Our wild hope, with Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal [MIPodcast #97]

  • When Latter-day Saint apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland visited Oxford University in England last year, he became fast friends with Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal of Pembroke College. The two of them hit it off so well that Elder Holland invited Dr. Teal to Utah to attend General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to visit Brigham Young University. Rev. Teal spent some time at the Maxwell Institute where he sat down with Blair Hodges to talk about his life as a chaplain, about inter-religious dialogue, about faith, hope, and charity, and all sorts of other things.

    Read more about Rev. Teal’s visit with Elder Holland here.

    About the Guest

    The Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal is Chaplain and Fellow at Pembroke College and Lecturer in Theology and Religion within Oxford University. He is Warden of the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God, and a trustee of All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor, Helen and Douglas House Children’s Hospices, St John’s Home for Vulnerable people, and The Porch for homeless people, all in Oxford. He has published in the UK, Europe and in Russian, on Patristic and Modern Theology.

  • BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.

    When Latter-day Saint apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland visited Oxford University in England last year, he became fast friends with the Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal of Pembroke College. The two of them hit it off so well that Elder Holland invited Dr. Teal to visit Brigham Young University. So earlier this year I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Teal to talk about his life as a chaplain, about inter-religious dialogue, about faith, hope, and charity, and other things.

    Questions and comments about this mini-episode can be sent to me at mipodcast@byu.edu.

    Before we get to Dr. Teal let’s check out a review of the month. This is from a little earlier this year. I don’t think I’ve done this one yet. This comes from “randomnickname43,” who says, “I’ve been impressed at how consistently Blair is able to engage the different guests on the show so that the conversations are in-depth and substantive, rather than just surface level. Listening to an episode always feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between thoughtful and interesting people.”

    Thank you randomnickname43. It means a lot to me to read your review.

    If you’d like to leave us a review, you can do that in Apple Podcasts, leave a comment on on Facebook or YouTube, or whatever app you listen to, see if it has a review feature.

    And now, we turn to the discussion with Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal of Pembroke College, Oxford.


    BLAIR HODGES: We’re joined today by the Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal of the Church of England. He’s a chaplain, a fellow and lecturer in theology, and it’s at Oxford. Which school is it? Pembroke?

    REVEREND DR. ANDREW TEAL: Pembroke College.

    HODGES: Okay, so Pembroke College of Oxford. Thanks for joining us today.

    TEAL: It’s a pleasure.

    HODGES: Is it alright if I call you Andrew?

    TEAL: Sure it is! Please.

    HODGES: Okay. Perfect. What brings you to Brigham Young University? Let people know a little bit about who you are and what brings you here.

    TEAL: Okay. Just about four months ago we had a something in Oxford where Elder Holland came, and from the moment he stepped out of the car when he came to speak to the university faculty of theology it was evident that, here was somebody who was fun, vivacious, profound, committed, and worth knowing. And I’m delighted—I knew his son Matthew, but we struck up an immense and respectful friendship. I think he’s one of the greatest men alive that I know, and I know quite a lot of great men. But there’s something incredibly wonderful about him.

    And he said, “Well, you’ve got to come! You’ve got to come to General Conference, and you’ve got to come and see BYU, and you’ve got to come and see people.” And you don’t say no to a guy like that, and I didn’t!

    It’s been a whirlwind, a sort of a real—I hate to use the word “avalanche” because it’s snowing here at BYU—but a real fountain of blessings. I can’t tell you how much it’s burned its way into my understanding and changed what I’ve thought what I thought I knew about. So, it’s been a tremendous time.


    HODGES: Spending time with people face to face, it’s the best way to overcome our natural short-sightedness. In Brown Bag yesterday you joined us here at the Maxwell Institute and you mentioned something about General Conference, about some of the people that you encountered as you walked outside. I thought that was an interesting story, if you wouldn’t mind sharing that.

