Theology is not a sport, says Oakley

27 January 2017


Not theology: Roger Federer wins his semi-final match against Stan Wawrinka, in the Australian Open, in Melbourne, on Thursday. He will play the winner of Friday's match between Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov, in the final on Sunday

Not theology: Roger Federer wins his semi-final match against Stan Wawrinka, in the Australian Open, in Melbourne, on Thursday. He will play the winne...

THEOLOGY should be practised not as a hobby or a sport, but “wherever human survival is taking place”, the Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Canon Mark Oakley, said on Monday.

He was speaking at an event at St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, “Word Made Flesh: Does the Church really need academic theology?” It was sponsored by SCM Press, in partnership with St Martin’s.

Besides Canon Oakley, the panel consisted of the Vicar, Canon Sam Wells; the Assistant Dean of St Mellitus College, London, the Revd Dr Lincoln Harvey; the founder of the Oasis Trust, the Revd Steve Chalke; an associate professor in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, the Revd Dr Alison Milbank; and the former General Synod member and chair of WATCH (Women and the Church), Christina Rees. The discussion was chaired by Canon Julie Gittoes, a Residentiary Canon at Guildford Cathedral.

Canon Oakley said that he became nervous when he felt that theology was “being practised as a hobby or a sport”. He quoted the Revd Broderick Greer, “an American, black, gay Episcopalian priest” who has said: “You know, theology could never be a sport . . . for me. Theology has always had to be survival.”

This meant, Canon Oakley said, that “theology will be done wherever human survival is taking place. That might be in a protest, it might be in a prayer group, in pastoral care, [or] in standing up to the institution of the Church.”

Canon Wells said that when he was a parish priest on a council estate, he had turned to the Church Fathers for wisdom about what a regenerated community might look like. “Gregory of Nyssa has thought about this stuff already. You’re not the first person in town to be facing some of these issues.”

Dr Milbank said that the Church needed to set academic theologians free “to resource people, and give them the roots and grounds of their tradition. Because it’s theirs; we’re just denying them.”


An edited transcript of the discussion will be published in next week’s Church Times. To listen to the full discussion, visit

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