On scholarship and the priesthood

In any given week, I spend a lot of time thinking about Christianity in Sudan and South Sudan. It is, more or less, my job. I’m a doctoral student and my research concerns precisely these topics.

In most weeks, my focus on this research is a quiet affair. Sure, I talk with friends and colleagues about what I am uncovering, think about how it connects to other questions in the field of African and world Christianity, and ponder what the implications are for mission and evangelism in the western world, but for the most part it is just me, my books, and interview transcripts from my oral history fieldwork trips.

In the past two weeks, however, this has all changed rather dramatically. South Sudan has become enveloped in a disastrous spiral of violence. Personally, I have found these developments deeply distressing and have spent a fair bit of time calling friends and contacts in South Sudan simply because I have a great deal of love and affection for them and want to know how they are.

But I have also had a professional reaction to all of this. “Hey,” I thought when this all began, “I know something about this. And I think that what I know could help Christians and others around the world begin to understand the deep complexity of what is happening in South Sudan.” So I’ve been posting material on this blog. Some posts have been historical in nature. Others have reported on my phone calls with friends and tried to provide context to what is going on.

To tell you the truth, I had no particular strategy in mind when I began posting things. I just knew I had information I wanted to get out there and writing is a default response for an aspiring academic. But I gradually began to notice something. People were reading it. They were contacting me to thank me for the background and the context. Aid organizations have asked me to send them what I know. International reporters have been in touch to ask for my contacts in South Sudan. It has been an effort just to stay on top of the e-mail I’m receiving (though don’t let that stop you writing).

For me, my scholarship and my ordination as an Anglican/Episcopal priest are inextricably linked. The Latin word for priest—pontifex—means literally bridge-builder and the idea has a deep resonance for me. As a priest and a Christian, I believe I am to help develop relationships between people and God and between people and one another. I dig deeply into the history of the church in Sudan and South Sudan because I think there is information there that will help all of us be linked more deeply to our sisters and brothers in Christ there. I hope my research also helps build links in the other direction as well.

Sometimes the connection between my research and that bridge-building is not immediately obvious. I can go whole weeks (months, even!) wondering just why I thought it was a good idea to start this degree. But then something like this explodes and the connections become obvious—and painful—once again.

I am not the first to write about this, bit it is worth noting that the Episcopal Church has not historically been a place that is congenial to this connection between scholarship and priesthood. The church, it sometimes seems, prefers to put its emphasis on the new, the trendy, and the novel. History is for boring old fuddy-duddies. Except, of course, as these last weeks have shown, it’s not. People in the church really care about this stuff. My Inbox is testimony to that fact.

The thing about scholarship, of course, is you never know just what is going to be important so you have to support lots of it. But history has a way of rearing its head in unexpected ways. The Episcopal Church is currently debating liturgical changes around same-sex blessings. Surely there is something to be gained from studying the extensive history of acrimonious liturgical revision in Anglican history to see what insights might apply to our current day? But where is the next generation of liturgical scholars in the Episcopal Church? This is one example of many that could be cited.

As we look back on 2013, perhaps one of the most interesting developments in the church is the emergence of the Scholar-Priest Initiative to address precisely these concerns. Scholarship (at a doctoral level or otherwise) and ordained vocations (priestly or otherwise) are intimately inter-related. That’s what the last few weeks have demonstrated yet again for me.

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