“Hand to the Plow of Theology”

By Richard J. Mammana

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is a leading interpreter of 20th-century and contemporary Anglican theology. His writing to date has focused primarily on the philosopher and biblical scholar Austin Farrer (1904-68); David Brown (born 1948), whose work explores intersections of philosophy, aesthetics and theology; and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), known for his apologetics, fiction, and literary criticism.

MacSwain studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, the University of Edinburgh, Virginia Theological Seminary, and the University of Durham before completing his doctoral dissertation on Farrer at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith (Peeters, 2013) and the editor or co-editor of seven other books, including The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge, 2010) and Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown (Oxford, 2012).

His previous positions include teaching religion at Brooks School in Massachusetts, working as the research assistant to Archbishop George Carey at Lambeth Palace, and serving as curate at St. Mary’s Church in Kinston, North Carolina, and as Ramsey Fellow and chaplain at St. Chad’s College, University of Durham. A doctoral fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, he serves as associate professor of theology at the University of the South’s School of Theology, and is a visiting scholar for 2016-17 at Harvard Divinity School.

A shorter version of this interview appears in the Feb. 26 issue of The Living Church.



What drives your interest in Austin Farrer, who was well known to 20th-century Anglican readers, but is probably not read as widely today? What does he say to Anglicans — or even specifically to Episcopalians — today?

I first encountered Farrer in the early 1990s in a course on him taught by Diogenes Allen [1932-2013] at Princeton Seminary. I was fascinated by the way Farrer sought to fuse Scripture, metaphysics, and poetry in the matrix of Anglo-Catholic doctrine and devotion. Being at Princeton, I was in a strongly Reformed setting, which continued to be the case at Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Barth in particular was a major figure, and I realized that many people — including some influential Anglicans — were convinced that he represented the most viable way forward for Christian theology post-1918. With all due to respect to Barth, I was less convinced that you could really be a Barthian Anglican — Anglicans are, for example, traditionally in favor of natural theology — but my main question was: “Is there any 20th-century Anglican theologian worth writing a doctoral dissertation on?; and if not, what does that say about the future of Anglican theology?”

Rowan Williams had been quoted several times as saying that Farrer was perhaps the greatest Anglican mind of the 20th century, so I thought that if a dissertation on Farrer was not worth writing then that would be a huge indictment of our tradition. I certainly don’t think that Farrer is the only 20th-century Anglican theologian worth reading or writing on today — far from it — but to express his value for a contemporary audience let me quote the Episcopal priest, theologian, and Barth scholar Hans Frei [1922-88], who commended a view of theology as “first of all the contemplative and devotional habit of the mindform of the knowledge and love of God, and second, the use of the trained intellect in penetrating that abiding mystery”; and then added parenthetically: “Austin Farrer’s Bampton Lectures, The Glass of Vision, come to mind.”[1] That sounds pretty good to me.


What are you doing at Harvard this year?

I’m a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School and a resident at the Center for the Study of World Religions. I’m working on a sabbatical research project, funded by Sewanee and the Appalachian College Association, that emerged from the conclusion of my Farrer dissertation, published as Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith.[2] In the last chapter I briefly explored Farrer’s suggestive claim that, if we are looking for evidence for God, the best such evidence may be found in “saints,” by which Farrer means not just the canonized saints, but people whom we have actually met who somehow make belief in God possible for us. The more I pondered this claim, the more interesting and yet also puzzling and problematic it seemed. I also discovered that other people have said similar things, formulated somewhat differently, but the idea had not yet been properly identified and studied. So I decided to call it the “hagiological argument” — the argument from holiness — and during my year at Harvard I hope to complete the initial research for a book investigating its nature and validity. Right now I think it has three distinct versions — the propositional, the perceptual, and the performative — but it’s really too soon for me to say anything else at this point.


You have had a remarkably varied academic and pastoral career on both sides of the Atlantic. Who have been your academic and clerical mentors? What differences of culture of emphasis do you enjoy between, say, Scotland and Virginia, or Tennessee and Massachusetts?

