Memory, the Cross and the Rustat memorial

The other week, the Deputy Chancellor of the Diocese of Ely, David Hodge QC, published a Summary of his conclusions in the matter of the application by Jesus College Cambridge for permission to remove a memorial to its benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from its Chapel, because of his involvement in the trade of enslaved African people. Mr Hodge ruled against the College, dismissing the application. His judgment rests in part on a number of troubling theological claims and assumptions about memorialisation, forgiveness and the well-being and pastoral care of worshippers, which I try to explore here and which are significant for the wider questions of sensitive heritage in the Church of England.

The College seeks to remove the memorial and relocate it to an educational exhibition space as part of a larger project to make changes where Tobias Rustat was celebrated as a benefactor of the College, while acknowledging his legacy. Like many other British institutions, the College has been reviewing its historical links to slavery and considering changes in light of those links. It is seeking to make these changes, on the recommendation of its Legacies of Slavery Working Party, because of Rustat’s involvement in the Royal African Company, which traded in enslaved people in the C17th.

It took the view that the memorial, which dominates the chapel, celebrated Rustat, as was his intention in commissioning it. That celebration, the College holds, is incompatible with the Chapel’s inclusive missional, and pastoral purpose. In order to carry out these changes, the College had to apply for what is called a ‘Faculty’, ‘a permissive right to undertake works to a church building or its contents’, which can be granted by the ecclesiastical court of the Diocese in which the College is located, the Diocese of Ely. The College was opposed in its application to remove the memorial by some of Rustat’s descendants and a group of alumni and so a hearing of the court was held in the chapel. (For more information about the process see the explanation on the Diocese’s webpage, from which I’ve taken the definition of a faculty, above).

In his Summary of his judgment, Hodge argues that it is not necessary to remove the memorial in order for the chapel to fulfil its purpose and that there is a better way of dealing with the commemoration of Rustat there, namely to interpret and explain his involvement in the context of his whole life. That way, he would continue to be commemorated in the chapel where his body lies, his involvement in the ‘trade’ of enslaved people would not be forgotten and it could be viewed ‘in the context of his own time and his other undoubted qualities of duty and loyalty to his King, and his considerable charity and philanthropy.’

Hodge also asserts that the objection and offence of many members of the college community to the memorial’s prominent presence in the Chapel is based on a misunderstanding of the financial benefit he derived from his involvement in slavery. As the whole truth of Rustat’s life is better known, it implies, this offence may abate. In any case, it argues, memorials should not be rejected because of the discomfort they cause or we would not tolerate crucifixes and crosses. Indeed, it argues that discomforting memorials like this one may serve a pastoral purpose. The Rustat memorial interpreted with reference to his whole life, including his involvement in slavery, should serve as a pastoral vehicle. It should enable worshippers to consider our common human imperfection and to question their own involvement in oppressive contemporary economic systems.

Hodge’s Summary also implies that the memorial should serve a further pastoral function in the context of Christian liturgy. In Christian worship in the Chapel, people will petition God to forgive them their sins as they forgive those who sin against them. The forgiveness sought and to be practised by worshippers is, Hodge argues, universally inclusive in scope and extends even to those responsible for slavery. In forgiving others in this unlimited way, it argues, Christians imitate Christ on the cross, who forgave those who put him to death. The judgment thus argues for the retention in situ of Rustat’s memorial on the basis of this sort of inclusivity. Even Rustat should be forgiven, Hodge implies, by worshippers at Jesus College Chapel.

The memory of Rustat is thus central to Hodge’s Summary of his judgment and the judgment aims to ensure that his memory, fully contextualised, continues to dominate Jesus College Chapel. The trade in enslaved human beings was appalling but the appropriate response to the commemoration of someone who sought to enrich himself through it is to make him an object lesson in sin, understanding, and forgiveness. But Rustat is whom we should remember in worship. And even if he never turned from slavery, like John Newton (who is mentioned in the Summary), those who remember him can transform him, too, into a forgiven slaver, a memorial to a past we should put behind us. That seems to be the drift of the decision.

No-one has proposed, to my knowledge, that we forget Rustat or cease to commemorate him in some fashion where his body lies. There is something curious about turning him into a general lesson in human imperfection where there is the opportunity – which the College seeks to grasp – to learn through his history about the events and legacies of the history in which Rustat was an actor. And it is not clear why the continued memorialisation of Rustat in its present manner and position in the chapel is a better way to do that than the mode the College proposes.

But who is meant to be the subject of the pastoral functions imagined in Hodge’s Summary? Two groups of people do not really appear in the Summary, even though one of them was directly represented in the hearing. The first are the dead who were enslaved. In the logic of the Summary, their memory is peripheral and subordinate to the memory of Rustat and to his perpetual forgiveness by generations of college members. Even if the memorial were contextualised, they would not appear on the wall.

The second are the people whom the College wants to include and care for. Who might most be excluded by Rustat’s memorial continuing to dominate the chapel? It is not difficult to imagine: people of African descent; people, in fact, like the master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, who gave testimony at the hearing. The Summary never really expresses an attempt to understand what the presence of the memorial might mean to them, if they understand Rustat’s involvement in the trade in enslaved people, and what difference that meaning might have to the whole sacred space of the Chapel and its pastoral function in the College community.

The Summary’s refutation of the perception that Rustat benefitted financially from his involvement is a sign of the absence of that attempt. There is no consideration of the legacies of slavery and colonial rule either globally, in the UK or in Cambridge, nor of the connections linking that past to present structural inequalities affecting the lives of black people in the UK, including in Higher Education. There is no inquiry after the intergenerational effects of slavery and colonial rule in the racialisation and situations of those who come to study and teach in our elite institutions and their pedagogy. There is no thought about the significance of such questions for the meaning of this memorial, in this position, for black people or other minorities. And yet it is black people on whom the burden of forgiveness and its costs would fall most heavily, in order that Rustat should be remembered in more or less the way he intended.

Deputy Chancellor Hodge’s theological argument rests in part on an appeal to the example of Christ on the cross and it may be helpful to return to that site. The Deputy Chancellor’s argument appeals to his example and perhaps also to his atoning death for the sins of the whole world, including participants in the triangular trade, like Rustat. What, though, should Christ’s atoning death, which is memorialised and participated in through the Eucharist in the College Chapel each week, mean for the memorialisation of Rustat?

Why Christ became human and died is the puzzle that accounts of incarnation and atonement, from Athanasius and Anselm to the present, seek to make sense of. Hodge’s invocation of Christ’s forgiveness of his executioners as an example for worshippers to follow seems similar to the sorts of usage of traditional notions of atonement for which those notions have been criticised by feminist and Womanist theologians. Theologians like Rebecca Parker, Rita Nakishima Brock and Delores Williams have critiqued those doctrines for promoting the passive, patient submission and endurance of abuse by those who suffer from it. Implicitly, a similar attitude seems to be commended to black people here. As Sonita Alleyne observes in a recent Guardian article about the case, the judgment says to black people, ‘you’ve got to put up and shut up and pray under a memorial to a slave trader.’

Where traditional doctrines of atonement often struggle is to account for the particulars of Christ’s death and they are especially relevant here. What kind of death did Jesus Christ die when he was crucified? He took the form of a slave, says Paul, and became obedient to the point of death on a cross. Slaves were one of the categories of people for whom crucifixion was reserved by the Romans. In his death, Christ became identified with all humanity but especially with the oppressed and in particular with the enslaved. The salvation enacted in his resurrection includes not only justification but also liberation from the forces of death. And the resurrection proclaims the universality of that identification and the presence of Christ with all with whom he identifies, as James Cone argued in God of the Oppressed. He is present with those who were swallowed by the terrors of the deep; with those who were outraged and exhausted of life on plantations; with those who struggled to survive; with those who sought and seek to build a life in the wake, as Christina Sharpe puts it, of that history. When worshippers partake in and remember Jesus in his death and resurrection, they have the opportunity to remember also all those with whom he remains in solidarity. If we allow that perspective to orient our thinking about the Rustat memorial, it may be more difficult to ignore the questions that seem suppressed in Hodge’s Summary.

Jesus College’s application to re-situate and contextualise the Rustat memorial also takes place against the background of the decades-long struggle of black Anglican Christians to get the Church of England to address its institutional racism and its relationship to Britain’s imperial past, including slavery, culminating in the report, From Lament to Action and the work of the Racial Justice Commission now underway in response to one of its recommendations. Sensitive heritage is one of the topics it has been asked to examine. Deputy Chancellor Hodge’s decision and his summary illustrates, I think, some of the theological questions involved in thinking about sensitive heritage as well as the problems which come from not exploring all the pertinent dimensions of them.

Sexuality and identity in Christ: theology, biblical narrative and discernment in LLF (part two)

purple and pink hearts drawing on white paper
image by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash

In part one of these reflections, I argued that the Living in Love and Faith process represented a step-change in the way the Church of England deliberates on doctrinal questions, by facilitating and resourcing the participation of potentially all its members. It is not a perfect process. Indeed for some people – such as those whose minoritised sexuality and sexual or gender identity may be under discussion – it is fraught with risk (and for some involved in the production of the materials it has already been very costly). It is, nevertheless, a significant change and, overall, a hopeful direction. I also argued that the LLF book, which is the most in-depth of the resources offered by the Church to those who participate, represents something new in Church of England doctrinal literature, in seeking to enable people to take part in such a process by exploring the issues and their contexts, rather than simply instructing them in what they should believe. Finally, I sought to show how it does that within an overarching, expansive doctrinal framework which has a basically narrative structure, faithful to broad emphases of the creeds and theological traditions to which the C of E is heir, and which shapes the way issues are approached and explored.

One salient but fraught area of debate which this approach helpfully re-frames, in my view, is that which centres on the term, ‘identity’. ‘Identity’ is now widely used to talk about who we are in ways that can be rich, freighted with complex personal histories of many kinds, which can reflect and participate in struggles for dominance, survival and legitimacy on the part of groups of several kinds. Conversely, it can be reductive of that richness and history and the differences involved (think, for example, of the critiques of the acronym BAME). Some of those struggles have been around certain ways of forming a life in society with others that have to do with the shifting norms of role, behaviour, dress, speech, thought and feeling (including desire) that circle around notions of being and desiring as male and as female, notions which are often held by those who appeal to them to be given and basically fixed in conformity to reality, including, sometimes, the divine. The terms ‘sexual identity’ and ‘gender identity’ denotes a growing, changing and contested vocabulary which serves as ways of describing ourselves and others (and ourselves in contra-distinction from others). They denote our sense of who we are, our characteristic feelings, desires, ways of carrying our bodies, in relation to those notions of being male or female and to the styles of role, behaviour, dress, speech, thought and feeling which are taken to exemplify them. At the same time, they have served at times as ways of codifying a set of normative roles, styles, behaviours and sensibilities and a set of deviations from those norms. And they can signify in the context of ways of finding connection, community, solidarity, safety and organising collective struggle on the part of those marginalised or excluded by the successful imposition and/or widespread social acceptance, internalisation and policing of those norms. Those uses are closely intertwined and mutually interactive, and they have a long modern history, in which the Church of England as an institution is also involved. [1]

We can also speak of Christian identity and identities: ways of articulating what it means to be a Christian, both normative and descriptive. Christians have been articulating and contesting such meanings, often in contradistinction to other terms of religious belonging and practice (whether or not these were consistent with the self-understanding of those to whom they were applied), since at least the second century, and the use of ‘Christian’ as term marking a religious identity may go back further still. Such meanings tend to hinge upon some allegiance to and encounter with God in and through the person of Jesus Christ, by way of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit and in the context of a community of those similarly so identified: paradigmatically through baptism, but also in the Eucharistic, in prayer, in certain forms of life, and in typical forms of action and behaviour held to reflect Christ’s characteristic qualities and saving work. Articulations of Christian identity vary, of course, even within a single church or denomination, and can facilitate diverse forms of life and action, some life-giving and liberative, some violent and oppressive and some ambivalent mixtures of all shades in between.

In part one, I argued that the LLF book seeks to clarify what is at stake in disagreements on marriage and human sexuality, and tends to work against simplistic reductions or short-cuts and blocks to reflection, both from those who advocate a change in the Church’s doctrine and practice and those who want to maintain the status quo. One area where it offers clarifications is on the question of how human identities, especially sexual and gender identities, relate to identity in Christ. One block that gets deployed in this area is to appeal to the significance of Christian identity to short-cut Christian reflections on sexual and gender identities. I think it’s fair to say it tends to be used by defenders of the status quo as regards the C of E’s doctrine. When discussing sexual identity, for example, some will acknowledge the experience of sexual attraction to members of the same sex as a subjective, perhaps variable, element of their lives or the lives of others. However, they also minimise its significance relative or in contrast to their stable, core identity ‘in Christ’, from which it is simply distinguished as implicitly external.

