Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy in deserted downtown Washington, D.C., with the pleasure today of talking to Tish Harrison Warren, who is a clergy in the Anglican Church in North America and a columnist for Christianity Today magazine, who has a new book out called Prayer in the Night, which we’re going to talk about. Her last book of three years ago was the Liturgy of the Ordinary, so perhaps we can touch on that as well. But it’s a pleasure to have you with us today.
Warren: Yeah, thank you. I’m very grateful to be here.
Tooley: So, tell us a little bit about your new book which just came out last month.
Warren: So, the new book is called Prayer in the Night, it’s right here, I’ve got it. The book, the whole book is framed around one prayer from the Anglican nighttime prayer office, which is called compline. One prayer of compline. And I came to that prayer largely biographically. The book starts in the year 2017 in my own life, which was a hard year for us. We moved across the country, my father passed away the week after we arrived in Pittsburgh from Austin, and then we had a miscarriage. And then another long, difficult pregnancy and lost our son, another miscarriage, in the second trimester, so a later miscarriage. So, it was about six months of not just unheard-of catastrophe, but just difficulty. And at the end of it, I was pretty spiritually exhausted and struggling with how to pray, struggling with questions of what theologians call “theodicy,” the idea of how can God be good and powerful and bad things happen in the world, and what it meant to trust God in the midst of that. When I found it very difficult to pray for a long time, I also found nights quite difficult. I would get busy during the day, writing and taking on projects, but at night that slow space would amplify anxiety, fear, grief, loneliness, and so I ended up sort of coming back to these nighttime prayers, which are really, the prayers really call to mind vulnerability, mortality, the brokenness in the world. It’s inviting God into a place not of kind of triumphalism, but a weakness, weariness even. And so, those prayers had become really important to me and kind of led me back to faith during this time. There’s one prayer in particular that begins, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep.” And then it keeps going, and so I frame the book around the words of that prayer, and I use that prayer as a kind of scaffolding to get into, or structure to get into, questions about trusting God in the midst of pain and suffering. Particularly, I would say the book is about human vulnerability and all the many, many different ways that looks and how do we hold the reality of human vulnerability really honestly, and also hold to the hope that God is good and sees us and responds to us. And what does prayer look like in the middle of all of that. So, that’s sort of the broad kind of an outline of the book.
Tooley: And tell us a little bit about your background, how you came into the Anglican Church in North America, and how you came to be a writer. And what your current pastorate or ministry is.
Warren: Yeah, well, I grew up Anglican. I grew up in Texas. I’m actually a seventh generation Texan, and I grew up around the Southern Baptist Church, and I came to know Jesus actually quite young. And it mattered to me, even as a kid. But I still, kind of around college, which is very, very typical began asking live theological questions. I didn’t have a crisis of faith — that would be I think a little too strong — but I certainly was exploring different notions of truth and ideas and asking how we know what we know. Questions fairly common for an 18-year-old. Sort of through that, I ended up going to a Presbyterian church, and for a long time ended up on staff at two different Presbyterian churches and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). And then really had no intention of becoming Anglican, but my husband was getting a PhD and in kind of the year between both of us getting our Master’s degree and him getting a PhD, we were back in Austin, where I’m from, for just a year and needed to find a church quickly because we knew we would not be there long.
We ended up going to this little kind of evangelical Episcopal Church, and I cried every week. It was the beauty of the liturgy, and sort of the Anglican spirituality of the great tradition of the church and long ancient church practice was really healing and deeply formative to me. And we told ourselves this is just a feeling, we’re not going to stay, but then when we moved to Nashville for him to get his PhD at Vanderbilt, we tried going back to kind of non-liturgical churches, and we just couldn’t do it. We were ruined by the ancient liturgy. And so, we started going to an Anglican Church. This would have been I guess 10-12-13 years ago now. And then, both my husband and I ended up getting ordained, so we are both priests now in the Anglican Church.
I’ve been serving, I’ve done all kinds of things over the years. I worked in campus ministry, I worked for some years with churches, helping churches that are more resourced interacting to serve the poor. So, I worked particularly with the homeless population, and then most recently, I was an associate rector and writer in residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a larger Anglican Church, a great Anglican Church in Pittsburgh. But we just announced today, actually, that we are moving back home to Austin, Texas. So, I will be writer in residence at Resurrection South Austin. And I’ll be mostly writing, but I will also be preaching, and celebrating the Eucharist, and sort of serving as a priest there with taking confessions, doing kind of priestly, I’ll be part of the clergy team at that church. So, that’s what I do, and I’m a columnist for Christianity Today. And I write for various outlets around the country. So, a lot of my time now is spent writing and reading.
Tooley: And you sort of straddle two different worlds in that Anglicans are sort of descendants of mainline Protestantism, and yet you’re also evangelical, writing a column for an evangelical magazine. So, sweepingly, if I may ask you, what’s your assessment of where is American Christianity today and where is American evangelicalism today? And what role do Anglicans play in that mix?
