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Interview: Ian Morgan Cron Episcopalian priest and author

by
09 November 2012

'A life well lived is the best critique of the status quo'

The realisation that I was called to ministry dawned on me gradually, beginning in boyhood. It eventually spilled over to include writing books and songs, and speaking.

In many ways I wrote Chasing Francis* to myself. I went through a crisis of faith in 1998. People were jumping on the "build the next hip mega-church" bandwagon, with reductive theology, and simplistic spiritual formation. The religious Right was becoming so influential that the word "Christian" had become code for Conservative Republican, and conversations about God were filled with a spirit of "we've got all the answers".

I went on a personal retreat to sort things out, and read G. K. Chesterton's St Francis of Assisi. It revived my faith.

I hope Chasing Francis reads more like an invitation to learn from a spiritual giant than a polemic.

Francis rescued a weary and dying Church in the Middle Ages through his embodiment of the gospel. He was our first environmentalist, a peacemaker who risked his life to lead the first peace delegation to the Muslims during the Crusades, an Evangelical concerned with saving souls, a Catholic in his commitment to eucharistic revival, a Pentecostal in his unashamed and spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm in response to God's love, a social activist who radically identified himself with the poor, and a mystic in his prayer life.

So much comes together [in him] that needs to come together in our lives if we want to restore the credibility of the gospel and the Church in the present age.

I don't think the novel is about a man who changes the way he expresses his faith from Evangelical to Catholic, as much as it is about a man who is seeking a faith that's more holistic, integrated - a faith that transcends denominational, theological, or political labels. I haven't migrated from Roman Catholic to Evangelical and back to becoming Roman Catholic, as in the novel. I aspire to be a Christian who looks for truth wherever it's found.

My encounter with Francis has made me more spiritually self-aware. When facing a decision, I often ask, "I wonder what Francis would do in this situation?"

He doesn't replace Jesus. Rather like all saints, he's a great secondary source. I'd like my life to look more like his. I'm still a long way from the mark.

I'm not a good enough Christian to judge the state of American Christianity. Critical words are just that: words. Francis changed and rescued the Church through his example, not through criticism. A life well lived is the best critique of the status quo.

One concern I have about the Church at large is that we are becoming too cynical, sometimes bordering on self-loathing. I wish we spoke more about the possibility of resurrection than about the failures and death of a tired institution.

Families are complicated, and mine is no exception. I'm the youngest of four children. My father was a lost soul, and my mother a force of nature. I recount the story of my childhood in Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A memoir . . . of sorts [Thomas Nelson, 2012].

My father was a voracious reader, and an entertaining storyteller. If I have any talent for telling stories, it probably comes from him.

I always wanted to be a singer-songwriter or an actor. It wasn't until my early 20s that I veered off in the direction of ministry.

I regret not having come under the leadership of a wise mentor when I was a young man. This wasn't my fault per se, but it would have saved me a lot of time.

I think my most important choice was to start writing books - after the obvious ones like choosing to follow Jesus, and asking my wife to marry me. I have found so much joy in reading great writers, and in trying to emulate them.

There are so many: Wendell Berry, Flannery O'Connor, Leif Enger, Rowan Williams, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, Anne Lamott, Richard Rohr, David Foster Wallace, Evelyn Waugh, Joan Didion, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky. . . I'd better stop now.

Thomas Merton has had a profound influence on my life, as has Rowan Williams. C. S. Lewis is in the mix as well.

I'd like to be remembered as a man whose life eventually became continuous with his words. I'm a long way off at the moment.

For me, sermons are like meals. I can't point to one out of them that seismically changed my life, but I'm grateful for the thousands that have, incrementally, kept me going through the years.

My favourite place is Assisi.

As a writer, I connect with stories; so I love Genesis and the Gospels. The Letter of James makes my hair hurt.

I love hearing birds in the morning, crickets at night, and the sound of wind blowing through trees. I also love the sound of Keith Richards's guitar playing, especially in the opening bars of "Tumbling Dice". Strange, I know.

I get angry when I meet someone who is so certain they have a corner on the truth that they can't listen to people with different opinions without demonising them. Bad coffee, people who are too cheerful and chatty first thing in the morning, and the 24-hour news cycle tie for second place.

I'm happiest when I'm in conversation with generous and open-hearted people who are genuinely hungry to know God; when I read a beautiful sentence; when my children are content and growing in goodness; when my wife tells me she's proud of me; when I'm writing and self-awareness fades away; and when I'm celebrating the eucharist. Not necessarily in this order, of course.

Several years ago, I read John Main's book Word Into Silence, and Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land. Both books helped me understand and value the practice of non-discursive Christian meditation. I try to devote 20 to 30 minutes to this style of prayer every morning. "Try" is the operative word in that sentence.

Maybe I'd like to find myself locked in a church with Thomas Merton. He had such a complicated personality and surgically incisive mind.

The Revd Ian Morgan Cron was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

*NavPress, £9.99; 978-1-576-83812-9.

 

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