By Kirk Petersen
Sometimes when a person starts a new job, he or she will say, “I’ve been preparing for this role my entire life.”
The Rev. Dr. Matthew S.C. Olver, who on September 1 becomes executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation, has not been preparing for the job his whole life — at least not consciously. Rather, a long series of happy accidents gradually altered his course, equipping him along the way to lead the oldest, continuously published magazine serving the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
The Living Church, founded in 1878, is the foundation’s flagship, among several other publications.
- The Episcopal Musician’s Handbook has been an essential tool for 66 years for music directors and organists throughout the church, as they pair hundreds of hymns with hundreds of Scripture passages in the course of a year.
- The Living Word Plus, launched in 2020, is a subscription resource to help preachers focus their sermons on the appointed liturgical readings.
- Covenant is a daily weblog featuring theological and spiritual essays by thought leaders throughout the church.
- Other operations include a busy website, podcasts, pilgrimages, seminars, and a stable of newsletters focused on news, devotionals, book reviews, and more.
Olver is the associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, located about 30 miles west of TLC’s headquarters in Milwaukee. He is one of the original contributors to Covenant, writing more than 50 articles, and has been a member of the Living Church Foundation since 2016.
But none of this was preordained. It’s kind of an accident that he’s even an Episcopalian.
Olver was raised in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, in the Anabaptist tradition, which encompasses Mennonites, Amish, and other denominations — including the Olver family’s Brethren in Christ. Anabaptists believe a person must make a mature confession of faith before being baptized. Olver was in college when he first learned that some Protestant denominations practice infant baptism.
He took missionary trips as a teen to Colombia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, then attended Wheaton College, a private evangelical school west of Chicago. (The family pastor had warned his parents: “Wheaton is kind of liberal; they teach evolution there,” Olver said.)
The college is not affiliated with any denomination, and “people explore churches a lot of their time while they’re there,” Olver said. He was not enamored of the megachurch he first attended, and his resident advisor invited him to Church of the Resurrection, where he had his first experience of Anglican liturgy.
Anglican, but not Episcopalian. It was 1997, and “the Rez” had already disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church over theological issues, including human sexuality. This was well before the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop, which touched off years of theological conflict.
Olver attended the Rez all through college, and gradually learned about the rupture between the church and the Diocese of Chicago. He found himself thinking, “This approach to solving ecclesial problems — this just doesn’t seem right.”
He attended a Wheaton-sponsored summer abroad in England after his freshman year, which continued his exposure to Anglicanism. “Here’s a good story of just how clueless I was,” he said. He was outside Westminster Abbey during a state event when people began emerging from the service.
“And I turned to the person next to me and I say, ‘Man, that priest really needs to work on his fashion sense. That is a really ugly shirt,’” he said. “And she’s like, ‘Matthew, that’s George Carey. That’s the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishops wear purple shirts.’ And I was like, ‘Oh.’”
After Wheaton, Olver got married and enrolled at Duke Divinity School, preparing for an academic career. Matthew and Kristen Olver joined Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill — led at the time by the Rev. Timothy Kimbrough, who earlier this year was named director of Duke’s Anglican-Episcopal House of Studies. They were received into the Episcopal Church by the Bishop of North Carolina, Michael B. Curry, who went on to become presiding bishop. The couple have two teenage children.
(Olver actually had a bicameral introduction to the future leadership of the Episcopal Church. One of his classmates at Wheaton was Julia Ayala Harris, who was elected president of the House of Deputies in 2022. They were on separate floors of the same dormitory in their freshman year. Although they were not close friends on campus, they recognized each other when they reconnected years later.)
Early in his time at Duke, Olver discerned a call to ordained ministry, and transferred into the master of divinity program. Then another chance meeting led to a geographic move after graduation. He was introduced to Bishop of Dallas James Stanton, while the latter was visiting the Duke campus. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do your [ordination] process in the Diocese of Dallas?’ And I was like, ‘OK,’” Olver said with a laugh.
While in Dallas, he had another auspicious chance encounter while at a conference. He met Christopher Wells, who was then a doctoral student at Notre Dame, and they developed a friendship. The two of them were among the earliest writers at Covenant, before it became a part of TLC.
Wells later held the same job Olver is assuming, serving as executive director of the Living Church Foundation from 2009 until 2022, when he was named director of unity, faith, and order for the Anglican Communion.
Meanwhile, after eight years in parish ministry in Dallas, Olver had rediscovered his passion for academia, and enrolled in a doctoral program at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He landed a teaching fellowship at Nashotah House, and later joined the full-time faculty. As he transitions into his new role at TLC, he will continue to teach classes at Nashotah for the coming academic year.
“I am thrilled that one of my predecessors at Nashotah, H. Boone Porter, made the same transition from liturgy professor at Nashotah to leading The Living Church,” Olver said. Porter led the organization from 1977 to 1990.
In 2028, TLC will celebrate 150 years of continuous publication, and for many of those years it has been the most prominent independent news organization focused on the Episcopal Church. The magazine has expanded its coverage of the global Anglican Communion in recent years, and Olver hopes to develop a larger pool of international correspondents. He also wants to expand the foundation’s thought-leadership role through conferences and seminars.
“For the last 15 years or so, The Living Church has tried to be very intentional about not speaking from a bunker, or a place of being embattled or defensive, but to try to speak charitably and constructively,” Olver said. He intends to continue that tradition, as both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion go through leadership transitions in the next few years.
Olver is committed to the foundation’s mission, as stated in its 2020 strategic plan: “As publishers, teachers, and servant leaders, we pledge ourselves to produce excellent independent news reporting, incisive commentary, and edifying scholarship for a broad audience of thoughtful Christians, and to help heal divisions in the Body of Christ.”