25 April 2012

Sarah Coakley: Living prayer and leadership

A wonderful interview with theologian and priest Sarah Coakley posted at Duke's Faith and Leadership blog.  An excerpt is below.

Q: Most theologians think one must either choose to adhere to church tradition or choose Protestant liberalism. And you've said, “Why?” How have you developed this habit of thinking “opposably” rather than “oppositionally” (to borrow language from Roger Martin’s “The Opposable Mind”)?
By nature, I'm actually an oppositional thinker. It's not been without struggle that I have come to see that opposition is not really the best way to be in relationship with other people, except in conditions of severe danger of loss of integrity.
I found myself in a very oppositional place at Harvard Divinity School towards the end of my time there. I felt that what was happening at the school was utterly wrong and destructive. But the trouble is once you declare war there's actually not much more you can do with the people with whom you work. If there's ever a possibility for inducing the best from someone, that's always what you want.
As I get older, the theological virtue of hope seems more important to me. There are ways of winning trust so that the person you are dealing with will see that there may be a shared project on which you can work together.
At an ideological level I don’t assume we can always escape lining ourselves up in complete opposition against another position. But I certainly find it more intriguing theologically to reflect critically before I just jump in with a negative riposte to a kind of thinking that I'm not attracted to initially. I try to practice not so much a hermeneutics of suspicion, but a gentle hermeneutics of charity -- that which you are most likely to dismiss outright is something you ought to constantly reconsider.

Q: How does presiding at the Eucharist inform how you imagine leadership?
The passage into priesthood changed me. I now put a greater priority on the building of relationship in community than the asserting of polemical positions. As academics, we rightly train young scholars to show how their work adds something new and sexy to a discussion. That's the name of the game. But you cannot carry into the priesthood entrenched patterns of polemicism.
Even the bodily ritual actions of the Eucharist are those which necessarily draw others into communion. A wonderful old invitation in the “Book of Common Prayer” says, “Ye that do earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and do intend to lead a new life following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in His holy ways, draw near with faith.” You cannot celebrate the Eucharist unless you believe that such reconciliation is possible while you are celebrating it. People even in the church community who seem to have retreated into polemical positions are capable of being brought back from them. I've seen that happen.

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