A Conversation Between Priests

The Very Reverend Barkley Thompson, former rector of St. John’s and now dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas, will be at St. John’s in early April to read from and sign copies of his book, God in the Midst of the City. Barkley, along with the Reverend Eric Long and communications director Cara Ellen Modisett, talked via e mail about ministry, cities, Lent and politics, for the March issue of The Record.

You are both priests in larger churches (one a cathedral) in urban settings – two very different cities in many ways, from geographic to demographic. What are the sorts of challenges, questions, ministries you have discovered that are unique to your cities, and perhaps were not what you expected?

Barkley Thompson: I was not entirely prepared for how diverse Houston is. Houston is, according to Stephen Klineberg’s research, the most diverse large city in the United States. You’ll meet people of every nationality, ethnicity, color, religion, and socioeconomic background. I love and celebrate that, but it also makes especially challenging presenting the Gospel in a way that connects cross-culturally.

Eric Long: As both of my previous two churches were suburban churches, their locations within the metro areas they served did not seem as intrinsic to their identities. In contrast, it is telling how vital place matters here at St. John’s, through and through a downtown church. To borrow words from my friend, Barkley, we are very much situated by God in “the midst of the city.” One challenge this poses is that many of our people don’t live downtown, and so we must be asking, how do we attend to our church’s immediate neighbors, when in most of life we aren’t neighbors with them? This is a perpetual question and struggle. One other unique feature of this parish is the additional civic responsibilities that come with being a prominent, historic church in the heart of downtown. Oftentimes media look to us when large societal questions are at play. For instance, I remember the day before I began work here, being called by the The Roanoke Times to comment on the same sex marriage battles raging in Virginia because of court decisions taking place – and I had lived in Virginia for exactly six days. I knew right then that St. John’s would have a voice that not all churches have, and that the unique setting and history of our congregation carries greater weight than I had before encountered.

What called each of you to parish priesthood/ministry in particular?

BT: My call story begins during my teenage years. It involves a major automobile accident I had at age 16 and the felt experience of God’s overwhelming grace a few months later. Whenever people have asked me, “When did you decide you wanted to be a priest?” I have honestly answered, “The first day I want to be a priest, I’ll let you know.” My calling has never been about what I’d choose to do with my life. Rather, it is about what God created me to be. I can’t imagine being fulfilled through any other job or vocation. My experience is not entirely unlike that of the prophet Jeremiah, who said, “If I say ‘I will not speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

My sense of calling to the priesthood has always and only been to parish ministry. Serving among God’s people in the everyday – baptizing, marrying, burying, counseling, sharing sorrows and joys – all the while naming the grace of God that pervades our lives is the essence of the ordained life for me. I wouldn’t want, or know how, to be any other kind of priest.

EL: I precisely remember when I realized that I was going to be a parish priest as opposed to doing other sorts of ministry such as chaplaincy, serving on a bishop’s staff, etc. Oddly enough, it was when I was serving as a chaplain in the Navy at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. Balboa is an enormous naval hospital serving the entire Pacific Fleet and we dealt with a vast array of issues that were meaningful for me as a newbie in my early 20s (students with all kinds of issues, domestic abuse cases, the aids crisis, which was still raging in the early ’90s, and of course myriad patients in all sorts of conditions). I couldn’t be the priest I am without that season of ministry – however, it was next to impossible to have ongoing pastoral relationships with people. In fact, most were one-off occurrences. Walking away from yet another emergency, where I spent important time with a family, but knew all along I wouldn’t see them again, suddenly let me know that I am built to spend longer periods of time with people. It takes me some time to really know people and to be known, and I love getting to that place with parishioners and sharing life together, week after week, year after year, while sharing all the momentous milestones, joys and pains of our lives together over time. I am built for parish ministry, as wonderful as all other types may be.

In this season of Epiphany at St. John’s we’ve been focusing on the idea of God in the world, God for all people, church in the world. Could you each talk a little about your work, past and/or current, as “church in the world” that has meant a great deal to you? 

