There are at least three things I have learned in my brief time as Canon Theologian. First, for the most part, the clergy in our diocese are very eager to talk about God, to do theology. Second, they are looking for ways to engage the congregations they serve in a theological conversation. Third, the theology of the clergy in our diocese spans the theological spectrum, from traditional orthodoxy to Richard Rohr like higher consciousness to something even more ambiguous. My hunch is that we could say the same about the laity in their breadth of theology and their desire to have meaningful conversations about God.
In August, the clergy of our diocese gathered for a theological conversation in response to Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond.
The conversation was held in three locations.
7 attended at Saint Luke’s, Prescott
13 attended at Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix
21 attended at Grace-St. Paul’s, Tucson.
As a follow-up to those conversations, a survey was sent to every clergy person seeking feedback about the gathering. I also asked some questions about what future theological conversations would pique their interest.
21 of those responded did not attend one of the Rohr gatherings
23 did attend one of the Rohr gatherings.
In response to the question about the value of the gathering:
20 clergy said the gathering was “Worth my time.”
2 clergy said it “Somewhat worth my time.”
1 clergy person said it was “Not worth my time.”
When asking those who did not attend, why they didn’t, the majority said they had a schedule conflict or were too busy working. A few said they simply weren’t interested.
In response to the question, “How do we make future gatherings better,” the dominant suggestion was to break the larger gathering into smaller groups of three or four people—allowing opportunity for more folks to engage in the conversation.
In regard to suggestions for future topics, the response was evenly divided between the three suggested topics, “Various Atonement Theologies,” “Theology of Alternative Liturgies,” and “Theology of Various Leadership Models.” However, there were twenty-eight (28) divergent suggestions for other topical considerations including, inviting clergy and the laity into doing theology together, progressive theology, social justice theology, sacramental theology, apocalyptic theology, life cycle and spirituality, role of clergy as chief versus shaman, and a few Anglican specific questions.
When thinking about book discussions here are the top six in rank order:
1. The Fourth Gospel, John Shelby Spong (20 votes)
2. Reading the Bible from the Margins, Miguel De La Torre (18)
3. The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault (17)
4. Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault (16)
5. The Gospel of Thomas, Lynn Baumen’s (14)
6. The Red Book, Carl Jung (12)
Thirty other books were suggested including PB Michael Curry’s Crazy Christians three times (the only book listed more than once). Some authors listed more than once were Walter Bruggemann and Dallas Willard. The book titles included Jesus, God, Paul, social justice, and eschatology, to mention just a few.
As to when to have the next conversation, after Epiphany had the most respondents.
One thing I heard from the survey itself was that there is a clear interest in offering a venue for theological conversations with and among the laity. I’m going to plan an event for the laity after Epiphany to follow up on the Richard Rohr conversation. I’ll use a similar location format. I am hoping that some of my colleagues from the three regions will be willing to serve on a panel. I’ll moderate and we’ll have a thirty-minute dialogue followed by thirty-minutes of Q&A. Then divide those who attend into small groups for more intimate conversations. Followed then by thirty minutes of comments and more Q&A. This might be adventurous, but I’d like to give it try. Val Webb wrote in her recent book, Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology: Finding Your Own Voice, “Theology cannot be shaped only through the experiences and in the minds of a few theologians talking together in academic halls, but through the experiences and reflections of the majority of the people of God, the laity.” (Thank you Dn. Tom Lindell for sharing this book with me.)
I was very encouraged by the number of clergy who would take the time out their very busy schedules to attend the first theological conversation. I was also pleased with the number of clergy who responded to the survey with excellent feedback and outstanding suggestions. One resounding comment I received from the three locations was to please continue having these events in the north, central, and south. I will heed that wise counsel.
Here is my plan for the next two clergy conversations in 2016. The first will be after Epiphany but before the next Presbyter’s Retreat. The dates will be announced shortly. We’ll be using three books from the clergy response. With the option of reading a book not listed. At the gathering we’ll divide into four small groups to discuss the book of your choice. Then the four groups will report back to the larger group for comments and Q&A.
Jesus is the theme of the three books.
1. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong
2. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message, Cynthia Bourgeault
3. Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, Michael Curry
4. If none of these books about Jesus interest you, bring one that does to the gathering and you can join the fourth small group and share your book about the theme of Jesus.
The second clergy theological gathering in 2016 will happen after the Presbyter’s Retreat, April 5-7. That round of clergy gatherings will be a conversation regarding the retreat presenter’s topic and book.
Again, thank you for your participation and response. My prayers are that these opportunities will be meaningful and supportive of your life and work.