Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Chronicle: "Questions of Faith"

Barbara Brown TaylorMy faculty colleague, Dr. Roger Ferlo, has sent a link to a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor is a well-known homilist, thinker, and writer within the Episcopal Church, who does terrific work with preaching both testaments of the Christian Bible. The essay is entitled, "Questions of Faith," and it appeared February 16th.

The essay is fascinating, relating the story of how Taylor came to teach religion at Piedmont college after experiencing some of the frustrations of the life of a parish priest, especially the frustration of not being able to wrestle with real theological issues in the parish, to ponder the questions that had lead her into the ministry in the first place. Personally, I very much empathize with Taylor's love of academe and the life of the teaching professor.

You know you are incredibly lucky or blessed to be a seminary professor when you read Taylor's description of the real job of a parish priest:

I spent most of my time essentially managing a small business, with all of the fiscal, physical-plant, and personnel issues that such a job entails. I also gave long hours to caring for people in crisis, and while those hours were well spent, there were few left over to ponder the questions that had led me into the ordained ministry in the first place. I read fiction for the 15 minutes each night that I could keep my eyes open. When church members and I chose topics for Christian education, we favored those that made us feel more secure in our faith instead of those that might challenge our understanding of ourselves.

Reluctantly I accepted the fact that my job had more to do with providing a safe place for people to raise their children and strengthen their beliefs than it did with exploring the theological territory. Most people counted on me to provide answers and not to ask more questions. That made a lot of sense — who wants a provocateur teaching the 12-year-olds or tipping the canoe during Bible study? — but at the same time, I found the life of my mind growing thin.


Blogger Eliz F said...

I've always enjoyed Taylor's work, but as someone about to enter parish ministry, I found this book discouraging. It also felt deceptive to me that she did not mention anything about how her fame as a preacher affected her ministry.

Tue Feb 20, 10:09:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Elizabeth, Interesting that you read the new book! I wonder in the book if she had any thoughts about how to turn things around in the church? In the Chronicle article, she simply seemed to celebrate academe... ---S.

Tue Feb 20, 10:14:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Lyndon said...

I must join my voice of disappointment with Elizabeth. Taylor is a fine communicator and a perceptive and imaginative reader of scripture, but her vision of the priesthood (and her experience therein) is riddled with the kind of angst around authentic being that almost by definition makes ministry a burden. When the first question is, 'how can i be an authentic priest?', then the journey within ministry will be fulfilling as long as the sense of authenticity remains in tact. Challenge this sense and the world looks crooked and requires a personal change of perspective. When the God of her free youth appears bound by an institutional cord, then Taylor retreats to the safety of her Divine Presence. Is this understandable? Sure. Does it manifest the character of ministry that for most priests exists without publications and 'preaching-guru' status? Hardly. Her _Leaving Church_ was a tale of how self-regard taken to be equivalent to regarded-by-God will lead any person sensitive to the needs to others into despair. Her testimony is a reminder that being a chaplain to a needy institution is not the same thing as being a priest with others on the Way.

Tue Feb 20, 10:38:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have read Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, and have spent some years as a lay person and adult Sunday School teacher in a small, rural parish. What she and Richard Lischer (Open Secrets) have written about the isolation of doing ministry in rural areas are consistent with what I have seen.

The self-understanding of a church community (not necessarily the priest's!) that sees itself as primarily "a safe place" with the mission of "strengthening [its] beliefs" can turn into an unhealthy self-regard (to borrow lyndon’s term). The “faith” of the community turns from biblical trust into a comfortable certainty, and all the questioning and wrestling with God and struggles found within the biblical text, and reflected upon by generations of biblical scholars and theologians—everything that a seminary education provides insight into!- end up being muffled and domesticated out of fear and caution.

What I think Taylor was reflecting upon in her book was the same kind of expansiveness and encouragement to question that is nourished and encouraged at VTS (Seek the truth / Come what may / Cost what it will). That is what she seeks to encourage in the local church. I look forward to reading the Chronicle article.

Tue Feb 20, 02:19:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Peter Carey said...

Having just gone through my all-day Psychological Assessment as one of the last hoops before ordination, I am wondering about Taylor's own disernment before going to seminary. I also think back to Stanley Hauerwas's fine commencement address at VTS last year in which he waxed theological, but also spoke eloquently and challenged the graduates to realize that much of ministry is the "ordinary" and the "everyday," and will include such things as arguing with staunch defenders of Rite I Morning Prayer, finding the strength to bury people you may not have liked, and countless other small tasks.

It seems that Taylor is called to be a scholar, but perhaps was not called by God to be a parish priest. I remember Frederick Buechner's often quote about vocation, "The place where God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world's deep need meet" (or something to that effect). Clearly, she should be nourished and find "gladness" in her vocation. I think her story is telling for those of us who enjoy the life of the mind and may not cherish some of the ordinary-ness of parish life.

I think, however, that we have a model of leadership in the Old Testament such as Moses and others who had to deal with the "everyday," "ordinary" stuff of life - and Jesus became incarnate in this world, in all its messiness and tedium. Perhaps we are called to minister even in "managing a small business" and "caring for people in crisis" ...

Much to consider here!

Tue Feb 20, 10:22:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hearty thanks to all who have taken the time to write such well-thought-out comments! Interestingly, the article came up a few times in faculty meeting yesterday. At one point some wondered what we could do to bring more of the excitement of theological wrestling out into the church. At another point, some remarked that a spirit of inquiry and wrestling must not be totally dead in the church, since we see it in those folk who enroll in our VTS at Night programs. ---S.

Wed Feb 21, 07:59:00 AM GMT-5  

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