BT: I believe parishes are called to be church in the world particularly. In other words, fidelity means reading one’s context and responding to it. For Christ Church Cathedral, that led us several years ago to adopt as our parish theme “God in the midst of the city” from Psalm 46:5, from which the title of my book also comes. The Cathedral’s self-understanding is as a cathedral for the parish, the diocese, and Houston. As a cathedral for the city, we have doggedly remained in the heart of downtown since 1839, while every other church scattered to the edge of town in generational concentric circles. As downtown Houston has evolved over those generations – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill – the Cathedral has been committed to its dynamics. Today, that primarily means 1. seeking to end chronic homelessness, 2. responding to the needs of the growing immigrant community, and 3. evangelizing the rapid influx of residents to a revitalized downtown.

EL: From the moment that God decided to step fully into our world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the faith of Christ has insisted that life in this world matters. Jesus ate with, healed, touched, lived amongst and brought together diverse people. Jesus also put a claim on the lives of any who would follow them, that they would live no longer for themselves alone, but would enact his kingdom of reconciliation of the world to God, which definitionally requires Christians to step out of their comfort zones and into the lives of others. Therefore, Christianity is never about me alone, is never about me tending my own, private, spiritual garden. The interior life matters immensely, but for the Christian, having a proper relationship with God always must translate into action in the world.

The reason St. John’s takes very seriously our care for our neighbors is simply because we are followers of Jesus. As well, the reason we do work not only locally, but around the world, is because Jesus called us to do it. There is no such thing as a Christian with no vision for the earth entire. Otherwise, why do pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven?” We do it because of the God who stepped outside of the domain of God (heaven) for the very life of the world, and all people within it. Including us. Including all.

Barkley, your book is a collection of essays and sermons responding to current events at the community and national levels. The relationship between politics and faith is particularly tense and complex right now. Given that, how do you each a. respond faithfully to politically-charged questions, especially in your sermons and writing, and b. approach pastoral care and parish ministry knowing that your congregations are diverse in their political views?

BT: Not meaning to dodge this question, I’d truly point people to the introduction to the book! Apart from it, the book is merely a collection of topical sermons and essays.  he introduction ties the pieces together by offering a theology of how we, as Christians, should engage our faith and the body politic.

EL: I cannot name one clergy person whom I really respect who does not see this as the most pressing issue he/she is experiencing. For me, I regard it as the greatest challenge of my entire ministry, and I’ve been at this for a while. It is a deeply disturbing, dangerous time. Fear is causing the scapegoating of vulnerable persons. Basic facts are not agreed upon. Winning justifies the most grotesque moral compromises. And all of this is happening in a culture where it is hard to discern if there are many with a true desire for reconciliation.

The predominant question I have asked is, how does the church have a faithful, strong voice without adding to the contentiousness, simply being heard as picking a side in the partisan grunge matches? How do I know when I’ve said too little (which, truthfully, is my overwhelming fear) or too much? I’ll let you know when I have those answers.

What I have tried to do is unapologetically preach the Christian gospel and insist that we can’t spiritualize it away and that, for Christians, it has a claim on their life. When not in the pulpit, and there is a chance at true dialogue (which is the truest place transformation occurs), I’ve been more specific. This has caused some to think I’m taking sides or no side. Both are at odds with my intentions and aspirations. I place zero ultimate hope in one of America’s parties achieving ultimate victory (although I see many areas where I hope that elements of both lose).

As priest of a Christian church, I want to hold up is an absolute alternative: the Kingdom of God, which is that realm where the ways of Jesus are done on earth as in heaven. That is what I am a partisan of. That is where I pledge my utmost allegiance. The fact that some hear my proclamation of it through purely debased political filters tells me how much more I need the Spirit of God to help me to be what this moment demands.

What do you see as the changing (or not-changing) role of the church in this particular climate?

BT: The role of the Church has never been more important. We are called to live in the world as the vanguard of God’s kingdom, as those people who show the world now what relationships, and virtue, and grace will be when the kingdom is fulfilled. As communities fracture – both due to our increased isolation and our increasingly vitriolic rancor – that witness becomes ever more indispensable. We are to be the embodiment of God’s alternative vision for the world. That requires that we be Church not only, or primarily, on Sunday mornings. Church is not what we do when we go the corner of Elm and Mountain, or, in Houston, the corner of Texas and Fannin. Church is who we are in every arena of our lives. And with God’s grace, we will be the leaven that transforms the world.

