Theology and the Church Anthony Freeman who was dismissed from his parochial post at the end of July 1994 for the views expressed in his book 'God In Us'. This article was presented as a talk to a group of clergy meeting in King's College, Cambridge on July 14th, 1994, and was reprinted in the October 1994 volume of 'Modern Believing'.

My interest in our subject—Theology and the Church—is a personal one: I have been dismissed by my bishop from a combined parochial and diocesan post as a direct result of my published theological opinions. This outcome was not totally unexpected, but so far as I can tell it is the first time it has happened this century. It does raise certain questions—not least in this university city—about the relationship between theological enquiry and the Church, especially its ordained ministry. How is it, for example, that not a single professor of divinity in Cambridge is currently an ordained member of the Church of England? And how is it that the English clergy have so effectively insulated their congregations from the fruits of critical scholarship over the past hundred years? Is the reason perhaps that 'no priest dare admit officially to things which every first year theological undergraduate needs to know'? That was the view put to me the other day by one Cambridge theologian.

The most celebrated example in recent years of a senior churchman who has tried to break down the barrier between study and pulpit is Bishop David Jenkins of Durham. Conservative hostility in Synod to his modest efforts led to the production in 1986 of a formal and unanimous Statement by the House of Bishops on The Nature of Christian Belief. The Statement itself is only two pages long and is, in its own words, 'In part a reply to particular questions, part reflection on some of the wider underlying issues'. (p. 1) It is accompanied by an official Exposition, running to thirty-six pages, and offered by the bishops as 'a preliminary contribution' to the 'wider process of prayer, scholarship, study and debate', (ibid) on the issues of doctrine and belief within the Church of England. I decided to take up this offer and make the Bishops' Statement and Exposition the starting point for our enquiry this afternoon.

The initial results were not encouraging. I could not find the word 'theology' anywhere in the entire document. And in the one place in the Statement itself where the adjective 'theological' was used, it was to insist upon the distinction between 'the ideas of theological exploration' on the one hand and 'the beliefs which are the corporate teaching of the Church' on the other. (p. 2) I am not sure this neat distinction exists, and I wish that the bishops had given us more guidance on the matter. All they say is this:

There must always be a place in the life of the Church for both tradition and enquiry. The relation between them is not simple and never settled, and has always meant that there can be a proper diversity in the understanding and expression of the Christian faith. (ibid)

Yes, but what constitutes proper diversity? That is the key question. Who is the judge and what criteria are to be used for determining when proper diversity has tipped over into improper heresy? The bishops appear not to have the foggiest idea. Just at the point where clear guidelines are most needed, they retreat into pious platitudes and wishful thinking:

But provided that we are attentive to the Holy Spirit as he glorifies Jesus and leads us into all truth, this variety which our faith not only allows but fosters need not become a cause of division but can deepen our relationship with God and our understanding of the Gospel. (ibid)

This is no help to me. I have tried to be attentive to the prompts of the Spirit. I have tried to follow the path which for me has the authentic ring of truth. I have experienced—in a way that I had not before—a real sense of the grace of God. But because this path to truth has meant my setting aside the received understanding of God as an independently existing personal being, I have also been dismissed from my parish and banned from preaching or officiating in church. And from where I stand that feels pretty divisive.

The bishops' inability to offer coherent guidelines seems to me to stem from their insistence right at the start that: be part of the Church of Christ, we must hold fast to the truth which was given in the beginning. We are a people of revelation... (Exposition, p.2)

From this starting point the opinions of enquiring theologians are bound in theory to give way before the received doctrine of the Church. In practice however, as the received doctrines become in certain respects less and less tenable, ways have to be found to reinterpret them. Amazing subtleties creep in, in order that the alleged distinction between ephemeral theological enquiry and the unchanging teaching of the Church can be maintained. Only by escaping from clear analysis into muddy piety and subtle linguistics can the bishops hope to disguise this subterfuge. In one moment I shall give you a wonderful example of this subtlety from the Bishop's own Statement. First I want to spell out my own position.

