‘Wow! oh wow!’ ‘What a brilliant lecture!’ ‘Great speaker, great clarity in an incredibly complex topic.’ Just some of the responses that have come flooding in following the Revd Professor Sarah Coakley’s SEI Lecture last Thursday, attended by around a hundred people and garnering numerous views subsequently.
Desire, a category of core human selfhood, is a topic which lies crucially at the intersection of human sin and salvation, and Professor Coakley held both in tension throughout her 50-minute lecture, offering a sparkling excursus on the unification of desire and its relation to God in prayer and praise. From a beginning which looked at the centrality of desire in the biblical witness, she moved to a consideration of the topic in relation to our longing for God in Godself, and the distortions of the desiring faculty in our propulsion towards sin. Along the way she urged us to think afresh about the ways in which we collude with the blandishments of the hidden secular persuaders of contemporary culture, and ended with directing us to ponder the dangerous but creative task which ministerial leaders have, especially in worship, of educing and directing desire towards God, a task which brings both moral danger and spiritual opportunity.
Throughout it all, Professor Coakley evinced that special trait which is present in all her writing and teaching, the art of holding the contemplative and the scholarly together. This was a lecture which addressed challenging theological concepts with rigour, drawing upon a wide range of published resources, and yet blended that seamlessly with the heart of a priest and a pastor; a lecture which was above all about the spiritual task of learning to see afresh, as Herbert puts it so beautifully in Love II.
The Revd Canon John McLuckie, Rector of Old St Paul’s (Edinburgh), alluded to this happy conjunction of approaches by addressing the speaker thus at the start of his Vote of Thanks: ‘Professor Coakley, Mthr Sarah’. And he went on:
Thank you so much for leading us through an extraordinarily rich exploration of this field of desire. I have lying in front of me, by entire coincidence, a line from Abba Alonius: ‘If only a person truly desired for a single day from morning till night, that person would be able to come to the measure of God’.
Thank you for exploring that territory for us in ways that are deeply honest – for the ways in which you have helped us to address some of the challenges of our own desires, things that we usually find good ways of avoiding – but also ultimately hopeful. I think you have given us ways into understanding our own desires through the tradition, through some wonderfully fresh readings of John of the Cross, George Herbert, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, of scripture itself; ways of seeing that ultimately the path of faith, the path of the Christian life, is one of transformation, transformation of our desire into Christ. Hopeful because that transformation is for real human lives, and hopeful also because you brought it very strongly into the realm of our experience of the community, the institution of the Church.
So thank you so deeply for leading us in this territory. You said that you were opening up questions for us as much as giving answers to them, and I have no doubt that each one of us will go from this Lecture today with a whole range of questions, and with a deeper familiarity of our own desires and, above all, of that greatest desire which is the desire of God for us which you so eloquently showed us tonight. So thank you from all of us and we will dwell on your words for a long time to come.
Huge thanks also go to Aidan Strange, the SEC’s Digital Communications Co-ordinator, for organising and managing the live-streaming of the Lecture with such professionalism and care, and to the Revd Dr Richard Tiplady, SEI’s Director of Mixed Mode Training, for handling the Q and A session after the lecture with deftness and skill.
Photos taken during the lecture in Zoom