“God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me,” read the plaque given to a pastor with whom I once worked. That particular plaque didn’t last very long, but the sentiment lives on.
But for those of us whose faith is both "head" and "heart," these words seem trite and off-the-mark. Could the spiritual life, the life of faith, ever be one of unchanging answers to long-ago resolved questions?
Additionally, the faithful life is not one lived in isolation: community is the embodiment of Christ into which we are baptized, and also what helps shape our conception of what the life of faith should look like.
For many of us, this community even includes people whom we have never met: writers who function as teachers and guides from across the centuries and around the Church. Though never meeting them in the flesh, their wisdom is available to us through their writing. Irenaeus, Julian of Norwich, Howard Thurman, Madeleine L’Engle are among those who have shaped me. The conversations into which they have initiated me have been life-altering.
Who among us has not found this to be true? The friends and teachers we have met on the pages of books can be among the most significant in the course of our lives.
For those of us who are progressive Christians within the United States, these may be the days in which we turn more and more frequently to the words of Thurman, of Verna Dozier, of Ida B. Wells, of Pauli Murray. Or we may reach across the ocean, as well as across the years, to Evelyn Underhill, to Hildegard of Bingen, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer—always seeking the aid of those who have walked difficult paths and whose support holds us strong.
Our prayer is also shaped by brothers and sisters who have come long before. “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee,” Augustine gave voice to our shared truth. Meister Eckhart expressed the communal truth this way: “That feeling you have in your cell or in church, take it with you. It will protect you from the restlessness.” Compline, that ancient office of closure on the day, prays through us and previous generations, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep” (Book of Common Prayer, page 134).
As an Episcopalian, and one now involved daily with authors and publishers, I’m deeply grateful for a denominational home that values the gifts of the academy alongside (rather than separate from) those of congregation. My "elevator speech" for my particular publishing company, Church Publishing Incorporated (an official publisher of the Episcopal Church), is that I want us to “be the place the conversations happen.” For me, that means that topics of current interest viewed through a theological lens, alongside books of prayer and general spirituality, must be a part of our seasonal lists. It is our responsibility, through our authors, to shape and encourage conversations about environmental concerns, sexuality, prayer, liturgical practice, racism and other issues of justice, spirituality, and faith formation.
Many saw the media reports when our General Convention voted in 2012 to approve rites written especially for the marriages of same-sex couples. These rites were the fruit of pastors, couples, and liturgical scholars holding a "conversation" over time to create documents of great beauty. (In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that they are being used almost as often for different-sex couples as for same-sex spouses.) The volumes in which the rites are included also offer theological, pastoral, and liturgical reflections on the texts themselves and their attendant liturgical actions, alongside suggestions regarding the requisite premarital counseling. It is this "conversation," accomplished in large part through the sharing of practices, resources, and theological reflection in print that was critical to the understanding and acceptance of these rites.
For Episcopalians, being known as "people of the Book [of Common Prayer]" has been a gift. While not without its difficulties, the written (vernacular) word has been central to our identity. Such a tradition has continued to bear fruit, as writers of all sorts find themselves drawn to Anglicanism. Madeleine L’Engle, to name just one, is finding a new audience as the next generation discovers her book A Wrinkle in Time, on which the major motion picture is based. L’Engle’s faith is clear throughout the book for those who have "eyes to see."
Recent years have seen significant changes in what we understand to be the "written word." Blog posts, social media feeds, e-books, open source documents, and the immediacy of self-publishing have all shifted the landscape. Now, authors as recognizable as Diana Butler Bass and Anne Lamott interact with readers, as well as those who may never have picked up one of their books, every day through Facebook and Twitter. Extended engagements—retreats or forums—are held regularly via video conferencing, allowing smaller institutions or those further from urban centers to enjoy direct interaction with those whose works they have studied. These changes have enlarged and enriched the conversation within communities and the academy. The learning curve may have been steep for some of us, but the gifts are undeniable.
Writing and publishing as functions of the church and the academy may continue to change in dramatic and unforeseen ways, but it is my deep hope that their place as tools for formation will remain a constant for generations to come.
Contributor: Nancy Bryan