There is one way of looking at doctrinal debate which sees Christian Truth as a package of given doctrines which are passed on from one generation to the next like a precious family heirloom. A more energetic analogy for the same idea might be the baton passed on by each member of a relay team in athletics. The last runner proves to be in a direct line of succession from the first by possession of the baton. In the same way we prove our orthodoxy and our direct line of descent from the first Christians by continuing to hold and proclaim 'the faith once for all delivered to the saints'.

This is an attractive picture. Unfortunately, as A. J. Ayer later admitted of logical positivism, nearly all of it is false. 'Orthodoxy' emerges at the end of theological debate, it is not fed in at the start. When Arius and Athanasius were first locked in combat over the nature of Christ's divinity, no impartial observer could have claimed that Athanasius was defending the received faith and Arius attacking it. Indeed it seemed to the majority at the time that Arius was closer to the biblical evidence, and many scholars today would agree. The reason that we now honour Athanasius as a saint and great Teacher of the Faith, while Arius is a byword for heresy, is not that Athanasius was truer to the bible. The reason is that eventually, after years literally in the wilderness, Athanasias came back and won both the political and doctrinal battles. And history is written by the winners. But he won the argument only by bringing in a new and non-biblical concept: that the Father and the Son were to be understood as consubstantial.

In their Exposition, our own Bishops admit that the relationship between the faith allegedly revealed in scripture and that set forth in the catholic creeds is not straightforward:

The authority of the Creeds derives from the fact that they are regarded as stating and defining rightly certain central beliefs which are found, explicitly or implicitly, in Scripture...In the Creeds that we now acknowledge the Church was led to conclusions on the true implications of Scripture which are not self-evidently the only possible ones. (...) Commitment to the catholic Creeds implies more than commitment to teachings 'agreeable' to Scripture. It means accepting as normative on specific points only that interpretative selection of teachings agreeable to Scripture which the Creeds authorise. (ibid #4, my emphasis)

Thus, having told us that 'to be part of the Church of Christ, we must hold fast to the truth which was given in the beginning', our Bishops now explain that it was only several hundred years later that the Church learned which elements of that initial revelation it was (and is) permissible for Christians to believe. It is my view that such inconsistencies are not the result of careless episcopal drafting of the document, but the inevitable outcome of this model of doctrinal transmission and development.

I offer you an alternative and I believe more accurate model of doctrinal development. The tradition does not give us the answers, in the sense of prepackaged solutions to doctrinal questions which are passed down from one generation to another. It gives us the vocabulary to frame the questions. It is the distinctive language and key paradigms and stories which are passed down, not a definitive understanding of them. In other words, to sustain its claim to be authentically Christian, theology must centre on the person of Jesus Christ; it must find a place for the concept of God; it must carry a message of good news and some guidance to the living of a fulfilled human life. It will speak of sin and grace and salvation. What it does not have to do is to accept the solutions or the boundaries proposed by earlier centuries. Nice, Constantinople, Chalcedon: they are all provisional statements in the doctrinal pilgrimage. They are temporary resting places, as the oasis of Kadesh was for the ancient Israelites; they are not the Promised Land itself.

The doctrinal definitions of the first Christian centuries arose out of the bringing together of the biblical tradition with that of Greek philosophy. The universal God of the later Hebrew Bible was already a long way removed from the tribal deity of the earliest Old Testament stories. But he was still a personal and intervening God, quite different from the philosophical abstraction of the Greek tradition. Small wonder that the attempt to weld these two together in the infant Christian Church gave rise to many conflicting proposals. And small wonder that even the best of their ideas fit very uneasily into our post-enlightenment (never mind post-modernist) world. Talking about God (doing theology) today must involve no less a creative handling of the received traditions and current perceptions than we can see the early Church engaged in.

Having set out my own stall, as it were, let me take you back to the Bishops' Statement and the example of over-subtle wording which I promised you. Two key questions which the conservative members of Synod put to the Bishops were: Do you believe in the empty tomb? Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Both are scriptural assertions. The second is enshrined also in the creeds. Here, if anywhere, must be examples of that 'truth which was given in the beginning', to which the Bishops assure us we must hold fast in order to be part of the Church of God.