    TEAL: So, I’m wearing a “dog collar,” but that’s not good for podcast world, but I’m wearing a dog collar [a clerical collar], partly because I’m not just here because I want to be here and was asked to be here as a person, but you represent the institutions of which you’re a part. So I’m Church of England so obviously, and University of Oxford, so in that sense you stand out a bit. But walking in with one or two other people who have been incredibly hospitable to me. There were one or two people there protesting, shouting stuff, so I thought, “Oh, how embarrassing. I’ll go over and talk because they’ll know I’m mainstream, and I’ll just try and make my way through. They’ll think I’m one of them, one of their own.” Well, I couldn’t have been wronger, actually. And so I felt, in a funny sort of way, glad to be tarred with a similar brush.

    Well during the conference, one or two of the speakers reinforced: Keep it simple. What’s our real purpose? What are we for? Well, we’re to love. Redemption of the world isn’t about applying a medical solution. It’s about loving, about recognizing how interwoven we are with everybody, and having a vision of ultimate hope.

    So eventually I began to feel sorry for these people carrying the placards and dressed up as Satan in a hot day, and eventually actually there was a real sense of compassion, of recognition that I wasn’t the person to start trying to make it better. But actually the most important thing is to have this long view that everything that is a countersign of love and hope, and everything that tries to strive with violence and brutality against the kingdom of love, has a destiny to be embraced.

    One of the things that Elder Holland said in the University Church at Oxford when we were talking and having a theological discussion was a tremendous sense of hope of what it is, the destiny of each person. That every person living, every person that has ever lived and everyone who will ever be, has a destiny to be loved and blessed by God beyond our imagining. That sort of vision of absolute scope, a tsunami of grace—which doesn’t wash people away, but which thoroughly sort of seeps in and sets everything right. All of the stains and strains of sin and of pain that people bear, that’s not the last word. So, it was quite an impression. Even the outside it seemed to be an overflowing of grace.

    And on the priesthood session, that was fun. I go to the football games with my son, and it’s one of great things you can do. It’s one of the moments where the banter can actually really sort of make memories that bond and make me very happy. And at the end of the priesthood session, there was a great sense of it being like a football crowd, without the boos and without the antagonism. [laughter] It was just a carnival atmosphere! It’s great to give men—sometimes we’re not very good at dealing with emotions, blokes. One of the ways in which that broke through that was there was a real sense of appropriate tenderness and connectedness.

    One of the things, coming back to Elder Holland, is his capacity, when talking, to not be embarrassed at all about being an emotional person, a person with emotions. He models the fact that if you want to be a real man, then cry real tears. Don’t feign. And when the gift of tears comes, then let it happen. It speaks on a level to somebody that—I don’t think one bit of it is manipulative. But it speaks on a level beyond words. It carves its way through where words can’t get.

    HODGES: It’s like what Paul was saying in the New Testament where the Spirit intercedes with groans that we can’t give expression to.

    What strikes me about these two stories you told, about meeting Elder Holland and meeting these protesters, is underneath it all you’re hitting on this common human connection. If someone was to compare those two encounters it would seem easy to say, “Oh you met this lovely, wonderful person over here, and you met these strange, sort of angry, bitter people over here and those are very different things.” But it seems like you found something common in meeting those very different people.

    TEAL: There’s a sort of wild hope—When President Nelson was talking, I think it was President Nelson who was talking about the difference between individual salvation for all and the sealing. Sitting there as a non-member, not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thought “that’s a bit sad because actually I’d quite like to be sealed with my family eternally.” There’s a sense in which, well, thinking about it, praying about it, there was a real sense of the very impulse to love and to trust in God’s capacity to bring everything into perfection and harmony. That’s the wager that I want to put everything I am on.

    So, it’s not saying that I am contradicting the issue—the wonder of the sense of assurance of being sealed—but there’s another wonder, which is hoping against hope that God will be victorious—but not just for me and my family, but for the whole universe. The whole created order will be brought to a harmony which we cannot perceive.

    HODGES: It seems like you’re starting to get a glimpse of that perception in your attitude towards those protesters. Going to walk up to try to fix the situation, but then being surprised by their humanity and even if they don’t change in that moment.

