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Remembering Geoffrey Wainwright

Mark Gorman

One of the truly poignant dimensions of the global pandemic has been its effect on how we accompany, mourn, and remember the dead. Often we cannot be present with those who are dying, especially if they are in a hospital or other care facility. Services are, in most cases, strictly limited to small gatherings. At each of the funerals I have led in the last year, someone has expressed hope for a future, less restricted, memorial service, but I wonder how many of these hopes will be realized. Even before the pandemic, at least in my experience, the church’s commitment to faithful commemoration of the saints triumphant was waning. Attendance at services was inconsistent, many showed support for the departed’s family by attending viewings instead of funerals, and it was even difficult to get clergy to attend services for their colleagues. I hope our corporate sense of loss right now may lead to some changes later on, but I worry many of those who die will simply slip through the cracks of our memory.

Out of this concern, I offer what follows in memory of Geoffrey Wainwright, professor of systematic theology at Duke Divinity School for many years, following stints in Cameroon, England, and New York City. He died just a few days after the initial lockdown in March 2020. Though I was fortunate enough to have taken two of his courses, Introduction to Christian Theology (the core theology course at Duke) and Theology and Language (a seminar in one of his favorite topics), I am among the least and last of his students. Others, including several John Wesley fellows, could share more personal stories of Dr. Wainwright. Still, I can say that I took his classes at exactly the right moment, and his teaching was decisive in my own journey to becoming a theologian.

Dr. Wainwright’s work is of such importance that all serious students in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition should have at least some passing awareness of it. He wrote prolifically in the intersection of liturgical and systematic theology, ecumenism, and Wesleyan studies. His magnum opus, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (Oxford University Press), is the place to begin. Published in 1980, when he was still fairly young (at the time, Wolfhart Pannenberg said to him something like, “Well, you’ve got your systematics done, now what will you do?”), the book is a systematic theology whose “system” is a heady mix of practices of Christian worship and ecumenical theology. Doxology is one of the great systematic treatises in the history of Methodism, with its deliberate treatment of worship, doctrine, and life as fundamentally inseparable. (It is also the only systematic theology I have ever seen recommended by church musicians as essential reading.)

Dr. Wainwright’s approach to the introductory Christian theology course at Duke did not mirror the unfolding of Doxology. He approached the class according to the outline of the Nicene Creed, more or less, and this meant that his lectures were not merely reproductions of chapters in Doxology, though there was a lot of overlap between the two. It was, perhaps, a subtle underscoring of his belief that Christian systematic theology must always remain an open system, at least until the eschaton.

Famously, Dr. Wainwright was one of the great ecumenists of the twentieth century. He worked tirelessly for decades on the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission (Wainwright’s Methodists in Dialog [Kingswood, 1995] offers a solid introduction to a lot of this work). The real gem in his work on ecumenism is the Commission’s Lima document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (WCC, 1982), a document that helped seal significant advances in ecumenical relations—from the previously widespread practice of rebaptizing to the mutual recognition of baptisms among Christian traditions, and from sectarian practices of worship to a shared set of assumptions about its basic form and purpose. Dr. Wainwright was one of the principal authors and final editor of this document.

For all this, Dr. Wainwright never lost his own sense of place. Essays on John Wesley and the Trinity head off notions that Wesley was a doctrinal pragmatist or latitudinarian. A lifelong (and ordained) member of the British Methodist Church, he peppered lectures with Charles Wesley’s hymns, which he adored. His 2012 retirement lecture had more singing than speaking, accompanied by the great liturgical scholar Karen Westerfield Tucker.

Legacies have the potential to outlast memories, and this is not in itself a terrible loss. As the pastor of three congregations that are each well over one hundred fifty years old, I can be grateful for the unnamed saints of ages past without needing to know what each and every one of them did (or did not do) for Christ. Still, I hope that we don’t rush too quickly to that reassurance and that we dedicate more of this upcoming year to remembering those who have gone before us, and not just giving thanks for their legacies.

Posted Mar 01, 2021

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