Sarah Coakley: Living prayer and leadership
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.