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Doing theology as a bishop

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First posted at Fulcrum

Introduction

Doing theology as a bishop, as well as writing it, often turns out to be exhilarating. At the end of November 2011, I chaired an extraordinary study day with 300 sixth-formers from four Sherborne Schools: The Gryphon, Sherborne Boys, Sherborne Girls and Leweston School. We welcomed Peter Kosminsky, the film director, and considered the issues of Israel-Palestine, through clips from his Channel Four series, ‘The Promise’.

The film interweaves the history of Britain’s involvement in the founding of the State of Israel with current events, seen through the eyes of Erin, an 18-year-old girl retracing events in her grandfather’s diary. Aired over four 100-minute episodes in the spring of 2011, it explores the little-known experiences of British soldiers serving in Palestine in 1947-48 and confronts the troubled present-day reality in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

We were joined by Rabbi Danny Rich, from London, and the Senior Lecturer in computer animation from Bournemouth University, Dr Hammadi Nait-Charif.

The fascinating questions — many of them unexpected — ranged across the fields of religion, politics and the creative arts. The workshops in the afternoon and the final plenary panel were deeply moving. That evening at Sherborne Abbey, we had an Advent Carol Service with a difference. It included readings in Hebrew and Arabic, (with translations) and a song in Aramaic, the mother-tongue of Jesus of Nazareth.

This interweaving of friendships and discussions across the four schools we continue with other creative events. On Wednesday 28 March 2012, a leading Irish poet, Micheal O’Siadhail, gave a poetry reading in Sherborne Abbey.

Future discussions with sixth formers will include Nicholas Mercer, curate at Gillingham, Dorset, and former senior legal officer of the British Forces in Iraq. In November 2011, he had been awarded the Human Rights Lawyer of the year award, by Liberty.

In the Diocese of Salisbury, three bishops cover two counties in the South West of England: Wiltshire (most of it) which is inland and Dorset, on the historic, Jurassic coast. The Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam, is the diocesan bishop, and ministers throughout the diocese. He is assisted by two suffragan bishops: the Bishop of Ramsbury, Edward Condry, in Wiltshire and the Bishop of Sherborne in Dorset. Most of Dorset is deeply rural, the exception being the Poole conurbation, where about 25% of the population live.

In the one diocese, there are delegated geographical and episcopal ministries. Throughout the diocese, I am chair of Mission Council, the Communications Group, the Salisbury-Sudan link and Warden of Licensed Lay Ministers (formerly known as Readers).

My consecration was at Westminster Abbey in June 2009. The first Bishop of Sherborne was the monk, scholar and poet St Aldhelm. Consecrated in 705 AD, he founded the church at Sherborne. At that time, his diocese covered what is now Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Wiltshire. He was a musician and gathered a crowd on the bridge at Sherborne by playing his small harp and shared the gospel with them.

In this chapter, we shall be considering the four themes of ‘Word’, ‘Tradition’, ‘Sacrament’, and ‘Unity’. We shall draw on biblical texts, the lives of bishops and theologians who have influenced me and examples of ‘doing theology’ in the diocese.

Word — Ezra 7:10

In Rabbinic literature, Ezra is known as Ezra the Scribe. The rabbis look back to him with awe. He was deeply involved in the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon back to Jerusalem in the middle of the 5th century BC. Ezra chapter 7 begins with his genealogy and his influence: he was skilled in the law of Moses, had a network of influence and a particular gifting from God (v 6). He was accompanied by a variety of others on the journey (v7-9).

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 7:10)

Ezra ‘setting his heart’ reminds us of the commitment of the newly baptised on the day of Pentecost ‘devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42). Ezra studied, acted and taught.

Carving out time for studying the living Word of God is crucial in ministry for mission. For Ezra it was the Torah, the Law of the Lord. For us, it is the whole breadth of the Bible. Soon after we moved into Sherborne House in a small village in Dorset, Iwerne Minster, I arranged for a small wooden chapel to be constructed on the hill in our garden. It overlooks the Blackmore Vale and the ancient Briton site of Hambledon Hill. Spending time there during morning and evening prayer meditating on the scriptures, set in the lectionary, is life-giving. Reading in depth in the study, together with the wisdom of others through the ages in commentaries, is vital.

The study in the morning leads out to visiting, meeting, connecting and caring during the day: practising what is learnt. Jesus concludes his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ with the parable of the houses built on the sand or on the rock. ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.’ (Matthew 7:24)

For me, the teaching of the Word, and further interactive learning, takes places in a variety of contexts. As I travel around, often there are two or three sermons a week to preach. Basing them on the lectionary readings helps avoid staleness and repetition.

