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The Power Of Authentic Theology

On September 11 Trinity Church was hosting the Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams, widely considered to be one of the most profound theologians in the Anglican Communion. He had come to New York to deliver the Hobart Lecture at the Cathedral and we had retained a day of his time to shoot a video on "The Shape of Holy Life." Twenty-two spiritual practitioners from around the country had joined us to engage Rowan Williams in dialogue. The shoot was to begin at 9:30 am.

Archbishop Williams arrived at 74 Trinity Place at 8:40 am. I took him to my study on the 21st floor to allow him a few moments of peace and quiet before he went into make-up at 9:00 am. Moments later everything changed. As Leonard Cohen's song puts it: "the blizzard of the world crossed (a) threshold and... overturned the order of (our) souls."

Archbishop Williams lived with us through one of the scariest days of our lives. On a stairwell deep in the bowels of the building, when the smoke was choking us, one of the guests turned to him and said, "I can't think of anyone with whom I'd rather die." She bespoke a resignation that hung over the whole group.

Later that day, when we were safe, Archbishop Williams admitted that he thought several times that he was going to die. Nevertheless, he manifested courage and wisdom throughout the ordeal. Thirty of us were gathered in the television studio when the second plane crashed into the south tower. Panic broke out! Bert Medley, the Director of Trinity Television, had the presence of mind to ask the Archbishop to pray with us. His profound theological instincts came immediately to the fore, as they would so many times in the ensuing days. He not only prayed about the tragedy, but he read the anxieties of the group and prayed them into words, naming our fears and calming our nerves. The room returned to order.

Throughout the rest of the week, as Archbishop Williams made one public appearance after another throughout the city, he spoke to the events and the feelings of the moment. The next day at the Cathedral of Saint John The Divine he was asked to celebrate an impromptu Eucharist at the high altar prior to delivering the Hobart Lecture. He preached extemporaneously, quoting a searching question that someone asked him on the street that fateful day. It was, in effect: "Where is God in all this?" What followed was a thoughtful examination of all the theological doubt and confusion in our collective heads. Once the sermon was over, he led the congregation in an impromptu rendition of the Prayers of the People that powerfully and methodically lifted up virtually every emotion the congregation was feeling. He spoke in a deep and authoritative tone and the congregation responded to every petition with a shout: "Hear Our Prayer!"

Following the Eucharist and lunch, he got up to deliver an endowed lecture on "Pastoral Theology," that he had probably spent weeks preparing. Once again, he set his text aside and spoke to the moment. He admitted that he had been scared to death the day before. Then he proceeded to argue that the apprehension of death and the experience of vulnerability are the wellspring of compassion and the rudimentary teachers of sound and authentic pastoral theology.

Throughout the rest of the week as Archbishop Williams visited our seminary and other parishes, he continued to put his text aside and practice the authentic theology which he had espoused in the Hobart Lecture. When I put him on the plane back to Wales on Friday, I knew that his powerful presence in New York during that angry and fearful week had brought healing to many a shattered soul.

The Rev. Dr. Frederic B. Burnham is Director of Trinity Institute

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