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Conformed to the world?

14 April 2023

Christian formation can happen through learning from bodies outside the Church, says Jenny Leith


Young protesters in Westminster during the global climate strike on 20 September 2019

Young protesters in Westminster during the global climate strike on 20 September 2019

IN THE Church, it is taken as a given that being a Christian means being formed in a particular way. This, after all, is what is meant by discipleship. Calling yourself a Christian is to name yourself as a follower of Christ: one who is seeking to become more like Christ. The work of discipleship is figuring out how to fulfil this calling.

In the way that Christian formation is commonly spoken about, it is generally assumed that this formation into Christ’s likeness is something that takes place in a church, especially when Christians are gathered for worship. Here, their desires, which have been corrupted by life in the world, are reshaped by the Holy Spirit.

When they are sent back out into the world at the end of a service, their purified hearts and minds flow out into good actions. After all, they are exhorted in the Letter to the Romans not to be “conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12.2).

This all seems very clear. And yet, over the past several years, I have been led to take a step back and ask: Does this fully describe how Christians are to learn to live well? Is it only the Church (and especially in its gathered worship) that is able to form people into the likeness of Christ? Or might the world have something to offer to discipleship, too?

When first thinking about these questions, I would have come down firmly on the side of the Church’s doing the forming, and so teaching the world how to live well.

And this is something that the Church can and does do — but is not the full picture. I have come to believe that the Church also needs to receive from the world to become what it is called to be. This shift came about through grappling with two persistent questions that refused to submit to tidy answers.

First, how can sense be made of the ethical purpose of the Church in the light of wave after wave of revelations of its moral failings? This is not to say that this is a moment when the Church is especially fallible, but, perhaps, now the depth of those failings is more widely known — recently, particularly with respect to white supremacy, sexual abuse, and the treatment of LGBTQ+ people. In the face of these revelations of the sinfulness of the Church, theological responses can fall short.

There is often a tendency to “round up” the image of the Church to still being an essentially ethical community, with sin pictured as a kind of add-on: an aberration from the Church’s usual good enactment of its calling to be hope for the world. In part, this “tidying up” of the ethical status of the Church is often driven by a concern to get back to the Church’s task of shaping the world — perhaps even out of a sense that its ability to do this task successfully will be damaged irreparably if too long is spent talking in public about the ways in which the Church goes wrong.

The second persistent question that shifted my thinking is: what do day-to-day lives have to do with discipleship? Are Christians just living out what has been received in the Church? Or is there something formative about the contingent situations in which we find ourselves through our work, friendships, family life, and so on?

AlamyThe former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with Marvina Newton of Leeds Black Lives Matter at a protest outside New Scotland Yard in London, last September, after the shooting of Chris Kaba by a police officer

Reckoning with this second set of questions particularly grew out of the experience of beginning working life after university. This work was in politics, as I felt that bringing the transformative wisdom of God to public life was the responsibility of all Christians. While continuing with this work, however, I felt an increasing dissonance.

It turns out that it is actually quite difficult to maintain an image of yourself as an agent of transformation when you’re in the middle of writing a speech for World Toilet Day, or researching the history of the M11, or responding to parliamentary questions on the scale of bat damage to churches — to name just a few moments in the life of a junior staffer.

AS WITH any job, this kind of work involves many mundane tasks, and many areas where there is no clear “Christian” course of action, but, instead, involves a scrappy struggle for integrity amid uncertainty and limited time. Amid this, I became aware that this work was formative.

It was not simply a matter of working out in political life a character or ethical code that I had already developed in the Church: participation in political life was forming me, too, in one direction or another. In other words, I found quotidian work to be both more humdrum and more spiritually significant that I had been led to believe.

Grappling with the first set of questions led me to realise that I needed a way of thinking about Christian formation which did not shy away from the Church’s ability to malform its members. This meant placing centre stage the forms of exclusion and marginalisation that mar the Church, and which can be passed on even in its core practices. Instead of looking at the brokenness of the Church as a caveat after describing what the Church should be, I began there.

