William Sutherland Stafford: Reflections on a long career in a changing Church

Interview by Carly Lane

Community surrounds Professor Stafford in prayer at the 2023 Baccalaureate service
The CDSP community surrounds Professor Stafford in prayer at the 2023 Baccalaureate service.

The Rev. William Sutherland Stafford, PhD, visiting professor of church history, announced last fall that the spring semester of 2023 would be his last at CDSP. Stafford has shared his gifts with the seminary on a part-time basis for a decade, since his 2012 retirement as dean and professor of church history in the School of Theology at the University of the South, commonly known as Sewanee. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Carly Lane: Tell me about the context you were formed in, spiritually and intellectually? 

William Stafford: I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. My father was a Presbyterian minister, and my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and missionary. Today my mother would certainly be ordained as a minister, but she was not able to in those days, nor did she recognize that calling. She sure taught a lot.

She used to say to my siblings and me, “Your father preaches one day a week; I preach six days a week.” And that’s pretty much how it was. It was an intensely Christian religious environment: a deep love for scripture and a deep recognition of Jesus Christ’s love for humanity. 

CL: You moved to California from New Jersey at a young age. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed over your years living on the West Coast? 

WS: The difficulty of getting personnel and financial resources behind the mission of the church has grown substantially. The church is now having to adapt to a secularized culture that it really wasn’t ready for in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which was when I was originally formed. That’s an enormous challenge for our future. 

CL: You say, “I study and teach as a Christian and a priest but with an open ear to the non-Christians around me.” What do you mean by that statement? 

Before his call to Sewanee, the Rev. William Stafford, PhD, served in multiple teaching and administrative roles at Virginia Theological Seminary from 1976 until 2004. | Photo courtesy of the Virginia Theological Seminary Archives, Bishop Payne Library.

WS: Growing up, we subscribed to two magazines. One was Christianity Today, the evangelical banner publication. The other was the New Yorker, which was definitely not that. I also went to Stanford University as an undergraduate, which was no hotbed of piety. So I needed to learn how to listen to other voices than those that came from the heart of the gospel.

My graduate education was in the 70s. Even at Stanford, I only had one class that was taught by a woman. Quite a lot of what I think moved the Church in the direction the Holy Spirit wanted us to move regarding women’s leadership, the impacts of racism, and other issues was voices from outside the Church that were demanding justice. 

CL: Can you tell me a little bit about your move from the Presbyterian Church into the Episcopal Church?

WS: One is that my enthusiasm for the Reformation was qualified. I came to the conclusion that the Reformation was really wrong to judge the whole medieval church as a giant conspiracy against the laity. 

The other aspect of my conversion to the Episcopal Church is that I came to believe what some Anglicans do believe, which is in the real presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. That belief, which I share with Luther, was not at home in the Presbyterian Church at all. 

In my first years of teaching at Brown University, we found the nearest church to us was a very high-church Episcopal congregation, St. Stephen’s in Providence, RI. We instantly found a home there. When we had a personal tragedy, the liturgy carried us, and so did the care and love of the people and clergy. It just made sense for us to get confirmed at that point.

CL: What led you to pursue holy orders in the Episcopal Church? 

WS: When I was teaching, the students simply couldn’t understand why I wasn’t ordained. I kept saying, “I don’t need to be. I don’t particularly want to be. I don’t feel called to be.” They kept on asking. So I went on a series of retreats to try to see if that question was alive in me, and it was. I had a pretty clear experience of God’s call to the priesthood. I answered that call as best I could. 

CL: Thinking about today, what do you notice has changed in theological education? 

WS: I had a former colleague who said that every 500 years the church has a fire sale. I think one’s underway right now. In many respects, I am clueless about what’s going to come out of it. I do think that a couple of values need to be held onto in theological education—even or especially in remote theological education. 

One such value is community. I think that the community aspects of mutual formation, for people who are preparing for ordination and for learned lay ministries is of critical importance. Community is a given in residential theological education. I think CDSP has been working very hard on learning how to do that remotely. 

Another such value is a fundamental centeredness in the basic gospel, what we Episcopalians refer to as the Paschal mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We must continue to find our center in that central, inexplicable, but life changing mystery.

CL: What is a curiosity you’ve pursued and written about in your career? 

WS: I’ve noticed a certain embarrassment, not just in the Episcopal Church, but across the spectrum of clergy and lay people being willing to use that three letter word, “sin.“ It used to be very popular, in the centuries that I mostly studied. Now, many people seem to be allergic to the whole idea, no doubt because it’s been so badly misused by the Church. 

But there is a way in which I think the Christians really need to talk about it. For example, racism is sin. Racism is an offense against God and an offense against neighbor. I do not think it’s adequate to treat major social disorders without that category coming into play. 

I also think that, in people struggling with God, the role that is played by guilt in their lives sometimes is a block to their spiritual growth. Having an adequate understanding of sin, and above all redemption, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness in Christ—that’s just central to people making any real kind of spiritual progress. It’s only through reconciliation that we can seek new life.

Want to hear the full interview? Check out episode 29 of our Crossings Conversations podcast.