This move seems to be offered as a corrective to another perceived simplification, in which a person might describe their sexual identity as their authentic self. There are understandable dynamics on both sides. There may be several different ways in which one might describe one’s sexual identity as one’s true identity. It could be a way of emphasising that one’s sexual identity is an abiding, deeply-rooted feature of oneself in contrast, perhaps, to an assumed sexual identity which appears to conform to a societal norm, and in a context of fear that social acceptance of their sexuality cannot be taken for granted. “It’s real, it’s really me, and it’s really important.” The worry I infer from those who say, “but my true identity is in Christ” is that anyone who makes such statements about their sexual identity is in danger of missing the fundamental centrality and theological depth of human identity before God and of the identity of Christians as rooted in Christ. This concern for the theological depths of human and Christian identities, whether not well-placed in respect of statements of this kind, is, I think, profoundly in line with New Testament understandings of faithful identity and with Christian tradition across almost all its breadth, diversity and divisions. (This corrective is, I would suggest, rarely applied to Christians who incorporate aspects of a certain kind of heterosexual life into their self-presentation in various contexts – e.g. as spouse of an opposite-sex partner and parent to their children.) However, what can come across in it is that the issue of one’s sexual identity, when relativised before one’s identity in Christ, cannot have any substantive, significant place in my sense of self or the ways in which I live it out. It is at best peripheral or should be.

Living in Love and Faith book

The LLF book is helpful here, I think. Its narrative theological anthropological framing enables it to uphold the appeal to the priority of Christian’s identity in Christ without allowing the weight and significance of that identification to squash or relegate to the margins complex issues of discerning the meanings of gendered and sexual dimensions of human life in general and individual lives in particular. It manages this combination through a series of theological moves.

First, the book frames these issues in terms of its treatment of the imago Dei as basic to human identity (p. 190). Humans are all made in God’s image (‘male and female’ is meant to indicate the universality of the image in humanity), all with ‘irremovable dignity’. They bear God’s image as those entrusted with dominion, understood in the sense of being God’s envoys to work with, delight in and care for God’s creation in imitation of God. Jesus as the Image of God displays this vocation perfectly and images God transparently (and in so doing confirms this reading of the imago). As related to God in this way (p. 191), human beings ‘are given a share in God’s life, a distinctive vocation to hear God’s voice and respond to God’s word, to receive God’s light and to reflect God’s glory, to experience God’s grace and embody God’s love.’ Humans are identified as made imago Dei in the dynamic context of the gift of participating in God’s life, being responsible subjects of divine speech and calling, recipients of God’s good gifts and bearers of God’s bright, wondrousness. This graced identity lends to each human being a theophanic potential that is common to all but individual in its expression: ‘Every human life can become a window through which the love of God shines out to others – and the image of God becomes more fully visible the more that love unites us.’ To be humans in God’s image, then, is to be identified as ‘a unique and deep mystery of inestimable value and dignity’, with faces that each reflects God’s love and glory, the mystery that ‘glimmers’ in each of them. Human identities are thus fathomless, abyssal, and iconic of God’s love and glory.

This deeply theological understanding of human identity, whose basic grammar has multiple echoes in Christian tradition, frames the question of individual identity in Christ as a mystery to be discovered (p. 196). To be puzzled by one’s identity is a symptom of its mysteriousness, of our relatedness, as sinful creatures, to a gracious, mysterious God. Furthermore, this theological framing leads, as good doctrine should, into an ethical reflection intended to guide thinking, questioning and conversation in this area. The loving relational dynamics in which we live as those made in God’s image norm the manner in which we follow quest to discover ourselves in Christ. “The process by which we discover our identities in Christ should be one in which we discover that each one of us is loved and valued by God as fully, as lavishly, as every other.” This divine love for everybody, embodied and manifest in Christ’s ministry and sacrifice, is the premise of the challenge and transformation, conviction of sin and repentance, involved in that process. “There is nobody from whom Christ shrinks, nobody whom he is reluctant to touch, to eat with, to share his life with. There is nobody for whom Christ did not die.”

Second, the book affirms the significance of our diverse individuality, deeply bound up with being material beings in material contexts, as features of God’s good creation:

“Each one of us displays a unique combination of characteristics, shaped by our genetic inheritance and by our environment – from our environment in the womb before our birth and on through the whole history of our life experiences in the world. We each feel, think and behave differently. We differ in physical constitution, personality, psychological resilience, intelligence and temperament. We each have our own ways of interacting with others in our families, amongst our friends and colleagues and in our wider social contexts. Advances in genetic research have brought increasing understanding of the ways in which human beings are uniquely different from each other.” (p. 197)

This materiality, difference and changefulness are part of the goodness of creatures as created by God, argues the book; the diversity is not a difference of dignity before God. Sexuality is one variable aspect of human existence shaped by the interaction of genetic inheritance and our environments in the womb and throughout our lives.

The book then clarifies that one area of disagreement in current debates is over whether sexualities which are not heterosexual belong to this created diversity or are products of its distortion in the Fall. It notes some will find this question highly offensive, we might add, alarming: as subverting the social acceptance of being other than straight in one’s sexuality, as colluding with fear and hatred and violence toward people with sexual identities besides heterosexuality. The book rightly cautions us about dangers in this line of thinking about phenomena of human difference, e.g. as applied to disabled people and also in this area, people who are intersex or trans. (Though I think one just and very serious criticism of the book is the limited consideration given to intersex or trans people, beyond having them stand for conceptual complications of the assumptions of heternormativity). It is dangerous to assume implicit norms (about bodies or behaviour) in our judgments, for these may be culturally contingent, shaped by fear of difference and disregard for the voices of those who are different. Of course, if under advisement we do pursue such a line of thinking in order to discern what and whom to affirm and bless, we might also ask whether heterosexuality as many of us experience, practice and think of it now, in society an in the churches, is also a product of the fall, an idea not so remote from tenets widely held in western and eastern theological traditions in Christianity. [2]

My main point, however, is that the way the book sets up this clarification clearly implies that our complex, diverse individual make-up, including sexuality and, implicitly, our gender, are theologically significant for our personal identity, whether as created or as distorted in sin. These are integral, not alien or peripheral, to our individual identities as those sharing a common identification as made in God’s image and redeemed by our participation in the Image, Jesus Christ.

Third, the writers of the book note, in keeping with their interest in the attention given to individuals’ particular, vulnerable, embodied lives in biblical narratives, that the biblical writers are interested in personal identities as woven into our relationships with God and one another (p. 202), even if ‘identity’ is not something conceptualised and named as such in biblical texts. Biblical characters ask identity questions: “who is this?” Biblical texts often name people in relation to family, tribe or place, or God. And sometimes these identities change through encounter with God in ways reflected in changes of name (e.g. Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter). Identities are dynamic as affected by relations with the living God. Indeed, the time taken to narrate the histories of named individuals reflects an intuition in biblical traditions that human beings have identities in their interactions with one another, their circumstances and with God, in various settings (as Hans Frei argued way back in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative).

Identity as narrated in these stories is situated and relational, and inseparable from sexuality ‘in ways that can be life-giving, destructive, or an ambiguous mix of good and bad.’ One of the opportunities offered by the way many biblical narratives seem to reflect aspects of our lived experience in history in these ways is that one can make connections both with observations grounded in experience, and with other kinds of description and analysis of our humanity. The LLF book takes that opportunity here by noting that here, as in the social and biological sciences, identity is a mixture of the given, the shaped and the chosen. Furthermore, biblical stories indicate that human identities are particular and only partial reflections of what it is to be human, whence, it suggests our need for relationships, and the importance of belonging to communities for our identities, which biblical stories also reflect and which is also mirrored in the interplay of individual and communal identity in Christ in the New Testament.

Finally, the book argues that our identities in Christ are given and mysterious (hidden with Christ), cut across social, political and cultural distinctions (Gal. 3:23), to be discovered daily by learning to relate our stories to his, and they are comprehensive: they take in, but do not abolish, all the creaturely aspects of identity just described. Identities in Christ are bodily and embodied (1 Cor. 6:15, Rom. 12:1), historical (Philippians 3:4b-6), relational and communal (Philippians. 3:5). The grammar of our identities “in Christ” is one, the book contends, of perfecting of our whole identities. ‘It is therefore no denial of our identity in Christ to say that our identity has deep dimensions that relate to sex and gender’, as, it argues, they do, powerfully and deeply.

brown wooden puzzle game board
Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Disarming this block to reflection is not an end in itself, however. The book’s writers make it a premise to an invitation to everyone to participate in the reflexive dimensions of the journey of discovering and exploring our mysterious identities in Christ in relation to gender and sexuality, to our specific embodiments, our patterns of feeling and desire. It is an invitation to learn how we, as the people constituted by all that goes into our identities, the given, shaped and chosen in interaction with our specific circumstances, may glorify God (pp. 207-8). We do so, it counsels, by attending, with support from others, to the gospel and to ourselves in our complex mixtures of stability and flexibility, with our jumble of true insights and misrecognitions or fantasies about ourselves, and the similar ambiguity of helpful and unhelpful influences from our social contexts. There is here an opportunity to transform the tenor of discernment and dialogue around these issues, but the very realism of the book’s vision of human sin indicates the considerable challenges to that kind of transformation taking place.

There will be much to learn from LLF as a process, how far its possibilities and promise are realised, how far its limitations prove dangerous, what hidden flaws emerge. But I hope the spirit of what has been attempted in the book will be taken forward on this and other questions, in embodying what the Church declares about ‘the whole people of God’.

[1] See, for example, Timothy Wilhelm Jones’ Sexual Politics in the Church of England, 1857-1957 (OUP, 2012).

[2] this reflection owes a lot to Steve Holmes’ post, ‘Queer Hippo: Musings on Human Sexuality’, which I’d recommend.

Making anti-racism mainstream: reflections on From Lament to Action

I’ve been re-reading the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce Report, From Lament to Action, which was published on Stephen Lawrence Day back in April. From Lament to Action is the product of a review of some 25 previous reports on racial justice in the Church of England, and also advises the Archbishops (Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell) on the composition and remit of a Racial Justice Commission. The Archbishops have already committed to implementing several of its recommendations, and the Racial Justice Commission is to be presented to the Church’s General Synod this week.

So as steps toward implementation are underway – and no doubt still being debated and contested behind the scenes – I’ve been re-reading it in light of some of the previous reports to which it refers and the history of efforts to address racism and racial justice in the Church, with a view to understanding it better and offering some comment on its recommendations. In particular, I want to say something about the extent to which the recommendations reflect the report’s proper concerns about making issues of racial justice mainstream in the Church and about the relationship between institutional racism in the Church and in society in the UK.

It may seem obvious, but it really helps to read From Lament to Action in that longer view. The impetus for the creation of the Archbishops’ Taskforce came, in part, from the more immediate contexts of a debate in General Synod in February 2020 on the Windrush scandal and the impact of the murder of George Floyd in this country and around the world. But its effect on the Church’s leadership was to galvanise an attempt to review 40 years’ of efforts to address these issues in the Church and society, so as to find a way to make faster, more meaningful progress on them as an urgent priority. For, Archbishop Justin Welby had declared to General Synod in February 2020, the Church was still ‘deeply institutionally racist’.

Institutional racism

By ‘institutional racism’, of course, the Report understands the ++Justin to be referring to the influential definition put forward in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in its report in 1999:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Some have reacted strongly to the charge of institutional racism, as though it were a sign of the malign influence of contemporary secular activism, but the Church of England has, institutionally, been talking explicitly of its own institutional racism for some 30 years, and has been challenged to address it for longer still. Faith in the City, published in 1985, was not the beginning of that history, but it was an important moment. My account of it is drawn from Glynne Gordon-Carter’s Amazing Journey. The Church of England’s Response to Institutional Racism (Church House Publishing, 2003). The report called for a clear lead and organisational change to address racial discrimination and the ‘alienation, hurt and rejection experienced by many black people in the Church of England.’ 

