World-renowned scholar with the heart of a pastor
Grace and gratitude play a central role in the Rev. Dr. Ashley Null’s life and work. Ashley is an authority on the English Reformation – particularly the theology of Thomas Cranmer, who was the author of the first Book of Common Prayer and the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of King Henry VIII and Edward VI. Ashley also serves as a senior research fellow for the Ridley Institute and a theological consultant to the Diocese of the Carolinas, most recently giving a series of thought-provoking lectures to the clergy of the diocese. In those lectures, Ashley talked about how Cranmer’s understanding of God’s grace and mercy shaped the Communion service he composed for the first English Prayer Books (or the 1552 Book of Common Prayer).
A similar understanding – of how God’s grace, freely offered in love, sets the stage for us to acknowledge our sinfulness and repent – has shaped Ashley’s life. Although born in Birmingham, Alabama, (‘Ashley’ is a family name) he was reared in Salina, Kansas, and since his father was an Episcopalian, the Null family attended Christ Episcopal Cathedral, where the bishop of the Diocese of Western Kansas was in residence. His mother had been raised in the Baptist church (her great-great-grandfather was the first Secretary of the Southern Baptist Foreign Missions Board) but with Pentecostal influences– and all of these Christian traditions – Anglican, Evangelical and Pentecostal – played an important role in Ashley’s formation as a Christian. The Book of Common Prayer, with its liturgies and prayers rooted in Scripture, held a special appeal for him.
While in high school, Ashley was part of a large group of students involved with the Solid Rock Fellowship House, a Jesus-Movement-style outreach sponsored by the local Foursquare Church. The Solid Rock taught him the Bible and deepened his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. After college, he discerned a call to the ordained ministry and set off for the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. While at Yale his appreciation for Cranmer’s Reformation belief in the primacy of Scripture in the life of the church led him to explore ways in which to help those unfamiliar with, or skeptical about, Anglican liturgy appreciate its biblical underpinnings. Ashley was unique at Yale – a prayer book Episcopalian with an obvious love for Jesus. When it came time for Ashley to be ordained a deacon in Salina, he made sure his Pentecostal friends played a role in the service. He asked the Foursquare pastor to preach. After the service, the Cathedral canon turned to Ashley and remarked with a smile, “Well that’s probably a little more Bible than the people here are used to, but it won’t hurt them any.”
After two years serving in parish ministry at Grace Church in New York City, where he ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Fitz Allison, Ashley returned to Yale to pursue a Masters in Sacred Theology degree (STM) with a focus on the theology of repentance from an Anglican perspective. He was particularly interested in the Anglican Reformers’ notion that God’s alluring grace, offered unconditionally to fallen men and women, is what leads them to repentance – not a fear of damnation, which was a tactic used by the medieval church. This belief in the transformative power of grace was bedrock for Ashley, and it continues to occupy his thoughts and inspire his writing and teaching to this day.
Although he hoped to build upon his work at Yale by pursing an advanced degree, his bishop had other plans for him. Upon completion of his STM, Ashley was called back to Kansas to serve as interim rector of a troubled church in a little town called Liberal. Since pastoral ministry was something Ashley enjoyed immensely, both he and the church thrived during his tenure as their rector. After two years, however, he was faced with a difficult decision. His best chance at paying for a PhD was winning a Fulbright scholarship to England which in those days required an applicant to be under the age of 30. To resume his studies would mean leaving far too early a parish he had come to love. In the end, Ashley left the decision up to the award committee. When he was notified that he had been selected, he left parish ministry to study Cranmer at Cambridge University in England.
Since receiving his PhD from Cambridge, Ashley has authored several publications, including Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love (Oxford 2000). He is now in the process of editing the private theological notebooks of Thomas Cranmer, which will be published in a five-volume series by Oxford University Press. Ashley also holds a research post funded by the German Research Council at Humboldt University of Berlin, which is preparing for the 500th anniversary celebration in 2017 of the beginning of the German Reformation. In addition, he is a visiting fellow of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and St. John’s College, Durham University. And in March of this year, Ashley was installed as a Canon Theologian of St. Mark’s Pro-Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt.
Much of Ashley’s time is taken up with writing, research and teaching; yet he also continues to exercise a pastoral ministry. He has served over the years as a chaplain in educational institutions as well as in the sports arena. These days, he ministers to some most outstanding athletes and coaches, sharing the Reformation’s message of unmerited grace and humble gratitude with men who are highly performance-driven and widely acclaimed for their skills and talent. Ashley has also served three times as an Olympic Chaplain, most recently in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In addition, he is the author of a book for athletes about the power of God’s freely-offered grace entitled, Real Joy: Freedom to be Your Best (Haennsler 2004).
We are truly blessed in the diocese of the Carolinas to be able to benefit from Ashley’s scholarship and humble reflections about Thomas Cranmer, the Anglican Reformation and the alluring grace of God. The clergy of the diocese eagerly await our next opportunity to hear him speak.
Claudia Greggs is the Clergy Associate for Pastoral Care at Holy Trinity Church in Raleigh, NC.