Clothing the Word made flesh

by
03 February 2017

A ‘conversation of theological luminaries’ explored the contribution that academic theology can make to the Church and its life and mission. Here is an edited transcript

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Pointer: St Martin-in-the-Fields, where the conversation was held

Pointer: St Martin-in-the-Fields, where the conversation was held

Julie Gittoes: The over­arching question this evening is: “Does the Church really need aca­demic theology?” Taking that as
our starting-point, our panel of theo­logians and church leaders will tease out what we mean by academic theology, and the relationship be­­tween mulling over big ideas and living out the gospel.

 

Sam Wells: Theology, to me, is dwelling with God amid the logic of God’s promises and purposes, and being willing to remain open to the unknown, and [to] new discovery about the wonder of God. And, in that sense, a three-year-old can do it, a 25-year-old can do it, a 95-year-old can do it. . .

The academy is a community where people gather together to take one another seriously around ques­tions that are not yet fully resolved. To be part of that serious and voca­tional conversation requires a kind of membership; and people do de­­grees, and postgraduate degrees, and doctorates, as a signal of their com­mitment to be serious about that conversation. . .

I think “academic”, in a sense, is part of the humility of theology, in that it subjects itself to the same kind of disciplines as other univers­ity subjects. But theology is some­thing that anyone can do.

 

Christina Rees: For many years, the subject that I engaged with in theo­logy was to do with the ordination of women in the Church of England. It was really important that the theology lined up with what we wanted to do. I remember going back to first principles and saying “If this is right, then it will stack up theologically.” I was incredibly grateful for academic theologians at that time, who could show, historic­ally and theologically, how the step we were planning to make was con­sistent with what we understood God to be, humanity to be — men and women — and what we under­stood by ordination in the Church of England.

 

 

Lincoln Harvey: I wonder whether, when we’re talking about academic theology, some of the things Sam has said we can actually push into the discipline of theology in and of itself. . . Theology is an attempt to speak responsibly of God. . . It is its own ordered discourse, set within
a particular community: in our in­­stance, the Church. When we tag “academic” on to it, I think we are, whether consciously or [not], bring­ing into the discussion a distinct community — which is the academy — that has rigorous rules for speech; elevates particular methodologies above others. . . That can be of great service to the Church, and yet, situ­ated as we are [now], we can see that the trajectory of that distinct project has been one in which theology as a distinct discipline has been at best marginalised and often banished from the setting of that particular discourse, because it isn’t seen to meet the canons of critical discourse that the academy sets itself.

 Alison Milbank: I would argue that all theology, whether it’s by a three-year-old or by somebody in a uni­versity, is primarily sharing some­thing that God does. There’s no such thing as an academy. God understands himself in the Holy Trinity, and we share in that. For me, what characterises academic theology is not just the place we do it, but the way that we do it — in such a kind of thoroughgoing way that we want to say that theology is a way of making sense of the whole. It’s not a subject area: it’s the subject that makes sense of all the other subjects.

 

Steve Chalke: Everyone is a theo­logian, because our theology is just our understanding, our study, our grappling with the reality of God. I once debated with Richard Dawkins on BBC1, and he said he wasn’t a theologian. And I simply said: “Richard, you’re a theologian: it’s just your theology is quite a short one.” We are all theologians, and we either do good theology or bad theology. The academy, in the end, is actually just a learning community.

 

But our theology needs to engage with reality. One of my favourite theologians, Helmut Thielicke, said: “The gospel has to keep on being forwarded to new addresses, because the recipients keep on moving.” It strikes me that the task of academic theology is to keep looking at the unchangeables, and keep also look­ing at the changeables, and keep bringing those two worlds together. Therefore, in some senses the best academic theology is done in praxis.

 

JG: Mark, could you help us tease out how theology might help the Church in the process of looking outwards, of grappling with the challenges of what it is to be human in our generation?

 

Mark Oakley: Theology comes in various types. The celebratory theo­logy: what we’re doing when we’re singing hymns; what I’m doing on the way to the pulpit; what happens when people gather in this place on a Sunday. This is where God is not an object of knowledge, but the cause of our wonder. This sort of theology is not trying to argue any­thing; it’s just trying to evoke a sort of fullness of vision.

 

And then we have what you might call communicative theology, which is trying to engage with the environment and the thought-shapes and the preoccupations of the — as it were — non-committed environment in which you find yourself. It seems to me this is where the Church will need those who are professionally thinking about God.

And there’s a third type of theo­logy, which, I think, is critical theo­logy, which looks at whether the celebratory and the communicative are going a bit too native; and at what are the fundamental categ­ories. Is what’s happening in your worship, is what’s happening in your communication, continuous with your origins, or does it stray?

All three approaches need one another. There’s not an order of preference or priority here; they all feed off one another.

Theology should really, at the end of the day, be a training for a very humble mind.

