Revd Dr Donna Lazenby is Tutor and Lecturer in Spirituality and Apologetics at St Mellitus College. She is one of our newest members of the team, joining at the start of the year. Below, she answers a number of questions.
Tell us a bit about your Christian journey?
I was brought up in Devon by Christian parents (both Irish, and Church of Ireland) so God has always been present in my life. God is both entirely natural and utterly extraordinary to me. He first appeared on Dartmoor, during dusk, as the lamplights filled the village windows: and revealed to me that he holds it all together, like that deep blue suffusing light. I was brought up in a B&B which we still have: so vicarage life is also entirely natural (and extraordinary).
I first felt a calling to ordained ministry aged about 12 when I remember distinctly looking at our vicar and thinking ‘It must be so wonderful to be doing a job that is who you are – and who I am.’ I was feeling the call right then – and it was a vocational/ontological discernment, simply about knowing who I was. Who I am. I saw a DDO at 17, who understandably advised I might be too young and to gain some experience of life – although I did feel alive at the time (!), and believe there are some kinds of focus and insight that transcend experience and age per se. I went to Cambridge University, studied Philosophy and Theology through BA, MPhil and PhD levels, and then, at that critical point, returned my eyes to God to discover that – yes – he was still after me for priesthood, and the time was now.
What were you doing before you started at St Mellitus College?
Before working with the community at St Mellitus College I was in my curacy in the Diocese of Southwark. After training at Westcott House (in the anglo-Catholic tradition) I chose to serve my title post in a charismatic evangelical Fresh Expression of Church (Springfield Church, Wallington) because I felt very clearly in that inescapably Holy-Spirit-prompting-way that God wished me to take an unusual direction (this brought hardships by times) for the sake of making a new road, and to unite my appreciation for our wisdom-filled living traditions (and oh, the wellsprings to be drawn from there…) with a serious attention to the contemporary challenge to create thoroughly orthodox yet accessible forms of Church for a post-Christendom culture.
Due to much thought and wrestling around all this, in ways that have been both costly and strengthening (and refining), I have quite a clear picture of what I am currently striving for in my ministry (or, rather, God’s ministry through me): I seek to unite two things - faithfulness (orthodoxy) and accessibility (especially for the un-Churched). The latter ensures that we create all the opportunities we can for people to meet Jesus Christ, which is a faithful response to one of the most exciting demands of the Ordinal: to watch for signs of the times and the incoming Kingdom, and to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation. The former holds us clear and firm in the Good News we are proclaiming (which is not ours – but God’s. As ever, we are ‘only’ custodians). So ministry to me (currently at least) looks like braving storms aboard a boat with an immovable mast.
In terms of my journey into knowing the God who already knows me, I feel that I first met the Father, in philosophy; then the Son, as this faith became profoundly personal; then the Holy Spirit during my time with our charismatic congregation in Wallington (although I’ve also felt his weight brooding beautifully in the incense-filled headiness of Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox worship). That is my own journey, and probably implies too strict a delineation (Trinitarian heresy no doubt!) But essence and experience may be different: and this is how I have experienced my journey thus far.
For these reasons, St Mellitus College’s spirit of ‘Generous Orthodoxy’ is not just something I admire as an ecclesiological or theological ideal, and intellectually assent to: it is something I value as a felt reality, and gestures a practical awareness into which I believe God has been calling my life – and my work in His name - for some time.
What do you most wish to share with your students?
A desire to understand, and the joy of yearning intellectually for God: of hungering for him with our minds. It rather fascinates me that this entirely natural striving can sometimes be viewed with suspicion or fear, or simply undervalued as a way of discovering more about God. When this happens it is an impoverishment for us, since we can miss out on the chance to love our Lord with our minds, as well as with heart, soul and strength, when there are irreplaceable treasures for intellect and imagination too (and you won’t transform society without the latter two). One of the best things about working at a theological college is inhabiting an environment where peoples’ intellectual confidence in the Gospel just grows and grows, as our thoughts form to cry out ‘Alleluia!’
I am always moved by the invocation made to Timothy (again, in the Ordinal) to ‘continually stir up the gift of God that is in you’ – sometimes translated as ‘to fan into flame’ that gift. There is something so delicious and exciting and adventurous about embracing that instruction to keep the fires burning. Only the Holy Spirit can light the flame: but we have a responsibility to keep our part in pouring oxygen onto that fire. For me, the intellectual life (where I fell in love with God first) is a place of distinctive nourishment. If I get excited in my mind about a new way of seeing God, I feel I’ve discovered that treasure hidden in a field. I am saddened when savouring these intellectual riches is understood as downplaying life lived in practice: which is a false dichotomy. What we believe (think/understand) shapes our whole behaviour. Hence Paul’s encouragement to be renewed in our minds: to be converted in our thinking. Because what starts there transforms a person.
So, in teaching, we share our loves. Therefore what I most hope to share with my students (or, rather, to pass on as contagious!) is the delight to be found in learning about our Triune God – in grasping ‘the intellectual beauty of the Gospel’ to steal a colleague’s unsurpassable phrase! – as our renewed understanding pours out through our bodies in word and action, ever-perfecting that redemptive work through which God is renewing his creation.