Those of us who struggled towards the end of our schooldays, wondering with ever-increasing panic what we would do for a career, might consider Tom Wright one of the lucky ones.
He seems born to the role he has taken on – or should that be roles? For Dr. Wright is known for different things in different places. In his native England, he has been known as a bishop, until he resigned his place at Durham, allowing the then little-known Justin Welby to succeed him.
To a wider audience, he is known as a writer, particularly through his ‘For Everyone’ series of commentaries that make the New Testament more accessible to the person-in-the-pew.
Up close, he resembles a slimmed down Terry Waite: bearded, approachable, well-spoken, precise in his speech and thoughtful.
His upbringing was like an English The Waltons: his mother would pray with him and his siblings last thing at night; his parents would test them on the order of books in the bible, and on Sunday they might sing hymns around the piano. He admits it was, “delightfully old-fashioned. That was the 1950s; that‘s how we were.”
He knew that he wanted to be ordained as early as seven or eight years old (“which I thought was normal then”). This was the fruit of a family stuffed with clergy, which made half of his career choice easy. “Faith – no problem; ordination – no problem. The real problem I ran into was discovering I wanted to be an academic, which in the 1950s and 60s meant that you’re going to stay on at university for longer at the taxpayer’s expense, and do more degrees and all that.”
He thinks that his family finally accepted that this was at the heart of his being when he dedicated his first big academic book to them.
Dr. Wright had to take the iniative with his studies, as his school did not offer R.E. as a subject. “I chose to do ‘O’ level scripture and somehow scraped a pass, having not been taught at all.
“From an early age I wanted to be a classicist, because some wise older friend, who discovered I wanted to be ordained, said, ‘Oh, that will be fun, because you’ll have to learn Greek, so that you can read the New Testament’. It went quite deep with me. The thought of studying the Roman Empire and the Greek civilisation and so on – I’ve always been fascinated by that, since I was about thirteen.”
So began the big tension in his life. He assumed that he would follow the family line into parish ministry, but he knew that he “didn’t want to be someone who ran a parish, but someone who very specifically would have a bible teaching ministry.”
As a youth, he was excited by the bible teaching he received at summer and Easter camps and in his mid-teens he set up and ran a bible study group at school. But it was at Oxford University that he saw where this could lead.
“I realised that you could go deeper into things and then deeper again and ask bigger questions, and that there was no end to this. It was hugely exciting.” And he adds with a chuckle, “That’s what I’ve wanted to do all my life!”
Most of us see no problem with a clergyman being excited by digging more deeply into scripture and then passing that enthusiasm to the pews, but at theological college, Dr. Wright was told that he “would have to choose whether I wanted to be an academic, biblical scholar or a parish priest. I remember I decided in the room at that moment, ‘I’m not going to make that split, thank you very much. These two belong together.’
“Actually, the Church of England at least has a great tradition, which is hard to maintain with the pressures on both sides, of people being both.”
“I’m not going to make that split, thank you very much. These two belong together.”
In a succession of early jobs, he managed to combine these two disciplines until he became Bishop of Durham, “where the Church of England has traditionally sent theologians,” but where the pressure needed to be released.
“The people of Durham know that their bishop may well be somebody who ends up writing books,” he says. “I tried to stick with that. It was only really two years ago, when it became clear that if I carried on much longer at Durham I simply wouldn’t be able to finish the major projects I had started, that my wife and I gave in and said, ‘OK, let’s go back into the academy!’”
Perhaps the slightly resigned tone in his voice reveals a sadness. How often does he think about leaving Durham and does he ever regret it?
“Yes. There’s a moment in Chariots of Fire where one of Eric Liddell’s friends says, ‘No regrets?’ and Eric Liddell says, ‘I’ve plenty of regrets, but no doubts.’ That’s a tough thing to say. Tomorrow I’ll be going back home on the train through the North-East of England and I will not know whether to look out the windows, as I go through County Durham, at all those church spires – I know the people who are ministering there; I pray for them still. They’re my people, and I’ve had to hand them over. So huge regrets actually; I miss that very much.”
“I’ve plenty of regrets, but no doubts.”
Exloring the thread of the academic and pastoral belonging together, after an unusual pause, he admits to being unsure of whether that is for theological or practical reasons and prefers to use a musical image.
“I’ve often said to people, ‘Would you rather hear a lecture on Johann Sebastian Bach by somebody who says, “Actually, I’m tone deaf; I don’t listen to music and I don’t play it, but I just study it as a technical subject” or would you rather listen to a lecture on Bach by somebody who was about to go off and play all the 48 preludes and fugues? I think I’d rather have the latter. Even if his interpretation was rather quirky, he would be actually engaged with the stuff.
“In the same way, the New Testament is not written as a kind of ‘This is a window on the philosophical and sociological climate of the first century’. Of course, it will give you a window on the philosophical and sociological climate of the first century, but it’s actually written as a musical score to be played and you’ll only really understand it when you take the text seriously as stuff which somebody ought to be going out and playing.
“Particularly because of the secularism that so affected the American academy and a bit in this country, there’s a sense that you’ve got to be neutral when you study the bible. No musician is neutral about J. S. Bach, or about the Beatles for that matter; neutrality is impossible.
“Better to say, ‘This is where I am with this; here are my presuppositions, here are my prejudices, this is how I‘ve read the text so far and if you want to read it differently, we’ll have a conversation.’
“So for me, taking a confirmation class, figuring out how Diocesan policy works, etc, flows into and out of the reading of scripture. Often I’ve found that in preparing a talk, a sermon, to lead a study day or something, there are insights which come out from that sort of context, which actually then spark off whole new reflections in the academic work and vice versa. Suddenly, in the middle of looking up some Hebrew word in a dictionary, you get a sense of, ‘I really want to preach on this!’
“So for me, it’s never been either/or; they flow into one another.”
In part two, coming shortly, we talk about two of Tom Wright’s later books and his thoughts on Rob Bell, heaven and hell.