Inspiring Service: Encouraging Conversation and Friendship between Christian Traditions

Andrew Teal is Chaplain, Fellow and Lecturer in Theology at Pembroke College

This post by Andrew Teal was first published by Sacristy Press. The UK edition of Inspiring Service was published by Sacristy Press in November 2020.

In November 2018 the work of over a year came to fruition in Oxford when a distinguished panel of global religious leaders, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Professor Frances Young, and Lord David Alton, under the direction of the chaplain of Pembroke College, Oxford, the Revd Dr Andrew Teal, shared their thoughts on how Christian faith goes hand-in-hand with Christian service. The International Center for Law and Religion Studies cooperated with several Oxford institutions to support the event, including Pembroke College, the Oxford Programme for the Foundations of Law and Constitutional Government, and the Centre for Theology and Modern European Thought (Paul Kerry, ICLRS Associate Director). 

During 2018, events conspired to raise our awareness that many students who had hoped to engage with transformational projects aimed at the public good when they graduated were instead feeling hemmed-in into careers which paid well—to see-off student loans and debts accumulated at university. In conversation, there was also a recognition that though the musical lives of Oxford and Cambridge especially meant that college chapels, to a large degree, were somewhat inoculated from the widespread experience of diminishing numbers, impact and resources in many churches, there was sometimes a restriction to beautiful music rather than a more profound engagement with the life of faith. There were puzzlements voiced that there didn’t seem to be a direct connection between the quest for aesthetic excellence and plugging into the resources of belief.

Thus an idea was born that an event at Pembroke College Oxford, in chapel, in lecture halls, and in the University Church under the umbrella of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, might initiate and model an inter-faith conciliatory example of collaboration, theological engagement, mutual commitment and advocacy to try to make connections, and support students in their vocations and career choices.

But in addition to the “usual suspects” of ecumenism in the UK, it happened that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took a very significant role, and a very dear and committed friendship grew out of Oxford’s encounter with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, based in Salt Lake City. This, of course, is a major new development—truly committed dialogue, friendship and cooperation between traditions that have hitherto not engaged in such publicly candid and authentically scholarly and faithful collaboration.

Invitations to host events and travel to General Conference and other Conferences in the United States have followed—until curtailed by the coronavirus—and I will, hopefully, be resident at Brigham Young University as a Visiting Scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship from late August until the end of December 2021 to work with others to further commitments.

There will be the seeds of research for books from an “outsider’s” understanding of Joseph Smith Jr. and the Early Latter-day Saints, as well as building relationships hopefully to form a project to encourage and nurture ecumenical and inter-faith scholarship, support humanitarian work, and explore legal and constitutional dimensions of religious freedom.

Inspiring Service, published in the US and UK, is thus a first-fruit of what we hope to be a series of scholarly as well as more popular collaborations. The presence and participation of the Greek and Russian Orthodox Metropolitan and Archpriest, and the blessing and good wishes of Cardinal Vincent Nicholls, Bishop Alastair Redfern (inter-faith advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the secretary to the Methodist Conference all made us aware of the astonishing ambassadorial dimension of the events:

We ponder, then, at the outset just for a moment, the faith communities represented by our four speakers … Add up these communities, and it comes to about 1.4 billion people worldwide, which sets our western European experience of faith in decline in dramatic context. Now we are not in the numbers game per se, but if we also consider the evidence of the disproportionately positive impact upon voluntary contributions to society that people of faith make, we can see a significant counter to the depressed evaluation of the “place” of faith communities and their impact on our world [1].

The UK edition has, as its cover, a design for a stained-glass window at Llandaff Cathedral of Christ teaching his apostles, by the artist John Piper. Pembroke College Junior Common Room Art Collection owns this piece, and it seemed appropriate to use it on the cover because of its tentative, but engaged and gentle commitment; its transparency as well as a recognition of the contribution of Pembroke College to what, we pray, is the beginning of a profound and meaningful series of friendships and collaboration in the academy, churches and the world.

[1] Teal, A. (ed.). Inspiring Service. Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Latter-day Saint Traditions in Dialogue (Sacristy Press, 2020), 23.

This post by Andrew Teal was first published by Sacristy Press. The UK edition of Inspiring Service was published by Sacristy Press in November 2020.