Theology in the Church

by George Pattison

from Signs of the Times, No. 21 - Apr 2006

The Alpha Course is to be acclaimed for many things. Not least is the way in which it headlines the question: 'Is there more to life than this?' This slogan reflects a long tradition in modern theology of taking seriously the viewpoint of those out there 'in the world', and not simply preaching at them. A further, important ingredient in this is the implication that the Church is not merely about filling pews with passive, uncritical Churchgoers; the Church, if it is really to be a community of faith, must be a community of people with questioning minds, people actively concerned about their faith and able to give a good account of it.

For the questioning doesn't stop once a person becomes a Christian. Further questions are unavoidable, both as contemporary Christian faith works out what to keep and what to leave behind from the great Church traditions of the past, or how to respond to new challenges that don't always have obvious precedents in past experience (genetic engineering for example, or issues at the limits of medical technology). It is also important to take account of the fact that one of the fundamental sources of our faith - many Christians would say the fundamental source - is a collection of books, the Bible, the newest of which is nearly two thousand years old. This collection of books takes for granted the world-views and the values of people inhabiting an ancient civilization, and most of us, of course, know it only in one or other translation.

Strikingly, Christians have also taken a two-track approach to the bulk of these books - those we collectively call 'the Old Testament' - seeing them both as an essential precursor of the Christian gospel, but also rejecting the use made of them by the Jewish community of faith that first compiled them. So, for example, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah as being effectively Christian texts, yet, guided by Paul, the early Church abandoned the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, keeping them only as symbolic of other, more spiritual truths. There will therefore always be questions about the exact meaning of particular texts and how best to apply them to our own lives and times. Leviticus does, indisputably, speak of homosexuality as an 'abomination', but it also requires that homosexuals should be put to death, something which few, if any, of those taking what the media call a 'conservative' line on the issue of gay priests would wish to enforce. Other Old Testament texts, for example, issue instructions for the massacring of prisoners of war. Even the New Testament is now known to consist of books produced at different times and places, and having differing degrees of closeness to the events with which they deal and even different messages - compare the views of James and Paul regarding the relationship between faith and works! To carry on questioning once one has become a Christian is therefore unavoidable, if one has a questioning mind at all. But if it is not to remain random and arbitrary, this questioning needs to be focussed and disciplined, if only so as to get clear about what is at stake in any given issue.

This is why those selected for ministry in the Church must not only have a vibrant personal faith but are also required to engage in study. Obviously, the style and content of this study has varied enormously in Christian history. The Church of England has always prided itself on having a learned clergy, but it is a hard fact that the actual standard of theological education in this country has long been significantly lower than in comparable Churches elsewhere in northern Europe. We have placed a higher value on pastoral experience and liturgical competence than on 'theology' in a narrow sense. There is some wisdom in this, and there are risks in certain kinds of over-scholarly theological education. But the disturbing fact is that all of us have probably heard too many sermons that demonstrate an almost complete lack of theological understanding and rigour, and a total failure to engage in an adult way with the real issues at play in the text. If in doubt, visit the Ship of Fools website!

Of course, there are good things happening too, and it should also be said that over the last couple of generations we have developed good continuing education structures and opportunities. If our clergy leave their colleges and courses less well-prepared theologically than their counterparts elsewhere, they are probably better provided in terms of subsequent training opportunities. And, in addition to what dioceses and other Church bodies offer, there are also many part-time theology courses provided by universities and colleges, right the way through to postgraduate level. The opportunities are there, if we want to use them and are prepared to master our diaries.

We live in a knowledge-based economy, and lifelong learning is an essential ingredient in keeping knowledge alive and relevant. The Church can no longer afford to see itself as a 'simple flock' being led like sheep. If the Church is not a community engaged in ongoing, challenging learning, involving clergy and laity alike, it will certainly get shunted more or less brutally onto the sidelines of contemporary life. In this perspective it is not so important whether the learning reinforces 'conservative' or 'liberal' views - the really important thing is that it happens at all. Theological study is no longer a matter of accumulating antiquarian curiosities from Church history - it can involve engagement with the Bible, with genetics, with literature, the internet, or film. But what is certain is that those who are not learning, cannot teach. This is not just a message for clergy, but for the whole Church: if we are not all collectively learning, we have nothing to teach the world; if we cease asking our questions, we will have no answers to give.

George Pattison is Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford.