Interview by Christianity Now of Bishop N. T .W. of Bishop Auckland, in North East England.
CN: Bishop Wr...
NTW: Do call me Tom.
NTW: Bishop Tom. It is a great privilege to still be be here in such wonderful, historic, premises, occupying a see associated with the academic greats of episcopacy, and it is pleasing to think that others think I am worthy of this position and I am glad to put my shoulder to the task. Granted I was baptised with Pagan-like predictive fortune that I would be associated with the New Testament, and my mother had great insight like that realising that her and my father's genes would come together to produce a counter-cultural occupier of this place and publishing with my initials put to great use. What do you want to put to me?
CN: Bishop Tom. Well let's start there. You are back from yet another trip from the United States.
NTW: I have just been spending some subsequent nights in the same bed as my wife, being safely heterosexual as I am, and I was just reflecting on all the travel I do as a much travelled author with friends around the world. And she is so sweet, saying, as she does to me, "G'night Mr. Tom," because she likes to call me that, as I say, "Goodnight Maggie Thatcher," because of course I need to get some sleep when home - because of all the travel I do - and that thought puts me to sleep.
CN: And combining that with being a diocesan bishop.
NTW: I am just back from America, and I love the American people. They queue up for me to sign the books they buy and they are always so friendly and put their hands deep into their pockets. If I told you everything I said to the people asking me to sign the books I would have to write a book. There is such an enormous amount to give thanks for and for the opportunity that Christianity gives me to travel around the world, and my first love becomes the United States and the American people and their rich and leading traditions of doing theology - thinking of all the great centres and universities where I have never been.
CN: Well this is a good opportunity to talk about the American people and the United States, and what is happening with The Episcopal Church.
NTW: Well they've got it coming to them, haven't they? The Americans only seem to listen to themselves, utterly arrogant and isolationist, and it is in their very psyche, who think they can come up with all this so called theological diversity when we have an Anglican Communion of great interdependent teaching trying to evangelise ourselves. And we have such a wonderful Archbishop whom they seem to think they can ride roughshod over. Well let me tell you, and take it as a scoop if you want - not for much longer. Just wait and see.
CN: I am intrigued. Can you tell more?
NTW: No, but I was there when his officials were talking and I heard what they are going to do. You will not recognise the Instruments of Communion once our Archbishop fires the starting gun. The Americans won't know what's hit them and it will serve them right. You know, he is my greatest friend and he confides in me what he wants me to know, and so I often try to overhear his officials talking. And you know, they are often in despair. I say to them, give him a kick up the backside and they say wouldn't you like to do it and I say no he is such a friend of mine and so they said well just wait and see. I know what they mean. You just wait and see, and take it from a man in the know. Sometimes Americans make me sick, the way they behave.
CN: But you were saying that you publish there.
NTW: I feel like kicking dust in the publisher's face when over there. They publish me under Tom when I want N. T. and they put N. T. when I want Tom. Can't they tell? Some Americans are just thick and I write for them under 'Tom'. I do that for Evangelicals too. But others, the great intellectuals of America and Germany, these books have to be N. T. of course. It is obvious: N. T. for New Testament scholarship and Tom because I want people to like me, but keep it simple until they do. Jesus said kick the dust from under your feet, but I'd give the dust a goal kick. Not that Americans would understand goal kicks.
CN: You suggested recently that with D025 and C056 the American Episcopalians have rather derailed themselves.
NTW: What numbers are these?
CN: D025 and C056 - the resolutions. Well, let me put it that the first decentralises the process of discernment where there is disagreement, but the Church now has no across the board brake to partnered homosexual clergy becoming bishops; and the second collects liturgical material for three years time and until then, at least, there is no authorised blessing of gay partnerships.
CN: Er, Bishop Tom?
NTW: That's a bit sophisticated isn't it? No! It is nothing other than a kick in the teeth for our Archbishop, and don't come all that mamby-pamby oh so cute explanation of all this progressive claptrap that these Americans are so self-righteous about. It was deliberate, nasty, and in sheer ignorance of the Windsor Report of 2004 and the Covenant that this Archbishop (and my good friend) has worked so hard on for so long. They have ripped into the proverbial cloth, not even using scissors, but got a blunt knife and slashed and slashed at the Communion - and then they have the blind cheek to say they want to use that cloth to pay up to make it into an amazing technicolour dreamcoat? They are like schizophrenics (without wishing to upset any schizophrenics), but what a display, when you go over there, what a shower. And he did - the Archbishop did go over there. Gave him tea and buns and then na-na ne na-na once he'd left the airport. I'd be getting that pilot to turn the plane around, go back, and give them a piece of his mind.
CN: Have they got no case at all: is there not the movement of, er, the Holy Spirit - say?