My primary academic mentors have been ordained philosophers of various communions teaching in a theological context: Diogenes Allen at Princeton Seminary (Presbyterian, although he became an Episcopalian near the end of his career), Fergus Kerr, OP, at Edinburgh (Roman Catholic), and David Brown at Durham and St. Andrews (Anglican). I also learned a great deal from Timothy Sedgwick during my Anglican studies year at VTS and from Ann Loades at Durham; Stanley Hauerwas at Duke has been a great friend and mentor for many years. What I appreciate in all of them is a deep rootedness in a particular tradition combined with a fearless appropriation of truth wherever they find it.

I’ve likewise had a number of gifted clerical mentors, but would have to single out Victor Preller [1931-2001], a professor of religion at Princeton University and a priest of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, and Tom Midyette, my sponsoring rector in the Diocese of East Carolina. They represent for me two different but essential aspects of priestly ministry: Preller being the profound spiritual director and confessor, and Midyette being the wise pastor and preacher.

I’m not sure I have much to say about the wonderfully rich cultural differences in all the places I have lived and worked, other than that the best barbeque is the vinegar-based eastern North Carolina style!


You’re involved in the Scholar-Priest Initiative. What do you think it can offer to the community of theological educators and theological students in the Episcopal Church?

Well, I have to say that I’m continually confounded by the pervasive anti-intellectualism in the Episcopal Church. Having been educated in a variety of denominational settings in the U.S. and the U.K., it is a genuine shock for me that, despite having a remarkably rich and intellectually sophisticated tradition, many contemporary Episcopalians simply do not value the life of the mind or understand what it takes to maintain it on a diocesan or denominational level. In this anti-intellectual tendency we differ radically from other Christian denominations such as Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and even evangelicals, all of whom have invested heavily in supporting scholarship in their respective traditions. So, paradoxically, for decades academically minded individuals have been actively discouraged from pursuing ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church — I guess on the grounds that we don’t want smart, well-educated, and learned parish priests. At the same time, and perhaps correlatively, we’ve seen some Episcopal seminaries reduce or eliminate their residential degree programs and some Episcopal colleges diminish or question their affiliation to the Church, all of which weakens the institutional contexts in which much of our scholarship has traditionally flourished. But intellectual health cannot be divorced from institutional health, and so we desperately need strong institutions of higher education and theological formation in the Episcopal Church if we want our distinctive form of Christianity to survive in this country. That doesn’t just happen automatically but must be protected and nourished.

The Scholar-Priest Initiative and its accompanying Society of Scholar-Priests is an attempt to challenge this problematic narrative in the Church, both by insisting that the scholarly and priestly vocations are not opposed but integral to each other, and also by strategically seeking to encourage scholarly activity, placement, and networking among parish clergy.[3] What SPI and SSP thus offer is a different way of thinking about how the Episcopal Church both needs and can use its learned clergy. Although I am not one of the current officers of the movement I was involved in some of its initial conversations. I hope it encourages and permits an influx of intellectually vibrant, academically minded students into our seminaries, parishes, and dioceses. However, it’s also very important to remember with gratitude that many of the best theologians in the Episcopal Church are laypeople. The Scholar-Priest initiative is not about clericalism, but about overcoming the false dichotomy between being a scholar and being a priest.


One of the books I have found most insightful is Michael Ramsey’s episodic history of modern Anglican theology, From Gore to Temple (1960). Have you ever considered a successor, and what theologians would pick as starting and ending points?