So we expect the Bishops' Statement to contain some such sentence as: 'We believe the historical fact recorded in all four canonical gospels that Christ's tomb was empty on the first Easter Day'. But no. What the Bishops actually write is this:

As regards belief that Christ's tomb was empty on the first Easter Day, we acknowledge and uphold this as expressing the faith of the Church of England... (p. 2)

Yes, but do you believe it yourselves? Why the convoluted language? Why the embarrassed opening clause (As regards belief that Christ's tomb was empty...) keeping the matter at arms length as we might do some family indiscretion that we should really prefer not to talk about? Why not proclaim in plain English, 'Yes, we the Bishops of the Church of England believe the tomb was empty'? No answer. And when it comes to the Virgin Birth the Bishops' language is equally evasive.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am the last person to want the entire bench of bishops to stand up and affirm their belief in a literal biological Virgin Birth and Resurrection. But what I should like them to do, what I believe we have a right to demand of them, is that they come clean. Let them either give us a clear statement of what constitutes 'the truth which was given in the beginning', to which they insist we must hold fast. Or else let them say honestly and openly that this 'truth which was given in the beginning' eludes us, and therefore we cannot possibly be expected to hold it fast. Let them admit either—as I would say—that it never existed, or else that it has become so bound up in the tradition that it cannot now be disentangled. Or else let them tell us clearly what this truth is and how they know that this is what it is.

Of course the bishops cannot come clean and do this. They are too scared to admit they do not know what the alleged original truth is, and they are too honest to pretend that they do know what it is. The fascinating question to ask is, How did we get into this bind? Why is it that the Church—in the persons of its bishops—feels bound to defend in theory the existence of a revealed truth which it cannot possibly produce in practice? That is the heart of the uneasy and complex relationship between the Church and theology. It is the clash between an institution, which depends for its power and authority upon certain revealed truths dogmatically pronounced, and an academic discipline, which depends for its integrity upon an open and questioning approach to truth.

Scholars working in universities can sit lightly to the dogmatic side of the equation; anti-intellectual dogmatists in certain branches of the Church can sit lightly to the demands of scholarship. The bishops of the Church of England, traditional upholders of both true religion and sound learning, are caught inescapably in the tension. Exactly the same bind holds the members of the Church of England Doctrine Commission. In their report 'We believe in God' published in 1987, the year following the Bishops' Statement, they confess—in scholarly mode—that,

What theologians offer are much more like scientific 'models' than literal descriptions. (p. 27)

...all theological pictures, propositions and imaginings carry with them the possibility of being found to be defective or even wrong. (p. 29)

And they conclude:

Finally, it is an implication of all that has been argued here that we should learn to live with the approximate, incomplete and corrigible nature of our languages, not as a defect, but as an asset. (p. 31)

How my heart soared when I read those words and thought that at last the Church of England was coming down off its dogmatic high horse! But I was too quick in my rejoicing. I had failed to read carefully enough an earlier section of the report where the Commission was in magisterial rather than theological mode. There they had written:

Christians are concerned ultimately not with a doctrine of God but with God himself...We are concerned, that is to say, with an ultimate Reality which we believe to exist, and to which we claim to have privileged access through the Scriptures and the tradition preserved for us by the Church. (p. 15)

It is that claim to have privileged access to truths not available to the public which forms the unbridgeable gap between theology as a respectable intellectual discipline and the Church as a proclaimer of revelation. I have made no secret of where my own sympathies lie. What saddens me is that the conflict is unnecessary.

On my model of doctrinal development, the unchanging element in the equation, so important to the institutional Church, is provided by the Christian language (God, Christ, sin, grace, etc.), by the Christian paradigms (especially humility as in the myth of incarnation; and the resurrection as a pattern of renewal and good coming out of evil and failure) and in the quality of Christian life (love, joy, peace, etc.). And on the other side, unfettered theological enquiry has the task of making these received gifts meaningful and accessible in the intellectual climate of each succeeding generation.

My personal treatment by the institutional church has been a set back, but I truly believe that some such shift in the relationship between Church and theology is essential for the well-being of both.

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