‘Christianity’s an incarnational religion, allegedly — though you’d never think so’

12 February 2016

'Christianity’s an incarnational religion, allegedly — though you’d never think so’

Theology introduced me to whole areas of thought and experience that I’d probably never otherwise have discovered: the rich resources in the lives of the saints — very broadly construed, and not necessarily “official” ones. It’s extraordinary how people have engaged with Christianity in so many different contexts and times.

 

I find it almost impossible to think through a topic without thinking about why it mattered to this or that person; so ecclesiastical history in its broadest sense has always been a major interest, though I’m anything but a professional in that area.

 

I hope I’ve learned to look and to listen in whatever place of worship I find myself, and not feel that I have to do something in order to participate.

 

Theology courses now offer a much more varied range of possibilities for study — not just a sort of curriculum suitable for the preparation of men for Protestant ordination of one sort or another. Given my inclinations, I’d welcome much more engagement with some constructive forms of broadly philosophical thinking; some attention to what is actually going on in society; and women finding their feet and their voices in what are still uncomfortable environments.

 

The impact of the British failure to be able to enjoy at least one, if not two, modern languages has inevitably had an impact on the study of ancient languages — except, much to their credit, in the case of Classics departments, many of which are flourishing.

 

Nowadays, I tend to respond to requests to write. The next commission is on Evelyn Underhill as an Anglican novelist. I write book reviews; such teaching as I do is in response to invitations to speak or give papers at clergy gatherings or for post-graduates. I also preach at All Saints’, St Andrews, and elsewhere. I’m preaching on Foundation Day at Royal Holloway [University of London]. I’m particularly interested in theology and spirituality, theology and politics, and the much neglected virtue of courage.

 

No idea whether there was a first time, as such, when I experienced God; nor would I say that I experience God directly. For years I’ve relied very much on decently conducted worship, music, and preaching in a well-ordered and preferably beautiful setting, or one which is stripped and as simple as possible. Durham — cathedral and place — means a lot to me. But it’s very important not to get too tied to a place: inevitably we sometimes do have to move.

 

Women’s contributions to theology are up and coming for those who develop a healthy sense of self-preservation; but the empirical evidence shows that, while women are well and truly present from BA through to Ph.D. levels and beyond, they aren’t moving into teaching positions. They may well rightly be sensitive to the depths of prejudice about their even studying theology, which still exist, even if they’re rarely voiced. Fortunately, they can take themselves off where there may be more hospitable niches — not necessarily ecclesiastical ones, either. If we want theology to change, we need more women there.

 

Instead of having courses in feminist theology, great books by women ought to be on standard reading lists. Books by people such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Elizabeth Johnson are parked on the margins. It won’t do. It’s inexcusable in this day and age. A lot of women ordained now have no idea about battles fought by women in the past, but they should. You have to get the books into the libraries, and then on to the reading lists; but it’s easiest to go on teaching the same old things in the same old way.

 

Men are unconscious of their own prejudices, I think. We were queuing up for tea at a certain theological college, and one man turned to me, very shocked as result of the afternoon’s session, and said he now realised that he really had thought women were inferior and incapable. He hadn't known that about himself.

 

The Church is still misogynistic in places. There is one important Australian diocese in which women are still regarded as inferior, and therefore subordinate. The Church does not seem to have made the connection between that and the fact that the commonest cause of death in women under the age of 45 in their area is domestic violence.

 

The Church should invest in residential training as a kick-start, and post-graduate studies of one kind and another — life-long learning that includes everybody. There’s a desperate shortage in liturgical and pastoral studies. Bishops often have had just three years' ordination training — what then?

 

There’s too much being busy, busy, busy with the clergy, and not delegating admin and finance to the laity. Bishops ought to be giving the lead in this. We know training is expensive, but they need two days off: one to rest, and one to get stuck into serious theological work. They need to feed their imaginations and their hearts. The job can’t be done on the basis of empty heads and empty hearts.

 

Whether anyone will be able to read an Office decently, given the cuts in theological training — and have something to say in a homily or sermon which is beyond the banalities of what can be picked up here and there — remains to be seen. I’ve long thought that, in line with dentists, medics, school staff, and so on, life-long learning (beginning with the bishops) should be a major preoccupation of any ordained person.

 

And more of the laity need to be pitching in to sustain the worship of God. It isn’t rocket science to learn how to read evening prayer, for instance. Anyone heard of matins and its great texts recently? Anyone remember shared public prayers, like the General Thanksgiving, known by heart?

 

The job of clerics is not moving around and getting the right things on their CVs. And the idea that you can pick some clergy out to be the “successes”, while everyone else is sweating their guts out preaching the gospel and doing the pastoral work, is outrageous. If you lose that connection with your primary purpose, which is to help people worship God, push off. The Church would be better off without you.

 

I lament, in particular, the dearth of ordinands in the Roman Catholic Church. Durham used to have a good programme where candidates from Ushaw and their staff came to study and work with us in the department. That probably did more for ecumenical friendships than a lot of other activities I can think of. I would like to see more of that sort of engagement. But as full-time training continues to wither away, that kind of interaction and its benefits will soon be forgotten.

 

I’d characterise traditional Anglican theology as generous, and, in the light of my previous comments, it used to set a priority on time for learning. It had an understanding of the absolute priority of worship and the adoration of God, whatever else.

 

I’ve tried to encourage my students to look widely for resources for reflection and illustration: novels, poetry, politics, how people use and develop emotional intelligence. I wanted them to have a generally omnivorous interest in whatever turns up under their noses, and cheerfully to get their hands mucky.

 

I love the sound of my spaniel happily wagging his tail, and tapping it like a drum-beat on the floor.

 

What made me angry last — and all the time — is the lamentable treatment of unaccompanied minors who reach the UK, though the Scottish Parliament has passed legislation that should help them. I’m angry about the detention of asylum-seekers, or whomsoever, for indefensible lengths of time rather than their being given some form of resident status, which would enable them to get out and make a life for themselves, and be integrated into a community.

 

I’m happiest when I’m watching crackingly good classical ballet or contemporary dance in a theatre. I did a lot of dance to keep me sane, and when you can’t do it any more, you need to see it. I still teach advanced dancers in Newcastle three days a week, except in winter, and I do some choreography. Big voice, very tall, so I’m no good with children — I expect too much of them; but the advanced ones know what I expect of them, and we get on. I’m keen to give them a pure style, though it’s important to be wide-ranging.

 

Christianity’s an incarnational religion, allegedly — though you’d never think so. Theology has been dominated by a certain intellectual kind of male, but the one thing they don’t know about is performing. They don’t even preach any more.

 

You need everything you’ve got if you want to stay alive, and have a faith, and communicate it — it has to connect — it has to latch on, in whatever talent you have.

 

It’s very difficult to select the greatest influences on my life, but I had some stunningly good teachers, such as Alec Whitehouse, my Durham tutor, who left some 50 years ago to found the religious-studies programme at the University of Kent. I was also taught by Charles Cranfield, one of the greatest biblical exegetes ever. Both of them were great preachers. The former Durham vice-chancellor, Evelyn Ebsworth, ensured that I became the first woman in the history of the university to get a personal chair, and who must have been the person who put me up for a CBE for services to theology.

 

I pray most for the end of the scourge of war.

 

If I found myself locked in church with someone, I’d like it to be Carl Safina, a marvellous writer about animals.

 

Ann Loades is Professor Emerita in Divinity, University of Durham; Honorary Professor of Divinity, University of St Andrews; and Lay Canon Emerita, Durham Cathedral. She was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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