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Interview with Assoc Prof Glen O'Brien

Assoc Prof Glen O'Brien is Head of Theology at Booth College. Reproduced below is his recent interview with Asbury Theological Seminary.

Tell me a little bit about your story?

I was born into a non-religious working class family in Sydney. My father was a very nominal Catholic who never attended church and my mother a very nominal Anglican who also never attended church. They wanted to be married in a church so they 'met half way' and married in the Methodist Church. I was also baptised as an infant in that same church but not raised as a Christian.

I became interested in Eastern religions in my late teens but it was when I first read the Gospels, initially out of curiosity more than anything else, that I was drawn to follow Christ. At first I was involved in an independent Pentecostal church but after five years I grew disillusioned with that and sought a different context in which to live out my faith. I had been profoundly shaped by a chance encounter with a nineteenth-century biography of John Wesley and the Methodist Hymn Book. Inspired by these I decided to join the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia (in the US 'the Wesleyan Church').

I planted a Wesleyan congregation in northern New South Wales before moving to Melbourne to complete my theology degree in preparation for ordination. I was ordained in 1994 and served as pastor of several congregations as well as teaching theology at Kingsley College and completing a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies. I had married Lynda in 1981 and in 1996 along with our four children we traveled to the US to complete a research Masters in Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary. Upon returning after graduation in May of 1998, I continued to serve at Kingsley College in various roles including Vice Principal, Academic Dean and Head of the School of Theology, as well as continuing in a pastoral role. I completed a PhD in church history at La Trobe University in 2005 and in 2008 I was invited by General Linda Bond (at that time the Territorial Commander of the Australia Eastern Territory) to join the faculty at Booth College in Sydney to teach in the area of Wesleyan theology. In 2009 I joined the Uniting Church (a denomination that is the result of a 1977 merger between Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists). Though I am a Uniting Church minister my 'placement' is to theological education in the Salvation Army.

What area of theology interests you? And why are you passionate about it?

My area of research interest is in Wesleyan theology and history. I have always felt drawn to the Wesleyan emphasis on the universality of God's love, the optimism of grace that refuses to place limits on God's capacity to transform the human heart, and the 'catholic spirit' that embraces the whole church rather than taking a 'sectarian' approach. I enjoy introducing students to the field of theology and helping shape their capacity to think theologically and act faithfully.

What, if any, differences exist between the Salvation Army in Australia and America?

My impression of the Salvation Army in Australia is that is more theologically diverse than I expected. Certainly there is a broadly 'Wesleyan evangelical' flavour but many Salvationists have also been shaped by Pentecostal, liberal, and even Reformed perspectives. At the same time there is a strong sense of unity of purpose and very little doctrinal division. Perhaps the uniform, the flag, and the unique ecclesial identity of the Salvation Army help hold it together and minimise the doctrinal disputes observed in some other denominations.

What are a few of the top needs the Salvation Army trying to minister to in Australia?

The Salvation Army has won widespread public support in Australia, built partly upon its record of service during the World Wars, as well as its social service and relief efforts during every major disaster. This continues to the present with the Army fully engaged in issues such as youth homelessness, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, opposition to human trafficking, and speaking up for refugees and asylum seekers. The general community generously supports the Salvation Army's charity work. In 2009 an ‘Eye on Australia’ report by Grey and Sweeney Research found the Salvation Army to be 'the most trusted brand in Australia.' The general public is much less clear, however, on the nature of the Salvation Army as a Christian church.

How are you preparing students to meet those needs?

Salvation Army cadets are required to study Wesleyan theology as part of their training. One aspect of this is to write a 'contextual theology' essay that links the potentially abstract theological concepts they are learning with a particular issue such as asylum seeker policy or Aboriginal disadvantage. One student investigated the impact of China's booming economy on village children who are left behind while their parents move to the industrial centres for work. This essay proved a useful resource in shaping the Salvation Army's policy on this issue. I count it a privilege to play even a small part in the formation of the Army's leaders.