As well as the pulpit, the sharing of the Word and responses range from one to one pastoral conversations with clergy and people, to discussions with children and young people live in schools, and with sixth formers on the web.

‘Grill a Bishop’ emanated from running out of time in our live question and answer sessions. For half an hour, I engage with sixth formers from a different school in Dorset and Wiltshire, online on our Diocese of Salisbury site. They type questions into their keyboards simultaneously, sometimes as many as 70 in half an hour, and I attempt to answer them from my keyboard, usually managing about 12 — 14 during that period and following up with the others in my spare time. Quite a grilling and great interaction, since follow up questions develop. The whole series may be seen online.

Every spring, I lead an Alpha Course for a town and surrounding villages. This popular introduction to Christianity over ten weeks, based around a meal, a talk and group discussion, developed from Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. I contextualise it for rural Dorset, giving my own talks but using the Alpha subjects each week. In 2010, this was at Wimborne Minster; in 2011 in Sherborne; in 2012 in Poole and in 2013 in Shaftesbury. People who respond, in new or renewed faith, are baptised and confirmed or renew their baptismal vows. Having a bishop lead the course is unusual and helps with invitations. It also is refreshing for me to get to know a regular group of about 70 people every Tuesday for 10 weeks, when each Sunday I am at a different church.

A bishop who has influenced me in particular in studying, acting and teaching the Word is David Gitari, a former Bishop of Mount Kenya East and Archbishop of Kenya. A selection of his sermons is entitled In Season and Out of Season: Sermons to a Nation.

A theologian who has shaped my vocation and thinking, in the Word and ethics, is Oliver O’Donovan, formerly Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford and recently retired Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology, University of Edinburgh. The opening sermon in his collection The Word in Small Boats, was preached in Islington in 2005:

So let me offer you a sobering, but I hope exhilarating thought: God never meant there to be a church in Islington; God meant there to be an Islington in the church.

His seminal works are on political theology, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of Political Theology and The Ways of Judgement. They emanated from his Cambridge Hulsean Lectures in 1994 and Oxford Bampton Lectures in 2003. His insightful A Conversation Waiting to Begin: the Churches and the Gay Controversy began as a series of seven monthly articles on the Fulcrum website in 2006.

As a bishop, I have attempted to continue writing theologically in articles for The Times, The Guardian and Fulcrum. For Fulcrum my role of ‘theological secretary’ also includes being what may be termed a ‘hunter-gatherer’ for vibrant articles. Fitting all this in usually means very early mornings every so often.

I have also enjoyed writing a session entitled ‘Christ in the World’ for the St Aldhelm Certificate course, a new venture in lay learning in the diocese, and teaching three sessions on the MA module ‘Reimagining the Church in Post Modern Britain’ at Sarum College, Salisbury.

Tradition — Isaiah 51:1

The anonymous prophet in Babylon, known as Second Isaiah, encouraged the exiles with these words: ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug’. (Isaiah 51:1)

While recalling the past is common amongst the prophets, what is rare is the specific reference to particular people. He continued: ‘Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you, for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.’ (Isaiah 51:2) The mention of Abraham in the Old Testament outside of the book of Genesis is unusual: especially so, is Sarah’s name.

Names, as well as movements, are central to the concept of Tradition and to the study of Church History. When I received a phone call from the then Bishop of Salisbury, David Stancliffe, in December 2008, inviting me to be interviewed with three others for my present post, the name Sherborne meant a lot to me. I cleared my diary and the next day visited the British Library in London to view again The Sherborne Missal.

I had spent a three month sabbatical writing in the British Library the previous year, a short walk from Islington, and, during the breaks from writing Signs and Seasons: A guide for your Christian Journey had discovered the joys of The Sherborne Missal. This service book, the weight of a six year old child, is one of the best preserved illuminated manuscripts in England. Commissioned by Abbot Robert Bruyning at the beginning of the 15th century, for use at Sherborne Abbey, the scribe was John Whas and illustrator John Siferwas. All three have miniature paintings in the missal together with Richard Mitford, the Bishop of Salisbury. So I felt a deep, profound call to Sherborne and a motet from The Sherborne Missal was sung at my consecration.