    TEAL: Yes. You know, your questions made me realize, I think I learned a bit of respect for them. I don’t mean respect for what they were doing, but recognition that it’s not—we can’t fix everything all at once. And me trying to do that would actually disrespect them, because it’s not where they’re at. So there’s a sense of discernment, perception, that while other members of the Church of Jesus Christ were walking past and some were singing, there was no antagonism. This was almost a model of trust. Don’t be disturbed oneself. Don’t let these people press your buttons. But don’t press theirs back. This is a community coming together to celebrate the extraordinary hope of human flourishing in Jesus Christ. And therefore, even though they may not realize it, these protesters are part of that because they are evoking this sense of compassion and empathy, understanding and hope.


    HODGES: And I’m glad you were there as part of that “choir,” we can call it, with all sorts of different parts.

    Now, you’re a theologian as well. You’ve done work on an early Christian Father, Athanasius (d. 373). Latter-Day Saints aren’t very familiar with the early Christian Fathers. Athanasius—he wrote a really important work on the Incarnation of Christ. So, he wrote a work on how Christ became embodied, took on flesh. God entering in with humanity. And that’s an idea that Latter-Day Saints would be more familiar with, but the history of it they’re not quite as familiar with. Athanasius addressed this book to someone called Marcarius, is that how you pronounce the name?

    TEAL: Yes.

    HODGES: Yes so, we don’t know if that’s a real person or not. It could mean “blessed”, “happy” or “fortunate.” But he wanted to present to this person a rational case for the Christian message, right? He wanted to lay out, sort of, a reasoned case for Christ. I think that’s important work. Are there risks to that kind of work? Are there risks to being a theologian? And nuance that as much as you want. [laughs]

    TEAL: Oh, perfect. Well for example—I mean, there’s two volume work he did when he’s in exile.

    HODGES: He was exiled a lot. [laughter]

    TEAL: Yes, he spent most of his life away from home! But, one of the things he talks about, if you like, the second work is most famous on the Incarnation.

    HODGES: Yeah.

    TEAL: But there’s also, if you like, a description of how we get to that point, the collapse of—the apparent collapse of everything.

    HODGES: Before discussing the Incarnation he sets the stage with the Creation, the Fall—

    TEAL: Yes, exactly. And that humanity by itself seems to have lost the power, the potential to—He has this wonderful image which he picks up from Plato of humanity being like a charioteer in a chariot with horses just careening towards a wall. A calamity waiting to happen. So, God has to actually act at this point to make an intervention. And only the power of God’s own Word is able to change things. And so at the worst point, Athanasius says, of the collapse of everything that is supposed to be good, the Incarnation happens, and he becomes human in order that we might become God.

    You may want to say “square brackets,” again, it’s not what he says, but the sense in which—This is not sort of rescuing. It’s not like throwing a five dollar bill to somebody on the street and just walking past and thinking you’ve done your bit. It’s really sitting down beside them, listening to their pain, at great risk, and helping him to get up and walk.

    HODGES: And taking him to that hotel and paying the inn keeper and saying, “Here, this is for tomorrow, and I’ll be back.” Yeah.

    TEAL: And any other costs, they’re sorted.

    So, salvation isn’t like just a pat on the head, it’s not a gong that you get, you know, when you’ve done a long service award. And it’s not something that you own or possess. It’s too big a gift for that for Athanasius. It’s about your very self. It’s on the level of being, not on the level of possessing or doing, but who we really, really are at our core.

    And I think that fits very much into a reading of both, an understanding of humanity according to the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and salvation. That in fact the reality of what one of your students in our gathering today has just used the word “respecting the reality of fracture”—I think that’s a fantastic phrase—whilst trusting in ultimate gathering and healing. So, looking at the reality of a collapsing and pointless world, but only ever through the spectacles that actually all of this is going to be made thrilling and vivid with the very presence of God.