What’s one of the coolest God moments you’ve witnessed as part of your ministry?

In one sense all moments are 'God moments' so it's hard to single out one thing. I have always served small congregations and taught small classes in small institutions. From an outward point of view my ministry has not been marked by spectacular 'miracle stories.' Leaven is an invisible element but it causes the bread to rise. So God is at work in people's lives in ways I sometimes find difficult to detect and that I certainly have no control over. To have been a pastoral presence in people's lives during their important life transitions and to have had the privilege of teaching a generation of students has been an uninterrupted succession of 'God moments'.

Why did you come to Asbury Seminary?

I came to Asbury drawn by its reputation as a flagship Wesleyan institution. To me it represented the best of the combination of 'sound learning and vital piety' prized by the Wesleys. There is an Asbury ethos that is a little hard to define but it includes a marriage of head, heart, and hand.

How did your time here shape you for your current ministry?

My Asbury experience cemented my Wesleyan identity and provided me with a springboard into my doctoral research and an academic career with a focus on Wesleyan and Methodist themes. It also helped me be a better pastor, honing not only with critical thinking skills but the pastoral wisdom needed in congregational ministry. During my time at Asbury, great scholars including Joel Green, Ken Collins, and Ben Witherington brought the best scholarship to bear on the practice of Christian discipleship. I was involved in the Asbury chapter of the Order of St. Luke which greatly enriched my sacramental and liturgical theology and practice. The Wesleyan Seminary Foundation, led during that time by Steve Willingham, provided important social interaction with fellow Wesleyans and enabled me to establish friendships that have endured to the present. I have had the privilege of returning to the Wilmore campus twice since I graduated and found reconnecting with friends such as Ralph and Grace Yoder richly rewarding and highly valued experiences.

How did your head knowledge of Christianity translate into heart knowledge?

I'm not altogether comfortable with the division in the question between 'head knowledge' and 'heart knowledge' since we are called to love God with the mind as well as the affections so framing 'head' and 'heart' as if they were in opposition to one another is something I would want to resist. It's true that I began my investigation of Christianity initially out of an intellectual pursuit but reading the Gospels presented me with a Christ I could not ignore. The magnetism of his personality, the power of his words and acts led me into a more profoundly personal response. Though I did make a public declaration of faith during a church service I would say my conversion took place gradually over a period of several months during which time the call to follow Jesus became increasingly urgent and in the end irresistible.

How does your experiences as a church planter and pastor inform your role in the classroom?

I think my pastoral experience has a very significant role to play in the classroom. Students are not always clear on how the theological concepts they are learning connect with the lived experience of ministry or with missional priorities or human need. Anecdotally I'm able to share some of my own experiences but also model a linking of the more abstract task of theology with the more concrete tasks of ministry. The old cliche 'those who can't do, teach' was never my own experience. At Asbury, for example, several of my lecturers would be parsing Greek verbs on Tuesday and preaching in camp meetings on the weekend. One shared the humorous story of an older lady who approached him after the sermon, and said, 'You know for someone with a PhD you preach like a man with no education at all!' She meant it as a compliment.

How does an understanding of theology and history help students think and act faithfully today?

Meaningful and faithful action in the world is simply not possible without a connection with the ancestors. The Christian church is a multi-general community and not to be part of the conversation that community has had about God is to be profoundly impoverished. The late Jaroslav Pelikan famously said that traditionalism was the dead faith of the living but tradition was the living faith of the dead. The word 'tradition' is a dirty word in some circles, referring to something deadening and hopelessly antiquated. To use the word in that way is to misunderstand its meaning. A tradition, by definition, is a living thing. If it's not living it's something else - archaeology perhaps - but not tradition. The Gospel has been spoken faithfully to us by those who have gone before. Our task is to speak it faithfully again in our time. Since the word 'radical' means connecting to the root of a thing, the most radical thing you can do is have a conversation with your grandmother.