NTW: I'm a scholar of the Bible, right? Look at it, and the Holy Spirit isn't going to contradict his Bible. It is clear in there: one man, one woman, lifelong, and that's where you do the nookie. You ask the Muslims; ask the Jews. They don't go in for all this variation and postmodern invention, and you ask that Winchester woman because gays aren't even gays anymore, like that chap who was my predecessor. Muhammad, take him: he had only one wife; and Jesus kept himself close to his mum and that other woman. The Jews, they worship their women they do. You don't get David playing cushee with Moshe do you? So where else do you get lots of women using the old tickling stick with other women? Witches round the cauldron, that's where. Paganism. That's where you get all that. All these bloggers you get these days too, from over there, all stirring the heretical brew. Paul saw it, you know, and said they had to stop. It was idolatry, like images and saints and too much holy smoke in amongst all the statues and columns and altars. All that Matthew Fox so-called theology and that Pagan woman, what's she called - Hawkstar. Only in America could you get theology like that, which is why I have to make such an effort to sell them my books. You have to occupy the fulcrum. The Episcopal Church doesn't: it is one big Pagan ethic and a Coven has replaced the Covenant we were all preparing and they've just thrown a brick at it.
CN: If that is so, should allegiance be transferred to the new Anglican Church of North America?
NTW: What? That bunch of super-apostles? There's plenty in the Bible about people like them. They think they can stomp around and rearrange the Anglican Communion, making my friend the Archbishop optional. It's time for some backbone. Look, there is only one Anglican Communion, and it's the one that the Americans are going to have to be told to rejoin, once we've kicked them out. No, but we'll hang on to the few who want to sign the Covenant, but no we don't want that bunch of breakaways to sign any Covenant. They steal the name evangelical. The only thing these Confessing Anglicans should do is do as they are told: confess and disband; the structures and oversight are there and it is the Anglican Communion. They have no patience when we come to sorting TEC out and it is time we got on with it.
CN: Change the subject just a little. What boundaries are there regarding theological diversity? Say when it comes to Easter and when it comes to Christmas.
NTW: I am thrilled you have asked that question. You see until I came along, we had all this namby-pamby liberal direction theology, which has been the worst period in Anglican history ever. We have all this wishy washy stuff that has passed for Christianity and negative biblical criticism. Now of course Jesus was Jewish, and he was part of that last days eschatology of his time's way of thinking, and there were resurrection concepts in place, and Jesus followed the Jewish law, but the events of that time, as in the Roman practice of crucifixion, the breaking out of the resurrection, and with the New Perspective on Paul's insight into salvation (in which I am a central figure), were absolutely unique, and Christian orthodoxy absolutely has its root and very foundation in these God given events. And the atonement is absolutely a central belief in all of this for our salvation, but sometimes you get these so called theologians who cannot tell the difference between a sort of penal substitution that is absolutely fine and another which would be cosmic child abuse if it is the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story that is at best a caricature of the true one. So we cannot dismiss the love of God that still allows, yes, a penal substitution but still also allows for salvation being fulfilled in the resurrection and love of God. We don't need the mediaeval stuff but the modern - indeed the postmodern is fantastic now. And... well of course you see there is the international angle which we theologians understand: we have some fantastic theology now we can pursue in the United States and Germany, but there is nothing stopping some really cutting edge work here in England too, so long as diocesan matters don't become intrusive. But of course the trajectory of German Kantian-grounded and Hegelian expressive based theology really has nothing much to offer English Anglicanism in the current climate where we are recovering from where it has taken us, and indeed some American theology too, and yet must not be seduced by the implicit liberalism in much of the opportunity offered by postmodernism of which I want to be a part when I describe what I think it is on about. But let's be clear, we are full on with orthodoxy thanks to the literature turn we receive with postmodernity, so there is much to be thankful for in how we have arrived at where we are today. And let's also be clear that we know who the bad guys are: not the liberals or Steve School-Blackboard but those who read penal substitution more into the Bible than is there, and frankly if they want to start a witch-hunt they'll have to get past me first. Anyway, Steve my friend can get on with his schools. There are lots of people I could pierce for their transgressions, and the violent imagery they seem to enjoy is simply pre-Christian and Pagan and I simply won't allow them to get away with it. And why do they ignore Anselm?
CN: Wow. Tour de... something. And Christmas?
NTW: We don't want to be full of false belief or unbelief, and so we see in the uniqueness of Jesus's birth an expression of the love of God, which actually is what Easter is all about as I have been saying, supremely, and, unlike the as I say the cul de sac of the liberals, so we celebrate the virgin birth as a marker of Jesus's importance of birth as a true prophet in the Jewish tradition and more than this - where the postmodern turn allows us to sing with Chris de Burgh, A Spaceman came Travelling - and with the text's numerically measured genealogy down Jesus's father's side who, of course, wasn't involved except as Mary's bag carrier as you examine the all important words and numbers, because you shouldn't sift them out or produce proof-texts to order, and keeping close to them with the latest research; but the key is Jesus's baptism in Mark, which is for all. I use 'Tom' for that book, because it is in those popular bookshops rather than what theologians might want to read. But yes, absolutely, no doubt about it, the texts point to a unique birth and a unique set of events around it which, of course, we don't look to history about in a naive way, but in the sort of sophisticated way when I use my initials that I am so grateful for receiving and which avoids me being sub-biblical like my critics when they pick and choose texts according to fancy, and here I mean so-called evangelicals stealing the name rather than the liberals who, frankly, are conked out.
