The C of E should nurture theology

04 February 2009

The Church needs to be bold about its vital legacy of learning, argues Andrew Davison

Taking theology seriously: The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by Raphael VATICAN

Taking theology seriously: The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by Raphael VATICAN

Two examples from the world of diocesan theological education will set the scene. An academic I know, a leader in his field and a hard-working parish priest, offered to help with his cathedral’s pro­gramme of education. It came to nothing. His sugges­tions were rebuffed for being “too Christian”. Staff at the cathedral said that they prided themselves on out­reach to non-Christians, and any­thing too religious “might put them off”.

Another friend, also a parish priest, attended a course on “leader­ship devel­op­ment” organised by her diocese. It could have been training for Marks & Spencer or NatWest: it was secular management theory from beginning to end.

This approach was so entrenched that, when she voiced her concern and asked for a little more theology, she was met with scorn. The diocese, she was told, left it to individuals to “baptise” the learning of society at large. Yet this would suggest that ideas are more or less neutral, whereas they can be variously good and bad, and we need theology to judge them.

The mentality this episode illustrates does not envisage that theology should perform an incisive critique on the ideas of our time. But then this brand of accommodating liberalism has given up making the effort to judge. We can leave it to people to work things through theo­logically in their own time only if we are also committed to the ongoing task of putting that theology in place.

If you need further confirmation of a deficit of theology in the life of the Church, consider Church of England reports. The theological introduc­tion or concluding reflec­tion is usually bland. It will often set out a tapestry of quotations, and from slightly marginal figures, rather than delivering a sustained argu­ment, ex­pounding heavyweight theo­­logians. There is considerable con­fusion over what counts as an authority.

Theologically speaking, Mission-shaped Church (CHP, 2004) is the worst example by some margin. Look through the list of references at the back of this gospel for the 21st-century Church. Swaths of it read like the inventory of second-hand paper­backs in an Evangelical book­shop. The proportion of citations from definitive thinkers from the Christian tradition is minute.

This is a real problem. We are mov­ing into new, uncertain territory with a scratched-together guide. The former director of the Fresh Expres­sions movement commented per­ceptively on its website that ecclesiology — which is exactly what we need — is a “word which stops conversations more than it starts them”. He rightly pointed out that much work remains to be done before the Church will be literate in this area.

The literature of Fresh Expres­sions exemplifies something partic­ularly perplexing — a disengage­ment by Evangelicals from theology more generally. In the zealous Evan­gelical world of my undergraduate years in the early ’90s, doctrine was the staple of our conversations. But, since then, Anglican Evangelicalism has bifurcated. As the conservative and open wings grow apart, it seems that an awkward silence is being kept over diverging theological convic­tions.

Instead, there is a new emphasis on the outward life of discipleship and getting people into church, and theology is ignored or even dis­paraged. Previous generations would not have seen a tension between these options.

I single out Evangelical Anglicans not in scorn, but rather out of a sense of disappointment. They are highly significant in the current balance of the Church, and their tradition promises more.

Anglo-Catholics fare little better. For a decade, we have allowed internal, thoroughly ecclesiastical concerns to limit the range of ques­tions we address. When the current prominent generation was training at Catholic theological colleges in the 1970s, doctrine was at its lowest ebb. This was the period when the Church of England was agonising over whether it believed the Creeds. As a result, although those who are now leaders believed the faith, systematic theology figures sur­prisingly little among their interests: even for traditionalists, its place is taken by church history or spir­ituality.

This trend is replicated in the Anglican Communion as a whole. Gone is our fabled open-mindedness and confidence in the quest for truth. The issue at the heart of our current troubles — the legitimacy of homosexual relationships — has been studiously ignored as a matter for theological investigation at a global level.

Instead, we concern ourselves with procedure, with the Covenant and Instruments of Unity. The pro­cedural card also trumps theo­logy nearer to home. At one point, when the debate over the conse­cration of women bishops in the General Synod had become intractable, the bishops turned the question over to the canon lawyers. It was not a good moment for those who see bishops as teachers and exponents of the faith.

Finally, just when it would have been useful, the Doctrine Commis­sion is in abeyance. It might have offered a swift but penetrating theo­logical response to the current finan­cial crisis. Into our national debate, it could have injected a long, wise view on community, restraint, and true gain. Instead, we rely on individual bishops, or groups of bishops, mak­ing statements to newspapers.

Offering the sort of wise counsel in view here, especially in times of difficulty, is precisely what the con­stitutional position expects of the Church of England: counsel drawn from the deep wells of the tradition entrusted to us as its custodians.

The best and worst of the current situation is that these custodians abound. The good news is that there are many fine Anglican theologians who have international reputations. But then it is all the worse that we hardly use them. We have thinkers of distinction, but far too often they only indirectly influence and aid the Church. Again, we see a woeful gap between academic theology and theology in the life of the Church.

Of course, on the ground many parishes are active in theological learning and discussion. And, of course, the academic theologians I am thinking of are themselves de­vout members of these commun­ities. For all that, their sense is often one of being cut off and under­deployed. This is particularly true of lay theologians.

The Church is marginal to con­temporary intellectual life at a na­tional level, but it offers little that is more than marginally inter­est­ing.

Nothing less than a sea change will do: a return to confidence in our tradition and the sense that our theo­logy is one of our proudest boasts. It is encouraging that this sort of shift is visible among younger priests and people. Moreover, resur­gent confidence in Christian orthodoxy does not inevit­ably go hand in hand with cultural conservatism.

In the current Archbishop of Canterbury, we have a theologian at the helm, and that is making some differ­ence to the output of church committees and reports. The Liturgical Commission’s Trans­form­ing Worship (2007) has gravity. Even here, how­ever, the cold hand of bullet points and numbered para­graphs remains. We know how to present theology as if it were dull.

In training clergy and lay leaders, we need to make more of our aca­demics. In my time as a curate, the most successful days of continuing ministerial edu­cation were the ones where academics were invited in.

We should not suppose that the only ones to gain from better links with university theologians would be priests and people. The reverse is also true. At the first “Returning

to the Church” conference at St Stephen’s House last month, it was the dialogue between theologians and people from the parishes that struck me as most significant.

Re­searchers returned to their univer­sities with new questions to consider, and the needs of the contemporary Church more firmly in mind.

The Church of England has put money into new forms of mission. Many of them I find insubstantial, but I will celebrate them if they produce new, well-grounded Chris­tians. There has also been a revival of interest in liturgy. This is only to the good. The neglected sibling is theo­logy: doctrine, Christian thought, apologetics, catechesis — confid­ently presented and accessible without dilution.

This, in particular, is what young people want. I find this constantly, first in a parish and now in a uni­versity. In a parish in south-east London, it was classes to teach the faith that drew, and retained, chil­dren and teenagers. Now, in Oxford, I have seen students seize on groups to present without triviality the basics of theology.

In its own way, the success of the Alpha course suggests a similar desire to understand the Christian faith, for all that many of us might wish that it went further and adopted a different balance in its subject-matter.

A few decades ago, there was a liberal turn that led us to suppose that we could do without theology, often replacing it with social sciences. This trend is everywhere to be seen. In fact, to reconnect with the young, we should return to the tradi­tion at its most vibrant: we should go orthodox and thoughtful.

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

Details of next year’s “Returning to the Church” conference, are at www.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)