Tony Hunt is talking with Christopher Poore, a seminarian, nominee to postulancy in the Episcopal Church, and founder of Seminary Street Press, a small operation releasing new editions of old Anglican works that are out of print. It is part interview, part conversation.
T: So tell me about your background. Who is Christopher Poore?
SSP: I grew up in Colorado Springs and spent a large part of my childhood in a megachurch made for Gen Xers. It had couches and an old movie theater. It was slowly becoming a bit more of what we think of as a traditional megachurch, since the parents didn’t want their children hurting themselves on the springs of the old couches.
When I was about 13 I had questions about suffering and about God. And I felt like I wasn’t getting good answers. Artists, poets, people in the theater…they understand suffering, and for several years that is where I found meaning. I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in my early 20s. It had art, beauty, and liturgy. It was grounded in God the Beautiful. There’s a line in the liturgy that goes “Bless those who love the beauty of thy house.” That prayer really sums it up for me. At that time I was asking questions about art, looking into American postmodern literature and wondering – what if this is all an illusion? What if we are just manipulating each other and love and beauty are just a phantom?
But I also felt called to the priesthood. In time I knew that if I wanted to be the sort of priest and pastor who I think God wants me to be I would have to do this in the Episcopal Church. I started a theology degree at U Chicago. Now I am doing an Mdiv at Virginia Theological Seminary
T: A guest from the East? I never went all the way myself but when I was nearing the end of my time in the pentecostal church of my upbringing, not knowing what I really believed, it was an Orthodox Easter Vigil that helped salvage my faith. I thought about swimming the Bosphorus but ended up in the Episcopal Church. I made the right choice for me.
So what did you study in Chicago?
SSP: There was no thesis for that degree. There were basically two years of electives. I concentrated on Christian theology. Specifically I spent time with William Law, curious as I was about the transition he makes throughout his life from strict proto-methodism to wild bohemian mysticism; and how that was inspired by pastoral questions. I also spent time on women of the middle ages, in particular perspectives on suffering, especially Hadewijch, investigating what that might say about sexual abuse in the Church now.
T: When I became an Anglican I dove headlong into the sources. I very quickly came to have opinions about what was legitimate Anglicanism and what was not. This was just before Lambeth 2008. In my experience many converts have a similar path. Did you? Since you speak of not developing a canon at SSP, my sense is you did not have a similar path.
SSP: The first thing to say is that I really ended up in TEC at the right moment. I think to of the words of the psalm “Lord you have shown us hard things.” That was true of both my wife’s spiritual journey and my own. To me, then, Anglicanism as I have experienced it has been a gift of hospitality. This welcoming in. This field hospital. Here there are people just pouring in with all their spiritual damage. And so to me that is foundational; and the gift of that means that I entered not feeling there was some norm that had to be kept. I didn’t have a lot of - frankly my major goal was to survive in a life with God - so that was the minimum I was looking for. I didn’t come in with a sense I needed to norm the tradition in some way. At the time I was going to several different churches. My wife lives here in Galesburg where she teaches and she remained here while I was in Chicago. So that’s our home parish; and in Chicago I attended a very very high Anglo-Catholic parish – the first Anglican parish to reinstitute benediction of the blessed sacrament after the Reformation. I was soaking it in. The Orthodox person still in me needed that overflowing reverence and beauty. I was also helping at a college ministry. The necessities of my life did not allow me to have a lot of preferences
T: Lovely. So why don’t you tell me what SSP is, and what inspired and motivated you to start it.
SSP: SSP is a little startup. I am currently editing a series called the Library of Anglican Theology. These are a series of books that I hope can enrich Anglican life in different ways. Some of them are going to be doctrinal, others ascetic. We should not be ashamed that a lot of our theology has been done in the pulpit. That is a patristic holdover, a nod to the ancient church. Theology is for the Church. Let’s not turn away from that in shame in some way as if it’s a failure that we’ve done precisely that.
T: Have you heard the old German joke about Anglicans?
SSP: I have not
T: Now keep in mind that I don't know the provenance of this quote. It could be a scurrilous rumor. But I’ve always loved the quote and don’t hesitate to share it. It is said some German scholar, in wanting to deprecate the seriousness of Anglican theology said: “Anglicans do theology to the sound of church bells.” The idea being that it is they who do the real work, where we are bound to silly traditions.
SSP: Oh hehe. Good one.
