What would it mean to place theology above all?

26 January 2011

The Church needs to prioritise basic doctrine above its organisation and place in society, says Richard Cheetham

MORE than half of British people say they have “No religion,” the respected British Social Attitudes Survey reported last month. Among young people, the trend is even more marked. The authors of The Faith of Generation Y (Church House Pub­lishing, 2010), say that religion is largely irrelevant to most of those aged 18-30 (News, 8 October 2010). The way that Churches respond to this situation is absolutely central to the future of the Christian faith in our country.

The crucial factor, for me, is expressing what Christians actually believe, in a manner that can relate to our 21st-century context. If people see Christianity as believing, Alice in Wonderland-style, “six impossible things before breakfast”, then no wonder they are not signing up in droves.

Look at the amount of contem­porary humour that ridicules many Christian beliefs (albeit often carica­tures of them), or at the onslaught of the “new atheists” and the popularity of their books. There is a desperate need to present the core of the Chris­tian faith in an engaging way. To adapt a phrase from Bill Clinton, when he was trying to focus on the issue he believed was central: “It’s the theology, stupid.”

The irony is that there is so much high-quality theology being done in all sorts of places. Yet, all too often, this does not transfer in an accessible way into mainstream church life, the media, or the wider world. Many of the Church’s responses to the rising tide of indifference and secularisation have played down this vital part of the Christian faith itself.

Both liberals and Evangelicals have been overly absorbed by gay issues and women bishops. These are im­por­tant, but there does not seem to be anywhere near the same level of energy going into fundamental theo­logical questions about the validity of our basic Christian language about God, Jesus Christ, and what it means for today.


Some are focusing on Fresh Expressions of Church, or the right to express Christian beliefs in the public square, such as in the Not Ashamed campaign led by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey (News, 3 December; Comment, 17 December). Even worse are the inordinate amounts of time spent by good Christian people, not least bishops, on the internal organisation of the Church.

None of these things is bad in itself: it is just that we have got the balance wildly wrong if we are to engage seriously with the current reality of the place of the faith in our society.

IF WE took seriously the maxim “It’s the theology, stupid,” then church life would look rather different. It would involve both clergy and lay people’s spending far more time exploring what basic Christian belief means, and how we articulate this in the wider world.

To do this effectively, we need far more courses on Christian basics — not in a pre-packaged theology style, but in a way that genuinely engages with people’s experience. Christian adult education needs to become normative, not just for the keen ones.

For some years, I have run a session in parishes called “So what do we really believe?” If people are en­couraged, especially in small groups, to share both those elements of faith that resonate for them and aspects that they find difficult, then fruitful conversations — which invariably enrich faith — usually follow. It is vital to create an ambience in which people can explore honest questions.

PCCs might undertake an audit on where and how theological education is done in the parish. Deaneries, diocesan missioners, or canon theo­logians could produce more materials to share ideas and good practice. In Southwark, for example, the Mission Theologian has compiled a leaflet suggesting “24 possible ways of en­gaging with the Bible in 2011”.

For those who are not connected to the Churches, there is a real task of making God possible — to quote the title of a recent book by Alan Billings (SPCK, 2010). This means engage­ment with science on the questions how a theistic view of the world, and how God acts in the world, can be related to a scientific viewpoint that emphasises empirical evidence and reason. It also involves promoting high-quality religious education in schools.

We must also debate openly with those of other faiths about how differ­ent perspectives on God can interact. Interfaith conversations are not an optional extra for enthusiasts, but are central to Christian mission in our times.


If your church has a mosque, temple, gurdwara, or synagogue near by, why not build a relationship? Some already do. For example, the Christian Muslim Forum has pro­duced an excellent booklet on how to promote better links between churches and mosques (www.chris­tianmuslimforum.org).

Part of that sharing can be the honest telling of our own story of faith — and listening to others tell theirs. This process makes us think through what we believe at a much deeper level.

FOR many who attend church, there is a real need for proper exploration of what that faith means, and how it is to be understood and lived.

One of the dangers in a plural world, in which Christianity is seen as only one among many world-views, is that we can think the only faith worthy of the name is one that pro­claims itself with certainty on every point, and brooks no opposition. We need a much more nuanced ap­proach, which identifies the basics — God’s transforming love made known in Christ — as the deepest reality, but is content with more agnosticism on other issues.

I believe that any Christian faith worth having and sharing can stand up to the deepest probing. If it cannot be related to our experience of life, it rapidly loses its power. Doctrine matters.

We should not fall into the trap of thinking that we don’t do theology because it might seem abstract and irrelevant. Quite the opposite: if Christian faith is to be engaging, we must, at every level of church life, do theology.

Dr Richard Cheetham is the Bishop of Kingston in Southwark diocese.

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