    HODGES: So that’s the question I have then. With that general narrative of salvation in mind from Athanasius, then we get down to nitty-gritty little points, right? And how far deep down can we go with reason? Are there limits to that, in other words? When we’re doing theology, we’re approaching God rationally. What are some of the dangers and risks of that?

    TEAL: Language of paradox here, because at his best Athanasius is saying, “Anything that we can say or think about God, don’t for one moment think that you’ve got it taped. You cannot wrap God up.” So, the best thing we can say about God is what God is not. There’s a so-called tradition called “apophatic theology.” The best thing—So God is not, you know, whatever.

    But then he goes on to say the best language, the best way of describing this is in connected up doctrines which prevent you from just taking one bit and thinking that’s the lot. The irony is, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges from this and the whole creedal symbol of Nicaea. The irony is this then becomes taken to be the literal benchmark, a litmus test of orthodoxy. I do not think that Athanasius, or the great fathers like Gregory of Nyssa or others, for one moment think that their articulation of a creed is what should be worshiped. This is simply, perhaps in Athanasius’s world, the best description. It’s not a definition. You can’t define. You can’t pin down. But the best description possible from words which don’t get close.

    HODGES: I don’t know if this might be like—I hope this isn’t blasphemous, but the way I’ve thought about this, because I live in my head a lot, right? And I worship God as well. But I’ve sensed that can be a problem when I’m focused too much on what I’m thinking about. And I’ve thought of God (or my idea of God) sort of like a wounded bird that I hold in my hands and the more I want to control that I risk squeezing the life out of it. I have to hold it loosely. I also don’t want it to fly away and get away from me and go off, but I have this sense of God is this wounded bird—or the truth about God, maybe, as this wounded bird—that I have to hold loosely if I’m going to hold it at all.

    TEAL: And when it heals enough it will fly. We won’t possess it.

    HODGES: Right.

    TEAL: We won’t possess it. We have to bear it.

    HODGES: Right, so the end of this exercise isn’t so I always have it in my hands, it just keeps me in relation to it, long enough for it to be able to fly.

    TEAL: So, language about God is less about learning the right vocabulary or the right words. It’s more like the grammar of a language. A way that we can learn, we can learn to actually place ourselves. And so for example, if people think—I am in many ways orthodox in theology and worship, but if I, for a moment, think I’m worshiping the doctrine of the Trinity, I think that’s called idolatry. The whole point of this is to push you as far as you can and then say, “Right. You’ve got to let that go with the bird.” And cast your hope and your love and your worship on the Father, and the Son, and the power of the Spirit. Not on a doctrine, however wonderful it seems.

    HODGES: There’s always a remainder. We have this vision of a world without remainder, of this belief system without remainder. We want the equation to—And I just I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with remainders.

    TEAL: Do I really know God well enough to tell other people that they’re wrong? That’s the other thing.

    HODGES: For me, the search and the cultivation of a relationship with God has superseded the need to correct.

    TEAL: Or even to be correct.

    HODGES: Because it’s something you live, not necessarily something that have you in your head.

    TEAL: And that sort of process thing, which I think President Nelson spoke about, about that sense in which it’s a process not an instant. So the process of redemption—Somebody asked a question of me yesterday about how do we know when we’re asking or saying the right theological questions? And I think at the end of the day we don’t, but if you’re a dad or a mum or you have a dear friend, whatever your circumstance is, you delight in people being who they are in your presence. Even if they’re way off. You can chuckle. You can embrace. You can love. If your child is doing something for the first time and draws you a picture and you have to enthuse about it long enough to realize what it is. [laughter] But you delight in that.

    The reality of the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ delights in us, delights in our systematic incompleteness and doesn’t, like an ogre, demand that we get everything right instantly or leave the room. And this notion of a perfectionist projection actually tells us more about our mental ill-health than about the God of grace.


    HODGES: That is to say, it’s our insecurities.

    That’s Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal of the Church of England and we’re talking with him today here at the Maxwell Institute where he’s visiting from Oxford.

    I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about your work as a professor and also a priest together. So you combine a lot of different roles in the work that you do. I imagine that some of your time is spent with young people, with students.

