Thursday, June 09, 2016

Drawn Three Ways (A.E. Harvey) - A Review

DRAWN THREE WAYS: AMemoir of a Ministry, a Profession, and a Marriage. By A. E. Harvey. Foreword by Rowan Williams. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. X + 182 pages.

                Writing memoirs involves telling personal stories. Most are reflective. They seek to make sense of a journey. They reflect a persons' own vision of themselves and their world. They are published because the author of the memoir and the publisher believe that telling this story will prove interesting and helpful to others. Since memoirs are personal, we gravitate to the stories either told by persons we know or by persons whose story resonates with our own. I've read a number of memoirs over time, for the most part these have been written by people I know in some form or another. At the very least, when it comes to theologians and religious leaders, these are the memoirs of people whose works I've read prior to reading the memoir. Thus, I greatly enjoyed reading J├╝rgen Moltmann's A Broad Place and Fred Craddock's Reflections on My Call to Preach: Connecting the Dots. These are people I respect and whose works I have known. So, what to make of the memoir written by someone I had never encountered before?

                Drawn Three Ways is the memoir of A. E. Harvey, Emeritus Canon of Westminster Abbey. He has been a prolific author, especially in relationship to the New Testament. He is now retired, in his 80s, and he has written this memoir as a means of reflecting on a life lived in service to church and the academy. It carries a foreword from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who speaks highly of Harvey's contributions to theological education and the church. Williams does carry weight. But, while I share the author’s commitments to church, theological education, scholarship, and marriage, it took more effort to stay with the story since much of the background story didn’t resonate with me. I’m not British so there were social and cultural aspects of the story that I didn’t track. At the same time the story reveals how ministry, scholarship, and intimate relationships intersect. At times this has positive attributes. At others, they can be a bit like oil and water.

                I read the book because Eerdmans sent me a review copy.  While the early chapters of the book, which speak to his childhood and early education didn’t speak to me, I stayed with the book because I sensed that there was something to be learned as I shared his journey. Perhaps the key to his life story is the revelation that he viewed himself as a gifted amateur. Drawn to the academic world, he never became a specialist in a field. He spent much of his life in the academy teaching and writing about the New Testament, but he lacked that sign of specialization—a Ph.D. or its equivalent. He was drawn into ministry in large part due to his abilities as a communicator (he spent time as a journalist and broadcaster), as an administrator, as a teacher, and as a preacher. Over time, he developed skills in pastoral care (I could identify with him in this, as my own gifts lie in teaching, but in the course of doing ministry I have developed skills in pastoral care). You might say that Harvey is a generalist, with sufficient background in both ministry and education to move back and forth between these two worlds. Thus, he served the church as an educator—running a school at Canterbury for persons pursuing ministry outside the more formal academic scene at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as teaching in the areas of Bible and ministry at Oxford. At Westminster he helped administer the affairs of the Abbey, including providing support during the funeral of Princess Diana. 

                The third leg of this three-legged stool of his life was his beloved wife, Julian, whom he speaks of highly as being creative and gracious. At the same time, he reveals her ongoing struggles with severe depression, which impacted his personal and his professional life. Even as she helped him move through these various worlds, providing a gracious hostess during his ministry and academic life, rounding off his self-confessed rough edges, her depression and his need to attend to her needs may have prevented him from moving up higher in the church. In other words, there was the potential for service as a bishop in the Church of England, but such a calling never came. The highest he rose was to the position of sub-dean at Westminster Abbey.

                There is another thread that runs through the book and gets significant attention in the final chapter. That chapter is titled “the Christian Stoic.” He turns to the image of the stoic to describe his own life. It was, he reveals, a rigid stoicism that allowed him to keep the balls in the air. He just kept going, taking things in stride, because he believed this was required of him. In the course of time, he began to discern significant doubts about the Christian faith. He understood the tenets of the faith. He could profess them. He could believe them. But, he also began to wonder about whether the Christian faith made sense of life. He could see the good in it, he just didn’t necessarily experience it. This was his dark night of the soul. While he continued to capably serve the church, he wasn’t sure whether he was simply going through the motions. He knew how to do the job; he just know whether he believed in God. That led him to wonder whether he should continue in ministry. These are not unique questions for those of us in ministry. We all, if we’re honest, struggle with the question of whether we go to work out of professional duty or faith in God. Do we always believe what we say in the pulpit and in prayers? Or do we say what is expected of us? His struggles with doubt forced him to consider whether to give up orders. He hasn't, and considering his age, likely won't. However, the struggle remains. Where do I fit? I may have the gifts, but do I have the passion? That question may be the reason why this book will prove helpful to many.

                Perhaps the key components of this story that will speak to many, especially clergy, relate to this question of duty and passion, as well as the intersection of family. Harvey loved his wife, but their relationship both enhanced and took away from his ministry. In fact, her struggles with depression and dementia raised concerns about his own faith. I think that this will also resonate with many clergy, for we all struggle to some degree with integrating personal life and professional life (ministry is here to be understood as a profession). 

                Unless you know Harvey as a scholar, you may struggle with reading the book. You may find parts of the book simply outside your frame of reference. Nonetheless there is much to this book that warrants reading for it does speak to the soul of ministry.

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