The rocks from which the church in Dorset is hewn, and to which we look, include the community which created the famous Roman mosaic of the face of Christ in the 370s AD, at Hinton St Mary. It is the earliest known image of the face Christ, was discovered by accident in 1963 by a Baptist blacksmith, Walter White, and is now a centrepiece in the British Museum. Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, used it in his A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Walter’s son, Paul White, is the pastor of an independent charismatic church in Weymouth and was a key figure in planning the ecumenical welcome for the sailing Olympics in 2012. When he first came to a dinner at our house, he mentioned that he had grown up in Hinton St Mary. In response to my question about the mosaic, he said that it was his father who had discovered it.

Other ‘rocks’ we look back to, and draw inspiration from, are: St Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne 705-709 AD; St Cuthburga, founder of Wimborne Minster in 705 AD and leader of the two monasteries of monks and nuns there; St Leoba, a nun from Wimborne who was sent with 20 others to help her relative St Boniface (Wynfrith) from Crediton, Devon, to be the ‘Apostle of Germany’ in Bavaria; Aethelgifu, daughter of King Alfred the Great and first Abbess of Shaftesbury Abbey in 888 AD.

In Wiltshire, we look back with joy to two of the finest writers of English prose and poetry and Anglican priests. Richard Hooker wrote most of his magisterial, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity at Boscombe, a village north east of Salisbury, where he was Rector (1591-95). George Herbert wrote his A Priest to the Temple; or The Country Parson and his collection of poems The Temple at Bemerton, a village west of Salisbury when he was Rector (1630-33).

The bishop who has influenced me most concerning the importance of mission and tradition is John V Taylor, Bishop of Winchester 1975-85. With friends, I met him before going to Kenya and visited him in Oxford many times after returning to England. His book, The Primal Vision was a pioneering study on the immanence of God in Africa and the importance of traditional religion.The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Missionhas become a classic. A poet, theologian and prophet, very early he saw the importance of the Pentecostal movement and of the growth of the church through small groups. To share the gospel contextually, he scripted and produced drama, in Uganda, and directed a passion opera in Winchester Cathedral, written by Jonathan Harvey.

The key theologian who has shaped my thinking on the theme of Tradition is Kwame Bediako (1945-2008). He was Director of the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre, Akropong, Ghana, and a visiting lecturer in African Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. I met him first at a conference on African Christian Theology at Kabare, Kenya, soon after I arrived in 1985. His personally invigorating joy in African perspectives on the gospel remain with me always. In 1992 in Cambridge, he preached the sermon inaugurating the Henry Martyn Lectureship in Mission Studies and drew on the abiding presence and influence of Martyn.

The influence of his nurturing and mentoring of younger African theologians, through his innovative Masters and Doctoral programmes, has been immense. His two major works, Theology and Identity andChristianity in Africa, and Christianity in Africa: the Renewal of a Non-Western Religion, reflect on the significance of tradition, continuity and inculturation.

In Dorset, the interweaving relationship of primal religion to Christianity is deeply embedded in the numerous ancient Briton fortified hills and nearby Saxon, Norman and medieval village churches. In August 2011, I enjoyed the spiritual exercise of walking around a Labyrinth at a St Buenos retreat centre in North Wales. In Lent 2012, I arranged with Durweston church primary school a ‘wellie walk with the Bishop’. Children and teachers from the school walked with me up and around Hod Hill. Beginning on the outer rings, we moved to the inner rings and then the centre, reflecting on and the history of our county and on Jesus walking around Galilee.

Anniversaries are key to ‘tradition’ and often evoke further theological reflection. 2012 was the bicentenary of the death of Henry Martyn. I was invited to give lectures in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge, ‘Henry Martyn: Missionary Scholar for our Age?’ and in Truro Cathedral, ‘Henry Martyn Son of Cornwall and Missionary Scholar’.

2012 was also the 450th anniversary of the publication of Bishop John Jewel’s seminal work, Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae in 1562, which was a profound theological defence of the Church of England against criticisms from the Church of Rome. He was the Bishop of Salisbury 1560-1571 and an influential mentor of the young Richard Hooker. I gave a lecture in Salisbury Cathedral, ‘Jewel’s Gem: Reflections on the 450th Anniversary of Bishop John Jewel’s Apologia.

Sacrament — 1 Corinthians 11:26

Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, which was split into various factions (1 Corinthians 11:17-20), about the importance of considering one another in love and of the profound significance of Holy Communion as a focus of that love. ‘As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. (1 Corinthians 11:26)

In doing this, we are all included in ‘doing’ theology: eating, drinking and thus proclaiming. It is both deeply personal and corporate: for it involves ‘discerning the body’ (verse 29). This key phrase can be interpreted both as the body of Christ as a group of people in Corinth (especially because some, in the rush for food, were being neglected, verses 20-22 and 33-34), and the presence of Lord’s body (see the alternative reading from other ancient manuscripts).