One of the report’s recommendations was for the establishment of a Standing Commission of the General Synod on Black Anglican Concerns. The rejection of that recommendation by Synod, through a motion put forward by its all white Standing Committee, was illustrative and indicative of the problem at hand, and has to some extent framed the history that followed (and From Lament to Action seeks to rectify it). Synod instead agreed to the creation of the Committee on Black Anglican Concerns, which later became the Committee on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) in 1996, whose members authored or contributed to most of the reports reviewed by the Taskforce. In those reports and the responses to them from General Synod, we can trace the developing articulation after Faith in the City of the charge of what amounts to, and is later expressed in terms of, institutional racism.

Faith in the City had identified Black people’s alienation, hurt and rejection in the Church as a problem requiring clear leadership and organisational change. The Committee’s first report reviewing racism in the dioceses of the Church and identifying good practice, Seeds of Hope (1991), argued that the Church’s mission should include ‘combatting racism among its members and within its structures at every level’. The second report, The Passing Winter (Church House Publishing, 1996), described the General Synod’s discussion of Seeds of Hope, as the first time Synod had ‘discussed the institutional racism which existed within the structures’ and acknowledged the need for work to be done by whole Church in raising awareness at every level (1.1).

I haven’t been able to obtain a copy of Seeds of Hope, but the 1996 parish study pack based on it defines (p. 22) institutional racism as a term used to emphasise ‘the fact that racism is built into and entrenched in the structures and institutions of society such as its economic legal, educational and political systems.’ Racism, it adds, is not just a problem of individual racists, but the way structures and institutions operate against black people.’ The recommendations from Seeds of Hope and the analysis and recommendations of The Passing Winter clearly identify racism in the operation of the Church’s structures and institutional and their impact on black people: in the ways in which the Church’s structures and bodies fail; to address the presence of racism in the Church, e.g. through education; to tackle the marginalisation in parish churches of minority ethnic Anglicans by white Anglicans; to address barriers to the participation of black people in its life, activity and decision-making, including in ordained ministry; to implement adequate and effective equal opportunities policies; and to monitor progress on these issues.

These problems of racism and marginalisation were evidenced in surveys that informed both reports. To get a sense of institutional racism in the lived experience of minority ethnic Christians in one of the more proactive dioceses in this period (when it was led by +John Sentamu, a member of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry), I would recommend Mukti Barton’s Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection (2005).

The use of the concept of institutional racism by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in its report in 1999, and its call for other institutions besides the police to review their policies, outcomes and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities, clearly gave fresh impetus to the Church’s official self-examination. It also led to the Church’s own institutions using the concept of institutional racism to describe itself. Called to Lead (2000) was a report to General Synod from a group tasked with an action plan to follow up on the Inquiry’s report. It foregrounds the Inquiry’s definition of institutional racism and notes that, in response to the Inquiry’s call, the Archbishops’ Council had ‘recognized that the Church of England, like other institutions in society, must accept the challenge of institutional racism and repent.’ (p. 2)

What institutional racism looks like in the Church is evident from the report’s analysis. It quoted Bishop John Sentamu’s observation that ‘the Church of England ‘is still socially glued together by a culture that is monochrome i.e. white’. (The appendix by Lorraine Dixon offers powerful testimony on what it is like to be marginalised by a culture centred on treating white people and their culture as the norm). Called to Lead noted that in areas where minority ethnic communities made up a higher percentage of the local population, minority ethnic Christians also made up a higher percentage of C of E congregations, churchwardens and PCC members, but these rates were not matched in electoral roll membership, local readers and clergy or Deanery Synods. It reported experiences of isolation by minority ethnic Anglicans exploring vocations to ordained ministry; experiences of marginalisation, exclusion and racism by minority ethnic Anglican young people at the hands of white church members; and experiences of stereotyping and marginalisation by minority ethnic members of General Synod.

You can find similar analysis of evidence for institutional racism in the report of the Independent Inquiry into Institutional Racism within the Structures of the Diocese of Southwark, another response to the Lawrence Inquiry, published in the same year. It’s worth noting in particular the stories here of underfunding of initiatives, the alienating effect of white, middle class culture in church life, in the ethos of and recruitment to committees, and in vocational processes, and concerns about exclusionary effects of vestiges of an imperial and colonial mentality in aspects of diocesan life. Later reports give the clear impression that these issues did not and have not gone away. (For an eloquent recent account and analysis of that experience and its impact on individuals and the Church as a whole, I would strongly recommend Azariah France-Williams’ Ghost Ship).

Called to Act Justly expounded the meaning of institutional racism at greater length and emphasised its usefulness when it refers to institutional policies and practices which disadvantage certain groups, regardless of the intention of personnel, and of which white people are beneficiaries but by which they are also corrupted. And General Synod acknowledged the institutional racism of the C of E again when affirming its commitment to tackle it in its resolution on the report in July 2003.

What is striking about reading these and subsequent reports is the repeated of acknowledgement of the problems, the need to re-articulate to General Synod why these problems matter, the repetition of similar recommendations, the repeated sense that while some actions are being taken in some places, overall not nearly enough is being done and not nearly enough progress is being made, and that hopeful signs tend to be followed by a sense of disappointment and frustration at lack of progress. The sense that the message of institutional racism is not being listened to, and that formal acknowledgement is not being born out adequately in action becomes increasingly prominent in later reports to General Synod, and the sense of urgency in the remit of the Archbishops’ Anti-racism Taskforce, and in From Lament to Action, clearly echoes those reports and is really the culmination of a long history of frustrated efforts to get the Church to engage with meaningful change.

A tradition of anti-racist theology

One complaint about From Lament to Action is that it does not have enough theology. Of course, it was not tasked with developing a theological account of racism and anti-racism (though much more of that work is needed in the C of E). Nevertheless, such a theology does inform the whole report and its relatively brief articulation in it is best understood as drawing together, in its own way, a tradition of theological reflection that has informed all the reports it has been asked to review. For, as should be clear now, From Lament to Action stands within and seeks to forward a tradition of official reports and a history of activity, and needs to be read in light of its relationship to them. What comes through all these reports, and From Lament to Action, is the argument that racism is contrary to core Christian convictions about creation and salvation, that anti-racist work flows from the Gospel and so should be integral to the Church’s life and mission.

Seeds of Hope articulated a theological framework in 1991 that grounded its recommendations, and which is quoted in the study guide. Guiding those recommendations were convictions about: the unity and character of the triune God as a God of justice and mercy, about the unity of humanity as one race made in God’s image and the unique worth of each individual before God, and of the church as a people created by Christ’s sacrifice to be community of reconciliation, love and justice who share a foretaste of God’s kingdom. It was brief but rich, implying the coherence of divine unity, human unity and the reconciliation of humanity in the life of the church, and the grounding of the church’s pursuit of justice in the worth of human beings as made in God’s image, Christ’s loving sacrifice for them, underwritten by God’s own just character.

A sense of lack of overall progress lead the authors of Called to Act Justly (2003) to offer a theological reflection on institutional racism in respect of the structural nature of sin and individual and corporate repentance through the pursuit of social justice as the appropriate response to recognising that sin. Racism, like all sin, it argues, fragments relationships, individually and corporately, through the abuse of power held on the basis of physical appearance and cultural assumptions. It requires analysis of the distribution of power, identification of the relationships fractured and of mechanisms for achieving reconciliation, within the institution, in response to the judgement of God on oppressors and God’s compassion for the oppressed. The paradigm of cross and resurrection frames the social dimensions of transformative reconciliation for the powerful, for which listening to black people, repenting of white sin and responding sacrificially to the inequalities and injustices they face are preparatory steps. For the struggle for justice is the other side of the search for reconciliation. Fundamental to that process is the undermining the basis for the dominance of white people, and their expectations of being agents of any change involved.

Present and Participating offered a further theological reflection, no doubt born of the same basic diagnosis that the Church’s failings in addressing its institutional racism were theological at root. It articulated an inclusive theology of generous, reconciliatory, and paradigmatically eucharistic, hospitality. This hospitality is modelled on the hospitality of Christ in his ministry and so imitative of God, and anticipatory of his kingdom, which is receptive to others’ gifts and contributions and so to God’s image in them. Such hospitality realises a fellowship characterised by genuine mutuality and cooperative partnership, figured in the Pauline image of the body of Christ, which transforms those welcomed as guests into hosts – a witness to the world. It thus articulates a theological account of the process of transformation of white majority members called for by Called to Act Justly, though it struggles to transcend the way its concepts centre white Anglicans as hosts imitating God in Christ, and other minority Anglicans, who may have lived all their life in the Church, as strangers. (It also tends to homogenise their experiences and the gifts they bring.)

From Lament to Action clearly echoes and dialogues with this tradition in its treatment of human beings, racism as sin, the saving work of Christ in restoring humanity and the commitments that follow from the transforming reality of being part of his body and identified in relation to him primarily (a theme reflected in the emphasis given to passages like Gal 3.28 and Col. 3.11). It accents the primacy of that identity but is careful to articulate that being identified in Christ embraces human differences and the unique ways each of us images God – elaborating a theme from Seeds of Hope and strengthening the connection in this tradition between creation in God’s image and redemption in Christ.

From this identity and this sharing in Christ comes the commitments to holiness and the pursuit and embodiment of justice, reflecting and witnessing Christ’s restoration of humanity. This calling makes addressing systemic racism and racial sin, which run counter to Christ’s saving work, a missional imperative. ‘The Christian narrative of reconciliation offers us an invitation to confess the sin of racism, and to acknowledge our past and present complicity in various forms of ethnic discrimination and racial prejudice, so that we may truthfully and honestly work together to build the kingdom of God here and now.’ The theme of the full participation of UK Minority Ethnic and Global Majority Heritage Christians in the life, governance, ministry and witness of the Church of England, foregrounded in this report as in so many of its predecessors, flows from this theology, its Christology, ecclesiology and missiology.

Making anti-racism mainstream in the C of E

As From Lament to Action emphasises, its recommendations stand in considerable continuity with those of the reports the Taskforce reviewed. So often in those past reports, as in this, is meagre progress lamented, that you have to ask what does the Taskforce think will make a difference this time, under God? Part of the answer lies in the creation and work of the Racial Justice Commission, as intended by the Archbishops, to which I’ll return below. But also key is the action plan. The Taskforce seem to have taken a leaf out of the way Setting God’s People Free sought to address a very similar story of an even longer history of reports and recommendations without action in respect of the empowering of the laity for the mission and ministry of the Church. In both, setting out a detailed action plan, with clear assignments of responsibility and timescales for implementation, is key. From Lament to Action also updates and adds greater specificity to its actions. It seeks to chart a multi-stranded process of change, initially over a 5-year period, embracing the many parts and levels that make up the Church of England. It advocates nationally funded racial justice officers for every diocese, and it introduces a body at national level to monitor implementation, the Racial Justice Directorate.

As an approach to addressing a systemic problem embedded in the Church’s structures, there’s a good deal of sense in what amounts to a more thoroughgoing, systemic approach to implementing action and embedding accountability, though the coherence of that accountability seems a bit strained in respect of the multiple officers and bodies with oversight of monitoring implementation along with the Racial Justice Directorate. There’s a tension here between making implementation a responsibility for people and agencies in accordance with their normal roles and functions, and introducing a new body to give coherence and grip to oversight, which is reflected more widely in the report’s recommendations and strategy.

A strong theme of this report, as of some of its predecessors, flowing from its theology, is that racial justice and anti-racism become mainstream to the Church’s life, ministry and institutions. It coheres closely with the theme of participation: the more fully UKME and GMH Christians participation in the governance structures, institutions and vocational pathways of the Church, the more scope, in the Spirit, for its ways of thinking, decision-making and configuring ministry to be transformed by their contributions, in this direction, amongst others. That same imperative is reflected elsewhere in, for example, recommendations to make anti-racist training mandatory, to transform school and theological educational institutions’ curricula. In some of these recommendations we find the same tension at work. I’ll give two examples.

The first is the much-discussed requirement that ordinands study either an introductory module on Black Theology or one on Theologies in Global perspective. This recommendation rightly reflects a concern to integrate a greater diversity of traditions of theological reflection, from a greater range of contexts and experiences, in the way people are trained for ordained ministry (presumably this could and should be extended to those training as readers, too). Making engagement with such theologies offers a great opportunity to be challenged and formed in one’s ways of reflecting theologically, and equipped to think theologically about racism and racial justice along with a range of other concerns. Focusing that concern in a requirement to study a module provides a relatively ready way of acting upon it within existing possibilities and with minimal need for rethinking other aspects of training and curricula or for bringing a whole teaching staff on board. It brings change quickly in ways that may influence how students engage with other aspects of the curriculum, and it may thereby promote a demand and desire for change in other ways. However, it’s also possible that it allows TEIs to silo their adherence to the letter of the recommendation without embracing and being transformed by its spirit, and working toward offering a curriculum that integrates diverse theological voices across the board. (I’m basically agreeing here with Mike Higton).

