New clergy reading group builds bridges

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on December 1, 2017

“When you are in pastoral leadership, the business of the church demands so much of your attention,” says the Rev. Canon Stephen Peake. “I just wanted to learn and force myself to learn by reading things I wouldn’t otherwise read.”

Stephen was talking about our new clergy reading group. He had hosted our latest informal group discussion at St. Bride’s, Clarkson, and we were talking about why reading theology together was so helpful. “The relationship is more important than the opinions,” he said. “That’s where the Body of Christ is – lots of opinions coming together.”

When I first began to study theology, it was like a light coming on and I couldn’t get enough of it. In the years since I was ordained, I have continued to buy books. Sometimes I finish them, but often I don’t. They sit on my shelf, the bookmark a quarter or a third of the way through, at the place where other priorities of pastoral leadership intervened. I might have referenced a quote or a chapter in a sermon or a Bible study. Then I moved on – and there the book sits while I wish I had greater self-discipline.

Last year, I brought a particularly compelling book to our annual clergy conference. At a time of open announcements, I got up and talked about the book. The Crucifixion would be so relevant for preaching during Holy Week, and the author, Fleming Rutledge, was coming to give a talk at Wycliffe College. Who would join me in reading it, so that I would be sure to finish the book? We would get a lot out of it if we could meet and talk about it. I followed up with everyone who expressed interest, and we began.

Our first gathering included people I didn’t know, and people who didn’t know each other. Maybe we recognized each other’s faces from diocesan events, but we had never spoken. The discussion was wonderfully stimulating, and I think we all appreciated the diversity in the room. Some loved the book, some hated it, but the discipline of meeting together helped us finish it – and our shared reading informed our sermons during Holy Week.

We are in the middle of reading our second book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr. Some love it and some don’t, but the conversation is stimulating, respectful, and honest. We are looking forward our next gathering, when our focus will be, “How will you preach this?”

Stephen and I are both reluctant to say that our group represents the full spectrum of theological views in the Church, but the diversity of views is evident in our conversation. We have experienced the breaking down of stereotypes. Talking together about our faith pushes back at the tendency to slot people.

“We are building shared experiences with other leaders and reflecting on pastoral care through what the text is saying,” says Stephen. I think what we are building is a bridge. When you build a bridge and then stand on it together, new things you’d never thought about become possible.

We welcome clergy to join us reading theology together. We will start our third book after Christmas.


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