In travelling around the countryside of Dorset, most of services I lead are of Holy Communion and they raise deep memories of rural Kenya.

In A Kenyan Service of Holy Communion, there is a key sentence: ‘We are brothers and sisters through his blood.’ In Offerings from Kenya to Anglicanism, I commented:

With the phrase ‘We are brothers and sisters through his blood’ we come to the hidden heart of the [Eucharistic] prayer. In many African ethnic groups there is a traditional concept of ‘blood brotherhood’, whereby friends bind themselves together, in a sort of covenant, through rubbing blood together from slight cuts in the arm. This concept here resonates with the new covenant through the blood of Christ and includes women. The phrase has a double meaning: through the blood of Christ, we are brothers and sisters with him and also with each other. This is underlined with the following responsive echoes of Romans 6:4-11: ‘We have died together, we will rise together, we will live together.’ The repeated word, ‘together’ has a powerfully binding effect on the congregation. (p. 22)

It was said that this phrase was particularly poignant at the opening Eucharist of the Lambeth Conference 1998, for the night before, the bishops had heard stories of their fellow bishops undergoing persecution.

The bishop who influenced me most concerning the sacraments is David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury 1993-2010. He was chair of the Liturgical Commission from 1993-2005, and was the architect of the series of seven liturgies of Common Worship. As well as a liturgist, he is an accomplished musician and conductor and an expert on church architecture. He has written God’s Pattern: Shaping our Worship, Ministry and Life and The Lion Companion to Church Architecture.

I served on the Liturgical Commission from 2000-2010, and so overlapped with him, and was on the subcommittee which produced theCommon Worship Ordination Services. We had just over a year together in the Diocese of Salisbury and it was an extraordinary learning experience of apprenticeship for me.

The theologian who has especially shaped my thinking concerning sacraments is David F Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge since 1991, and who preached at my consecration. His introduction to The Modern Theologians has become a classic. In his book,Self and Salvation: Being Transformed, chapter 6 is entitled ‘Do this: a Eucharistic Self’. The first section is headed ‘Doing justice to practice: anthropological and theological considerations’ and goes on to discuss ‘the Eucharistic habitus’, ‘Apprenticeships’, ‘Coinherent practices’, ‘representation in language’ and ‘the Abundance of God’. His later major work is Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love and in 2013 friends in the academy published, The Vocation of Theology Today: A Festschrift for David Ford.

David F Ford supervised St Andrew’s College, Kabare, Kenya graduate Joseph Galgalo for his Cambridge PhD on ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, who is now Vice Chancellor of St Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya. He wrote a chapter in the Ford’s festschrift, ‘The Place and Significance of Theology in the Contemporary University.’

Priests preside at Holy Communion and at the Ordination Service, in Salisbury Cathedral on 8 October 2011, I had a surprise for the congregation.

After my opening greeting, and before describing who a Deacon is called to be, an oboeist, hidden in the choir, played Gabriel’s Song from the 1986 film, ‘The Mission’. The haunting music, by Ennio Morricone, threaded around the Cathedral, rising and falling. It was utterly extraordinary and deeply moving.

Those about to be ordained knew it was coming, for I had played the song from a CD as part of my ‘Bishop’s charge’ on the retreat: but they were still surprised. Ordinations are openings for sensitive mission. Many people who do not usually go to church accompany their friends and relatives, who are giving themselves completely to God. The interweaving of a focus of life-long commitment, after many years of discernment and training, with prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and awe-inspiring architecture, and ordinands fresh from a retreat, is inspiring.

At the end of the service, as we stood for the blessing, I did not give it straight away. Again, the oboe played: this time from the balcony above the great west door of the Cathedral. We were being called out in mission.

The calling of the Holy Spirit to mission and ministry sometimes comes subtly and subliminally. Some recognised the tune, and through it the film about the pioneering Jesuits in Peru and Argentina. Others heard it as in half remembered dreams of long ago, or for the first time, in silence and not a few tears, and were intrigued and drawn in. The resonances of diverse callings on that day are still being treasured and pondered in the hearts of many.

Unity — Ephesians 3: 18

Paul writes his letter to the Ephesians from Rome, where he is chained to a Roman solider (Ephesians 3:1 and 4:20). His mind, inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, soars above his present predicament, and the wranglings of local churches, to a vision of the universal, cosmic Church of God. Verses 16-19 of chapter 3 is an extraordinary prayer.

