The Rev. Dr. Stephen Burns Joins the Faculty of Episcopal Divinity School

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Burns

This fall, The Rev. Dr. Stephen Burns joins EDS as a faculty member in Liturgics and Anglican Studies. His most recent position has been as a research fellow in public and contextual theology at Charles Sturt University in Sydney, Australia. 

Dr. Burns studied theology at the universities of Durham (BA, MA and PhD) and Cambridge (MLitt) and has since taught theology in Durham and Birmingham (both UK), as well as in Sydney. He has also served in parish ministry and is a priest in the orders of the Church of England.

Dr. Burns’s research and writing focuses on liturgical renewal and the intersections of liturgical and practical, contextual, and other contemporary theologies. He is the author and editor of multiple books and publications such as Liturgy (SCM Press, 2006), Worship in Context (Epworth Press, 2006), Exchanges of Grace (coeditor with Natalie K. Watson, SCM Press, 2008), The Edge of God (coeditor with Nicola Slee and Michael N. Jagessar, Epworth Press, 2008), Christian Worship in Australia (coeditor with Anita Monro, St Pauls, 2009), Presiding Like a Woman (coeditor with Nicola Slee, SPCK, 2010), Christian Worship: Postcolonial Perspectives (coauthor with Michael N. Jagessar, Equinox, 2011), The Art of Tentmaking (editor, Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2011), Pilgrim People (MediaCom, 2012) and Worship and Ministry: Shaped Towards God (Mosaic Press, 2012) He is book reviews editor for the Australian Journal of Liturgy.

We asked Professor Burns a few questions just before he arrived on campus this fall. 

Q: What are you most looking forward to about joining the EDS community? 

A: I have known about EDS for many years, probably first of all from Carter Heyward’s writings, and I have long loved the things it has stood for and stands for. It seems to me to have a very strategic vocation in theological education and amongst the Anglican churches of making things possible. So I am very happy to be coming to participate in the community acheiving that vision and task. And while I am looking forward to teaching at EDS, I am even more looking forward to learning from and with and in the community.

Q: Your book, Worship in Context: Liturgical Theology, Children and the City, examines issues connected to the place of children in worship. Why is this issue important to you and how do you see it in the larger context of inclusion?

A: The liturgy needs to be made a fully participatory experience for children, and their “sacramental belonging”—sharing in Eucharist along with the rest of us, something that the Episcopal Church has pioneered in the Anglican Communion—seems to me to imply a liturgical style in which children can fully engage. It’s an implication of the liturgical imperative of full, conscious, and active participation by the assembly. This is by no means the same thing as “dumbing down,” but rather about raising expectations of inclusivity all ’round. Nor is it about turning ritual events into didactic ones, though it is about everyone being challenged to learn and relearn, all the time.

Q: In addition to your own publishing projects, you have published a number of books in collaboration with others. Why have you made collaboration such an important part of your scholarship and what have you learned are keys to collaboration?

A: Collaboration has been very important to me, and I have been very intentional about it. On the one hand, I have some-times been a cultural outsider in the places I have lived and worked (in Australia, for example), and it would, I think, be arrogant to speak without first taking good time to listen. Collaborations invite conversations. 

On the other hand, I am a white male cleric, and I recognize that my kind have had their turn to do theology—at least to speak for others’ theology. Now, if white males are to raise our voices, it must, I think, be in consort and chorus with others who have been waiting their turn, listening carefully all the time. So, again, collaborations invite conversations. And because I have been deeply influenced by feminist, black, and other so-called contextual theologies, they have pushed me to do more than listen, but also to take sides and to use my own voice sometimes to amplify and advocate for others. 

Q: What do you think is one of the greatest challenges facing students from EDS and other seminaries? 

A: I’m looking forward to listening to lots of people—especially students—talk about their sense of this question. What at the moment I want to bring to that conversation is reflection from a very lively Australian variant of it. There have been some high-profile critics of current theological education in seminaries in Australia, that “many institutions that train clergy still produce graduates to a society and culture that has now passed for more than a quarter-century” (Gary Bouma, Andrew Dutney). But it all depends on what kinds of ministry are being envisaged and shaped in formation. It’s a very important conversation, and full of crucial questions, and you can expect me to be gently obsessed with it!

A longer version of this interview originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of EDS Now