The second is the recommendation for the creation of a study course or materials on racial justice and anti-racism as part of Christian Discipleship, for churches and small groups. Again, there’s much to like about this. It recognises that changing the culture of the C of E has to happen at parish level, and not only when parishes elect people to PCCs or Deanery Synods, appoint a new vicar or recommend someone for training. Perhaps this is the most difficult and significant arena for bringing about change, though one which may be impacted by many other recommendations (e.g. the one just discussed). A discrete resource or study course is something which gives the issues the space they need, allows people to focus on them and discuss them together, and can be produced relatively quickly. However, there is also a danger that we do the anti-racism and racial justice course and then carry on as before. So there is perhaps a similar challenge of how to promote deeper integration of this core element of Christian discipleship across everything the Church does on discipleship – e.g. with the Everyday Faith initiative – at every level.

In a way the Racial Justice Commission exemplifies the same tension. As a standalone body with a clear remit and resources, it can make progress on the issues proposed for it, avoiding the obstacles and inertia which might encumber other institutional arms of the Church. At the same time, there is the challenge of the work to make its work and concerns integral to the normal operation and culture of other departments at national and diocesan levels. So, for example, the Commission is tasked here with examining the C of E’s theology for foundations and frameworks which entrench racial prejudice in the Church (I hope they go beyond official doctrine and liturgies and look at actual espoused and operant theologies on the ground and in different aspects of the institution). But how will antiracism and theological reflection on theology and race and racial justice become integral to the work of the Faith And Order Commission and others with significant responsibilities for doctrine and theological reflection? There’s a risk that those in other bodies in the Church are allowed to think that this work is still someone else’s problem. Given the relatively short time-frame of 5 years, I’d suggest that problem should preoccupy the Commission and the Directorate from the outset. These challenges are similar to some of the worries about targets for participation, and perhaps the same applies in both cases: much depends on how these recommendations are implemented and used to bring about a change of culture. (For some good reflections on targets in the report, see the analyses by Jonathan Jeong and Al Barrett).

Church and Society

A notable feature of the reports preceding From Lament to Action is a concern, evident most fully in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in Called to Lead, to relate institutional racism in the Church and action to address it, to systemic racism in society as the Church’s context, including in respect of expressions of national identity and immigration and asylum policy. There are clear pointers in this direction in From Lament to Action, but, as Charlie Pemberton pointed out to me on Twitter, on the whole it is quite inward looking and does not consider sufficiently how far, precisely as a national church, it is influenced by the culture of which it is a part. The wider history beyond the Church of ethnic minorities in England seems marginal to the otherwise vital briefs given the Commission on slavery and memory, and immigration and asylum history, policy and their interaction with the politics of migration don’t really appear, even though they are the context for the C of E’s response to the presence of minority ethnic Christians in its congregations and its own failures, as recalled by the debate about the Windrush scandal at which ++Justin re-articulated his conviction of the Church’s institutional racism. It is difficult to see how the Church can make real progress on racism and racial justice without examining its relationship to this wider history and context.

Theology, biblical narrative and discernment in Living in Love and Faith (part one)

Living in Love and Faith

Living in Love and Faith is a new way of discernment with respect to doctrine and practice in the Church of England. Its focus is the doctrine and practice of marriage and sexuality. There’s a long and complex backstory to this initiative, and various testimonies to a difficult process of producing the resources for the process. In this blog post, I want to focus on its key resource, the Living in Love and Faith book.

In particular, I want to examine, briefly, and commend how it seeks to guide and shape a process of discernment in the Church of England about its doctrine and practice of marriage. I’ve not space here for a detailed review of the whole book – it is long, though consistently accessible, measured and clear. Instead, I want to focus in this post especially on its treatment of theological anthropology (chapters 8-10) and then in a second post look at how it frames the handling of one key issue.

LLF as step change in the way the Church of England deliberates on its own teaching and practice.

The Church of England produces several kinds of reports. Some seek to guide and resource policy and practice in its various institutions and agencies at various levels. Some seek also to lead or influence national debate and policy formation. Some address particular problems of process. Some resource Christian living and some are the outcome of joint ecumenical commissions with other churches exploring differences and agreements in doctrine and practice. Some, finally, seek to determine and represent the Church’s normative teaching on a question.

Those in the last category, at least the ones I’ve read, tend to present the Church with a relatively finished outcome: a position, framework or structure which, once formally adopted, is to be received, inhabited, practically negotiated or subverted. The house has a given shape, however it is finished, however its inhabitants try to work with or against its constraints and possibilities. (Perhaps the remodelling of a house is more apt).

The LLF book envisages something different: the active involvement of the people of God in discerning the future shape and structure of the building we will inhabit. Whatever the next steps might be, the discernment of the people whom the Spirit constitutes as members of Christ’s body will, the book assumes, be essential to them. It seeks to guide and inform that process.

To that end, it does things very differently to previous reports on doctrinal matters. These might sift different positions and options to some extent, but usually in the course of firmly laying down the one path, with a good deal of the underlying decisions about how to think theologically about the question reflected, but not explored in depth, in conclusions and reasoned assertions. The Church’s long and painful controversies over sexuality, marriage and gender raise those underlying questions acutely but the protagonists have rarely helped people reflect on them.

So it’s really significant that the LLF book tries to contextualise and explore those matters. It takes us into the basic decisions and issues which go into re-imagining the house, and equips us to form a view on them. That seems a new and exciting prospect for a church that professes to believe in the work of the Spirit in its communities and institutions and the dignity and giftedness of all the baptised.

The LLF book offers a real service to that end. It advanced understanding of and clarifies areas of dispute and difference about the future of the Church’s teaching, correcting some factual errors, disambiguating some key terms, unpacking complexity that’s often obscured, and rejecting simplistic rhetorical oppositions. It also challenges its readers in respect of their care for one another, their reflexivity about themselves and their communities, and the institution of the church. (The call out boxes are often used well for these purposes).

A narrative doctrinal framework

But it does all these things within the offering of an overarching doctrinal framework to guide all these aspects of reflection, which comes to the fore in the chapters on theological anthropology. That framework has several interesting and commendable features, which I want to comment on here.

First, it’s significant that the book situates differences within a broader, deeply theological anthropology. That’s the right context for thinking about these complex issues, and the book wisely takes time to explore it carefully in a way that shows obvious debts to the broad tradition of the Church while attentive anew to scriptural nuance and scholarship and to the complexities of lived experience. The result is a rich statement that helps orient reflection and delimit some proper boundaries and articulate an apt ethos for it.

Second, it’s notable that this anthropology makes use of narrative, in several interrelated ways. There is, first of all, a broad, not overly tightly schematised narrative shape to the anthropology: a story of creation, fall and salvation which at once reflects the form of the creeds and a construal of the cumulative witness of the canon of Scripture. Within that framework there is room to draw on reflections of individual biblical narratives, which aren’t forced into a tight conceptual pattern, but allowed their particular textures, ambiguities and renderings of characters. It’s notable, too, that stories of Israel’s life with God play a fully constitutive part in these reflections. And there is room to relate stories of contemporary experiences to the larger story and the individual episodes without over determining their meaning or reducing their complexities.

There are a number of doctrinal emphases and tendencies that come through this account, which give it depth and help set the issues at stake against a greater breadth of theological imagination about creaturely existence in human modes.

Most fundamentally, the book ties creaturehood to an eschatological destiny of life with God. This move builds on and amplifies the tendency of the narrative construal of canonical unity. In the book, the telos of creaturely life is seen as a communion of joy with the Triune God.

The book thickens this connection by the way it invokes the well-worn theological reception of the mention in the first Genesis creation story of humans being made in God’s image. Consistent with a long tradition of theological anthropology that goes back at least to Irenaeus, the book understands God’s Image in humans as a condition of the possibility of that communion, a way in which humans display God’s glory, a foundation for the dignity of all humans and the basis for strong affirmation of goodness of human diversity in complex ways.

These structuring moves are quite traditional in their basic force, though not worked out in some of the problematic emphases and categories of past iterations. There may be better ways of structuring theological anthropology but this one at least roots the proffered framework for the discernment process in the deep grammar of Church of England’s doctrinal heritages and its continued creedal confessions, thus couching the various possible ways forward within a basic, but not uncritical, continuity.

In terms of the issues at stake, this move guides us toward thinking about sexuality, gender and forms of shared life in the context of the final affirmation of the goodness and meaningfulness of creaturely life and of its transformation toward deeper joyful life with God. We are invited to understand this end and change not as abrogation or nullification of creaturely living, but its fulfilment. It invites us to relativise earthly goods and joys in that perspective but also to see their goodness underlined by it, and to orient our enjoyment of them toward it.

The book’s centring of Jesus Christ in the narrative and its resort to the theme of incarnation intensify these effects. To understand Christ’s identity and saving work in terms of incarnation worked out in his life, death and resurrection picks up the predominant emphasis of the Church’s doctrinal heritages, ancient, reformed and modern. To affirm and think with his full humanity and divinity is deeply orthodox but also underscores and fills out the themes of the goodness of creatures, their transformation in being drawn into life with God, and the fittingness of this communion both in respect of their creaturehood, and in respect of God’s abiding disposition toward them. Above all, as Hans Frei might note, it suggests that our identities are encompassed in all these aspects of God’s action and both found and fulfilled in them. I’ll return to that in the next post.

Creation and incarnation help ground the book’s assertion in these chapters of the ontological and ethical primacy of love – intended to flow from God to and through us, and evident wherever we do love, a love made possible by trust and hope and sustained by God’s faithful love. Together with the eschatological orientation of human creatures to sharing God’s joy, this theology of love further frames questions around sexuality, gender and forms of shared life theologically and guides us to integrate their affective and erotic dimensions in our deliberations and to see those dimensions, in turn, within those dynamics of participating, in Christ and by the Spirit, in divine love and joy.

The Incarnation is usually understood, at least in part, as addressing the calamity of human evil and its disruption and distortion of creaturely goodness and the creature’s vocation to life with God. Accordingly, the book’s theological anthropology acknowledges all this. Its marked reflections on human sinfulness and its pervasiveness, emphasise helpfully its epistemic effects: the way it distorts our self-perception and perception of others, the way it’s at work in our theological and ethical judgments. Those are important cautions and prompts for reflexivity.

Above all, however, what struck me most the way the book sees human sinfulness to be evident, perhaps most evident – in biblical narrative and lived experience – in abusive relationships of unequal power, especially sexual abuse, and the use of marriage and family as means to exert male power. There’s precedent for this move in some work in theological anthropology (especially feminist and womanist accounts) in recent decades, of course, and the topic ought to be unavoidable, especially after #churchtoo and IICSA. Nevertheless, to make it thematically important in a general account of sin is still very welcome and significant in the context of such a document guiding reflection on these topics.

All these themes and their guiding force are reflected in the book’s emphasis upon and treatment of embodiment in these chapters. There’s a strong valorisation of human embodiment, and the messy materiality of our creaturely formation and salvation, despite its vulnerability, and of human relationality and mutuality. The book affirms that bodies, and what we do with them, matter intensely, including in respect of sex. (See again the commentary on sexual violence and objectification in scriptural stories).

There’s enormous significance in framing the issues in this way. It works against simplification, reduction, short cuts to deliberation and reflection, against looking away from the human complexity, from the people and their God-given dignity. And creates a particular space for clarifying differences and undoing some blocks to discussing them, as I hope to explore in the next post.

Schleiermacher and The Dig

Official Poster for Netflix’s The Dig

As children who had been home-schooled return to their schools here in England, and the tide of first vaccination shots spreads through the population, we seem to be at another critical point in the course of the pandemic. Schools, of course, have remained open for children of key-workers, but the return of the remainder of their pupils to the classroom is the first, big step out of lockdown. At the same time, it carries risks of increasing the circulation of the virus, hence much else will remained closed, and ministers and their medical and scientific advisors warn us to remain careful. A calculated balance is being struck of risks and benefits in the context of falling numbers of new cases, hospitalisations and covid-related deaths and rising numbers of people part-vaccinated, with the significant benefits that brings. The heightened juxtaposition many of us got used to at other points this year, of mortality and the ordinary goods of learning and socialising face-to-face, is back against a backdrop of cautious hope.