CN: So before we return to contemporary events, perhaps you can give an overview of your understanding of the Bible.
NTW: I am a scholar of the Bible, reading the latest theology - liberal and evangelical - especially out of Germany and the United States. And there is the liturgical use, constant day to day reading through, according to the calendar. And then there's pastoral referencing as a bishop. Now evangelicals don't really support the Bible like they claim. I have examined how they use it, and they are too low. It does have to be used in connection with the Church. In these postmodern times we don't really understand authority any more, and that can be liberating. And we have much to be thankful to the liberals for, as their witness in scholarship influenced the character of postmodern turn. So even more now authority depends on context - as in 'con' and 'text', meaning untruth and writing, and seeing between the lines there, that is (to negate it) truth and reading, and thus the context of reading and the Church. And that reading is pronounced 'ree' ding and not 'red' ding, which is a soulless place, for which Bishop Auckland is quite the opposite in our binary structuralisms that we seek to collapse as poststructuralists, if not as bad as Slough for soullessnesses - not 'Sloff' when you reeeeed it but 'Slow' as in cow and not as in roll - but clearly reading otherwise 'slow' ly is part of the way forward to doing lectio divina which means a worshipful way of reading the scriptures in a Church context rather than Davina telling us what she thinks about Big Brother. So documents, people, buildings, music, are authoritative in the right context, right there and right now, and so it is not just an authority of scripture alone, and I really wish the present crop of super-apostles would get off this sub-biblical hobby horse of theirs. It has been proven in history that this biblicism is inadequate. Because in the end they are about control, and that means people; and control is not the issue, but liberation, and regulation, so that we do not go off the rails doctrinally. And so there are rules and credal statements we do impose upon the Bible, as we allow our reading of the Bible to liberate us. See, we are not talking about power, but authority, which is about legitimacy, and legitimacy comes from God. And we read the Old Testament that relates to the New, and then crucially the New that relates to us as people in the Church under God. But if you read the Bible in chunks, as a daily devotion, to make it something like credal statements of Calvin's book of rules, then the Bible becomes something that it is not.
CN: Erm, so er...
NTW: Let's be honest: the Reformers made a pig's ear of it. But we here, and myself; we stand where and how we can say how these ancient texts, these dry bones, live again. Take the birth narratives. Are they historical in the sense a historian understands them? No. What about the Easter narrative, with palm leaves out of season when there would not have been any, and all the objections to the trials and outcome. Are they as good as court records? I think not. No no, they are authoritative because they relate to Christian experience, and we know how important experience is in the development of a guiding hermeneutic that post-Enlightenment Christianity developed, into some of the recent important figures of liberal theology at that time. No the Bible is about Christians teaching one another, and at prayer and in church, just as Jesus read it in the synagogue. God exercises his authority through the text on to then what Christians do, the way that the story motivates God's own people. It is the narrative that identifies Christians: and in my pursuit of narrative biblical theology, where the Bible is a vehicle, I am of course grateful to Yale postliberalism and the like - which I think can do with some improvement from my close textual work. Now I am sorry to disappoint many evangelicals, but that is the way it is, because for generations evangelicals have trotted out the same old stuff to the point of utter tedium, so that we have this now rather tired and puzzled evangelicalism in many British churches today, or these liberals who became people who frankly belittled the Bible, but what I am saying is go for God, go for the Church and go for Christians doing what Christians do.
CN: Thank you. Finally then, if there's time, or space: the future. More generally, not just TEC.
NTW: I am so grateful that you asked me about the Bible. The trouble with Christians is that they keep fighting one another. And of course, the disputes are right there in the earliest of days. So I know it might be tedious but we should see differences as part and parcel of the Biblical narrative and indeed where Christians are to this day. We have our historic parameters and here we have some today, and when it comes to the Church it is why we need this Covenant - sorry to get specific again - because we really need to close down these differences. It really does come down to personalities sometimes and treasuring my friend our Archbishop and getting him to do something is an important matter in this. What we look for in the future is the narrative of the Bible, then, to bring order to God's world, as God speaks peace to his people through the text, and we will develop a pan-Anglican hermeneutic alongside the Instruments of Communion, rather than super-apostles to one side and liberals to the other, guided in the pan-Anglican hermeneutic by what I see as the centrality of biblical authority and bringing harmony like a fine musical instrument of the sort scientists once believed was evidence of the mathematical order of God, even though we might not say that quite so much today given the uncertainty principle in subatomic physics.
CN: Bishop Tom, thank you and G'night.
NTW: Thank you and I look forward to confronting my critics.