That’s a complicated and interesting question. Let me begin obliquely by saying that a great challenge for contemporary Anglican theology is the extent to which it is still primarily British in inspiration, even when practiced in the United States, Canada, and other countries outside the U.K. While this is not inherently bad — and it is of course to a degree inevitable — it does generate certain cultural and intellectual obstacles vis-à-vis developing theology for the worldwide Anglican Communion. This British dominance is partly due to the comparative weakness of our own academic institutions in the United States and other provinces around the Communion: thus, unlike for Roman Catholics or Methodists or Baptists or Presbyterians, there is no Episcopal version of Notre Dame or Duke or Baylor or Princeton Seminary to which budding Episcopal theologians can go to receive a research doctorate. As a result, such doctoral reading lists are heavily skewed toward other traditions.

So, for example, one of the leading centers of constructive theology in the United States is Vanderbilt, which has a Methodist heritage but is now interdenominational. It is quite chastening for Episcopal/Anglican theologians to read through their list of recommended texts for PhD students and realize how little our tradition is represented: among the major post-Reformation figures, the only Anglicans listed are Locke, Wesley, and Newman — hardly representative — and not a single Anglican is included in the 20th century, although a surprisingly large number are included in contemporary readings.[4] As a result, those who do wish to operate intentionally out of our own tradition still tend to gravitate toward studying at British universities with British mentors, which of course perpetuates the challenge I began with. Again, this is somewhat inevitable and not inherently bad;  at least I hope not, as I fit this description myself. I’m deeply indebted to contemporary British theologians such as Rowan Williams, David Brown, and Sarah Coakley, teach courses on them, engage with them in my writing and research. Almost all of my own work is focused on British figures, at least so far, but to truly represent the current conversation in Anglican theology you would also need to incorporate voices from around the Communion, which means breaking out of British “Insularity.”[5] In other words, a direct sequel to Ramsey’s book would probably be From Ramsey to Coakley, but as helpful and interesting as that would be we also need to develop a wider perspective.

Finally, and again to return to an earlier comment, if Episcopal students are going to go on to a non-British university for a doctorate in theology, our seminaries need to do more of the Anglican-formation work at the MDiv and STM level, because our students are not going to get it wherever they go next. Obviously Yale is an important exception, given the affiliation of Berkeley Divinity School, and there are strong Anglican studies programs at places like Duke and Emory, as well as interesting developments elsewhere. But none of those places, not even Yale University, are institutionally responsible for maintaining the Anglican tradition of theology. Thus, as my distinguished predecessor at Sewanee, Bob Hughes, used to say, Episcopal seminaries shoulder a heavier burden and take on further academic functions than just training clergy: they are the intellectual guardians and tenders of the Anglican tradition. At Sewanee we take this responsibility very seriously. I would go further and say that the Episcopal Church will not survive the death of its seminaries, so we better keep them alive, but that’s a topic for another day.


Outside of your academic work, you’ve been involved in the Anglican Communion’s Bible in the Life of the Church project. What you have most enjoyed about it?

This project began as a development of the Windsor Process in 2009 but then took on a life of its own. Communion-wide discussions around biblical interpretation and authority generated an interest in the question Is there a distinctively Anglican way of reading and responding to Scripture? The Bible in the Life of the Church project was thus sponsored by the Anglican Communion Office to seek to answer that question descriptively, not prescriptively. That is, rather than a bunch of scholars or bishops sitting around a table saying what we thought should be the case, we took an inductive approach by organizing a series of Communion-wide Bible studies, involving hundreds of participants in multiple regional areas, looking at specific texts guided by specific questions, organized around two of the Communion’s Five Marks of Mission.[6] We then examined the results of those studies to see what the conversations revealed about how Anglicans actually thought about, used, and related to Scripture in these various regions.

