Ecclesiology and Ethnography
Pete Ward, editor
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THIS is a collection of
essays by theologians from both sides of the Atlantic, alongside
empirical researchers from Action Research - Church and Society in
Britain. It is the first book of a new initiative to encourage
co-operation between theology and the social sciences in the study
of the Church, and marks an important turn in contemporary
The theologians are mainly
in applied theology, but, with the exception of Luke Bretherton,
who is also a political scientist (writing here about the London
Citizens initiative), they largely confine themselves to
philosophical assessments of the methodologies of social science
without having direct experience of them. The abstraction of the
viewpoint has drawbacks: the view of social science as predictive,
repeated in several of these essays, will astound most sociologists
Several contributors worry
about the Enlightenment perspective of the social sciences and the
secular epistemology that it entails, and conclude that Christian
theology cannot simply be shoehorned into ethnographic research.
John Swinton wryly notes that hospital chaplains must rigidly
exclude a theological perspective if they plan to publish their
research in peer-reviewed social-science journals. Nor can separate
theological reflection on "secular" ethnographies bridge the gulf
between their incompatible epistemologies and purposes.
The best of the essays
recognise that the positivistic model of pure "objectivity" in the
human sciences is no longer the privileged paradigm, not
only because observers cannot abstract themselves from the matrix
that supplies their subject-matter, but because the human sciences
have to tangle with meaning and motivation, and do so crucially
through a tool, language, which is not a neutral medium, but part
of what it seeks to describe, explain, and re-present.
This chronic dilemma of
"scientific method" has the merit of opening up a justification for
an explicitly theological stance by ethnographers of the Church as
no different in kind from any other "situated" perspective.
From the other side,
theologians have become critical of conceptions of "church" and
"community" that are derived from dogmatic and textual sources and
take no account of how Christians actually worship and congregate.
I would add that the ecclesiology of cosmic optimists such as
Stanley Hauerwas often sits ill with realist models of social
processes, which, as David Martin once remarked, tend to look like
"the documentation of original sin".
In common with
anthropologists and sociologists of religion, theologians have also
become sensitised to the embodied nature of worship and are keen to
bring the body into their analyses. The emphasis on place and
history - essential to good ethnography - has been independently
rediscovered by theologians troubled by a hiatus in their own
discourse between ideal and actual "Christian communities".
There is, then, a measure of
convergence between the two sides which may provide a slipway into
cross-disciplinary conversation. Several contributors, including
Alister McGrath and Elizabeth Phillips, point out that there is no
technical formula for good observation beyond being clear about the
objective of the research, and paying close attention after
considering carefully where it should be concentrated.
The most insightful essays
here do just that, seamlessly integrating theological and
ethnographic purposes - above all, Mary McClintock Fulkerson's
subtle and self-aware account of an American multi-racial
congregation attended by a large number of disabled worshippers. It
can be done.
Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the
University of London.