By Matthew Townsend
Hundreds of clergy, aspiring priests, and lay Christians joined some of the world’s foremost theologians for the Radical Vocation Conference, which met on Sept. 20-22 in Dallas.
The conference, subtitled “Discerning a 21st Century Call to the Ancient Order of Priesthood,” featured presentations by Archbishop Justin Welby, Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O’Donovan, Ephraim Radner, and N.T. Wright. Speakers included Catherine Sider-Hamilton, Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee, Wesley Hill, Elisabeth Rain Kincaid, Joey Royal, Matthew Boulter, Paul Wheatley, Samira Page, and Matthew Burdette.
Abp. Welby’s Other U.S. Stops
Archbishop Justin Welby’s recent visit to the United States took him to the Radical Vocation Conference in Dallas, but this was not his only stateside stop. Welby joined Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for a conversation about reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury, and he preached at Trinity Wall Street.
St. Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas hosted “Love & Reconciliation: What is at the Intersection of Rome and Canterbury?” on Sept. 20. The Rev. Christopher Girata, rector, moderated the hour-long conversation.
They began by addressing the work of the Anglican Centre in Rome, commenting on the history of symbolic and personal connection that began after Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI broke hundreds of years of silence by meeting together in 1966. Welby cited the representation that the center’s director, the Most Rev. Bernard Ntahoturi, provides to the Vatican.
“More important than that is the traffic of pilgrims from the Anglican Communion visiting Rome and seeing both the strengths and the weaknesses, but having this sense of we belong to something that is far, far bigger even than the Anglican Communion — and that is big — but this is far, far bigger. That we are part of the great work of God through the centuries, which has led to the greatest outflowings of culture, and music, and art, and beauty, and also some of the greatest crimes and failures of our vocation,” Welby said. “Through the Anglican Centre, you can reflect on this. It helps us understand our own churches better. And as we understand ourselves better and others better, reconciliation begins to emerge. We begin to feel that we belong more to each other.”
The two also discussed the reconciling nature of Anglicanism. “At our best, we have a way of following Jesus that demands our all but doesn’t really demand that we all agree all the time,” Curry said. “Somewhere deep in our bones there’s a recognition, I think, that Jesus is Lord, we aren’t. And therefore, if Jesus is Lord, there’s — the old slaves had a Spiritual, ‘There’s Plenty Good Room in My Father’s Kingdom.’ That, at our very best, has created space for possibilities.”
Throughout the conversation, Welby and Curry enjoyed lighthearted joking about Curry’s high-profile preaching at the May 19 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
On Sept. 23, Welby preached about wisdom at St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity Wall Street. “I am sure you know as well as I do that Jesus puts a child in the midst not for the ‘ahhh’ factor. Children of less than seven counted for little in that society. The child is there because it is dependent on the wisdom of others. Jesus is rebuking his ambitious, wisdom-from-below, narcissistic disciples by calling them to dependence on God alone; and we will do well to listen,” Welby said.
The archbishop referenced common anxieties about the future: cyber wars, terrorism, climate change, and troubles within the church. “But we cannot predict the details, because we do not know. Even the best minds do not know what is going to happen in the future. But we know that those with wisdom will flourish.”
Welby said those with wisdom will not be survivalists or triumphalists. “Peacemakers, sufferers, those who die, perhaps — yet acting wisely, and living beautifully, with their feet on the ground of this world, and their hearts and hopes in the heaven which is opening before them,” he preached. “Such a wise Church will be resilient in a hard world and spread resilience. It will know when to speak, when to be silent, how to act, and what to do next.”
Church of the Incarnation in Dallas hosted RADVO, which was organized by Communion Partners.
“I knew the conference would be successful simply because of the great content we were able to offer,” said the Rev. Canon Jeremy Bergstrom, canon for vocations in the Diocese of Dallas, via email. “But it was very gratifying we were able to register almost 400 people, of whom about 150 were young people either in seminary or considering entering into the priesthood. We either met or surpassed all of our goals.”
Among those young people attending were David Beadle, Jason Eslicker, and Cathrine Fungai Ngangira.
Beadle and Eslicker have some things in common: they are both married, are in their 20s, were raised outside of the Anglican tradition, and live in Tyler, Texas. And they are both considering priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
“I am at the very beginning stages of discerning the priesthood in the Diocese of Dallas,” Beadle, 27, told TLC by phone. Beadle, who works at Christ Church in Tyler, said he expected to hear “intellectualized, heavy lectures” — but that he encountered a wide variety of presentations, with “everything from 20,000-foot views to very practical advice,” he said. “I left, overall, extremely encouraged and excited about the vocation.”
Eslicker, 23 and a teacher, is also in discernment. While he is relatively new to the Episcopal Church —he grew up in an evangelical tradition — he is a postulant in the Diocese of Texas. “My wife and I, God willing, will be going to seminary next fall, about a year from now,” he said.
