming identity and power.

Lim Swee Hong’s chapter on music is useful for both scholars and musicians, noting that “church music practices need to remain true to their holy vocation—that is, to be ‘the excellent gift of God’” (124). She draws on ethnomusicology, ritual studies, and theology to assist her work and in the end, concludes that dogma and inheritance/experience must be held together in a “healthy tension” (131), which I find to be a useful approach to liturgical and musical preparation in community.

Cláudio Carvalhaes’s chapter on interreligious prayer is necessary at a time when religion is described and debated—for good or for ill—constantly in media. Although his approach to the history and use of lex orandi lex credendi has been challenged in the literature, Caravlhaes’s conclusion is appropriate: “our commitment is to create networks of hope, through prayer, belief and ethical actions” (139). Carvalhaes also identifies a tension between commitment and disruption; thus, he wonders if it is possible to hold fast to Christ while praying to another deity. His solution is open interfaith engagement in conversation that begins with an affirmation of one’s own faith(s).

Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook introduces the reader to postcolonial interreligious learning in her chapter, which includes the sharing of personal narratives that allows hidden or stifled voices and stories to be heard. Like Carvalhaes, Kujawa-Holbrook notes the importance of starting with one’s own religious tradition when engaging with another, while simultaneously seeing the beauty and limitations of each. This point cannot be overemphasized—it requires critical engagement. Jonathan Tan continues the discussion in his chapter on contemporary Asia.

In her chapter on the “Mission-Shaped Church” strategy of the Church of England, Jenny Daggers argues that this approach provides an opportunity for “white British Anglicans to decolonize … for the common good of contemporary English society” (193). This can occur through learning from the missionized, engaging in ecumenical relations, and hospitality—most notably, by being the recipients of transformation rather than the transformers. Melanie Harris, in her chapter, argues that “womanist is inherently interfaith” (199), and describes the history and contexts of that claim. She notes the importance of both inter- and intra-faith/religious/cultural dialogues to highlight the variety of practices that call for justice in the world. The expansive definition of “womanist” provides for such a possibility.

Kwok, in her epilogue, brings together the various papers from the book. She notes that Christianity has grown in the Global South and wonders, quite appropriately, “whether the colonial trappings of the church” are able to speak to, and bring together communities, of justice, especially as they are dwindling in the Global North (216). She sees social engagement and world transformation as the primary purposes of postcolonial theology. Thus, the postcolonial church is a “messy, in-between space such that God’s grace, beyond human understanding, can be made known” (221).

This book was helpful for me as I continue to explore the implications of postcolonial theory in ministry and practical theology. The useful bibliographies point the reader to recent important contributions in these fields. As any good scholarship does, this book not only answered questions for me, but it also gave me new questions to pose. What about colonized communities that have “claimed” what was imposed on them as a way to strip the colonizers of their power—for example, LGBT communities that claimed the word “queer” to take away its derogatory power? Is it possible to do formation in a postcolonizing way? How can a community coalesce around shared meanings and practices?

I recommend this book to both scholars and practitioners who care about how to minister to all people.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kyle Schiefelbein serves as a course design specialist at the Graduate Theological Union.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pui-Lan Kwok is William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Stephen Burns is Stewart Distinguished Lecturer in Liturgical and Practical Theology, co-coordinator of ministerial formation, and associate dean of Trinity College Theological School, University of Melbourne, Australia.



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