What’s a “Canon Theologian”?

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow

The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia has entered a new season of mission. We are guiding our diocesan programs, activities, and staff according to a Mission Action Plan. We are sending out deacons and supply priests to missional ministry in local congregations. We are experimenting in Living Local: Joining God with several parishes, their clergy, and diocesan leadership. We are all thinking and acting more intentionally about how we can be Good News in our neighborhoods and with our neighbors.

This missional activity is not just coming out of nowhere. The new approach to mission arises out of a renewed theological emphasis on the way we understand God. When we think of God as Trinity, we think about the way reaching out and being with is at the very heart of God’s own life, in the way the three Persons share love with each other. And if that is the way God is in Godself, we think, then that is the way God is with the world: God is always and everywhere reaching out into the world, in order to be with people in all their joys and all their needs. That divine sharing was revealed to us in Jesus, and the body of disciples that follows the way of Jesus – that is, the church – is called to join that sharing, too. Theologically speaking, the mission of the church is not just to gather in people into our buildings and our membership, but the mission of the church is to join in God’s larger mission of reaching out and being with people in the world.

All our missional activity in the diocese is based on this theological foundation. Of course, in the midst of doing all the things we do we don’t often stop to reflect on the theological reasons why we’re doing them. There are needs to meet; there are feeding programs to run; there are community gatherings to organize; there are important public issues to address; there are even church services to plan and to offer on Sundays and other occasions. Who has time to stop and think about the theology of all this activity?

But if we understand mission as joining God in what God is doing, then we need to do theology as part of the mission. We need to pause from time to time to reflect on where we see God in all this. We need to learn to tell the difference between our own default opinions and the new and present and active work of God in the situations around us. We need to reflect on how well – or how poorly – our plans and actions embody the love of God that we believe in. We need, in fact, to make this kind of reflection a regular practice in the cycle of listening, discerning, acting, and learning by which we engage God’s mission.

And that means doing theology. This kind of reflecting on how we understand God to be at work around us, and how our work can join in God’s work, is what theology is all about. Whenever we reflect like this, we’re doing theology. We are all theologians.

And as it is with all regular practices, sometimes it’s good to have a coach. Not somebody to do it for you, not somebody who just gives you information about how to do it, but somebody who will step along with you as you practice to help you practice well. A Canon Theologian is a sort of “godly reflection coach” for the theologians – all of us – of the diocese.

And there’s a need among us for such coaching. A recent survey by RenewalWorks, a ministry of Forward Movement, found that there is a great hunger among Episcopalians now for deeper understanding of their core beliefs and practices. Nearly half the survey respondents report that they believe “serving those in need is an important characteristic” of their faith and that they themselves perform acts of service for those in need “on their own once or more per month.” Yet at the same time many report “a lack of clarity about why that service is an expression or outgrowth of Christian identity, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish church mission and outreach from the good work of other nonprofit organizations.” Most Episcopalians look to their leaders “to teach and focus on basic Episcopal beliefs and practices,” and to help them make the link between service in the world and “teaching about basic spiritual practices.” (See “RenewalWorks: What We Are Learning” at https://dwightzscheile.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/renewalworks-white-paper-10-17b.pdf.) A Canon Theologian can help coach clergy and people in these areas.

Bishop Mark has asked me to serve as your Canon Theologian, and in that role I want to help us all reflect on how we come to know God at work in the world, in our churches, in our own spirits – and how all those works are caught up into God’s great work of enfolding all Creation into Trinitarian love. That’s a lot to cover! – but I do believe that one of the gifts of thinking missionally is the recognition that even our smallest acts do actually have their place in the whole story of God’s love in the Universe. As Canon Theologian I will explore topics of thinking about God in mission in papers that will be circulated around the diocese and made available for reading and discussion in parishes. I will from time to time offer classes and workshops on elements of our theological tradition and how they can guide our present mission. And I will be available for questions about specific things that may come up as you and your parishes reflect on where you see God at work and long to join God in working.

We are in the midst of a great adventure in the Spirit as we engage mission in new ways in our diocese. I look forward to reflecting theologically with you as we go forward.


  1. You will bring us closer to our true selves in Christ, and to our true purpose in life. Thank you.

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