This moment puts me in mind of some of the main themes of the Netflix Film, The Dig. Alongside the excellent acting and Ralph Fiennes’ and Monica Dolan’s wonderful Suffolk accents, and interwoven with the interaction and tensions between people divided by sexism, norms of sexuality, class structures and prejudices, is the sharp juxtaposition of ordinary goods of shared life, (care, imagination, friendship, love, education and discovery) with the prospect of death, the disruption of all these things, and the threat to the bonds they can create, to the hopes invested in them.

They meet most prominently, of course, in Mrs Pretty. Already mourning her husband while caring for their son, having long delayed marriage and children to care for her father, she carries the burden of a project in which these two past shared lives meet: to excavate the mysterious barrows on the land she owns, as she and her husband had planned; a strand of identity from her own childhood, helping her father excavate the apse of the former Cistercian convent where she grew up. Long foreshadowed through the film, she discovers she has a fatal heart-condition, and has not long to live. It is too soon. ‘Not yet’, she tells someone (is it God?) while tending her husband’s grave. She has her son to cherish, enjoy and see through the war into adulthood, and there is not enough time.

They meet, too, in Basil Brown, the self-taught excavator and author, deeply learned in Suffolk’s soils and history, and in his craft, but despised by his employers. His vocation is always vulnerable because it depends on the availability of temporary work, the passionate pursuit of which strains the bonds of affection with his long-suffering wife. His place in the story of Sutton Hoo is equally perilous, threatened and for many decades completely obscured by the academic archaeologists who took over his dig.

The opened grave of the unknown Saxon warrior provides one of two deep perspectives into which the film places this theme of quotidian goods, the social structures that constrain them, and the mortality that surrounds them. The other is the cosmic perspective figured by Petty’s son, Robert’s love of rockets and the star-gazing into which Brown initiates him. Both set the ephemeral everyday struggles of Mrs Petty and Basil Brown for the things and the people they love within vast horizons of the reaches of space and the strangeness of the distant past, into which they journey through excavation and flights of imagination and sympathy.

Both perspectives relativise the present and its intense concerns, and they underline its ephemerality. Time turns wooden trays to sand, after all; Pretty’s cousin Rory tries to fix things in time even ‘as they pass’ with his camera, to preserve what’s vital, but we know there are limits to its powers. In the film, this ephemerality crosses with a wider limit to human capacity and achievement, a recognition, profoundly challenging to the vision of masculinity that was held out to Robert after his father’s death, that we all fail.

These cosmic and historical perspectives are linked to a theme which suggests something more, in the face of mortality and the ephemerality of our loves, through the figure of the voyager: the thought of an afterlife of motion. After all, reasons Robert Petty, Vikings and Space Pilots are the same: ‘they explore new lands and have battles in ships.’ (Yes, there are some problematic echoes here for anyone attuned to our colonial history, as the piece linked below points out). Those who buried the ship, Brown says, believed they were sailing somewhere, whether to the underworld or to the stars… ‘Wherever we go when we die’, adds Mrs Pretty.

At several points in the film, we are nudged to make figural and symbolic connections between Pretty and Brown and the people who made the barrow, and indeed with the king whom they buried there. These aren’t, I think, meant to be racialised connections (which isn’t to say it’s impossible for viewers to racialise them). The people who made the barrows are, it’s once implied, the forebears of the people of the time of the film, which does suggest kinship and ancestry, but not necessarily as a single racial or ethnic group. When they are elsewhere named as ‘Anglo Saxons’, a term which has a modern history of white supremacist usage which continues today, it is as those belonging to the strangeness of the past, in the same bracket as Vikings and ancient Egyptians. It is possible to put those two features together and make something disturbing, dangerous and exclusionary from them, but the film itself does not seem to do so. (For an alternative view, see this piece by Prof. Louise D’Arcens in The Conversation).

The connection in the film of its characters to the people who buried the Sutton Hoo boat and its passenger seems rather to be to those considered at once as strange, and other, and yet linked to our protagonists through place and common humanity. The effect of the connection is such that, to the characters who attend and explore their material remains, the past speaks to their personal existential dilemmas, but does not seem to be used to shore up a claim to racial superiority of an ethno-national group.

Brown makes a second symbolic link when, with his bicycle, in a small ferry boat, he crosses the same river they crossed to bury their king, the same river he crossed in the ship in which he was buried; the same river in which an RAF pilot, a latter day warrior, is submerged when his plane crashes.

But it is the boat-grave itself which carries the main symbolic freight in relation to our theme. That symbolic connection is suggested powerfully when Brown, proudly exhibiting the trench he has dug into the side of the first barrow, is suddenly buried alive when the side of the trench collapses upon him. They dig to meet the dead and the meeting, like Howard Carter touching the fingerprints of the builders of Tutankhamun’s tomb, collapses time. Just so, by collapsing the distance between the living and the dead, the event underscores the transient intensity of the present. It also reveals that the possibility of meeting the dead in death also haunts the Mrs Pretty. She asks Brown, after he is rescued from the grave, what he saw, and lingers on the possibility that if he did not see his grandfather, he was seen by him.

These two perspectives, the cosmic and the historical, come together in the most powerful scene of the film, one so loaded with symbolism that it teeters on bathos, when the ailing Mrs Pretty lies down in the sandy impression of the vanished ship which Robert, aided by Basil Brown, has transformed into a stately Starship sailing off into the cosmos to Orion’s Belt, to take the Queen home where she will be reunited with the King and await her son, the Space Pilot.

It is a symbolically climactic scene that realises most fully the symbolic connection between past and present around the themes identified here. It also closes the gap between Mrs Pretty and her son that has been created by her futile determination to protect him, who has already lost a father, from the increasingly evident and imminent prospect of her death. And in that way, it allows the viewers, too, to face her mortality and, perhaps, their own, and to face the question of what death might be, or onto what realm it opens out, if any.

It is a child’s fantastic consolatory conceit of an afterlife which resonates with adult interpretations of the burial and with adult questions about death. In an earlier conversation, Basil Brown puts forward another account: that death and decay are not the final word on a human life because humans participate, through culture, in something continuous which transcends them but also incorporates and carries forward their contributions to it. It is a consoling vision, albeit one which works best at a communal or corporate level, and it makes sense of their shared project of discovery, and Mrs Pretty’s gift of the treasure to the British Museum, so many people can see it, as a participation in that venture.

The notion of the dying as voyagers resonates powerfully with Christian liturgies for the dying, who are figured as voyagers toward the place prepared for them by Jesus Christ. These and other rites, such as Ash Wednesday services, and indeed Baptism and Eucharist, integrate a ritualised, sacramental recognition of the reality of mortality into an articulation of Christian hope centred on Christ’s resurrection and his defeat of death and all its powers and mercenaries. The acknowledgement and the hope to transcend death’s curtailments of loves, cares, projects and responsibilities are firmly rooted within the basic narrative of the faith, the forms worked from its various scriptural instantiations and cultural interpretations, and the scripts and affective colours bonded to them.

However, I sometimes wonder how far Christian liturgy and traditions of consolation allow room and resources to acknowledge the tensions explored, and the losses anticipated in The Dig without resolving them quickly into the narrative of hope and redemption. Some strands in Christian tradition seek to downplay the earthly loves and goods involved here in favour of those transcendent, heavenly, eschatological joys of union with God, anticipated in the life of ascesis and contemplation, or contrast the security of that destiny with the transience, confusion and suffering of earthly life and its goods. Cappadocian traditions of consolation, which some of my students have been exploring this year, exemplify this, I think. Others try to help mourners move on from grief to the joy that should be theirs in union with Christ, even now (see Ronald Rittger’s The Reformation of Suffering, for examples).

This week I’ve been discussing with my students the Reformed German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Sermon at Nathanael’s Grave. Schleiermacher preached it at the funeral of his nine-year old son, in November 1829, only a few years before his own death in 1834. It is an eloquent and moving refusal of some of these strands of consolation, married to an austere, apophatic post-mortem hope that resonates with The Dig, though anchored more firmly in dominical promises. We may want a fuller, richer hope than Schleiermacher, rooted in the resurrection, but we also need, I suggest, ways to recognise and mourn things like the things he mourns, the things Mrs Pretty mourns: time with the child he hoped to guide into social and spiritual maturity.

Schleiermacher might also have understood what Basil Brown knows, the importance of the continuity of human cultural connections deep into the material as well as the textual remains of the pasts. Perhaps one of the challenges for contemporary Christian theology, without letting go of its commitment to resurrection and the break with the reign of sin and death, without sanctifying or mythologising the past, is to pursue the recognition of that creative creaturely continuity.

Excepting churches from lockdown: the case against

Why church services (excepting funerals) should not be an exception to lockdown.

The UK government has announced that as of Thursday, public places of worship in England should close except for certain limited activities, which do not include ordinary weekly gatherings for worship. This move has understandably attracted considerable concern and criticism from leaders of a number of churches and denominations, and from those of other religious communities, and they have advanced forthright public arguments for making places of religious worship an exception to lockdown.

The case for an exception

In one such case, a letter published today (Tuesday 3rd Nov), several prominent leaders have done so on grounds that capture many of the reasons being advanced elsewhere: that the churches and other spaces are ‘COVID-secure’; that public worship is essential to sustaining the service offered by faith communities, and in particular the mental health of their volunteers; that public worship fosters the connectivity, social cohesion and solidarity needed for resilience during the pandemic; that participating in worship helps mitigate the physical and psychological effects of social isolation, trauma and grief, particularly for people who are Black or Asian or from other ethnic minorities; that it is a sign of hope; and that no scientific rationale for closing these spaces for public worship has been given (as the President and Vice-President of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and now the Evangelical Alliance, have demanded one should be). The other argument I have seen on social media concerns the threat posed by this measure to freedom of religion. All told, it seems a powerful cogent case, and it is being advanced passionately and, I believe, with good intent.

In this post, however, I want to make a case for the alternative point of view, in the interests of furthering theological reflection on the issue. I’m going to focus on churches within the context of Christian tradition, broadly construed, as that’s what I know best and where I am most implicated.

Some basic assumptions

Let’s assume that reducing contact between members of different households reduces transmission of the virus, and so reduces cases, reduces the exposure of those more vulnerable to the effects of the disease, with knock-on effects in terms of lowering rates of hospitalisation and deaths, as well as cases of long covid.

Let’s assume that, as SAGE advise, it is past time for measures of this severity in order to bring down the rate of transmission and number of cases to manageable levels and save lives.

Let’s also assume that complying with reasonable, but imperfect measures to that end is one expression of the love of neighbour that is commanded of Christians, which is pertinent to our situation. We may love our neighbours, that is, by complying with measures we are warranted in believing will help keep them safe from a dangerous, contagious disease and prevent the health care systems which care for them and us in respect of this and many other conditions from being overwhelmed. One could also extend that case to the economic and societal effects of the disease.

There’s good grounds in scripture and tradition to hold that love of neighbour, in its inseparability from love of God, is the height of Christian discipleship, the chiefest of those virtues by which we may imitate God’s own character, and the foremost form by which we may participate in the love of God, set forth in Jesus Christ, that is shed abroad by the Spirit.

Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that attending a short, socially distanced service, with no congregational singing, is among the less risky forms of gathered contact, as far as we can tell. (I’m a bit cautious about declaring certain spaces that comply with government guidance to be ‘Covid-secure’; perhaps one can stipulate a definition of that term which avoids its obvious connotations. I fear it invites a level of assurance about a given indoor space which I find hard to credit given the mitigations put in place which assume the circulation of the virus in those present and the risk of its transmission).

Love of neighbour and solidarity in lockdown

I don’t know if it’s true that public worship in churches in this way carries this relatively low level of risk of transmission. Supposing that it is, there’s nevertheless good reason for churches not to be excepted from lockdown restrictions, despite the real cost that church communities, like other religious communities, pay for not being able to meet, and for which costs they can give stark public benefit reasons, as well as theological accounts.

it is about solidarity in lockdown and the love of neighbour. Lots of groups and associations can make analogous cases about relative risks, some perhaps stronger than those of the churches. But once you start granting extra exceptions of this kind, you complicate the message and reduce its efficacy, as the PM pointed out to the House of Commons on Monday. To ask government to take that risk in order to allow corporate worship in person is to compromise the love of neighbour we show in part by keeping our distance in solidarity along with everyone else. It is a logic which, if advanced by every group who could plausibly employ it, and if accepted by government in even a minority of the cases to which it applies, would entail the piecemeal dismantling of lockdown. It would erode a public health measure whose efficacy depends on clear intelligibility and widespread public trust, acceptance and adherence. It would dismantle it, exception by exception, at a time when public trust and patience is probably stretched thin, polling support for this lockdown notwithstanding.

