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Opinion >

The theology behind Renewal and Reform

The programme rests on solid foundations, rooted in scripture and tradition, says Jeremy Worthen

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“WHERE is the theology?” is a question that has been levelled at the Church of England’s Renewal and Reform programme. It appears to some that we are being asked to embrace some potentially far-reaching changes, with associated long-term consequences that are not easy to predict, but that no one has sat down and thought all this through theologically. The homework has not been done.

I would like to argue that the Renewal and Reform programme both rests on some substantial theological foundations and makes a significant theological judgment, with roots that go deep into the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition. Moreover, this theology connects with practical matters such as diocesan funding formulas and clerical training programmes.

The importance of the choice of the words “renewal” and “reform” to be the title of the programme should not be underestimated. These two words have a long history in Christian theology, which their secular co-option in contemporary culture should not obscure. It is not an entirely straightforward or simple history, but the roots stretch back to the New Testament itself via early Latin translations, where the verb “reformare” was sometimes used for Greek words normally rendered in English by “transform”, as at Romans 12.2; 2 Corinthians 3.18; and Philippians 3.21.

As with references to “renewal” in the New Testament, these Greek terms could mean both reversal to an original state, and change towards something new. It has been argued that holding those two senses together in creative tension, in particular with regard to the term “reform”, was a highly significant development in Christianity that was without direct parallel in the ancient world.

One of the underlying reasons for that is that in their New Testament context, these are, if you like, resurrection terms. Resurrection is a restoration to life from death, a reversal of what death has done. But resurrection is also new life that is unimaginably different from the old life, and is separated from it by the abyss of death’s nothingness. Resurrection restores creation in accordance with God’s original purpose, and resurrection at the same time transfigures creation in a way that is truly and utterly radical, from the roots: eye has not seen and ear has not heard.

And renewal and reform, as they appear in the New Testament and in Christian tradition, describe how God works in the lives of the faithful in the interval between the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the one hand; and, on the other, our longed for resurrection from death in union with him at the end of this age.

Renewal and reform are how we experience the power of the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead here and now, restoring in us the image of God in which we were created, and providing a pledge, a foretaste, and also a preparation, a getting ready, for the life of the world to come.

 

ONE may well ask how you get from all that rich theological tradition to changing the formula for the allocation of Church Commissioners’ funds to dioceses, or setting up a leadership training programme for cathedral deans.

It is partly a matter of understanding the history of the idea of reform: in particular, over the past two millennia. In the early centuries of the Church, reform, like renewal, is primarily about the work of God in the life of the believer, conforming the one who is in Christ to the likeness of Christ.

In late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, it begins to be applied also to monastic communities, seeking to be reformed together in their common life. But the really pivotal development occurs in the 11th and 12th centuries, when Western Catholicism begins to speak about the reform of the Church, not just the person within the Church, and to include institutional change as one aspect of that reform.

Crucially, once it is accepted that reform is both personal and institutional, it also becomes evident that while God remains the primary agent of reform, human agency is also involved. Indeed, because proposals for reform have often been controversial, and encountered serious resistance, from the 11th century into the 16th and beyond, it comes to be understood that when Christ desires to reform his Church he seeks active and focused support from his disciples here on earth.

So there emerges a certain duality in the idea of reform: God’s work, but also our work; God transforming men and women into the likeness of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, but also men and women themselves initiating, with divine prompting, change to structures, customs, and practices.

Through the later Middle Ages, the two sides continue to be held together, more or less; the point of human reforming activity is to respond to, and foster, the reforming activity of God in the hearts and minds of the faithful. But what ultimately happens in modernity is that the two sides drift apart, and “reform”, as generally used today, has been cut away from its theological roots, to mean only people initiating change to structures, customs, and practices.

 

ONE very important reason for pairing “renewal” and “reform” in the contemporary context of the Church of England is precisely to keep alive their theological meaning. Although renewal has also been co-opted for secular purposes, it has remained much more of an ecclesial word, and, moreover, a hugely important one over the past hundred years in Western Christianity.

The adjustment in order of the two terms that took place in the summer — from “Reform and Renewal” to “Renewal and Reform” — seems therefore to be an acknowledgement of the need to affirm the priority of grace in this context; the risen Christ making all things new, and that newness being known in the life of the Church.

But such renewal also calls for reform; for setting right what has gone wrong; for a willingness to face conflict in the Church for the sake of faithfulness to God’s call; and for patient attention to the details of structures, customs, and practices, because these are things that decisively shape our participation in the life of the Church, and therefore our ability to respond to what the Lord of the Church might be saying.

So, yes, reviewing how money from the Church Commissioners is allocated to dioceses can be — not need be, but can be — a part of the work of reform for the sake of the Church’s renewal. So can ensuring that deans have the necessary expertise to manage the complex business operations over which they preside.

To include all of this under the heading of Renewal and Reform makes perfect theological sense; so long as there is a clear understanding that these various activities, in all their diversity and specificity, are intended together to help the Church to say “yes” more fully and more wholeheartedly to what the Spirit is asking of us.

 

The Revd Dr Jeremy Worthen is Secretary for Ecumenical Relations and Theology at the Council for Christian Unity. This is an edited extract of a lecture delivered at Preston Minster on 1 December, “Renewal and Reform: Does it have a theology?” Read the full lecture here

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