Last year was both exhilarating and painful for the Rev. Andrew Teal, an Oxford University theologian and Anglican priest and visiting lecturer at Brigham Young University. He moved to Provo for fall semester with high hopes and plans to research a book framing Joseph Smith as an outcast. That was before the Rev. Teal walked barefoot onto a patio in the Utah summer, not realizing the surface was covered with heat-reflective panels. He burned his feet so severely that he had to spend nearly a month in the burn unit at the University of Utah Hospital before convalescing back home in the United Kingdom, where Deseret found him preparing for a nine-hour, major reconstructive foot surgery.
The Rev. Teal, 57, had accepted an invitation to visit BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship as an affiliate scholar at the behest of his close friend, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The two had met through Elder Holland’s son Matthew, who’d done a sabbatical at Oxford’s Pembroke College, where the Rev. Teal is a chaplain and lecturer.
Both men have described an immediate and enduring kinship, each taking a turn lecturing in the other’s home country. While “not quite a job swap,” the Rev. Teal jokes, “when I was in Utah, he was here in my chapel, which is quite funny.”
Asked to describe himself, the Rev. Teal hints at the contradiction of appearing learned while sometimes feeling inadequate. Mostly, he says, he is a person “worthy of love because God loves me.” He notes rich and joyous relationships with his wife and children and friends and colleagues, but also with many others, some unexpected. “I know some of the world’s great academics, but also fantastic people who are cleaners and cooks, and I have been blessed by a vision of what it is to be a human being in a network of relationships.”
After a long day of teaching, he talked about finding blessings in unexpected events and the importance of building community.
Deseret News: Your injury sounds horrendous. How is your recovery going?
The Rev. Andrew Teal: I have a major operation coming, with muscle tissue taken from my thigh being attached over amputated toes onto the top of the foot, because there’s very little flesh there. They will use microsurgery to attach capillaries that are half a millimeter thick, and how on earth they do that I can’t even think. I am absolutely awe-inspired by the fact that people are willing to invest their time, expertise and energy into something as modest as my feet.
DN: Did you find any lessons in the experience?
AT: I learned how proud I am and how unhappy I am being dependent on others. When you cannot put a foot on the floor and you need other people to do everything for you in intimate ways you wouldn’t want, it’s difficult. They treated me with such dignity at the hospital. It was incredibly humbling, rather than humiliating, which is how I imagined it would be. In the middle of the night, nurses and doctors would talk to me — lapsed Catholics and Methodists and Latter-day Saints, practicing Christians of various denominations — about their difficulties with faith. I found what Paul says in 1 Corinthians to be true: It is when we are weak that not only are we strong, but God is strong. I don’t think I would have had this experience if I’d have been simply researching and doing lectures. I glimpsed the mystery of human beings. It’s in the small, unexpected things that we find the biggest truths about who we are.
DN: What was your experience with Americans?
AT: Perhaps this is because I was in the West, but people there are incredibly hospitable and so generous. After intensive care, a friend put me up in a house. Others not only invited me out to eat, which was wonderful, but kept bringing me food. It was extraordinary. And it made me realize that it’s an act of grace not only to receive, but to allow other people to give. You have to allow people the human dignity of giving and blessing others.
DN: You’ve lectured on building community, which seems very hard in this country right now.
AT: That’s not just an American thing. It’s part of the spirit of the age, where we don’t listen or relate to people with respect for who they are. We almost enjoy finding reasons to cancel them. It’s such an annoying phrase, but I think it’s quite true. We cancel people out rather than listen to them, rather than engage and find in that encounter something beautiful that is happening, that takes us out of ourselves. Instead, we get so brittle, so defensive, so angry, that we want to shut other people up. We don’t love people because we agree with them. We love them because they’re people. And that’s important to practice, rather than digging ourselves into our own prejudices.
DN: What are the benefits of a community?
AT: It is only by committing to community that we ourselves can grow. We don’t thrive in a hostile environment where we just attack other people all the time. If you’re accusing somebody else of something, it shows that you’re not at home with the mystery and the complexity of who we are, of who I am. That I’ve done wrong and I’ve said things which are unkind. Yet there’s the grace of repentance to start again by being in community. Together we can build a place where love can flourish, with networks of security and truth and forgiveness. You don’t find forgiveness in cancel culture at all. You find condemnation. So building community also means saying yes to things that we don’t yet know. If we’re cynical and want to undermine other people, then we’re never going to grow. And we’re also going to be so bitter. We’re going to be torn apart by resentment and unkindness.
DN: Were you surprised by the relationships you built in Utah?
AT: Outsiders often think that American culture is highly individualistic. “It’s all about me.” In Utah, I found it was the opposite. I found that people were industrious together and went out of their way to understand and to connect. It was a real challenge to those perceptions.
DN: In the U.S., church attendance is down and people seem less connected to faith institutions. Do you see that elsewhere?
AT: In a sense, you’re a bit behind Europe on that. After the First World War — we’re talking 1918 — churches in England took a big hit because a whole generation of young men had been lost and there were questions about the goodness of God. After the Second World War, it was a bit different. There was quite a religious revival in the 1950s in England, and churches became quite important in society again after the horrors of that war and its impact on families. But by the 1960s, families were beginning to fragment and the power of churches and their presence in society was diminishing quite significantly. The most highly attended church in the U.K. today is the Roman Catholic Church, but that’s partly because of immigration. There are very few homegrown Catholic priests now. Most are from abroad. The Catholic Church in Ireland has more or less collapsed, as it has in Spain. Although something like 46 percent of people would identify themselves as Church of England, attendance is tiny. I think it’s less than 2 percent of the population.
DN: What drew you to your vocation?
AT: This is intensely personal. I grew up with my grandparents, who were the stability in my family. My mother, who died last year, got pregnant when she was 16. So she married my father, even though they were both young teenagers and not mature enough. My mum lost that child running for a bus. Then I came along. By the time I was born, effectively they were split up. My mum was like my big sister. And my grandparents were extraordinary, on both sides, paternal and maternal grandparents. So in essence, my context was always a generation older.
When I was 13, my grandmother died. And I found all of the people at school were incredibly kind. School kids can be anything but, but they weren’t. I found a letter. I shouldn’t have looked at it, but the head teacher had written to my grandfather, a beautiful letter of condolence, adding that they’d keep an extra special eye on me. We were reading the Gospel of St. Mark at the time in religious studies, and I remember thinking, why does it take somebody’s death to make people more human?
Suddenly things began to make sense to me. It was a testimony of the love of God to a child who was in bereavement. Thanks to the ministry of one or two people at that time, I realized that I had an obligation to live a life of love. That’s when I thought, perhaps the best way I can give and contribute to the world would be in public ministry. I didn’t catch it from a Christian community. It wasn’t from going to church. It was from something that happened inside.
DN: Any last words?
AT: You can never do anything or be anything that will make God love you any less. He is love. He can’t do anything other than what he is. His only desire is for every human being to flourish. If this has been a bad week, or if you feel that your life has dealt you more blows than hugs, keep on keeping on, because the dignity and importance of a human being is never dispensable. You’re never worthless. And feeling worthless itself can prompt us to reach out in empathy to other people, and to understand other people’s pain, rather than crumble.
If you have the opportunity to say, I’m sorry, I got that wrong and build somebody else up, do. The mystery, the strange thing is that will build us up more than anything that we can accomplish or acquire. Never give up on the mercy of God. Never give up knowing that you can be a light to somebody else, without you knowing it, just by being who you are.