I was brought up in an evangelical Anglican family just south of London. My parents had met at Baptist Sunday School, I went to a rather ultramontane Roman Catholic prep school and we were part of the local Church of England parish. I left Christianity in my mid-teens, and in fact I was only baptized a couple of years ago. Coming back to the Church was the result of a long process, which only makes sense in retrospect. As an undergraduate there were isolated moments when I glimpsed the excitement and depth of Christianity: hearing Nick Shrimpton lecture on the Tractarians, or Peter McCullough preach, or Rowan Williams speak on the poetics of the Book of Job. But it wasn’t until I was doing postgraduate work that I began to pay more attention. Preparing a seminar on Genesis for a first-year course I was teaching brought me into contact with Biblical Criticism, when a colleague was kind enough to share her notes and a whole field opened up which I hadn’t known about.
For the next few years I slunk round the cheaper pubs in Exeter during my spare time, with paperback editions from the library on theology, church history and Biblical scholarship. If asked, I would have explained I was interested in a remarkable historical tradition, though it wasn’t officially my field. At the same time, I was starting to engage with feminism, and gradually getting a sense of basic injustices in society. Work took me back to Oxford, and I fell in with some people who had been friends of friends when I was an undergraduate. They were mostly Christians, and all feminists, and I was interested by their assumption that being either was reasonable and unremarkable. Not to mention being both. I started attending a church regularly, though a very different kind of church than I had been used to. St Mary Magdalen’s in the centre of the city has brought an awful lot of people to God over the centuries, and I became one of them. Like many before me, I found the Catholic tradition’s intensely spiritual and intellectual faith spoke to something inside me which I had not really known was there.
I was also aware, though, of divisions within the Church. I was coming to faith around the time of the debates in the Church of England over the consecration of women as bishops, and over the ministry of gay clergy. As a straight man I was dimly conscious that others were being told they had to make choices – between their love and their faith, between their vocation and their church – that would never be forced upon me. In my professional life I could see a backlash against women’s rights making itself felt on campus, and in society at large gender and sexuality were the basis for the abuse and degradation of marginalized groups. I come to these discussions with a lot to learn, and a hope that both experience and scholarship can be shared in ways which will enable us all to take part in the work of reconciling. My research often involves setting the characteristic languages of different fields in dialogue with each other, and the work of some of my favourite theological thinkers – Rachel Mann and Rowan Williams spring to mind – provides a model for this activity. That’s one of the reasons why I like the metaphor of the conversation around which this project is structured, and am looking forward to listening to the others around the table.