Eslicker signed up right away when he heard about the conference. “It was a marathon in a lot of ways. It was packed full. It was incredible — like a fire hydrant of information, of worship,” he said. “It was great to be around people who are traditionally minded Anglicans and who have a real vision for the future of orthodox Anglicanism in the Episcopal Church.”
Like Eslicker and Beadle, Ngangira, 27, is also discerning a call, and she traveled far to attend RADVO. Originally from Zimbabwe, Ngangira is working toward a degree in theology, mission, and ministry at Cranmer Hall in Durham.
She found the conference encouraging to her, and it broke from a common pattern of assuming that those in discernment are retired or pursuing a second career. “I think a radical change is going to happen in the life of the church,” she said, “not just in the Anglican Church, but ecumenically, realizing the importance of young people in the life of the Church.”
All three praised Communion Partner bishops for their commitment to remaining in the church and enriching it through events like RADVO.
Archbishop Welby offered similar remarks in his Sept. 20 sermon. “I’m so grateful for this conference, and I’m so grateful for the Communion Partners and Gracious Restraint Churches — because you have continued to be fully part of our wounded Communion, with its many struggles, over serious matters,” he said. “But your full communion with Canterbury is a model for all of recognizing that we are one by vocation not by choice; that we belong to one another because of God’s sovereign and gracious action, not because we choose to be one.
“Radical vocation lives out the tensions of diversity and identity based in the reality that our identity is in Christ — not in what we make of ourselves or think of others — and in Christ we live in complexity, but as children of light.”
Welby cited Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who also attended the conference, saying that the ancient order must be filled with “radical excitement of following Jesus.”
“The ancient order remains, the heart of the Church, but it needs to rediscover how to proclaim the gospel afresh in each new generation — in the words we use at the installation of every clergyperson in the Church of England.”
For more traditionally minded aspirants struggling to find joy in the midst of a divided church, Hill offered a presentation on facing and addressing division while discerning a call. He told TLC that disagreements about sexuality and other matters in the church “can be very daunting to people looking at pursuing a calling in the Episcopal Church.”
While RADVO was not specifically focused on theologically conservative aspirants, many participants identified with that description. Hill said he encountered “a lot who were simultaneously interested in and committed to the Episcopal Church.” He described a sobriety that comes from knowing one is in the minority.
“There was the freedom to raise difficult questions about the future of the Episcopal Church. I can’t think of a better introduction to what the Communion Partners are about. They are known for taking a stand on the sexuality debate, but they’re also interested in getting on with the work of ministry and swimming in the main current of Christian theology.
“I think it might be surprising to some progressive church members to come and see the passion that a lot of these young attendees have,” Hill said. “They’re interested in classical, Anglican, traditional theology. Some progressives view this theology as past its sell-by date, but there was a lot of momentum and a lot of energy among young people there that might be surprising among progressives.”
Regarding Curry’s presence, Hill said, “Michael Curry has gone out of his way to signal that he believes the Communion Partners have an important role to play in the Episcopal Church, that their witness is very crucial to listen to.”
For Beadle and Ngangira, this act of unity deepened the conference’s value, and it was not about theological politics. “There’s nothing ideologically motivated at RADVO — it’s not a conservative echo chamber in any means,” Beadle said. “RADVO seems to be steeped in tradition. It’s just prayer book Anglicanism.”
“I think it just means that, you know what, we are brothers and sisters,” Ngangira said about the two primates being present. “We may have disagreements, but we are still relatives. One thing that is at the center of the African culture: we always say that blood is thicker than water.
“That is the same picture that I would want to take when it comes to Communion. The coming of the Archbishop of Canterbury here to the States is just a testimony that we are one family, and we support each other. In our struggles, we still have one another. In our disagreements, we still respect each other.”
“I think that it’s good to have conferences like this that are centered around, yes, serious vocational discernment, but also deep theological reflection,” Eslicker said. “I hunger for more of that, desire to see more of that in the church.”
For young people considering a future in the church, the conference allowed imagining their lives in the church — whether through Radner’s discussion of mission in the context of vocation, O’Donovan’s presentation on preaching, or Hauerwas’s framing of pastoral care. It was also a chance to meet theologians outside of the digital confines of the Web and to worship with others of faith.
For Beadle, it was Radner who spoke to him. “I’ve watched a lot of his lectures on YouTube,” he said. “There’s something about his talk at RADVO that was unique. I think he said a few things that have been ringing in my ears since, reminding us that God is all that we have and there is nothing else that we have. It was a very personal talk, and really very powerful. I’ve been thinking about it since then.”
Those interested in the next RADVO event will likely have to wait more than a year, though plans are being considered. Jennifer LeBlanc, chief operating officer of Incarnation, told TLC by email that another conference will be held within the next few years.
“As we did with this discernment conference, we are praying about what RADVO can be and what the Lord wants it to be to best serve and glorify him,” she said. “We have thoughts and ideas about leadership and evangelism versions of the RADVO conference, and we are setting aside time to pray before we plan.”