EL: I think what this unique historic moment needs most is for the Church to be the Church. Our mission hasn’t evolved – whether we will enact it is the question. When the Church has been a mirror of our cultural maladies (think of the Constantinian church through so much of Christian history seeking power, or think of many white churches in the civil rights era), we have been more transformed by the world than into the likeness of Christ. When the Church has offered a Christ-centered alternative to our culture (think many black churches in the civil rights movement), a miracle can occur where the ways of heaven can really remake the ways of the world. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s goal was far greater than desegregation – he explicitly said it was to transform the world into the beloved community, the world remade into the ways of Jesus.

The church needs to have the vision and hope of true reconciliation; not the cheap reconciliation of let’s all get along to get along, but the real sort: we are willing to follow Christ enough to allow each of us to give of ourselves, so that we, and the world about us, might be re-formed into a beloved community. That has always been the mission of the Church, and so it remains. Actually living it out is the trick.

We’re about to move into the season of Lent, and will be in it in early April when you visit Roanoke, Barkley. What is that journey/what is the nature of that journey for each of you?

BT: The Lenten journey is always one of examination and introspection for me. You may recall that I move through the world at a pretty fast clip. While part of that is because I like to get stuff done, one could also suggest that another part is my hope that if I keeping moving I won’t have to slow down long enough for my shadows to catch me. That is, until Ash Wednesday. Beginning with that smudge of ashes, I always pause to ask myself where I’ve erred by both commission and omission. I also think about my mortality, which is hard to ignore as I solidly enter middle age.

A favorite book of mine is Phillip Simmons’ Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. I plan to re-read it this Lent along with Ecclesiastes, as a reminder not to cling too tightly to things that invariably pass away. Simmons’ thesis is that we love better when we love loosely. (Of course, the 1980s hair band .38 Special figured that out long ago!)

EL: Early in my ministry, because of the busyness of clergy in the season of Lent, I used to say my Lenten discipline is to get through Lent. I think I always knew that was a cop-out, but never totally called myself out on it, until recently. Clergy need Lent at least as much as all others, and perhaps even more. The multitude of roles required of us can be exhausting, but more troubling is that they can just be roles. Our vocations can become jobs. Forgetting what we’re really about can overwhelm us, unless we take the time necessary to re-member ourselves before God and our communities. For me, the Lenten journey of prayer, self-examination, confession, all in a universe of God’s grace is an assault on forgetting, so that I may be the person God has called me to be.

Barkley, are there some things you must do while you’re in Roanoke – places to visit, etc.? And Eric, what would you say have become your best-loved places/experiences in Roanoke in the years you’ve been here so far?

BT: I haven’t been to Roanoke since 2016, and unfortunately this time I’ll only be in town for about 18 hours. I miss everyone so much. My family’s time at St. John’s was a sweet spot in our lives. We made lifelong friends and lifelong memories. In an ideal visit to Roanoke, I’d have a beer and an American Dog at Fork in the Alley; go dove hunting with Robert Brailsford; see a movie with the guys; say hello to Jan Garrett’s and Mae Moore’s mannequins, have a slice at Grace’s Pizza and go to church at St. John’s. And it would always be autumn, with the leaves changing on Mill Mountain. That would be a perfect visit.

EL: Maybe it’s the fact that I’m writing this after another snow day, but one of the things I love about Roanoke is the spring. Never before do I recall experiencing that season in such a transformational way. The world around me shouts, “NEW LIFE!” and I feel that within myself entirely. This leads me to another of my favorite things about life here: those random, unexpected moments when I just look up and really see the mountains as if it is the first time. The natural beauty that is immediately available from almost any place I can be in this city is beyond compare. Mostly though, for me, what makes any place special are the relationships I have. Perhaps this comes from spending fourteen years in a place like Kansas City that didn’t have resplendent springs and tons of natural beauty, but for me home means people. And it is the unique people of Roanoke, who have become beloved in my life, who I would never have known without being here, that has made the place for me.

I also like Barkley’s list and couldn’t argue with anything on that, other than hunting doves with Robert. I have no idea what they have against the Holy Spirit.

Barkley Thompson blogs online here.

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