Maggi Dawn: a woman for all seasons

By Ray Waddle, Editor, "Reflections" magazine

Maggi Dawn discovered guitar at age 5, painting at 6, her singing voice at 7, church at 11 and theology at 14. Ever since, she's been crafting a work of art out of a multifaceted vocation and careera life of professional music, theology, liturgy, teaching, and writing.

Maggi DawnNow she's doing it all under one roof, Yale Divinity School, as associate dean of Marquand Chapel and associate professor of theology and literature.

"For the first time I feel all those strands have come together in one place where I'm employed to do them all," says Dawn, who arrived here last summer from a chaplaincy position at the University of Cambridge in her native England.

"Seeing YDS's commitment to theological education and to the development of the arts, through the Institute for Sacred Music, is a most exciting thing. What could be more joyful?"

Her unusual sensibility and experienceshe was a celebrated British singer-songwriter before her ordination as an Anglican priestgive her a keen interest in bridge building between church and culture.

Her aim has long been to help a public wary of worship to find experiences of grace, healing and faith. She writes worship songs that reject the clichés of the genre. She has designed worship services in close proximity to art galleries, coffee houses or cinemas, ways of welcoming people into the gospel experience in unexpected ways. At Marquand she oversees a busy schedule of daily worship experiences that are open to world-music innovation, liturgical diversity, inclusive or expansive language, and respectful of traditions too.

"In the church the mindset is often, ‘We're already doing this the right way; people should just come to us,' " Dawn says.

"But there's another way to look at it: People aren't coming to church; we need to take it to them. Reverse the flow. Open the doors so the grace flows out and people flow in. People unfamiliar with church don't know what goes on behind the closed doors, and they don't know what would happen to them if they went. They don't want to be bored or patronized. We need to get the doors open, both metaphorically and literally."

Dawn's twin passions, the arts and Christian faith, have never been far apart. She first put her hands on a guitar in elementary school, age 5. It was a magic moment, she says, and she was soon taking private lessons. (She was already taking piano.)

"I don't remember much of my life when I wasn't singing or playing just for the joy of it," she says. She joined a band by age 14, inspired by the music of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, the Indigo Girls, James Taylor. She would become known as the English Suzanne Vega, a writer of folk songs, sharp lyrics and distinctive sonic textures.

Lurking around this unfolding career was her own unfolding faith.

In middle school she met the idea that church was a part of real life: "I encountered a group of young people who talked not just about religion but about Jesus as if he were relevant to everyday life."

By high school, she became deeply interested in theology in addition to her music and art. A key influence was her involvement in an English evangelical movement that was both pietistic and liberal, shaped by 19th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. There she learned the power of narrative storytelling and experiential worship as ways to convey the gospel.

"The minister did narrative preaching. He was well versed in biblical criticism, but he could sketch impressions of what was going on behind the scenes. Such preaching can help you climb into the experience of the gospel stories, the meaning of the bread and wine, the loaves and fishes. I felt I was in the boat with Jesus, getting my feet wet."

Faith and theology became central passions, but Dawn continued to pursue a music career because there wasn't much room for women in ministry.

Nevertheless, her artistic focus on religion was never out of the picture. Impatient with the theological clichés or outdated language of much contemporary church music, she took up the challenge of writing her own. As time went on, she was asked regularly for new songs by churches, or for church festivals or BBC programming.

"I wanted to make worship music, but I was bothered by the language of so much contemporary musicGod as exclusively male, all those feudal and patriarchal images, all the jargon."

A record she released in 1996, Elements, explores other biblical images of Godborrowed from the elements of earth, wind, fire and water.

"We live with a choice," she writes in the Elements CD liner notes. "We may opt for the safety of spiritual certainties, limiting the risk factors and never having too much of a spiritual crisis. Or we may go closer to the edge, and let our faith be turned upside down for the sake of a clearer revelation of God. But the revelation, in my experience, is of a bigger, kinder, more liberating God than I ever imagined possible. This God is truly a rock in a storm, a warm breath on a frozen heart. So—

Elements is my latest experiment in framing answers to the big questions: Who is God? What is God like?"

Meanwhile, Dawn had turned theological education into a serious formal pursuit, earning a Ph.D. in theology at Cambridge. And by 1999, after the Church of England had changed its policy and welcomed women as priests, she became ordained herself. The next dozen years found her, in England, doing college chaplaincy work, teaching theology, writing music and crafting innovative worship experiences. She was writing books, too. Recent publications include The Accidental Pilgrim: New Journeys on Ancient Pathways (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) and The Writing on the Wall:High Art, Popular Culture and the Bible (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011). See her blog at maggidawn.com/.

A sense of mission about making worship an occasion of grace and hospitality animates her work at YDS. At Marquand she has guided services that try to overcome stubborn conflicts about God-language, the familiar inclusive-versus-traditional debate. She seeks a liturgical middle way that avoids the factionalism that can be stirred by the fiercest claims of particular traditions, but also rejects the blandness of homogenized expression that challenges no one.

"I encourage people to bring flavors and particularities of various traditions, but to offer them as a gift in the spirit of hospitality," she says.

Maggi Dawn continues to pursue a calling that has gripped her since her young school days—the art of interpreting church and world to each other and discovering divine abundant grace in the endeavor.

"I've learned you can have as much of God as you can possibly want and still there's more."


Date Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 11:45pm