Titled, Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in honor of Joseph D. Small III, it was edited by Barry Ensign-George, Chip Andrus, Sheldon Sorge, and Charles Wiley, four colleagues who have served with Small through the years in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Theology and Worship, which Small directs.
Wiley, presently coordinator for the office, introduced the book saying, “Joe has been for us a boss, a spiritual mentor, and intellectual foil, a musical guide, a political controversialist, and a friend. We knew that the best way to pay tribute to him was to produce something that wasn’t ‘about’ Joe, but something that carried forward his vision of ecclesial theology.”
Reflecting the humor that has often has play in the office, Wiley prefaced his comments by sharing early conversations leading to the project. “One suggested a Life of Joe Small Flannelgraph set, suitable for a special gift at holidays. But the marketing folks in Congregational Ministries Publishing did not believe there was much of a market.”
The book includes an introduction by the editors, a forward by retiring stated clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, essays by Barbara Wheeler, Darrell Guder, Michael Lindvall, Leann van Dyk, Ellen Charry, John Burgess, Martha Moore-Keish, Paul Galbreath, Douglass John Hall, Alan Falconer, and Barry Cytron and it closes with an afterword by Valerie Small, the honoree’s wife.
Attendees at the surprise event included Burgess, a former colleague in the office and now the Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Seminary who contributed the essay, “Learning from the Orthodox about the Eucharist: Praying the Faith Makes for Thinking and Living the Faith.” Wiley introduced Burgess, wryly commenting that his essay also has the longest title in the book.
Burgess highlighted Small’s achievements as author, organizer of church-wide theology conferences, developer of programs that support pastors in their theological vocation, preaching and lecturing in conferences and church events, serving on ecumenical consultations for major ecumenical bodies. He added that whenever a staff member like himself would leave the Office of Theology and Worship, “Joe would inevitably find someone better to take their place.”
Burgess reflected, “Joe has a deep conviction that the church can only be the church when it lives with a sense of the whole of the faith. That is why for Joe theology is so important for the church. Theology at its best helps to move us beyond our inherent provincialism, away from our selfish selves, and instead to catch a glimpse of the wondrous whole of things that for Christians is faith in God and of God.”
Burgess added, “That is also why for Joe worship must lie at the heart of the church’s life. Worship that is theologically responsible draws us heart, soul and mind out of a life of endless fragmentation. Worship gives us broad horizons. It sets us free to find our part in the whole that is God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps most noteworthy among Small’s achievements has been the development of theological papers that have helped the PC(USA) find consensus agreement to settle major disputes. “Is Christ Divided” and “Our Hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ” were welcomed and approved overwhelmingly by General Assemblies. These works, according to Burgess, were made possible by Small’s unusual ability to pull things together. “This sense of the whole has saved Joe from partisan politics in the church and has him always asking, instead: How will we think together? How will we worship together? How will we live together? I think this is also why Joe loves poetry and music and chooses his words carefully: he has a sense of the whole as he thinks and prays and acts.”
After hearing such expressions of honor, Small requested that his tombstone state, “He hired well.”
On a more serious note, he reflected on how, as a senior at Brown University, already accepted into law school at the University of Virginia, he took a “puff” religion course just to finish out his studies there. A non-believer, he was captivated by the class, and Professor Wendell Dietrich urged him to spend a year doing theological studies before moving on to law school. He took up the idea and enrolled in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he came under the influence of “an incredible faculty.” He added, with a broad smile, “I was one of those who found the faith in seminary, not one of those who lost it.”
The event closed with the singing of a hymn written by David Gambrell written for the occasion: “God our Life, our hope our Praise,” subtitled “with thanksgiving to God for the ministry of Joseph D. Small.”