    TEAL: A lot of my time. Being a chaplain to a college, a college you know that, what were we established, 1624? And we’re one of the more modern ones! But it’s a minister a whole community. So my job is to “loiter with intent.” [laughter] To be with people who, if they’re washing up, come wash up. I’m discovering that if I were to talk to my wife I’ve got to look her in the face, I can’t do something else. I can’t multitask, with a multitasker you can’t kid somebody.

    But guys sometimes can be, especially younger people, but guys especially can feel a little bit embarrassed about connecting. So, if you give people the opportunity to do something together. So, you go and wash up with somebody in the kitchen or there’s a dart board in my room, which is against college rules so I hope no one’s listening to this. [laughter] But if you throw a few arrows and people will spill out and start talking about stuff. So, it’s about trying to find strategies to be close enough to people to be trusted when it matters, but to be far enough ahead to be worth following.

    HODGES: “Loitering with purpose” is beautiful—

    TEAL: Yeah, loitering with intent—I think it’s a crime, actually, in Britain.

    HODGES: Oh really? [laughter]

    TEAL: There’s a crime, loitering with intent.

    HODGES: Oh, so that’s even like a penal statute!

    TEAL: So, standing outside the back waiting for it to close.

    HODGES: That’s great! That’s fantastic!

    So, in these interactions, then, what I wanted to know is what are some of the most common concerns people bring to you? It seems like we’re living in an era where there’s a lot of unrest, uncertainty—political issues, or a lot of questions about the existence of God or what God’s like. All of these different things people wrestle with. What are the common concerns that young people bring to you when they say, “I need a hand. I need some help on this.”

    TEAL: I think a lot of people in the UK, young people in the UK, who are at university feel incredibly pressured. One of the things about British culture—which is strikingly different from America I think—is that it’s cool in Britain to be disinterested, to be nonchalant, to be not motivated. It’s cool for American students, visiting students, to actually get excited. A lot of people have striven to get to University at Oxford, the demands our immense, you know, it’s our equivalent of an Ivy League University. Then they come and they can feel exhausted and sometimes like an impostor, as if they don’t deserve to be there, quite isolated. The demands of work can be really, really stretching.

    HODGES: Isolation, even though there’s social media and other types of connection—

    TEAL: And even though you’re living with other people and you know people in your corridors and stuff.

    HODGES: Isolated in a crowd.

    TEAL: Exactly, because in a way everyone’s—not pretending, but almost posturing to be—And there’s a real, there can be a big sense of unworthiness. So, it’s really important, I think, to try to listen, to attend, to respect.

    There are also a spectrum of other issues. You’ve got eighteen-year-olds leaving home for the first time. So, you’ve got questions about identity. You’ve got questions about relationships. One of the things a chaplain is, as a priest, is not part of the structural responsibility of college. So, if you tell any officer of the college, you’re telling the college. If you tell the chaplain, you’re telling the chaplain. That has a different boundary. So, that can be hard. So about ten, twelve years ago there was someone who came and asked in absolute confidence to tell me that they were doing something and it was about getting knives, actually, in their room. So, I had to ask—Both respect what they were doing, but also ask, “well, why are you telling me? What can I do with that?” And eventually we moved, with that person’s permission, to move to the other structures and to intervene.

    But it’s really important, I think, to dare to risk, to say, “Well, if I decide for you, if I take away your self-reliance, I’m actually contributing badly to the rest of”—you know, but you have to engage and think of the whole as well. So, it’s quite a stretching thing to be a chaplain. I mean, that’s a very vivid and a very unusual example. Most of the time it’s about trying to humanize and to make it clear that you’re available, that you’re interested, that you really want people to flourish, and that if I can’t sort it, to be able, with their permission, to refer on to other systems and to care.

    So, that’s great, I love being a chaplain, actually, because it’s unpredictable and appeals to my short attention span, because things happen and I have to think quickly about it.