But what of the goods listed above that are fostered by public worship and which sustain the voluntary service of Christians, amongst other religious people? This is a very serious argument, and, without idealising Christian community or Christian practices, I’m quite prepared to accept that such goods are vital and that participating in public worship may well foster them for most participants, most of the time, even in the messy, troubled, sinful communities Christians actually belong to. There are real, high costs to this lockdown measure in the constriction of such means of common social grace as churches share with other forms of association and community. It is easy, perhaps, to lose sight of the costs to particular people with particular needs, including various groups vulnerable to this coronavirus, including those suffering disadvantageous circumstances for health due to broader structural inequalities, such as those in which racial injustice is a key factor.

Yet those vulnerabilities and costs may be much greater and longer lasting if lockdown is not effective. That is the calculation of risks and benefits held forth by the scientific advice the government is acting upon. And here the danger of the erosion of lockdown by the accretion of exceptions, and the Christian calling to love and solidarity with our neighbours, tell again. In the limited circumstances constrained by the long term history of the degrading of public health systems, the effects of poverty and structural injustice, and the more immediate history of the handling of the pandemic, as with all situations marked by the multiple deformations of sin upon structure, the distribution of power, character and bodies, there seem to be no choices which do not involve some degree of conflict between limited precious goods.

At the same time, it is also possible to underestimate the extensity and depths of the gracious goodness of God in those same situations and amongst and between those who inhabit them. There may be and surely have been imaginative forms of mitigation of those costs of lockdown, which offer an experience of connection, solidarity and cohesion.

But the goods at stake in church services are out of all comparison with those of golf clubs or other associations!

Some of them are.

But to insist on this way of sharing in these goods seems to risk amounting to turning them into obstacles to the love of neighbour and so to the love of God and so they also risk deforming them. And it is difficult to believe that they are really in competition with that twin love which binds us to God and whose edification is the goal of all exposition of Scripture, as Augustine thought in on Christian teaching, and, I would venture, all sacraments and other sacred signs and gestures. (This would take another long post to substantiate but I don’t then it’s controversial to think of love and peace as that which churches are called to pursue as the goal of their sociality [Augustine again], and one of the chief ends of Eucharistic celebration, of participation in Christ and incorporation in his body thereby).

But what if some of the spiritual goods fostered in church gatherings, including and above all the loves of God and neighbour, are bound up with the social forms of those gatherings? What if in addition our learning of them is always critical, never to be presumed or stored like capital, whatever our degree of sanctification and is seriously impaired if we can’t gather? Doesn’t that make church services more like schools than golf clubs? Doesn’t it strengthen the case for making them an exception?

I think this is a potent objection which would be stronger if lockdown became semi-permanent state. However, there are a number of things that tell against it. First, love of others which tends to the good of those loving and beloved may be fostered by other forms of association beside the church, so we shouldn’t make ourselves a stark exception. Second, churches may be (will inevitably be) places of deformed loves as well as schools of virtue, so we shouldn’t overstate the premise of the objection. Third, by the grace of God we may learn love of neighbour in a condition of relative dispersal as well as gathering and that, too, is intrinsic to the social form of (ideal) Christian community. This time, fourth, may be an extended moment of dispersal, in which we are to learn in that way. And, fifth, and to repeat, by turning away from neighbour (and so from God) by insisting on the preservation of our goods as exceptions makes the social form of the churches into a kind enclosure, which deforms the very goods they are meant to build up.

But these measures are an infringement of our freedom of religion, which is a fundamental right in our democracy!

This is certainly a deeply serious concern, perhaps felt most deeply by religious groups other than C of E because of the historic associations. And it’s one I’m not well qualified to comment upon. So take what follows with as much salt as you deem prudent.

My ignorant guess would be that lockdown measures may be justified under the Human Rights Act (1998), as explained by the EHRC here, if they are ‘lawful, necessary and proportionate in order to protect’ public health: the same justification would apply to the way lockdown infringes on the freedom of association, and, I would imagine, the freedom to a private life. And concerns about threats to those freedoms are also deeply serious and rightly are given voice by a number of MPs. However, we are in a pandemic and I think, on the basis of the advice of well-qualified scientists with the right collective expertise and access to the best evidence available, and subject to democratic scrutiny, consent and timely review, and to a relatively short time limit, I can see how it is justified. In that case, it seems difficult to make an exception for one freedom over others, especially in a pluralistic society. Christians, moreover, have Christian reasons for not wanting to except themselves from the demands placed on wider society in respect of these public health measures, for the reasons given above.

Remarks for How Race Impacts Theology and Religious Studies

Mask, by kynan tait from Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Today I was part of a panel of researchers from the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. Our brief was to talk for up to 10 minutes about how our disciplines have shaped and been shaped by understandings of race and about the whiteness of the discipline… I joined Joy Henry and Alana Vincent, and we were chaired by David Clough. I spoke about academic Christian theology in the UK.

This was my talk. I’ve adapted the script a little bit, not least to take account of what I actually said.

The whiteness of academic theology in the UK

I’ve come to a recognition of the centralising of white bodies, voices and concerns in academic theology in the UK through my involvement in its largest scholarly society, the Society for the Study of Theology. For me that dates from a plenary paper given by Professor Robert Beckford, one of our foremost Black theologians, in which, as an aside (but not incidentally), he pointed out how monochrome, how white the Society gathered before him was, and urged us to reflect on that.

At a further panel on Theology and Race in 2016, Professor Anthony Reddie, another of our leading Black theologians, was among those drawing attention to the seriousness of the problem. Out of his intervention came an exercise in listening to Black colleagues and then working with some of them, which helped me and others see just how far only the Society, but the wider culture it represents, was centred upon the experiences, concerns, categories and preferred theological methods of those racialised as white. There’s a report which sets this out, available on the SST’s website.

That institutional whiteness, which intersects with issues of gender, class, sexuality and disability is intertwined with the wider institutional whiteness of both Higher Education and many Christian churches in the UK. It must be bound up with their failures to welcome generations of Black people and Black Christians in the decades since the Windrush generation made this country their home, and the historical context to that failure. It is enmeshed in the processes which form people as ‘white’, invisibly centring themselves over against racial others and according them, in that respect, one part of the code which gives access to opportunity and power in this country.

But, spurred on by Beckford and Reddie, we also have to ask about how the discipline of theology, its categories and methods, came to be this way, and what contribution theological ways of thinking contributed to that development. It’s a huge, complex subject which has only relatively recently become a focus of research in the field beyond a small minority of minoritized scholars. In what follows I will sketch a few key fragmentary features of that history as I understand it so far.

Race and theology in Early Christian theology

The first is to draw attention to several features of theological discourse in the early centuries of the Christian church. One aspect of their theological project was to give a distinct content to the Christian identity initially ascribed to them in Roman society, so as to define themselves over against, but also in continuity with, both Jews with their ancient past and pagans with their long philosophical heritage. (Here I was thinking of Justin Martyr, who we looked at in a module I teach a few weeks ago).

In doing so, several Christian writers drew upon the capacities of what Denise Kimber Buell calls ‘ethnic reasoning’. These Christians represented themselves as distinguished by the universality of their embrace of people, and the possibility of their virtue and deification, without regard to ethnicity, status or gender. They also thought of Christianity as a new race, a new people, defined by blood and adoptive kinship with Christ. They were thus linked back thereby to the lineage of Abraham, and participants in Christ’s renewal of the human race. They were heirs to his fulfilment of both Jewish prophecy and identity and of pagan philosophical insight, surpassing and superseding and laying claim to those identities and cultures by their closer connection to incarnate divine Reason.

This was an identity with a fixed genealogy and a story of radical change that opened up ethnic membership through radical change. It has the potential to be employed both to delegitimate racial hierarchies, but also in ways approximating modern racism, in the demand to assimilate to this universal ethnicity as a condition of counting as fully human.

Early Christian theology has other legacies relevant here: the negative symbolics of blackness, associating black people with the demonic; the alignment of the spiritual victory of Christ over demons with the Roman conquest of the known world; the hierarchy of rational male governance over female, mutable, animal matter and flesh. (There’s a whole history of Christian-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages which needs to come here, and which my colleague Alana Vincent spoke about as a background to understanding the role of theology in European colonialism).

We see these features come together in the history of the expansion of Europe in the early modern period: the combination of a racial aesthetic of beautiful white through to demonic black in the gaze of Christians enacting the saving purposes of divine providence through empire and colonisation, with the sense of their own centring in those purposes and of their whiteness as the invisible framing of that determining, comprehensive gaze, grounded on the visible contrast of black bodies – an optic Western theology has struggled to be aware of, let alone unlearn. It is a way of seeing that uproots people from the places that gave them identity, their connections to an animate landscape and its animals and history, even while they are physical displaced from it when enslaved, leaving only the racial aesthetic to identify them, as Willie Jennings has argued in The Christian Imagination.

The ambiguity of that early Christian legacy is evident in the history of the concept of race in British and American theological arguments about the origins of humanity. Christian ethnic reasoning is arguably bound up with a way of conceiving of Christ’s saving work as the second Adam, and many Protestant theologians felt that the authority of Scripture was at stake in being able to reconcile the primeval history of Genesis 1-11 with the human physical and religious diversity they encountered through colonial expansion and trade. (See Colin Kidd’s The Forging of Races. Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World).

The Forging of Races

Those theological commitments to a single human origin in Adam (monogenism) long staved off a theory of multiple human origins which would have provided the basis of a racializing ideology, and provided the basis for the anti-slavery arguments of Black Afro-Britons like Ignatius Sancho and Oloudah Equiano who led the cause for abolitionism in the C18th. But monogenism is a flexible notion and proved adaptable to the racial ideologies of the late nineteenth century.

Those racial ideologies, as Shawn Kelley and Susannah Heschel describe them, involve treating stereotyped visible features of bodies attributed to a racial group as indices of spiritual and moral essences belonging to members of that group, and the bodies of members of that group as carriers of that essence. The conceptual components of that concept of race were first elaborated by Christian thinkers. The usual suspects here are Immanuel Kant (for the racial classification of bodies) and the romantics Johann Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher (for the notion of groups having distinctive cultural-spiritual essences) – see Theodore Vial’s book, Modern Religion, Modern Race.

Racial essences, racialised nationalism, and the essence of Christianity

Sallman’s ‘Head of Christ’
Walter Sallman’s ‘Head of Christ’, 1940.

As Shawn Kelley and Susannah Heschel have argued, that kind of racial ideology influenced Christian theology and biblical scholarship, in a kind of feedback loop from their Christian theological origins. There is a real affinity between this concept of racial essences and the search of academic Protestant theologians in the West for an original, enduring essence of Christianity which could be the durable basis of Christian identity and theology in modernity, amidst Victorian doubts in more secularised contexts. That affinity made racialised thinking about a de-Judaised Jesus and his context and the history of the church highly appealing to some as a way of securing Christian relevance to racialised nationalisms, especially when those are combined with providential schemes and divine election. That’s the story Susannah Heschel tells (in The Aryan Jesus) about the German academic tradition of theology and the German Christian theologians of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. But I suspect that appeal may also have held true in other contexts of white supremacy, including, I suggest, British theology in the era of the British Empire. An exploration of that context might contribute to our understanding of how we got to where we are today.

A review of Azariah France-Williams’ Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship is a revelation, an unveiling of realities largely unperceived by privileged members of the Church of England who are also racialised as white, in powerful imagery and devastating testimony. You may have heard of the Revd Andrew Moughtin-Mumby’s speech at the Church’s General Synod, moving his private member’s motion, in which he called for practical solidarity with the victims of the Windrush scandal, and acknowledgement of the Church’s own institutional racism. You may have read or watched it and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s widely reported frank admission, in response, that the Church is indeed ‘deeply institutionally racist.’ This book is not the first publication to give voice to the experience of minority ethnic clergy in the C of E, but I suspect it is the best publicised so far and so best placed to stimulate reflection and action. It offers an eloquent exposition of that complex experience and a diagnosis of the institutional culture which makes the Church and its dioceses unsafe vessels for minority ethnic vocations and ministries. It what follows I want to pick out some of the themes that stood out to me on reading and re-reading it.

