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Sarah Coakley: Living prayer and leadership

The professor of theology at Cambridge University says silent attention to God is the anchor of leadership.

August 18, 2009

To hear an excerpt of the interview with Sarah Coakley, click the play button on the audio player at the right of this screen. Or download this free on iTunes U.

Sarah Coakley is one of the most influential theologians in the English-speaking world. In 2008 she became the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University in her native England. Before that she was the Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, where she taught for 14 years. She is an ordained priest in the Church of England.

Her work often takes the form of rigorous essays that rework received wisdom on a point in church history, doctrine or contemporary public life to make it more attentive to Christ, Scripture, feminism and the flourishing of community life generally. Several such essays are in her own volume “Powers and Submissions.”

Coakley frequently cooperates with other scholars. Such collaborations include her co-edited book with Duke University Chapel Dean Sam Wells (“Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture”) and two volumes that rehabilitate historic Christian thinkers whose work has often been maligned (“Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa” and “Re-thinking Dionysius the Areopagite”). She has a forthcoming volume with Harvard scientist Martin Nowak on theology and evolution and is at work on a planned four-volume systematic theology.

Coakley spoke with Jason Byassee of Faith & Leadership on how and when to adopt, correct or reject inherited models of leadership from within and outside the church. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: What kind of leader have you wanted to imitate in your career as an academic and priest?

The great leaders are the people who can put the wounds of the past behind us, without repressing them, in order for us all to move forward with grace and forgiveness. That is an extremely rare capacity. It is almost unknown. So when you see it visibly manifested it has a powerful effect. Nelson Mandela is one of the stunning examples of our time.

I do worry about what's being discussed with regard to leadership in the churches today. There tends to be an assumption that because leadership is effective in the business world, we should unthinkingly carry that model into the church. I'm not saying there is nothing we can learn from business, but there are two reasons why we shouldn't proceed along this route without more serious thought.

First, there are models of leadership in our biblical witness, especially in the life and words of Jesus, which should be a starting point for any theological reflection. What Jesus has to say about authorities and power, and what he demonstrates in his own acts of witness and in his passion, are absolutely crucial. Second, the business models themselves are usually presented in a packaged, pragmatic form that can be very efficacious. But there is little analysis of the secular presumptions that animated them. We should ask critically, and maybe also appreciatively, what vision of power, persons and community lies behind whatever business model we consider using.

Q: What can we learn about leadership from the ancient church?

There is a poignant passage in Ignatius of Antioch about the crucial place of the silence of the bishop in leadership of the church. Interpreters have had great trouble deciphering what on earth the silence of bishops meant in that passage in his Epistle to the Ephesians [“The one who truly possesses the word of Jesus is also able to hear his silence, that he may be perfect, that he may act through what he says and be known through his silence”]. For Ignatius, in a time of church fracture, a bishop should imitate Christ’s silence before Pilate. He resisted worldly forms of dealing with a power clash by sitting in the middle of it and bearing it in his body.

I wrote a sermon on this when Rowan Williams had just become Archbishop of Canterbury. He was in his rockiest early phase when people thought that he was vacillating and wouldn't come forward and say what his position was [on homosexuality]. I don't think any commentator thought that Rowan Williams keeping quiet was powerful. But not only was it the only thing he could do at the time, it was also a spiritually powerful thing to do.

Q: What lessons about leadership do you take from your frequent subjects, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila in 16th-century Spain?

They were up against very similar problems. They were somewhat differently treated according to their gender (John got worse treated than Teresa). They resisted conditions of enormous pressure: the Inquisition for both of them, and brutal assault, capture and imprisonment for John. And this oppression came, mind you, from members of John’s own community. Yet both managed to maintain a level of integrity, calm and love for others while resisting these conditions. You wouldn't think that these were very happy conditions for a great reform of the Catholic Church in Spain to take root or for some of the greatest spiritual literature of the Christian tradition to be written. Yet Teresa’s and John’s work came out of conditions in which they were holding fast, without adopting the projects or power moves of the enemy.

That's a very unusual posture. It's a very difficult one to maintain, and it doesn't always win. Or at least it doesn't always appear to win.

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.

Q: Can you think of a specific story about that?

Towards the end of my time at Harvard Divinity School I was continuing to celebrate the Eucharist on Friday morning. This was during a period of enormous ideological fracture in that community. It was not only people who supported my position who came. The Eucharist did not become a factional event. It was, interestingly, even better attended during that period than before.

I remember the very last time I presided over the Eucharist there. It was both a very painful and also a joyous event. It was the feast day of the English martyrs, by a strange coincidence. I preached on the necessity of being a dying theologian. The text was parts of 1 Corinthians 1-2 about how the postures of giving away are crucial to the Christian message.

We always sat for 20 minutes in silence before the service. On this occasion I'd been sitting praying with my eyes closed. And I opened my eyes, and there were 70 people in the room. They cut entirely across factional and denominational positions. It was an incredible moment. I thought, “Let us not say that the Eucharist is not a powerful source of transformation.”

Q: How would you tell institutional leaders who want to be guided by their faith that they ought to think differently about power?

The presumption about power in the world is that there are two alternatives: either top-down authority, or powerlessness in which we are pushed to the edges. But some of the best social science work on power, such as that of the later work of Michel Foucault, shows that is not actually how institutions work. There are always circuits of power even among people who feel themselves to be powerless institutionally. Their effect on people around them is still enormously significant.

Much of my work has been about the power that comes through transparency to the divine. Often even ministers don’t think enough about how Christian life is magnetized and electrified by being lived prayerfully. When you meet a priest or a minister who is living prayer, you never forget that person. That person may be bumblingly inefficient on the budget, useless about remembering to come to appointments, all other kinds of things that they're meant to do right, and yet have the most fantastic impact on people's lives.

The church isn’t training enough such people. Where do you start in theological college in drawing people into lives like that?

You can't obviously manipulate grace. But you can do some things. For instance, I now go to Westcott House at Cambridge for an hour a week to sit in silence with a group of students who want to make silence a cornerstone of their ministry from the start. I do that for my sake, selfishly, because I need that anchor. But I also do it because a professor’s presence gives the group some legitimacy, without which, as the pressures of term build up, it might evaporate. My presence is a little nudge to say, “Silence is more important than anything else. If you put this first, oddly, you will then know which emails not to answer, which doorbells not to answer, and the bits of your life will fall into the right order and the bits that don't matter will fall out.” Such prayer has to be at the top of the list of what we're training people to do in ministry.

The prayer doesn't have to be silent, but it does have to be attention to God.