    HODGES: That’s the Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal. He’s joining us here at the Maxwell Institute where we had a Brown Bag event and you also went to General Conference. You’re meeting with different members of the Church and leaders of the Church, and it’s a real treat to have you here. I know Spencer Fluhman our director here has already started dropping hints about wanting to have you come back so—

    TEAL: You try and stop me! [laughter]

    HODGES: Okay, good, good! The last thing I wanted to talk about before we wrap up is about interfaith discussion in general, and to tie it back to Athanasius, someone that you study as a theologian. He was no stranger to controversy himself, right? So, you know, the beliefs he defended ultimately became central to orthodox Christianity, but at the time he was writing he was in the minority. He was sort seen as a heretic. He faced a lot of persecution. Today, the stakes are a little bit different. People—in our two countries at least—aren’t generally exiled or face these kind of things. But there is still religious tension; there’s still religious disagreement. So, I wanted to hear your thoughts about how to deal with those kind of dynamics and how your conversations with Elder Holland, from our Church, have played into your efforts.

    TEAL: I think there’s several steps. I think the base foundation is religious freedom. We have to be a society which encourages and supports and embraces religious freedom. Freedom for you to think differently about God than I do.

    And then after that comes, “well, what about the humanities—Where might an encounter like that lead us?” Might it actually lead me to understand how different people’s takes on God can make me realize that actually, “oops, I haven’t got it all taped up.”

    One of the things we’re doing in college, chapel every Sunday, we have members of different denominations and have even different religions come and speak within the framework of Anglican choral, Evensong. One of those speakers was an Imam from a local Muslim community and he came and we tried to—He wanted us to do the service that we normally did, but he asks a girl to do the call to prayer, the Islamic call to prayer as the intro as we walked in before the organ. Now he said—very vividly—he said, “I come as Muslim. I speak as a Muslim. This is not my faith. However, for me to be the best Muslim I am, I need you to be the best Christian you are to the congregation. I’m not coming here to try to change you into a Muslim, but neither am I coming here to try to water it down into a third thing. I want you to be who you are. You will make me become a better Muslim and me being a better Muslim will make you be a better Christian.”

    And I think that’s the inner way, the longer view, the bigger view, where religious freedom starts a path of religious affirmation, and then appreciation and love so that we can then act together. Think of New Zealand recently, I don’t know whether that’s been known here—

    HODGES: Oh, it is. It’s very known here.

    TEAL: The Prime Minister of New Zealand and the people, the Christian people of New Zealand, how she’s handled that with compassion—

    HODGES: Yeah, great leadership.

    TEAL: Apparently, Muslims in New Zealand have said there isn’t a safer place to be a Muslim now. Where Christian people went and protected mosques after that, and stood outside, put themselves as barriers, and that sign of solidarity, I think. So, first of all religious freedom, then appreciation, tolerance, and then mutual love. So, those are the stages. And that’s what I want to be a part of.

    I told people I’m very honored to have dinner with Elder Holland and Sister Patricia Holland on Monday night together with the president of the Quorum of the Twelve. And I commit myself as an Anglican and as somebody at Oxford to be part of, to do everything I can to be part of the reconciliation of our communities, because it matters. So, that’s why I am here. I’m delighted.

    HODGES: Thank you.

    TEAL: Thank you. Can I just use a moment of the time to say, everybody who has been a part of this has been a source of immense joy, challenge, been like a complete river of blessings, and I do want to say thank you to everybody who has been so kind and welcoming.

    HODGES: And we’ve been thrilled, too. This has been incredibly uplifting, and I can’t thank you enough.

    TEAL: My pleasure.

    HODGES: That’s the Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal of the Church of England. He’s a chaplain of fellow and lecture in theology at Oxford, Pembroke College in particular. And hopefully, in the future, we’ll have an opportunity to talk again because you and I have a shared interest in disabilities and theology as well. So, we’ll kind of put that up there as a teaser. We want to continue conversations with you, and until then, I’m Blair Hodges. This is the Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal. And this is the Maxwell Institute Podcast.