So on the question of SSP origins, it has something to do with the questions I was asking as I came into TEC. I do not recommend asking random questions on Facebook forums like “What does Anglican holiness look like? How are people taught to live holy lives in the Anglican communion?” One person said “Anglicanism doesn’t have a distinct way of being holy. We just follow the Bible and that is all you need, I don’t know why you need more than that.” Little did I know there is an Anglican book called “Holy Living!” I’d ask people what theology I should read and the most I would get is a suggestion to read Rowan Williams. Rowan Williams is great, I love Williams, but that was as far as I could get sometimes. I had a desire to read into the tradition. I would read in these books that would say “Richard Hooker says this” but there would be no citation, just things attributed to him. How strange? Twitter was a much better place to learn these things. There seemed to be many more people reading facsimiles of these older works online. From google or archive dot org [or anglicanhistory dot org] But it seemed to me that is such a depressing way to read a book. I’m sorry, but I can’t finish a book that way. I don’t retain it the same way reading it on a screen. I wanted to bestow on others the beauty of physical presence in our world. With that in mind, realizing just how much wasn’t in print, even something like the Tracts for the Times… there isn’t an issue out there.
T: Right?? Can you even believe that?
SSP: I cannot! It was both my surprise and my desire to help people find this path. So it would be easier than the path I took. Easy onramps to figures that might not be terribly well known. The Tracts might help us to access some of the voices we don’t pay much attention to. Especially women of the catholic revival. I think they should be bigger in our accounts of the Oxford Movement and Ritualism. They are there, we just don’t talk about them for some strange reason. What if we made the founding of St. Thomas Episcopal in Philadelphia just as central to our story of Anglicanism as the Oxford Movement. If you read some of these survey books, that's not the narrative that’s presented. There’s a chance to make our story more complex and more rich and that’s one of the things I’m hoping to do.
T: You mentioned works people might not know about, but what’s fascinating to me is that even popular, influential works can’t be found! They’re just not in print. Sure you can find a 100 year old copy of some Gore book, but what state will it be in? My Clarendon copy of Hooker is in bad shape, but the critical edition is $500! Who’s got that? In doing my study of early Anglican socialism, primary sources were impossible to find except online. We don’t have resources for historical Anglican works, but we don’t push it. People are more excited to read Moltmann than Jeremy Taylor.
Here’s a story I like to share. I am studying at a Lutheran seminary. The first day I walked onto campus we were given a welcome bag of stuff. In there was a brand new, glossy, fully-annotated edition of Luther’s Freedom of a Christian, and On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Everyone got one. You’re gonna need it, right? This is who we are. But do we have anything like this in Anglicanism? Not that I’m aware of.
But anyway, tell me about why you went with Jeremy Taylor for the first SSP book.
SSP: I will admit the first several books have been mostly of personal interest! But first off, it’s a small book. Only 88 pages in the format I had. I thought “this will be manageable. I’ll be able to test things like Greek transcriptions, layouts, etc. We’ll see how doable this is with a work this brief.” But beyond that I have found this tendency, just in the air so to speak, to declare that confirmation was a sacrament in search of a meaning. No one can tell me where that phrase originally came from. Urban T Holmes has a book from the 70s called “A Rite In Search of a Reason” that’s as far as I’ve been able to trace it. As with all malicious rumors it had no origin. I wanted to press on that idea a bit. Goodness we’ve been confirming people for hundreds of years…really it’s a meaningless rite? Seems like a bad strategy to invite people into our church with this kind of talk. Not even to mention its truth value. I thought well certainly someone has written about this. I had already read Jeremy Taylor so then I found out he had this book. Philip Tovey said in his book on Anglican confirmation that the problem is not that we don’t have a theology of confirmation; the richness of Anglicanism lies in that we usually have several theologies of something. I was really excited to read this Taylor book and discover one theology of Anglican confirmation. What was it that happened to me in confirmation? What was God doing? What was the Church doing? And I turned to Jeremy Taylor to ask those questions with me. Now I want to note, though, my parish did a wonderful job preparing me for confirmation and reception into TEC. We had classes, it was taken very seriously. But that doesn’t change what I’ve experienced.
T: But again your story points up the contrast between other traditions and our own. We don’t readily talk about our own sources. Hooker: often referenced, rarely quoted. If I were in charge of an Anglican seminary everyone would at least read Books I and V of the Lawes before they graduate. Maybe we could get a glossy, annotated version. I even have all the Greek and Latin footnotes of Book I translated.
Ok, so why do you think your work is needed? What does it bring to the table? What by implication do you think is lacking in Anglican discourses?