Following this thread, I found sin to be pervasive and deep-rooted, not just in the lives of individual believers, but in the very practices and structures and relationships that make up the Church. In part, this is because the Church is not a pure bubble, separate from the oppressive systems of our society: these systems are mirrored in the life of the Church, too.

Yet the rot goes deeper than this: if paying attention to the Church’s history, the fact that the Church has also been, and continues to be, an instigator and theological narrator of oppression must also be confronted.

One stark example of this for the Church of England is its intertwined history with the British Empire, in which particular Anglican theologies of providence played a crucial part. It was widely held that colonies were given to England by God for its possession; and the growing wealth that came through this possession was proof of God’s favour.

Here, the Church did not act just as the carrier of an infection, but, rather, generated racism by deep practices of Christian thinking. If the failings of the Church can be the result of dearly held beliefs and traditions, we can begin to make more sense of why the Church can be so slow to recognise its own failings.

Rethinking formation has shaken my confidence in the ability of any of the things that we do together as Christians to refine and reorientate reliably our love for God and one another — whether that is confessing our sins, giving and receiving forgiveness, listening to scripture, or even celebrating the eucharist. But it has not led me to despair of the Church. This is because of a growing recognition that the work of the Spirit involves being brought to new convictions of sin.

The disruption of unjust structures can feel deeply unsettling, but this ongoing process is part of the dynamism of God’s ways with the world, which continually bring us to new understandings of what it means to live as a Christian.

Christian formation, it now seems to me, requires openness to surprising encounters with the Spirit out in the world. Being disciples means engaging with the world in all its messiness, and expecting to encounter God in new and surprising ways.

This will mean approaching public life with a humble expectation that secular institutions will have something to say that is worth listening to, and even acknowledging that they will often have higher ethical standards, from which Christians can learn. This has been shown to be true again and again when it comes to safeguarding, for example, as the Church has been led by secular structures, such as IICSA, to a deeper understanding of its responsibility to protect the vulnerable from harm.

Fostering this kind of humble attention to the action of the Spirit in the world should also shape the way in which Christians view movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), which have exposed how the Church of England, too, has failed to value and be shaped by the lives of its Black members. The challenge that BLM poses to the Church’s way of life should lead us to ask whether this movement and other broad social movements might be part of the Spirit’s convicting work.

As the Church listens to the world beyond it, this wisdom should reshape the Church, which can also liberate the Church from its sinfulness. The wisdom discerned in these conversations can allow Christians to unlock new riches from scripture and tradition. For example, attending an election hustings and listening to a Green Party candidate might lead the members of a congregation to commit themselves afresh to studying scripture together to discern how their habits as a Church need to change to truly care for creation (such as reducing our carbon footprint).

Seeking to discern the work of the Spirit should also lead us to collaborate in political action with those we do not fully agree with — or even profoundly disagree with — in pursuit of common flourishing. We might join a union or a political party, for instance, because there are particular changes that we yearn to see in our workplace or society.

Sooner or later, belonging to this kind of political group will feel uncomfortable, as one is associated with, and held to account for, the views and actions of other members — actions that we ourselves might not have chosen. Yet, even through this kind of discomfort, collaborative political action can enable us to see (in ways that we might otherwise struggle to glimpse) the solidarity that we owe one another. Acting in solidarity in this way can form us to receive more fully the solidarity that we are offered in Christ.

Through this lens, public life is neither a murky sphere to be avoided nor an arena to be transformed for Christ. Instead, we can approach it as a site of the work of the Spirit, where Christians can and should be formed as disciples: a formation that can then help the Church to become most fully what it is called to be.

The Church, then, is not only a body in which Christians are formed, but also a body that itself is in constant need of being formed; for we do not yet know what we will each become, nor what the Church needs to become, but we are called to trust that the Spirit of God is at work. It is this trust that is at the heart of formation.


Dr Jenny Leith is a political theologian and the author of Political Formation: Being formed by the Spirit in Church and world, published by SCM Press at £30 (Church Times Bookshop special price £24); 978-0-334-06303-2.

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