 

Sam Wells: I have a particular in­­terest in the word “with”, which I see as the crucial word in theology. By using the words “God with us”, you’re describing the incarnation as the place from which theology be­­gins for Christians. I think it begins with pastoral care, because in pas­toral care what a minister, priest, pastor — not always an ordained person — is doing is [that] they are dwelling with another person at the most challenging points in their lives, to which there aren’t usually answers; and not running away from those places, and staying in those places until the Holy Spirit reveals the face of Christ. . .

What I encourage people to do in discovering faith, and particularly in discovering theology and reflect­ing on ministry, is the old line from the Desert Fathers: sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you every­thing. It’s finding the grace to stay still and letting the Holy Spirit reveal it to you.

 

Mark Oakley: I think one of the reasons people get a bit narked with the word “theology” is that it’s got this sense sometimes that it’s a sort of sport for some people — that you put on your tweed jacket, and you sit in the corner and casually write sentences about the divine. . .

At Greenbelt last year, I inter­viewed my friend Broderick Greer ­— who is an American, black, gay, Episcopalian priest — and he said: “You know, theology could never be a sport in that way for me. Theology has always had to be survival. Theo­logy is the way I’ve tried to survive, not play.” And if that’s true — and
I think it is — then theology will be done wherever human survival is taking place. And that might be in a protest, out there with 100,000 people; it might be in a prayer group; in pastoral care; in standing up to the institution of the Church.

 

Alison Milbank: We’re all talking in very high-minded ways about everybody “doing” theology, and you’re right — they are. But it’s the resourcing I would like to question. You can’t do theological reflection without some theology on which to reflect, as well as some experience. And the experience doesn’t come fully formed, shorn of the theology. . .

I would like to beg the Church to allow those of us in academic theo­logy — to actually set us free to resource people, and give them the roots and grounds of their tradition. Because it’s theirs: we’re just deny­ing them.

 

Steve Chalke: The reality of life is you can study all of this stuff — the Early Church Fathers, the Desert Fathers — back to front, but you are going to arrive in a church where the roof is falling in, where the con­gregation is too small and too poor to keep the whole thing up and running. . . And you’re going to go and sit with politicians and policy-makers, and you won’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and they won’t have a clue what you’re talk­ing about. Because, as much as all these wonderful things need to be taught and understood, in church leadership you’ve got to understand policy-making, and you’ve got to understand how to run a spread­sheet, and how to build a team and handle conflict. You’ve got to understand that those things are at the heart of theology, not some kind of casual addition.

 

Lincoln Harvey: To push back a little bit on what Steve said. . . Within God’s good Church there are distinct offices and callings, and some are called to the Department for Educa­tion on a Thursday, and to fixing roofs. But in God’s good economy I am delighted that there are particular people who are called to set aside time for that stillness, that silence — to contemplate the things of God; to wrestle with the tradition; to read their scriptures. . .

The pressure on us theologians is to rush to application. . . We find ourselves in a culture that has an inverted Gnosticism, where the life of the mind is denigrated and every­one’s rushing to application. Every­thing has got to be useful and do-able, and have some tangible out­come.

 

Christina Rees: Theologians need to, and are called to, resource the Church and the members of the Church in a very particular way. A year after the women-priests legisla­tion went through in 1992, another Act of Synod was passed. . . It took the resourcing of an academic church historian, Judith Maltby, who pointed out that the underlying theology of the Act of Synod was actually falling into the Donatist heresy: it was about how an indi­vidual priest — his or her own worthiness or sinfulness —could affect the efficacy of the sacraments. . . . There are many times where, in trying to wrestle with real, down-to-earth, incarnate things, if we’re not resourced by the academic theolo­gians, we do fall into heresies — even if we don’t want to.

 

Mark Oakley: For a long time, certainly in my time, I’ve been told that I’ve got to be “relevant”. . . It’s a word I really dislike. I like the word “resonant”: I would like to believe that theology will always be coming from a resonant place, and ad­­dressed to a resonant place, not a relevant one particularly.

 

Sam Wells: I think a lot of this de­­bate is about humility — to recog­nise that you’re sitting on this council estate, as I was for several years, and actually Gregory of Nyssa has thought about this stuff already. You’re not the first person in town to be facing some of these issues. What I was struggling with was: What would a regenerated com­munity look like? Would it just look like the middle-class community up the road? And I never really solved that question. But trying to solve that question drove me to the Early Church, to see if they faced ques­tions like that themselves.

 

Christina Rees: It is pretty obvious some of the voices that are missing: we’re missing minority ethnic voices. . . And we are still missing women’s voices.

 

Steve Chalke: What have the elec­tion of Trump, Brexit, and the popularity of ISIS got in common? All these things are happening to the bewilderment of the academic elite, who can’t understand what’s going on. . . We have a crisis we need to face, and I wouldn’t want us to go away patting ourselves on the back for what a wonderful job we’re doing. We need to critically engage with the issue in front of us.

 

Edited transcript by Ed Thornton.

 

To listen to the full discussion, visit www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/event/word-made-flesh-does-the-church-really-need-academic-theology

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