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Friday, December 10, 2004

Interview with N.T. Wright (part 3 of 6)

In June of 2004 I had the privilege of interviewing N.T. Wright for The Living Church Magazine. Alas, the transcribed results clocked in around 14,000 words, and The Living Church was only able to publish around 1000! So their loss is your gain, dear reader, as I plan to present the interview in six parts (excepting what appeared in print), directly from my notes as transcribed from a tape recording. I hope you enjoy it. (If you missed parts one and two, they are here and here.)

Continue reading Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 3 of 6)

This is, again, a non-CV question. You now occupy what is reckoned to be the fourth most important Episcopal see in the Church of England; you also continue to research and publish and lecture and give interviews.

Put simply: how do you find the time and energy for it all? How do you keep balance in your life?


That’s a good question, and both of those are things I’m working quite hard on at the moment. I didn’t realize when I was younger that I was blessed with more than average energy. It’s only now, in middle age (I’m 55) that I realize that I simply do seem to have a lot of get-up-and-go for a lot of tasks. There are many things in my life which I really do enjoy doing and look forward to doing, both as a bishop and as a writer. As long as I’m enjoying things – in a sense, you could say I live a very selfish life because most of what I do is stuff that I enjoy doing and look forward to doing. Of course, there are chores and odd things, awkward committees to chair and so on, we all have to do that. But it’s partly that in terms of the research and writing, because I spent a very intensive period between the age of about 20, 22 and the age of about 42, mostly studying, writing about, and teaching New Testament, and because I happened to hit a seam of thought and ideas which, at least as far as I can see, has turned out to be enormously fruitful (I know I have critics who say that it’s been enormously disastrous!), but I think it has been enormously fruitful and has taken me into areas which provide integration and fresh readings which make sense, and so on. Because I have done all that, I now find that just by topping it up, reading books on planes and trains and so on... I’m not actually abreast with every single thing going on in my field, that’s why I’m headhunting a research assistant at the moment, to help me just make sure I’m keeping up with the main things, I now have a good working knowledge of the texts, both the New Testament, and the rest of the sort of hinterland world, whether it is Josephus or the Dead Sea Scrolls on the one hand, or philosophers like Epictetus or whoever it is. I basically know my way around the stuff. So if a question comes up where I’m reading a text in a fresh way or trying to make a fresh synthesis for a lecture I can at once see, ah yes, now, we need to do that there and then this would work here, and I find I can work it out. And basically, I can write very fast, and I have no idea why that is. I suspect my mother would say that I’d always been able to talk the hind leg off a donkey ever since I was a little boy. Something about use of English which apparently I have been blessed with, I mean people compliment me on my style, and I just basically write what comes naturally. And I think it’s partly that there’s a lot of music in my family, we’re very much a musical family, and it’s been very very important to me over the years, and I think I hear the English language, and paragraphs and sentences as musical phrases. So when I’m writing a big book, I’m actually partially thinking of it as actually composing a symphony, rather than writing, thinking about the themes and the way they work. So, there’s a kind of – I hesitate to call it artistic, but there is something artistic about it, about how it’s shaped.

How then do you keep balance in your life?

This year has been difficult and stressful for me and my wife, because we’ve just moved for the 15th time in 32 years and we’ve never lived anywhere longer than seven years and so we’ve never really deeply settled anywhere, and that’s been a problem for us both. I think the older we get, the more we think that’s a problem. We do have, we’ve been richly blessed with a small property of our own up on the northeast coast of England, which was a long way away when we were in London. Where we are now, it’s about an hour and a quarter’s drive away, and it’s just five minutes walk from a deserted beach. That has been enormously therapeutic. We can get there usually for 28 hours or more a week. (i.e. go there on a Thursday night, have all day Friday, spend the night there and be back at the desk Saturday morning.) That has been our lifeline, really. But we need to work harder on recreation, on finding ways of building in good time. Whenever you move house and get to a new area, make new friends, there’s always a bit of adjustment in that, and that’s where we are right now.


Now that our children are grown up, my wife and I travel quite a bit. I’m only here two days, that’s why she’s not here with me now. But if I’m in America for a week, she will usually come with me, and that will be fun. We’ll hang out or meet friends or do things together.

It is a difficulty in terms of balance, because as a bishop no two days are alike. You can go for weeks and every day is different. And whereas in Westminster Abbey, I would be in choral evensong every day at five o’clock and I’d come home and have supper, and either it’s be family time or I’d go back to the desk or whatever. In Durham, at five o’clock I’ll be finishing a committee meeting and cramming a quick sandwich and leaping in the car to do a confirmation an hour’s drive away, going back home at half past nine. My wife sometimes comes for evening things but not very often; there’s only so many licensing and confirmations and so on that a spouse can actually attend. And of course I’m very much aware that for me this thing in the diary that says 7:00 confirmation at such and such is simply another event in the diary, another sermon. For these people, not least for these young people being confirmed, this is a day they may well remember for the rest of their lives, and we’ve got to get it right, this is hugely important. So, for me, the sheet anchor is the time of prayer in the morning. I really dare not start the day without a time of Scripture reading and prayer. Even if the day is going to be frantically busy with lots of urgent things – and it’s not a matter of overpiety – I dare not run on empty. Actually, although it can be hard work, I love praying for the diocese. It is an amazing privilege to have a diocese like Durham, 250 parishes, with the task of holding them before God in prayer. It’s just an extraordinary thing. That’s absolutely central to a bishop’s task, is to be praying for the diocese and the people therein. It’s been wonderful to get to know them this last year. There’s a lot more I’ve got to do. That’s the sort of thing that’s supposed to hold the rest in balance, but it takes hard work to do that.

You’ve already gone ahead and begun answering my next question, which is what particular spiritual disciplines have you found particularly helpful or meaningful in this demanding position?

Yes, I say a formal morning prayer service with my chaplain every morning at 7:30, and that’s wonderful and I love doing that, my chaplain and I have got into a good rhythm with that. But I, for years now, as somebody trying to integrate faith and scholarship, I like to read from the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek New Testament, and so on, so I’m actually spending usually somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour and a half in the morning – for instance, at the moment, I’m reading through the Psalms in the Hebrew, I’m reading through Jeremiah in the Septuagint, and I’m reading through Revelation in the Greek New Testament, that’s just where I am right now, and then I would turn that into prayer and I have a prayer diary which I work through. I’m not ashamed to use the word work, because in a sense it’s work, but it is central to the work of a priest and of a bishop. So I do that in a more leisurely way, and then I’ll go into morning prayer. And so that is my regular discipline. I’m slightly puzzled at the moment because, just the tradition of how the bishop of Durham has organized it, I don’t have a daily Eucharist, and I think I’m missing that. Often, of course, I’m going off to a meeting which will start with a Eucharist, but that’s – obviously if I’m having Eucharist at 9, that’s not necessarily what I would want, but at the same time some weeks it may just happen I will go Sunday to Sunday without the Eucharist and I do miss that. So there’s a sense of, I’m not quite sure how to deal with that, I really would prefer that. But the other thing which I am not doing at the moment and really ought to do is that I haven’t been on a retreat this year. We didn’t plan it, and hence it hasn’t happened. I am feeling the want of that. The other thing is that in London I had a spiritual director that I would see every six weeks or two months, and we used to go and have lunch and take an hour and a half or two hours and just work through some things. Leaving London meant leaving that particular person. I have been thinking and praying about getting a new one, but I haven’t done that yet. Again, I am feeling the want of that, and I expect that before too long, I will find somebody again.

(More to come soon.)



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