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It’s time to build on the new hopes for theology

01 April 2009

Signs of renewed theological vigour in the Church should be developed, using fresh means, says Andrew Davison

I AM now definitively in my mid-30s; so I was pleased to hear that I am still officially “young”, at least as far as the Church of England is concerned. There was a meeting of “young priest theologians” at Lambeth Palace last week. To fit its criteria, I had only to be under 40.

The meeting was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s idea, and was put together by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge. I am glad to be con­sidered young, but the other part of the title is also cheering. Many readers will be pleased that the C of E is encouraging “priest theologians”, young or otherwise.

I know this because of the many enthusiastic responses I received after my article “The Church of England should nurture theology” (Comment, 6 February). Letters and emails came from laymen and -women, parish priests, professors of theology, and bishops. The idea that the Church of England has back-pedalled on theo­logy for too long seems to have struck a chord.

IF THAT sounded a gloomy note, now I have good news. The day at Lam­beth Palace is a reminder of the strong, thoroughly Anglican, tradi­tion of the scholar-priest. A highlight of the day was a paper from the Revd Professor Sarah Coakley. She has recently returned to Britain after 15 years in the United States, and she told us that her time abroad has given her an outsider’s eyes. What she sees is an en­couragement to us all: the sense that Britain is “on the cusp of a turn back to religion”.

If this is true, then we have to think of ways to meet it. Professor Coakley stressed two important resources. The first is the parish system and our commitment to staying in difficult places. The second is a renewed and growing “theological vigour”, especially among younger clergy. She quoted the distinguished American Roman Catholic theo­logian David Tracy as saying that all the most interesting theo­logians of this generation are Anglicans. It is an exaggeration for emphasis, no doubt, but quite a compliment none the less.

The incumbent- (or curate-) theo­logian is particularly well placed to make something of these two strengths: the parish and our theological tradition. The Lam­beth meeting signals a determination on the part of the Church to support those with this dual vocation, as Dr Inge called it.

NEITHER the meeting in general, nor Professor Coakley’s comments in particular, should be taken as a cause for complacency. They are a call to action. Our scholar-priests are a great asset. It is good that 100 could be found under 40, and there are no doubt others who could not make it or who were overlooked this time.

Yet, if we want to see a revival of theology in the parishes, it will be the work of parishioners as much as the clergy. Studying theology works well in small groups. They foster the sort of friendly and open discussion where people can work on the im­plica­tions of Christian ideas alongside their meaning.

It helps groups to have leaders who are confident of the material, for all that, there should always be a sense of learning together. For this we need a church culture in which many teach and are taught, providing well-trained, well-resourced leaders.

There are part-time university courses, but we should not overlook diocesan programmes, many of which are excellent. For instance, there was a diocesan certificate in South­wark when I was a curate, offering a strong introduction to the Old and New Testaments, ethics, doctrine, spirituality, and liturgy.

IT IS also important for us to think about new methods for teaching and disseminating theology. The old-fashioned vehicles remain full of life, and can be highly successful when they are done well. In the past week, I have heard of standing-room-only lec­tures at St Albans Cathedral, and study groups instantly oversubscribed at the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Bristol. We need more of these initiatives.

Still, there are plenty of people left cold by these styles of learning. Three suggestions that occur to me are short booklets, podcasts, and brief online videos.

One task is to reach Christians who are not enthusiastic readers. They would be put off by a full-length “Christian book”, but would pick up a booklet or tract from the back of church. To see how this might work, look at the literature rack at the back of the next Roman Catholic parish church you visit.

I have recently discovered the podcast. When I walk into the centre of Oxford, it may well be that I should concentrate on the birdsong, but I do not. I catch up with broadcasts from Radio 3, about books, films, and Am­er­ican politics on the “slate.com cultural gabfest”. There are people who might fill idle moments with a little doctrine, or a discussion of this week’s lectionary readings.

There is also YouTube, the video-sharing website, which for many is a favourite filler of work tea-breaks. With a data projector, these videos can be used in group teaching and discussion. Already there is a growing collection of addresses by the Arch­bishop of Canterbury. I heard this week of a parish study group where Alister McGrath’s responses to Richard Dawkins have gone down well. The important thing is that the production values are high, and this requires money.

Supporting young priest theo­logians is a terrific development. I hope it indicates a return to teaching in the Church. It will be nothing, though, without full lay involve­ment. An exploration of new media would also be useful — a fresh expression of theology.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College.

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