Andrew McGowan: committing to big-spirited conversation

By Ray Waddle

In a prickly era of partisanship, newly appointed Berkeley Divinity School Dean Andrew McGowan speaks up for an unpopular virtue—uncomfortable conversations. 

“Uncomfortable conversations are invaluable now—the virtue of staying in the room with people who disagree with you,” he says. 

McGowan has had theological practice at it. He’s accustomed to making the case for Christianity in a hostile or indifferent culture: he comes from one of the most secular places on earth, Australia. 

He is also a priest in a global denomination, the Anglican Communion, which has been strained by conflict over sexuality and hemispheric politics, notably between churches in Africa and North America. The grace of face-to-face interaction is what will ultimately keep the church body together, he believes. 

“Anglicanism is bound not by agreement but by baptism,” he says. “What I find hopeful is there are people, clergy and lay, having conversations across battle lines. ‘A’ may not be talking to ‘C,’ but both are talking to ‘B.’ 

“This doesn’t mean liberal or progressive Anglicans should change their stand around LGBT issues: I’m on record that the church needs to prove itself to be fully inclusive in that respect. But we need to try to understand what it is like to be a Christian in Africa, what the cost of that is. This means more than supporting the Millennium Development Goals. It’s possible to love a principle more than the people of south Sudan because you haven’t met them. And Africans need to see LGBT people in the churches as real Christians loved by God and passionate about the gospel. Conversation changes perspectives. But it doesn’t work unless both sides do some swaying.”

Since 2007, McGowan has been warden and president of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne. As a historian and theologian, he brings a commitment to a big-spirited conversation about Christian faith when he arrives in August as dean of Berkeley, an Episcopal Church seminary formally affiliated with Yale Divinity School. 

“Berkeley Divinity School needs to be mindful of the global church, not just the Episcopal Church,” he says. “I want to take seriously both realities.”

A specialist in early church communities, McGowan is keenly interested in the meaning of Christian distinctiveness at a time when the faith is receding from establishment power in the West. In such an era, this means honoring the divine mystery at the heart of life and affirming a specifically Christian view of the love of God. 

“The church has gone through crisis before, but perhaps we haven’t seen this sort of change since the 4th or 5th centuries,” says McGowan, whose latest book, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Baker Academic, 2014), will be released this year.

“It’s as if the film is running backwards and we’re moving from imperial religious power to a more marginal place in society again.”

Yet history isn’t really reversing itself, he says. The church is hurdling through a new galaxy of convulsive ideas and competitors. In such a head-spinning milieu, the mission of churches should be a return to basic truths and authenticity.

“The church must ask itself: What are we here for? What is the gospel? Do we have a gospel to preach? Churches are no longer able to take for granted their place of centrality. But there’s something compelling about focusing on distinctiveness again.”

In a recent blog post about the aims of theological education, McGowan wrote: “More than at many times in the past, the Church is engaged in a struggle of ideas: justice, mercy, compassion, indeed, but the reality and relevance of the Gospel underneath all. For this, we need not functionaries to slip into the existing slots of the lumbering ecclesiastical structure, but visionaries who can work with the people of God to discern the demands of God’s mission in remarkable times. For this, we surely need divinity.” 

McGowan grew up in Australia, the son of an Anglican priest. His sense of vocation was emerging in late adolescence, but there were glimmers of it even as a toddler.

“I’m a child of the rectory,” he says. “Apparently at age three I could be found ‘celebrating’ communion, waving my arms, while my father was at the altar.”

He studied classics and ancient history at the University of Western Australia—an undergraduate period that included a stint as guitarist for the beloved Australian alternative band The Triffids. 

After graduation in 1982 theology prevailed. He received a B.D. from the Melbourne College of Divinity through Trinity College, then did parish ministry in Perth for six years, until 1992.

McGowan is no stranger to the American scene. In 1992, he enrolled at Notre Dame, earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. Harold Attridge, YDS faculty member and former dean, was his supervisor. From 1998-2003, McGowan was associate professor of early Christian history at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. Along the way, he picked up enthusiasms for Notre Dame football and the Boston Red Sox.

His research interests extend to the origins of the Eucharist, early North African Christianity, Anglican theology and identity, and food and meals in antiquity. He is the author of Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford Press, 1999) and co-editor of Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge (SBL, 2011).

His interest also includes discerning future directions of the church. Where is the faith headed when the present is marked by fluid spiritual definitions, tumultuous online communication, and denominational uncertainty?

“My own guess is we’ll find multiple outcomes and solutions,” says McGowan, who succeeds Joseph Britton as BDS dean. “I think in 50 or 100 years’ time there will be significant numbers of Christian institutions that will be strong, while others go the way of all flesh.” 

He cautions against recasting the church according to the latest spiritual trends and feverish debates. The speculations of the blogosphere are too contradictory a guide for long-term planning. There’s a lot of superficial talk these days, pro and con, about God, he says.

“The idea that millennials are ‘spiritual but not religious’ is an example of chasing a trend. A significant strand of people might be spiritual not religious—for now—but I doubt that’s going to be an option in half a century.” 

Far better that the church focus on authentic belief, discipleship and the reasons for Christian faith, he argues. 

“People can tell the difference between spin and reality,” he says. “Authenticity is what will engage people to be disciples and members.” 

The power of the Christian story—the revelation of the Trinity as “simultaneously the transcendent mystery beyond thought or knowledge, but also encountered in the man Jesus, and also immediately present as the Holy Spirit,” he says—will outlast uncertainties of the future and divisions between believers, he suggests. 

“I consider it a gift that I’m in conversation with people who disagree with me. What we should have in common is not necessarily a political position but the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

June 10, 2014