A Conversation with the Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta
1. When did you join the faculty at the School of Theology?
2. Why did you choose Sewanee?
I came to the School of Theology in August 2004. A year before that, I would have been astounded to know that I and the members of my family had relocated here after 30 wonderful years in Connecticut. I was content as a parish priest and felt blessed in that vocation. My husband was engaged as a professor in the English department at the University of Connecticut in Storrs (the main campus). I was not looking for a change; Sewanee came looking for me! In October 2003, I received a letter from Linda Lankowitz, then the university provost, inviting me to enter a search process—although it was not for my present position. The upshot was eight months of discernment for John and me, which issued in my call to Sewanee as professor of pastoral theology. Vocations have to “make sense.” After earning a Ph.D. prior to seminary, some adjunct teaching at Yale Divinity School, and serving in parish ministry for 25 years, it “made sense” to pull together these two sides of my vocation—the academic and the pastoral—to engage in the formation of future clergy.
Sewanee appealed to me for several reasons. The connection of the School of Theology with a liberal arts college within the larger framework of an Episcopal university meant that theological education could take place in an enriched educational and cultural matrix. The college might offer professional opportunity for my husband who did, eventually (although not at first!) become a professor in the English department and who served as dean of the college for seven years. I liked the way the seminary engaged in formation: worship is at the center; community life supports and shapes us, pressing us into love for one another; and the core curriculum builds a theological education incrementally and deliberately.
3. What is one of your main goals as a theological educator?
My deep goal as a theological educator is really no different from that which I had as a parish priest: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). As the author of Ephesians makes clear, equipping the saints for the work of ministry isn’t a matter of mastering a set of techniques. It is a matter of formation, of sharing in the “full stature of Christ” which, in turn, leads to unity of faith, to knowing Jesus. In pastoral theology, we think about how that happens for a priest, for one called to be “pastor, priest, and teacher” within the community of faith. How do we share in the ministry of the One who is “shepherd and bishop of our souls” as we lead, teach, counsel, and experience the events of our salvation through the sacraments? Where is grace waiting for us and how do we release it into the community?
4. What is your hope for the Church right now?
I think this is a somewhat dangerous question because we often mistake our “wishes” for our “hopes.” British theologian Simon Tugwell once remarked that God is engaged in the “remaking” of our hopes. God is out to surprise us because our “hopes” are usually too small. One of my personal hopes—although it is probably more of a “wish”—is that we would move past the feelings of discouragement, especially about our diminishing numbers, that are so widespread in the Church right now. We have a gospel to proclaim that needs to be heard; we are the heirs of a theologically rich and beautiful tradition. Teresa of Avila described her vocation as a mission to “a world in flames.” It is not less so for us.
5. Is there another woman whose voice you’d like to lift up and share?
There are three, actually, who span the centuries. Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write theologically in English, presents a vision of Christ, his work, and his love that can be transformative to read. I recommend her Revelations of Divine Love to anyone who wishes to share in her profound engagement some of the most vexing questions with which believers struggle. Somewhat closer to our time, I would suggest reading anything by the early 20th-century scholar and Anglican mystic, Evelyn Underhill. It was Underhill who brought Julian and many other mystics out of the archives, but her interest was not purely academic. She was herself a seeker of wisdom, and passed it on to countless others through her writing, her ministry of spiritual direction, and through leading retreats, often with clergy. Underhill witnesses to the way in which learning and holiness of life call forth pastoral gifts from women even in periods of the Church when such ministries were not officially encouraged. Finally, in the present day, I find Sarah Coakley to be a penetrating theologian who, like the other two I have mentioned, explicitly weaves the experience of God into her theological writing. Anyone who was present at Coakley’s DuBose lectures a few years ago could not help being moved and enlightened by them. This is the more ancient way of engaging in the theological enterprise, and I think women have often kept this tradition alive in the Church.