Warren: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, I’m just going to be very honest here, particularly since the interaction on January 6 and the response to that from the church, or the non-response in a lot of ways from the church, I’ve been discouraged by the state of evangelicalism. And I’ll say particularly white evangelicalism here. I’m not trying to racialize this except to say that there’s a lot of black evangelicals and evangelicals who are people of color, and the black church has a really different formation. So, I’m sort of saying that that this is something that white evangelicalism in particular is struggling with.
When we look at what happened on January 6, this there was political violence. There were conspiracy theories, there was an attempt to overthrow an election, and all kinds of Christian nationalism. That is the problem for me. What I’m most concerned about obviously is not that the GOP or the Democrats or electoral politics, it’s the Church in the midst of this and the fact that as people were screaming, “Hang Mike Pence,” there was Christian music playing over speakers and people had “Jesus Saves” signs. People had signs that said “Jesus is my Savior and Trump is my President” and “Make America Godly Again.”
That this is the language of faith and The Atlantic ran a story of someone on the ground who had, folks were chanting, “Give it up for Donald Trump, give it up for Jesus.” So, they’re using really evangelical language and the symbols of the Gospel to cloak the sort of Christian nationalism and political violence. I mean, that’s what it was. Yeah, and also all wrapped up with conspiracy theories.
For me as a pastor, I think how this is a moment of reckoning. This cannot be understood outside of the kind of formation, or lack of formation, that we’ve seen in evangelical spaces for decades now. What kind of political theology has taken shape? What sort of formation and political formation has made a movement where it’s possible to be proclaiming the name of Jesus at the same time as folks are erecting a guillotine on the Capitol lawn? The Cross and the guillotine were together at that space, and so what makes that possible? What makes seeing our political enemies as that possible? What makes where Christians are actually at this point the most — statistically — the most susceptible to conspiracy theories, what kind of theological teaching, spiritual formation is happening or not happening? How is this wrapped up with white supremacy and the history of that in the Church?
I feel deeply concerned. And the fact that, after this event, the Church I feel like is not having a, it needs to be a “come to Jesus” moment and needs to be a moment of how did we get here? What does it look like to do the work of repair, to be people that are committed to truth, to be people that are not beholden to a particular political party either way? Certainly not beholden to one particular figure like Trump. And Trump is empowered and Trump became president because of evangelicalism and the vote of evangelicalism and because of evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and, certainly, Eric Metaxas and Jerry Falwell, Jr. So, that’s one part of that, is the leaders. But also, that didn’t just like spring up in a vacuum. Everything we saw on January 6, there was many, many decades of formation that got us there.
I am more discouraged about evangelicalism in America that I have been. In many ways, it was a combination of the last four years, so there I wasn’t surprised, I’ll say that. But I will say I am more surprised, I’m at least discouraged, that folks aren’t taking the warning of January 6 more seriously. I think it’s a warning, and I think it’s a moment of looking at ourselves. It could be a great moment of self-reflection. I’m not sure it has been, and I’m concerned about that. But that said, Anglicanism in the middle of that.
Anglicanism is interesting because it has so many different sorts of strands. Very famously, it has three streams, it has the Catholic strand, kind of a charismatic strand, and then an evangelical stream. And there’s always been parts of Anglicanism that are more of a jungle and parts of Anglicanism that look more Catholic, Anglo-Catholic. And I certainly would fall on the more evangelical Anglican side, yet because I’m not just an evangelical period, full stop, that I’m an evangelical Anglican, that does change and shape my spirituality.
I would say that Anglicanism actually is a global body. Actually, there’s more Anglicans now in the Global South than there are in America and Europe on any given Sunday. So, I think that does make me feel more deeply connected to a broader evangelical movement that’s global and not only defined by American leaders or American terms. It’s part of the reason that I, there is a movement certainly among younger evangelicals to no longer call themselves evangelical. The reason I’m hesitant to do that is because I’m connected to evangelicals globally, right. In Nigeria and in Australia and England. But I also think that we, if you are Anglican, even as an evangelical, I still take place in, I still say prayers from the third century on Sunday, I still say creed, I still take the Eucharist every week. So, there is a sense of being connected to the historic church, which is really transcultural and also connected with Christians throughout history.
I do think that sort of rootedness in a much broader Christian tradition provides a ballast to some of the tendencies in modern evangelicalism. It’s just really, I mean, when you start to read the church fathers, when you start to read Augustine, when you start to read even fathers from the East, Orthodox fathers, and church mothers to some extent although there’s fewer, it makes American Christianity look very strange and very odd. And some of the big dividing lines, we have three. Between things like you’re either a Gospel committed Christian or a social justice Christian. These sorts of lines just fall apart when you start delving into the theology of the historic church. And so, I think drawing on the early church, and really throughout church history, has deeply shaped my own spirituality on my own and the churches that I’ve been a part of as well.
Tooley: Can you hold up a copy of your book?
Warren: This is the copy. Yeah, I’ll put it up here.
Tooley: Tish Harrison Warren, author of Prayer in the Night, thank you so much for a very enjoyable interview.
Warren: Yeah, thank you.