Sewanee was asked to be the base of the North American Region (i.e., the United States and Canada) and I became the coordinator of that regional group and a member of the project’s international steering committee. Although Phase 1 of the project ended with our report, Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery, presented to the Anglican Consultative Council in 2012, the project continues and you can read more about it on the Anglican Communion website.[7] Another result of the project was the volume The Bible in the Life of the Church, edited by Clare Amos, published in 2013, which surveys the work of the project to that point. In my chapter, “‘Scripture in the Toolshed’: A Report from North America,” I attempt to explain to the global Communion how North American Anglicans typically engage with Scripture, particularly in reaction to fundamentalism and in response to historical-critical method.[8]

What I enjoyed most about the project was meeting the other members of the steering committee, including the other regional group coordinators from around the world, as well as the American and Canadian regional group facilitators that I recruited for North America. It’s a cliché but still true that despite the vast cultural and theological differences that exist in the Anglican Communion, the ties that bind us together are at least potentially stronger than the forces that seek to pull us apart, and that’s just as true within specific provinces as between them. What I hope for in both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is deeper understanding and mutual respect and forbearance. As John Bowlin of Princeton Seminary says, “Resentment is easy. Theology is hard.”[9]

Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a parishioner and vestry member at Trinity Church, New Haven, Connecticut.


[1] “Appendix A: Theology in the University,” in Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology, edited by George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (Yale, 1992), p. 120. For a critical edition of The Glass of Vision, see Robert MacSwain (ed.), Scripture, Metaphysics, and Poetry: Austin Farrer’s The Glass of Vision with Critical Commentary. Ashgate Studies in Theology, Imagination and the Arts (Ashgate, 2013). For an anthology of Farrer’s work, see Ann Loades and Robert MacSwain, ed., The Truth-Seeking Heart: Austin Farrer and His Writings. Canterbury Studies in Philosophical Theology (Canterbury Press, 2006).

[2] Studies in Philosophical Theology 51 (Leuven: Peeters, 2013).

[3] See http://www.scholarpriests.org.

[4] See http://www.vanderbilt.edu/gdr/degrees/theology.php.

[5] For a discussion of what the authors non-pejoratively call the “Insular” (i.e., British) tradition of Anglican theology, see Benjamin J. King, Robert MacSwain, and Jason A. Fout, “Contemporary Anglican Systematic Theology: Three Examples in David Brown, Sarah Coakley, and David F. Ford,” Anglican Theological Review 94 (2012): pp. 319-34.

[6] See http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx.

[7] See http://www.anglicancommunion.org/mission/theology/the-bible-in-the-life-of-the-church.aspx.

[8] See Robert MacSwain, “‘Scripture in the Toolshed’: A Report from North America,” in The Bible in the Life of the Church, ed. Clare Amos. Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism (Morehouse/Canterbury Press, 2013), pp. 32-47.

[9] Cited as the epigraph of Chapter 4: “Secularization and Resentment,” in Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition. New Forum Books (Princeton, 2004) p. 92.

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I’m especially struck by your comment about the British character of Anglican thought, due to weak institutions and anti-intellectualism in the US. I remember saying something like this at CEEP in 2014. Most seemed to agree, but it was a sad statement to be made at a conference for strong institutions in the Episcopal Church.

Robert MacSwain

Thanks, Zack, Since you are reporting from the front lines of the CofE you know how challenging things are there as well. You have correctly sussed that my point is not to romanticize the vibrancy of Anglican institutions in the UK (which are also under immense strain) but rather to lament the default anti-intellectualism of American culture AS SUCH which has sadly influenced many in the Episcopal Church as well. For all of the current struggles in British society, I don’t think there is anything like the pervasive suspicion of the intellectual life that seems so characteristic of the United… Read more »

Yes, I think the challenge here might be translating the robust intellectual culture into congregations still. Relatively few trained ordinands/clergy here in the CofE are actually engaging directly with the best the British theological scene has to offer, given minimal contact between (say) Williams, Pickstock, and Coakley with teaching ordinands, let alone others. Even in Cambridge, fewer than 20% of all Anglican ordinands are actually taking Cambridge Tripos, where they’d encounter those three.

Benjamin Guyer

The anti-intellectualism is due in large part to the abuse of liturgy as first theology. I wrote about this a few years ago in a piece called “Liturgical Anti-Intellectualism.” I maintain this position.

Benjamin Guyer

Another important element is activism, which generally requires a moral clarity that more developed intellectual engagement eschews.