The Ephesians, and we, overhear Paul praying to the Father for them. He mentions Father, Holy Spirit and Christ in his prayer, an interesting Trinitarian resonance, and goes on: ‘I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).

The phrase ‘…comprehend, with all the saints,…’ is a wonderful focus for the theme of unity. ‘Saints’, in this context, means ‘Christians’, throughout the ages and throughout the world. Today, it includes people of all cultures and denominations and hence the contemporary importance of the imperative to strive for unity (Ephesians 4:1-6).

The bishop who has influenced me concerning unity, especially unity across the Anglican Communion, is Tom Wright, who was Bishop of Durham, 2003-2010, before becoming Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrew’s, Scotland.

For his academic books, he uses N T Wright, and for his popular books, Tom Wright. The former include a six volume series published by SPCK,Christian Origins and the Question of God. This began in 1992 with The New Testament and the People of God and the fourth, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, will be published in October 2013. His popular books include the For Everyone series, which are translations and commentaries on all the books of the New Testament, eg Matthew for Everyone, andSimply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (2006) and Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008) and Virtue Reborn (2010).

He was the Church of England bishop on the ‘Lambeth Commission on Communion’ which wrote The Windsor Report 2004 (Anglican Communion Office). The report recommended ways forward for holding together the Anglican Communion. Section A considered the biblical foundations of ‘the communion we have been given in Christ’ and drew considerably on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

The theologian who has influenced me in particular concerning the doctrine of the Church and the theme of unity is Michael Nai-Chui Poon, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity College, Singapore. His 1984 Oxford D Phil thesis on John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) began with: “Christian ethics are ecclesial” — which could have served as the introduction to The Windsor Report. He continued: “Chrysostom was insisting equally on ethical holiness and pastoral love,” and later emphasised that our doctrine of the Church is interwoven with our doctrine of salvation.

He is an Anglican member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and in 2011 was a visiting Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has edited several books including Church Partnerships in Asia.

The nickname “Chrysostom”, meaning “golden mouthed”, was given to John Chrysostom because of his preaching gifts. Perhaps Michael Nai-Chui Poon’s nickname should be “goldfingers”, since from his keyboard emanate the most prolific ecclesiological writings from the Global South Anglican movement.

In Dorset, mission and unity interweave in my ‘doing of theology’. Each year in June, I and a team take part in a week-long mission, the St Aldhelm Pilgrimage, in a particular parish. In 2010, we were in Rossmore, an area of multi-deprivation in the north of Poole. Andrew Woods, the Chair of the Southampton District of the Methodist Church, joined in the team and the local Roman Catholic School, was fully part of the week as well as the Rossmore Community College, which later became the St Aldhelm Academy.

Earlier that year, Andrew Woods and I attempted to redress history in the village Tolpuddle, famous for its ‘Martyrs Museum’ and its friendly society, which was the precursor of trade unions.

In 1832, the Vicar of Tolpuddle, Thomas Warren, betrayed the agricultural workers of the village. First he acted as a witness to an agreement between labourers and landowners for a fair wage. Then later, when the latter went back on their promises, he denied any such agreement. Many of the workers were Methodists and the Methodist lay-preacher, George Loveless, was one of those who were transported to Australia, later returned, and was maligned by local Anglican clergy.

On 15 April, 2010, Andrew Woods and I and others, signed a local Covenant between the Anglicans and Methodists, which involves the working and worshipping together in Tolpuddle.

Conclusion

In exploring ‘doing theology as a bishop’, we have considered the themes of ‘Word’, ‘Tradition’, ‘Sacrament’ and ‘Unity’. Perhaps, in conclusion, we may discern and trace more interrelated four-fold patterns?

First, in the subjects in theology: Biblical Studies (Word); Church History (Tradition), worship and liturgy (Sacrament) and systematic theology (Unity).

Second, in the traditions within contemporary world Christianity: Evangelical (Word); Catholic (Tradition); Orthodox (Sacrament); and Ecumenical (Unity).

Finally, in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1886 in Chicago and 1888 at the Lambeth Conference). Inspired, initially, by the work of William Reed Huntington, the Quadrilateral stated the essentials, from an Anglican perspective, for a reunited Christian Church: the Holy Scriptures (Word); the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds (Tradition); the two sacraments ordained by Christ (Sacraments); and the Historic Episcopate (Unity).

Paul’s words of praise, at the end of Ephesians chapter three, are both stretching and encouraging:

Now to him, who by the power at work within us, is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

This article developed out of a lecture given originally at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.

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