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Is the C of E suffering from the neglect of rigorous theology?

18 February 2009


From the Revd Jonathan Clatworthy

Sir, — With one exception, the excellent article by the Revd Dr Andrew Davison (Comment, 6 Feb­ruary) ought to set the tone for the Church’s future. Without sustained theology in the courses offered to clergy and congregations, we have less and less to offer.

And we could not have chosen a worse time to dumb down. For three centuries, atheism seemed on the increase. Now, increasingly, people are realising that secular culture can offer neither eternal values nor any purpose for our lives. The main beneficiaries are Buddhism, Islam and New Ageism.

Why not Christianity? When spiritual seekers enquire about it, they too often find us uninterested in the nature of God or the value of Christian beliefs. We too often treat mission as mere techniques of man­ipulation to get people into church, judging success in terms of congre­ga­tions and buildings as though parish clergy were nothing but club managers.

At an international level, the Primates struggle to keep the Com­munion together while virtually abandoning informed debate on the theological legitimacy of gay sexual­ity and women bishops. Dr Davison has hit the nail on the head.

Unfortunately, he uses the word “liberal” — twice! — to refer to people who are not interested in theology. Has he not heard of liberal theology? And how can we achieve the “sea change” he wants without it? If “Gone is our fabled open-mindenness and confidence in the quest for truth,” is this not precisely because so much of Church dis­course today is overtly illiberal?

Many have seized on the post­modern argument that choosing which tradition to belong to is a non-rational process; so conservative Evangelicalism and Radical Ortho­doxy alike trumpet their version of Christianity as a hermetically sealed package to be accepted as it is, without open-minded examination.

If they were right, then spiritual seekers would also be right to turn up their noses at a Christianity that has nothing to offer them.

The fortunes of the Church will not be revived until we re-establish that liberalism which allows each and all to express their opinions, publicly and rationally, without fear of discrimination, listen to those who disagree, and change their minds when confronted with new argu­ments and evidence.

It is a liberal principle that, as Henry McAdoo wrote in his classic work, “Anglicanism is not committed to believing anything because it is Anglican but only because it is true.” This is how the sciences progress, and the only way the Church ever can. We need more, not less, liberal theology.

General Secretary
Modern Churchpeople’s Union
9 Westward View
Liverpool L17 7EE

From Dr John Williams

Sir, — The title of the Revd Dr Andrew Davison’s article “The C of E should nurture theology” makes a pertinent proposal. Much of Dr Davison’s critique of the weak­ness, or complete absence, of theology in the Church’s public presentation of itself today is to be applauded. Some aspects, however, of his approach to nurturing a theologically literate and articulate church community seem to me misguided.

Dr Davison appears to hold to a view of theology as reigning supreme as the “Queen of the Sciences”, an all-sufficient repository of truth that needs only to be opened up and disseminated in order for the grate­ful world to benefit. He is disparag­ing about “secular management theory” and “the social sciences” seen as some kind of “replacement” for theology. Ideas from secular sources, he thinks, may be good or bad, but “we need theology to judge them.”

Yet much theology today is done, and has to be done, in dialogue with many conversation partners across the disciplines, and it is in the critical engagement and encounter between Christian tradition and the practical and cultural context that the most creative theological insights can occur. In these, of course, not only can the context be illuminated by theology, but also the theological tradition itself may be challenged and reconceptualised under critical scrutiny from the other disciplines.

What Dr Davison has to say about the methods for developing the learning Church that he and I both want to see seems to disregard en­tirely this praxis model of theology. He writes about “resurgent con­fidence in Chris­tian orthodoxy” and theology “con­fid­ently presented”, and commends “classes to teach the faith”. We should be “orthodox and thoughtful”.

But theology is not just a body of orthodoxy (however rich and pro­found) to be taught with confidence: it is the fruit of critical reflection on faithful contextual practice, and as such it can never rest at the point of just “confident presentation”. There is a crying need for Christians who can stand in a relation of critical faithfulness towards the tradition, engaging in their discipleship as reflective practice.

In this, good theology is both the root and the fruit, both a rich resource to fund reflection, and the creative outcome of it. “The C of E should nurture theology” indeed — not in a way that delivers it top-down and neat, but through a critical praxis that takes the risk of genuine dialogue.

Senior Lecturer in Theology and
Ministry, York St John University
23 Walmer Carr, Wigginton
York YO32 2SX

From the Revd Sarah Cawdell

Sir, — I was pleased to read the Revd Dr Andrew Davison’s plea for theology, and would amplify what he has said there. I am fortunate enough to be a member of the Society for the Study of Theology, a wonderful collection of practitioners and academics, brought together by the late Daniel Hardy, and Professor David Ford. It gathers annually around the feast of Easter to talk and think theologically, and is a rare place where theology is taken seriously among those in ministry.

It is a matter for sorrow that this does not include many who form policy at diocesan and senior levels. So a request for some theology in a document may mean that I am pointed to a passing reference to scripture, almost invariably a text or two from the New Testament.

Better continuous conversation of theology can only lead to better practice of the Christian faith, and, where the two are developed side by side, there is hope for the Kingdom of God. I still refer back from time to time to John V. Taylor’s letters to the diocese of Winchester, a continua­tion of his famous CMS newsletters, where he addressed ordinary issues with acute theological insight, and encouragement in Christian discipleship.

It came as some relief to discover Dr Alan Smith’s contribution to the Mission-Shaped debate, where the issue is at least tackled head-on, and addressed in his own way. I would urge other senior staff to encourage and promote the development of theology wherever possible rather than dismiss the study as a distraction from the real work.

Hereford Diocesan CME Officer
The Vicarage, Lodge Park
Claverley WV5 7DP

From the Revd Ted Longman

Sir, — I have got to know two recent school-leavers, both from poor family backgrounds. The only serious question that they have, quite independently, asked me is “Where do you think we come from?” How would readers answer them? Isn’t that where theology begins? And how well-equipped are we in these Darwin-fuelled times?

Where do astronomy, anthro­pology, and all the other “-ologies” meet the Queen of Sciences, theology? In my training (more than 50 years ago), I was advised to know about astronomy and psychology, the two poles round which all knowledge revolves (the poles may be further apart today). Where is systematic theology on today’s map?

5 Old Wells Road
Shepton Mallet

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