Micro-aggressions and emotional labour

One of the book’s strengths is that it gives voice to a number of members of the Church of England from ethnic minorities, mostly clergy, some named and interviewed, several as anonymised respondents to a survey. The experiences they report here are chronic, exhausting and reveal a culture that is stressful to inhabit for them, because of the constant possibility of being spoken to or spoken about as the out of place, curious, exotic, deficient, suspicious or frightening racial other; a culture, moreover, which places all the burden of managing these micro-aggressions on those who receive them. These ‘mini-assaults on one’s personhood are death by a thousand paper cuts’ (p. 6). The testimonies cited in the book relate such occurrences in the process of selection for ordination, at theological colleges, in ordained parochial ministry, from BAP selectors, fellow ordinands, parishioners and white fellow clergy. The seriousness and significance of micro-aggressions for people from ethnic minorities is underlined by some do the findings from the Minority Anglican Project, described by Dr. Sanjee Perera here.

In/visibility and tokenism

Closely related to these experiences is a repeated experience France-Williams describes of simultaneous invisibility and visibility in contexts of ministry, team meetings and in relation to the hierarchy. That is to say, he (and others) are visible to their white peers and senior clergy only on certain terms: as a racial other, not as themselves, not as those made in the image of God and called by God to minister in Christ’s Way. They only register in so far as they conform to – and give the impression (smiling) of being comfortable conforming to – the expectations and norms imposed upon them by a white majority middle class clerical culture which works assiduously and quietly to exclude them from significant responsibility, to reconfigure their initiatives and, above all, to recruit their persons as badges of their own inclusivity. What is not welcome is the experiences, the pain, the histories and cultures of minoritised Anglicans, and the difficult and costly reckoning that would follow from engaging seriously with them. Tokenism is, on this multi vocal account, a serious obstacle to mission, communion, w/holiness and racial justice in the Church of England.

A history of silence and exclusion

Another powerful and instructive feature of the book is its relating of the histories and presences that provide the complex haunting context for these experiences and this treatment. There is the massive trauma of Caribbean slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, British colonialism and its legacies in the Caribbean, and the Church’s part in profiting from and upholding these institutions. There is empire and its iconographic celebration in English churches and cathedrals. There is the cold reception or rejection of Anglicans of the Windrush generation. All these histories and legacies need to be better and more widely known and reflected upon in the Church, at all levels and incorporated into its liturgical anamnesis (the discussion of Canon Eve Pitts’ Ancestors Arise service, and the analogy with Remembrance Day, in chapter 2, is really thought-provoking here).

And then there is the repeated failures of General Synod to take meaningful action in response to the exodus of Black Anglicans to Black Majority Churches in the late 70s, and the sustained efforts of the General Synod Standing Committee to curtail and stymie the efforts of minoritised Anglicans, led by Bishop Wilfred Wood and what became the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), to address the institutional racism they encountered in the Church and its governing body, the General Synod, following upon recommendations made in Faith in the City report of 1985. France-Williams’ scepticism about future prospects of meaningful and adequately radical reform are very understandable in light of this history.

Whiteness, power and safety

France-Williams’ diagnosis of the treatment ethnic minority Christians and clergy have experienced in the Church is an analysis of the unexamined use of power in the Church of England by and for people (usually male in the anecdotes) racialised as white, backed by and perpetuating a largely unreflective normalising of whiteness: i.e. White supremacy. It is a stark, shattering assessment, which deeply challenges the Church of England’s institutional identity as a moral arbiter of justice and holiness and its sense of being ‘the good guys’. It will meet with instinctive resistance, but it is really the explication of the admission of institutional racism.

There are some powerful observations here about whiteness, white supremacy and it’s English Anglican manifestations. France-Williams quotes the Episcopalian priest, Winnie Varghese: ‘whiteness is a claim to power, it’s a claim to rightness’, an identity Christians have to resist (p. 14). English racism, he observes, is ‘often more about subtraction of support than addition of suffering; more about a retreat from people of colour than a full-on direct assault’ (p. 89). And that’s borne out in the experiences related here. As a black minister in the Church he meets ‘colleagues who are white, where white means power and a belief that they know what is best for all concerned when they should be there to listen and support’ (p. 17), an observation illustrated in several excruciating episodes recounted here. It is the whiteness and class unity, the shared social capital and heritage (p. 74) operative behind the scenes in dioceses that the author sees unveiled in the unity of his white clergy colleagues, otherwise divided in terms of doctrine and practice, on the cricket pitch and in the business informally done there (pp. 173-4).

Of the Church of England he writes, (p. 8) that this sapping whiteness ‘is at work in every arena of the Church of England, from its ruling council General Synod, to its theological colleges, and the way the Church of England operates in its communities. All privilege white concerns as the norm.’ And he sees that whiteness in the Church intersects with class, gender and ableism. Hence the challenge offered by the book: ‘Unless the status attributed to being white is examined, the white historic Church will continue to both consciously and unconsciously limit the voice, action, and influence of her own non-white members, her women, her members of the queer community, her neuro-diverse, and those who live with disabilities.’ And this must lead to a radical transformation (p. 21): ‘Until our institutions are reordered, our education systems, our political systems, and our church systems, a person of colour does not have the societal backing and reinforcement to flourish.’

Central to this analysis of the use of power in Ghost Ship is the tensed pairing of Cross and Crown, from the juxtaposition of a portrait of the Queen and Prince Phillip alongside one of Jesus in the front room of France-Williams’ parental home (p. 32), to the label he uses for General Synod: the ‘Cross and Crown Club’. The Cross here is the way of ‘willingness to suffer alongside the vulnerable’ (p. 96); the Crown is the way of ‘status, superiority and security’, the ‘path of power, privilege and prestige… the way of the predator’ (p. 33). The Church of England, he argues, seeks to serve both Masters, both Crucified Lord and Crown, and collapses them into one unstable identity and ethos in which the way of the Crown predominates beneath the rhetoric of the Cross, a prioritising inevitable, in the case of General Synod, by the management of its agenda as an exclusive club. France-Williams’ memorable and arresting way of figuring this doubleness and the effective priority of the Crown (and part of the genius of the book is the care that has been taken to arrest and provoke the imagination to think, to engage) is by using of the familiar mythos of CS Lewis’ Narnia stories, and especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Church of England presents itself as serving and proclaiming Aslan. But the experience of its clergy from ethnic minorities, he argues, is that beneath that exterior they actually encounter Jadis and her wolves, and an icy whiteness for which they are unacclimatised, while Aslan is kicked out or sacrificed again.

It is this diagnosis which leads to the judgment embodied in the central image of the book, the Ghost Ship, drawn from the disaster of the sinking of the overloaded ferry boat the MV Christena between the islands of St Kitts and St Nevis in the Caribbean, in August 1970, but also drawing on the imagery and history of the Middle Passage and its ghosts. The Church of England, France-Williams argues, is to its clergy from ethnic minorities an unsafe vessel in which to voyage, because of its hierarchical white supremacist culture. Its dioceses (‘Dire-Seas’), too, which should come with safety ratings. There is a strong note of caution here for anyone from an ethnic minority seeking to pursue a vocation on the vessel, one which should alarm the House of Bishops and Ministry Division.

And yet, he argues, it does not need to be like that. There is a history of missed opportunities, transformed in the Epilogue into an ‘alternative future history’, to give leadership to ethnic minority members (p. 33), and clergy (p. 134), to listen to them and empower them. There is the opportunity still for white clergy, bishops especially, to recognise and work against the white supremacy that advantages them, to choose the kenosis of whiteness, the way of the Cross, and its costs, including reparations. It is possible because it is being done elsewhere, in the Diocese of Long Island (pp. 62-4), in the USPG (p. 114).

Ghost Ship is a revelation, full of imagery fraught with background, freighted with pain. It is powerful, prophetic, poetic testimony, a threnody, a warning, a call to repentant action and a vision of another future. If you have a vocation to ministry in the C of E; if you exercise ministry in the Church in any capacity; if you hold power in the Church in some regard- or hope to do so: you should read it.

A.D.A France-Williams, Ghost Ship. Institutional Racism and the Church of England (2020) is published by SCM Press and available from their website:

Reimagining theological education for a learning church

(Common inquiry by Eihpossophie, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Some initial thoughts (developed from a Twitter thread) on how the Church might rethink theological education and research, in response to this post from Peter Webster on The churches and the future of theological research. The occasion of Peter’s post is the debate about whether the C of E’s bishops are adequately educated theologically, and in particular, the lament that so few have doctoral degrees in theological disciplines. His starting point is that this isn’t the key question, and I think he’s right.

The task might better be conceived in terms of bringing together two agendas already at work in the Church: becoming a learning church (from the Formation for Ministry within a Learning Church, often known as the Hind Report, of 2003); and the cultural shifts needed to support lay people in living their whole lives as disciples, especially in in their roles and activities in society (from Setting God’s People Free (2017). Formation for Ministry included a section on lay theological education, but its focus is primarily clerical; adult education is an important theme in Setting God’s People Free, but its focus is primarily missional. In the background is the broad turn to theological reflection arising from practice that Graham, Walton and Ward describe in their Introduction to their Theological Reflection: Methods (2019, 2005), and both the recovery they note of the theological tradition as one rooted in and oriented practically toward the life of the church (and we might add no less theocentric for that) and the particular emphases of the roots of that turn in liberation theology and in the pedagogical vision of Paulo Friere on the empowerment of ordinary Christians and especially the oppressed.

I want to ask, what would a missional, learning church that empowered all its people, and was receptive to its context, look like in the context of the Church of England. I also hope that there are ideas here that are stimulating for folk in other churches and dominations that live quite happily without episcopacy, the threefold order, and establishment. 

All that said, when it comes to the Church of England, bishops are not a bad place to start when it comes to reimagining what it might mean for the Church to be a learning, missional church, because the Church is led by bishops, and organised into dioceses under their leadership, and the most privileged form of authorised ministry within the Church is ascribed, under Christ, primarily to them. What follows may be extendable to other churches to the extent you can name analogous figures or structures.

Because of the power bishops wield, I do think we want theologically literate, theologically reflective bishops who can reflect on the situations within their dioceses, and nationally, in light of the rich truth who is God, especially as expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. I don’t think, however that bishops necessarily need a theology doctorate to do that well. Rather, bishops need time and space to think, and a wide range of people to think with (and who can recommend reading to them), some of whom should be research active and PhD qualified; some of whom should be practitioners active in the various kinds of ministry & contexts that bishops oversee;  some of whom should be people from ethnic minorities and working class backgrounds, sexual minorities and people with disabilities (and I would expect some overlap between all these categories). Make it collegial, prayerful, pay at least expenses. The same goes for those around a diocesan bishop: their suffragans, their staff team: they too should be involved in that kind of culture.

But this vision shouldn’t stop with bishops and their staff, nor should it really privilege their learning and agency, important though that is. According to the Common Worship service for the Ordination and Consecration of a Bishop, being a bishop is one mode of service to of the Church conceived not as an institution but as a royal priesthood, the Body of Christ, the people of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, which has the baptismal calling to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of God’s kingdom. The CW ordinal expresses bishops’ mode of service to that priestly people in terms of pastoral oversight, guardianship of the apostolic faith, proclamation of the gospel, and leadership in mission, and the gathering of that people to celebrate the sacraments and so form a single communion in unity with the Church in every time and place. Amongst other things, this responsibility is to be exercised in baptising and confirming and nurturing God’s people in the way of holiness, and discerning and fostering the gifts of the Spirit in them, commissioning them for ministry, including by way of presiding over the ordination of presbyters who share their ministry of oversight.

Although bishops tend to be the subject of the verbs of this service, and although it is quite possible to take that emphasis forward so that the people are relatively passive objects of episcopal initiative, one can and should read it otherwise by emphasising the ordering of episcopal ministry to the ministry of the people to whom God’s Spirit has given gifts, and who have been called to witness to God’s love and to work for God’s kingdom. And so the learning of bishops should be ordered to, should serve, the learning of the whole Spirit-inhabited people of God in the midst of their witness and work: the learning of which they are the subjects. The primary question, therefore, is about what that learning involves and how it might best be supported by bishops and other bodies.

What we might envisage here are local cultures of learning, in which people in parishes and groups of parishes are always engaged in two broad categories of learning, as disciples (‘learners’). On the one hand, there are the habits, virtues and conceptual skills that go into a life shaped by following the Lord in our world as part of the community in which the Spirit dwells, which is a shared, social participation in Christ as His body; of thus journeying into God together as we await and anticipate the coming of God and the reconciliation of all things. On the other, is learning about that learning, as Juan Luis Segundo puts it (more or less): reflecting on the tasks of living out their faith corporately and individually in particular situations, and on themselves, corporately and individually, as disciples in those situations. And doing so in order to respond more truly and faithfully to what is going on, and to what happens to them. Doing so also to work through communities’ chronic and everyday conflicts, to tend to their wounds and the structures of their sinning against others and so God, or by which they participate in larger forms of evil.