SSP: So again, my orientation to TEC is basically one of gratitude. It’s hard for me to feel that something is lacking when you think about the richness of what is going on at the moment. We have Williams, Sarah Coakley, Katherin Sonderegger, Kelly Brown Douglas, Kortright Davis… I can’t even think of them all. There is an immense amount of holiness and wisdom being poured into our church right now. And we don’t even know where it is going to go. What does it mean that three Anglicans, two of them women, are writing multi-volume systematic theologies right now? We just don’t know. These are seeds falling into the ground. I think we’re going to see something very rich in the coming decades.
As to why this is needed: I would love to get to the point that we can make those fancy annotated editions you were talking about. Right now I’m just trying to get affordable editions into the hands of people. The idea that people would discover things, they would invest their scholarship into making these sorts of things.
I think what I'm saying is I want to make our conversations and even our disagreements richer. I want to give a shared toolset for engaging in our disagreements and our questions together. A good canon is a good conversation. But that isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of a canon. They think a canon is going to close down conversation. Make a very specific person at the end. A factory of tradition that churns out uniformity. That is not the image Anglicanism asks us to think about when it speaks about tradition. Tradition is first of all about being in front of the other person. The other person says something, and you are allowed to respond, interrogate, ask questions. A canon just makes sure our conversation includes those that have bequeathed us our world now. It doesn’t mean we need to take everything Charles Gore says about the Incarnation and say “this is what you must believe, you must be this uniform person.” That is not what I hope for. Ellen Davis talks about this in her essay on critical traditioning. She says “what distinguishes a tradition from an ideology is the ability to preserve the atrocities of its past in a spirit of repentance.” It’s about trying to make our whole memories more like the memory of God. which sees both the person on the ash heap and the one who has been illuminated by the Spirit. God is able to hold both of these realities, and judge both of these realities. My hope is that our memories will become more and more like that
T: It would be an odd canon to start with an obscure treatise on confirmation! I’m really excited about the William Douglas and Absolom Jones book. When I was looking up essays from these figures all I could find was the sermon of Jones on Thanksgiving.
That you did Gore’s Bampton Lectures makes a lot of sense because of how important he was in shaping what was to come, and yet he too is not referenced much anymore. One of my favorite authors of the last century is Michael Ramsey. And Ramsey liked talking about Gore. But good luck trying to find much critical engagement since Ramsey these days.
SSP: I wrote a paper on Gore and the latest I could find was Paul Avis’ from maybe the 80s. There’s also an essay by Mark Chapman. A wonderful examination of what kenosis has to offer a church that is becoming weak. And what weakness has to do with the Incarnation
T: Right. I found a few essays that reference Gore specifically for kenosis. Marilyn McCord Adams has a section in her “Christ and Horrors.” And yet so often this lingering gesture toward Gore on kenosis seems to miss how the doctrine functioned for him. For him kenosis really began as a footnote in his essay in “Lux Mundi.” It’s an ad hoc way to account for historical critical examinations of the Bible. The “weakness of God in kenosis” is kind of there but the real thing is retaining Incarnation without needing to sacrifice serious critical history. James Carpenter is the only person who seems to get this. Shoutout to Carpenter. His book on Gore’s theology is fantastic.
You mentioned a lot of our theology is from the pulpit. It’s occasional literature, it’s sermons. You said we shouldn’t shy away from this. I wonder that’s another reason for the fact that our theology is so often neglected. At the same time, that feels like a copout. Patristic theology is found in the same kind of literature, and people build entire trinitarian ontologies on it! But we don’t extend the same critical engagement to our own sources. Maybe they feel too stited to some, in that lovely 17th-18th century prose? I dunno.
Anyway, what was your Gore paper on?
SSP: I was curious about the interaction between British colonialism and kenosis. ‘Cause in Incarnation some of the metaphors he uses relie on a world built by colonialism. For instance one of his metaphors on kenosis is that it is like when the (presumably) white man accommodates his mind to the savage. I wanted to dig into that a bit and ask why he felt that way. I went into his experiences in India as a missionary and the way he interacted w/ the colonial classroom, and the way he despised the hindu temples he saw. That side of him that I haven’t seen openly acknowledged. I focused exclusively on the Bampton Lectures. Yet he’s mysterious in that there are these other passages where he talks about how avaricious imperialism has corrupted the imagination Christianity and rendered us unable to receive the doctrine of Christ. This is what I’m talking about, the ash heap and the person inflamed by the Spirit. These are the things held up, epicletically, asking God’s judgment.
T: And if we had ready access to other sources we’d be able to see the ways Gore was rather violently anti-imperialist. In the time of the Boer Wars he wrote in to a newspaper with a bitter judgment against British actions. So bitter that a notable clergyman complained to his bishop about Gore. It was only too bad for this cleric because only a few months later Gore became his bishop. But the letter is impossible to find over here. It is referenced in literature on Gore, but I can’t get access to it.
