Presiding Bishop book club: theology matters, books matter

Over the last two weeks, I’ve offered reviews of some of the books written by some of the candidates—Tom Breidenthal, Ian Douglas, and Michael Curry—to be the next presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. The project began as a lark, based on something New York Times columnist Gail Collins does with the books of presidential candidates. But I enjoyed the reading and I enjoyed thinking about the candidates in this way. Screen-Shot-2015-05-01-at-10.18.58-AM

The project sparked four additional thoughts that I offer as a coda to this series of posts.

First, theology matters. We don’t often talk about it explicitly in the church but all of us—lay and ordained—have some kind of implicit theology that guides our actions and our understandings. The virtue of these books is that we are able to see some of this theology worked out at length. That offers the opportunity for praise, engagement, and critique of the kind that I wish we had more of in the church.

Second, and relatedly, the genre and venue for these writings is so different that comparing them is like apples and oranges. Still, I am struck by the different theological emphases of the candidates. Take Christology, for instance, or what we believe about the Jesus Christ. Michael Curry has a Christology that emphasizes the incarnation, life, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Ian Douglas talks more about the Trinity than about Jesus. Tom Breidenthal bases his call for Christian nearness on the way in which Christ comes near to us in his life, death, and resurrection. These are important differences in emphasis that I would like us to spend more time thinking about. The future of the church isn’t just in the strategies and policies we adopt but the theology we root ourselves in.

Third, books matter. There are no shortage of blog posts, tweets, and Facebook threads that shape the life of the church these days. Books allow for sustained development of a particular theme that draw us more deeply into the teaching and ministry of the church. Books alone do not a church make, of course, but I hope they can continue to shape our life together. Not all our reading about the church need take place online. (This is a self-interested point to make, I acknowledge, but still an important one.)

Finally, and to repeat what I said at the outset, in no way does this project imply that one has to author a book to be a candidate for presiding bishop. As far as I can tell, Dabney Smith, the fourth candidate, has not written any books and so has not figured in this series. But that does not mean I do not think he is unqualified to be presiding bishop or in some way a less-than-credible candidate. There are many talented bishops who enrich the church with their ministry and who will never write books. But I bet they read a lot of them!

Michael Nuttal, who was the runner-up to Desmond Tutu for archbishop of Cape Town, once wrote that before that election he prayed for a “holy indifference” to the result. That is, if he was called to the position, he prayed for the grace to fulfil it; if he wasn’t, he prayed for the grace to continue his current ministry. It is clear that the slate of candidates to be the next presiding bishop offers a wealth of talent to the church. I pray that each will continue to enrich the church with their gifts, wholly and holy indifferent to the result of Saturday’s election.

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