Former bishop turned professor says he opposed making a choice between his care for the church and his academic pursuits.
In a wide-ranging interview with Jason Byassee at Duke’s Faith and Leadership website, N.T. Wright says, “My tutor told me at college 40 years ago that I would have to choose between being an academic and a pastor or preacher, and I decided then and there that I wouldn’t make that choice.”
It was difficult trying to do the academic work he loved while also leading the diocese in Durham. But the practical work of the church gave life to the theological work of the academic. However, after a sabbatical at Princeton where Wright worked on a book on the apostle Paul, he decided to leave the church setting and instead situate himself in the academy. He is now professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, but Wright feels that his service as bishop was extremely productive, useful and enjoyable. However the draw of research and the academy proved irresistible.
I was faced with the choice, which I grappled with until about Easter: That stuff I was doing on Paul in Princeton, was that just fun? Was that just a bit of play on the side, or was that actually something very serious that I’m supposed to be reconnecting with? And if that’s so, is it possible to combine it with the job that I’m doing?
By mid-March, to my surprise and my wife’s great surprise, I had come to the conclusion that the answer was that we had to look at the academic option.
Wright says that as a theologian he seeks to place his theological work firmly in the context of the normal work of the church. He holds in tension the theological work he does–and publishing in an array of books–with the responsibilities of a bishop. His model was that of a professor of music. Would you rather learn from someone who can tell you about how to play an instrument or from “somebody who is about to dash off and conduct a rather risqué version of the St. John Passion or something?” The same goes for theology, Wright says.
For example, Wright was responsible as bishop to dedicate the chapel in a navy ship, the HMS Bulwark. After the dedication, the military officers suggested it would be a good idea to sit down for some heady discussion. ”
We organized a seminar onboard ship on war and peace and faith, with Oliver O’Donovan, Nick Sagovsky and Nigel Biggar, myself and four military — absolutely top brass — in the wardroom on HMS Bulwark, and had the most amazing day of discussion. That’s the sort of thing you can do as a bishop in the Church of England. I was just loving doing that. That’s hands-on theology.”
In the rest of the interview, Wright discusses institutional leadership and how the Bible and the Holy Spirit inform the leader, his service in Parliament, social justice, the resurrection, his book After You Believe, and human holiness.