So the series you’re working on is called the Library of Anglican Theology. Is this at all a reference to the Library of Anglo-catholic Theology of the Tractarians or…?
SSP: I am aware that that is what they called their series, and that mine is very similar. Their library was narrow enough that other people in the Church of England were like “no no no” and so the Parker Society made their series [Editor’s note: The Parker Society’s series was actually released first. The Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology was released in response]. It was much more polemical than what I am doing. I’m more interested in reading all of them. That’s what makes it a conversation. Let’s make sure it’s all on display and everyone is invited to this rich feast. For me the Tractarian were a bridge from Orthodoxy. I had read a biography of Keble even before I became Anglican. I knew they liked patristic texts. I knew they liked liturgy. I didn’t yet know there was a difference between the Oxford Movement and the Ritualists. But I thought it was wonderful that some of these things that I love, they love. But they have not been a major spiritual influence on my life. Again maybe because a lot of it isn’t in print. I was inspired by the Orthodox who believed that the reading of old texts can reinspire the imagination of the tradition; light new fires from the old. There’s this profound image I found in Jeremy Taylor– He would be the other guiding light I look to. He has this beautiful apology for authorized and set forms of the liturgy where he talks about what it feels like to be in a world where the Book of Common Prayer has been outlawed. His mentors are dead. His king is dead. He speaks of what it feels like to be in a church that appears to the world to be a failure. Rome is dancing around the grave laughing ‘ha ha, we told you so.’ He says “[God] hath snuffed our lamp so near, that it is almost extinguished, and the sacred fire was put into a hole of the Earth, even then when we were forced to light those Tapers that stood upon our Altars, that by this sad truth better than by the old ceremony we might prove our succession to those holy men who were constrained to sing Hymns to Christ in dark places and retirements.” And so this sense that the fire of the church - and Taylor is clear this is the judgment of God that is bringing this about - the fire is hidden, waning, almost snuffed out. But what do you do, then? What you do is light the taper. You decide what the fire is that is worth preserving. And you light the fire again.
Stephany Spellers speaks of tradition by thinking about the woman who breaks the jar of ointment to anoint Jesus. That is what tradition is. It’s not contained, it breaks. Every time we anoint someone with its richness it requires a breaking and a reevaluation of what is the ointment, and what the container. We are left with shards, and yet also we give the tradition in this abundant way so that their face might be gladdened with oil. That’s what I want to do.
T: Your work almost reminds me of the Popular Patristics series…
Ssp: Right! And what did they do when they started with the Incarnation by St. Athanasius? They started with an introduction by C. S. Lewis. They now have a new one from John Behr, but there was a time when it was the Anglicans putting the patristics into the hands of the people
T: Totally. Even before the original edition of the now ubiquitous grey hardback editions you can get from Hendrickson, the Tractarians were publishing patristic authors, some even in the original language, right around the same time Minge was coming out. I think they were called a Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church: Anterior to the Division of the East and West.
Which reminds me of how primary texts can complicate the easy stories we tell about ourselves. The Oxford Movement had always been sold to me as looking romantically to the Middle Ages, but they were publishing the early Church stuff, and post-Reformation Anglicans, not initially looking to Rome.
SSP: See that’s one of the things I'm looking forward to. When we actually read texts, when they’re more easily available, we might start telling different stories about these things. As I've been reading the Tracts I’ve noticed how often they refer to the documents of the Reformation. They really don’t footnote or quote a lot of medieval stuff. Patristics, Reformers… so then when I looked at Pusey's tract on baptism, it was not what I was expecting. He’s quoting Luther, Gerhard, and other Lutheran thinkers. There’s a more complex story to be told here.
T: Right. I went on a similar journey with Percy Dearmer. He was known to me primarily as a quaint aesthete, obsessed with the intricacies of liturgy and so on. I had no idea until I dug deeper that he was actually arguing against the ritualists, and he was a bohemian socialist who let sex workers stay in his home. Who is this strange, beautiful man?
Anyway, something I deeply appreciate about your work is that you aren’t just reprinting faded pdfs. You’re freshly typesetting and all that.
Ssp: I wanted something more than a facsimile. This is the freedom of a duct tape operation. I get to do what I want to do. My work is a work in the present tense. To believe in the resurrection is to believe these people are alive in the Lord. Accompanying us in our work. You open to Nehemiah. They repented of their own sins and the sins of their ancestors. It’s a work for the sake of the whole Church.
PSA: Seminary Street Press has just released a brand new edition of Vida Scudder's "Social Teachings of the Christian Year," complete with discussion questions, and footnotes not even in the original.