It is a culture which would support the nurture of the Spirit’s gifts, and the agency which they energise, which would, at its best, enable some to relinquish forms of domination and enter into deeper solidarity with their neighbours and with others in the body of Christ and empower others marginalised in that body and in the wider community to have a voice, to help shape action, and to assume greater responsibility, to lead, within a supportive context. It is the sort of culture the church needs more of, I suspect, if we are really to engage with the profound issues of, and corporate sins around, class, gender, race, sexuality and ableism from which we suffer.

Such cultures would be resourced by many kinds of learning, incorporating the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures in various settings, engaging in dialogue with resources from Christian traditions, listening to the experiences of their members and of their neighbours, being receptive to other agencies and communities, and to the insights of practitioners and researchers, and above all to the voices and agency of those marginalised within their number and in the wider community. Drawing on those forms of learning, we can imagine time given over to reflection in various settings and groups, and in households and networks.

To such activities of reflection, as to everything else that goes on in churches and the communities in which they are situated, the dynamics of God’s giving and the structures of participation in those dynamics crystallised in worship, and above all in the event of the Eucharist, offer a possibility in the Spirit of gathering, summation, renewal, configuration and dispersal. Within these dynamics, reflections and the meanings of things glimpsed in them may be brought into more fully intentional and explicit relationship with the truth of God in Christ. It is a culture which might permeate and embrace every sphere of activity and reflection in the churches concerned, every initiative, and inform the evaluations, discernment and decision-making of the groups which support or lead them, and so too those of the PCCs and their Standing Committees. Realistically it is probably already happening to some degree in many places (and I’d be interested to hear about this), but also being frustrated in these and others to some extent. It would be hard to realise, as a necessarily joint activity, probably overseen by the priest/presbyter but involving others in facilitating and supporting it, and everyone in its enactment. It would be hard to sustain, requiring lots of patient collaboration, conflict resolution and negotiation, but would, I think, be transformative.

How might the Church, as an institution, support this kind of endeavour? How, to begin with, might dioceses support people to create cultures (plural) of theological reflection in parishes and in deanaries, too, involving laity of all vocations (including the ordained)?

I suspect that in many dioceses that ambition would require a strategy of theological education that would be much broader & better funded than now. It would need to support priests/presbyters in an ongoing way, helping resource them to develop their skills and keep refreshing their theological resources in an accessible way, which I imagine is already the ambition. Other facilitators would need access to this support too, as to some extent they may already. But this support and training might need to be better oriented to the work of overseeing and facilitating theological reflection within the life and ministry of communities and congregations. And the scope would need to be widened to develop ways of equipping and empowering all people, including those presently on the margins, or supporting those in licensed ministries to do so.

There are of course already several creative and rich resources for discipleship and mission action planning, but I wonder how far they are oriented to supporting the development of this kind of culture of reflection? Such a strategy would need to support communities and congregations to empower their members and their neighbours, to further their reflection and analysis. It would need to help them equip themselves to engage with and address together the ways in which structural inequalities and particular complex individual or local or group heritages of shared activity, privilege, discrimination, celebration, leisure, chronic flourishing and chronic exclusion or exploitation, illness, joys, love and trauma, shape their interactions and patterns of activity, and are reproduced or lost. It would need to be really accessible & flexible and capable of functioning in situations like the coronavirus pandemic. I’d be interested to know if something like this (or something better) is already happening in places.

Another thing dioceses could do is to find ways to invite and attend to feedback from those conversations, without directing or monitoring them, and create spaces for the cross fertilisation of such conversations, and make diocesan decision-making more responsive and accountable to them. A more theologically educated laity might make possible a more meaningfully democratic polity.

What place would doctoral and post-doctoral research have in such an economy? Well, you would still need people doing such research and trained to that standard to do so, to help inform conversations in all these spaces. These researchers might be ordained or not. There ought to be an ambition to train for and promote research at various depths in and between communities and to identify people, especially those whose perspectives and experiences are not well represented amongst the church’s theological educators, to be trained to take a lead in enabling this activity and doing more specialised tasks.

Peter Webster’s key questions are about resourcing their training and containing research: who would train them, where and who will pay for that training and for the research they conduct later? (I’m imagining lifelong research activity to inform the culture I’ve sketched).

I’m very cautiously optimistic , despite the current threats to universities in general, the Humanities in particular, and declining recruitment to TRS departments, that academics at universities may still be around to play a part for a while yet. I think probably more could be made of their expertise, which might help make them sustainable. And that’s worthwhile for the churches. Universities, despite all the pressures they face, still provide rich cultures of intellectual & practical inquiry which can foster dynamic, creative cultures of theological research in which people in churches can be trained for research, from which academics can contribute to churchy conversations, and to conversations between churches and other groups, which in some cases they may be well placed to mediate through or on account of their research or validating activities.

Theological Education Institutes also have a part to play, of course, through and beyond training ordinands (and many, perhaps most, are already doing more and offering training to a wider catchment of people). Here, too, the practise of (cooperative) inquiry should be integral to formation. So the development of deep, well resourced, rigorous reflectivity on practice, integrated fully with other theological disciplines.

That all requires that TEIs be places of inquiry in a range of disciplines, with a common orientation to formation and reflection on practice. To that end, they need research-active staff whose research is so oriented and which can inform their teaching, and which is explicitly and substantively valued in workload planning, the provision of research leave and funding to attend conferences, travel to do research, etc. It ought to be integrated with the training their offer, in an accessible, flexible and empowering way for all students.

This agenda also provides a further reason why TEIs benefit from links with universities: to support & foster their own research culture, which ought to be integrated with the training their offer, in an accessible, flexible and empowering way for all students, to make inquiry integral to formation. Durham’s Common Awards scheme’s Research Network does a lot here, but other links with other institutions might supplement its offerings.

Finally, the C of E might think more broadly about who it funds to do research degrees, to be trained in a more specialised way to contribute to the Church’s reflexivity. Peter also talks about funding graduate studies & part time study post ordination. The C of E does fund some ordinands, through the Research Degrees Panel, though my sense is that it can only fund relatively few & many have to complete in curacy, which is not easy to do. For part-time study in ministry there may be some diocesan financial support, plus grants from charities, but many are wholly or significantly self funded.

Again, greater scope and flexibility about central funding might be good. Some need to be able to complete doctorates pre-curacy. Others need to be enabled to do them later in ministry – and these are often just as valuable for the church if not more sometimes. Indeed, in keeping with the vision sketched here, the Church might even choose to invest in the research formation of lay members who aren’t preparing for ordained ministry! So you might need to overhaul the RDP with a new, better funded system open to ordained and not. And one which actively seeks out and champions people with potential as theological researchers and educators who are minoritised in various ways (e.g. gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, disability, neuro-diversity). As Peter Webster says, it’s a question of what the church values, what it’s prepared to pay to get a richer quality of reflection & participation in shaping action at all levels.

Beyond liberal and conservative: Hans W. Frei’s generous orthodoxy

Generous Orthodoxies

I’ve a chapter out in a new book edited by Peter Silas Peterson called Generous Orthodoxies (Wipf & Stock), which looks at various 20th century theologians from various confessional traditions who crossed boundaries, redefined their confessional identities, and mediated between divided constituencies in their work.

I was asked to write on the American theologian and historian of ideas, Hans W. Frei (1922-1988), who, though not an ecumenist in the usual sense, nevertheless fits this description well, and forwarded and developed the concept of generous orthodoxy that gives its name to this collection.

The phrase has been widely used since Brian McLaren popularised it in his book of 2005 (A Generous Orthodoxy). It’s been popularised on probably an even wider scale by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent episode of his podcast, Revisionist History. It’s particularly interesting to see its popularity in the context of theological training in the UK, for example. A number of other Anglican colleges identify with it in this piece in the Church Times from March 2016.In these different contexts, the term is used in quite different ways, most of them referencing Frei as its originator.

McClaren’s sense of Frei’s meaning is mediated by the evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz, in his Renewing the Center, where, as McClaren summarises it, generous orthodoxy is defined by its opposition to the pursuit of certainty by both liberals and conservatives and McClaren describes his own project as post-critical, emergent and ancient/future, integrating the good from Christian traditions, and re-aligned with Jesus. Gladwell summarises Frei’s stance as being at once committed to tradition and open to change, advocating finding middle ground as the way to live our lives, ‘because orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness, and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty’, a difficult balance to achieve. In the Church Times piece Paul Wilkinson (who does not reference Frei) describes it an approach to theological education that holds different traditions together with respect for each of them.

In fact, Hans Frei may not have invented the term ‘generous orthodoxy.’ In some biographical notes, he associates it with his Yale teacher, Robert L. Calhoun and with the Anglicanism he discovered later in his 20s. But it is a term he used to describe what he was about. Given the varied and widespread ways in which Frei is appealed to in order to give the term a lineage, it may be illuminating to go back and see what he meant by it. While all none of these uses is entirely alien to Frei’s purposes, none really gets to the heart of his project, which is what I try to describe in the chapter.

Frei used the term most clearly in his response to a lecture by the conservative evangelical theologian (and founding editor of Christianity Today) Carl F.H. Henry, in which Henry took aim at ‘narrative theology’ as he saw it.  One of the things Frei does in the response is try to describe what he was trying to do in his work. He tells Henry that he saw Christians in the US divided not so much along denominational lines as into ‘schools of thought’. What was needed, he suggested, was a kind of ‘generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism… and an element of evangelicalism’; a voice between Christianity Today and its older progressive liberal counterpart, Christian Century. Frei implies that this is what he was aiming at both in his most famous book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, and in the project he was then engaged in (which he left incomplete at his death, but which is reflected in the essays and lectures posthumously published in Types of Christian Theology and Theology and Narrative). This is the passage which is usually cited by proponents of generous orthodoxies who reference Frei, but to understand its import, you need to see it in the context of his work.

At the heart of Frei’s work is a search for what provides Christianity with an enduring identity across its highly varied historical forms, the question of the essence of Christianity that has long preoccupied modern theologians in the West. Frei’s conception of that essence changes from Eclipse to the later texts: in the former, it is the ‘history-like’ or realistic meaning of (chiefly) parts of the gospel narratives (their cumulative rendering of characters in and through their interaction with one another and their circumstances in chronological sequence); in the latter, it is the basic, minimal, flexible norms embedded in Christian reading practices that prioritise those same stories and identify the character Jesus of Nazareth as their subject (core elements of what Frei called ‘the literal sense’).

In Eclipse (to summarise a highly complex text with several strands of argument), Frei is concerned with the way both liberal and conservative theologies lost sight of that realistic narrative meaning because of the way they let various theories of meaning and reference govern their interpretation, for apologetic reasons. Disagreements between liberals and conservatives were about whether the NT stories about Jesus were to be taken literally, whether they were historically reliable, and whether this putative historical revelation was essential to salvation. Underlying the differences was a broad consensus of apologetic strategy (in which Jesus is the answer to a universal need) and hermeneutical approach (which tended to interpret the meaning of the stories as factual claims), in which both were in significant discontinuity with their pre-modern forebears. Frei espied there (and pursued in The Identity of Jesus Christ) a new way of returning to the realistic meaning of the gospels, and the central character whom they rendered to the imagination, whose identity cannot be separated (he argued) from his presence.

In Types of Christian Theology, Frei offered a typology which analysed the hermeneutical consequences for the literal sense of different ways of resolving the particularist and universalistic orientations of Christian theology through different ways of relating theology to other academic disciplines and their public character. In Frei’s typology, liberal and conservative can be found together, for example, in his Type 2, where publicness is secured by a systematic correlation of Christian meanings to general criteria of meaning and truth supplied by a philosophical scheme, at the expense of the literal sense. The typology focuses on Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth whom, Frei argues, are closer on these terms that one might imagine, each resolving the question of priorities between particularity and publicness in different, equally defensible, subtle ways which sought to uphold the literal sense. The effect is to de-centre the liberal/conservative polarity altogether, to suggest the real issues lie elsewhere and deeper than the differences we allude to with those labels.

The generous orthodoxy Frei sought was a way of carrying forward the central focus of Christian communities of various persuasions on the narrated figure of Jesus, as the chief clue to the identity, presence and providential purposes of God, the character and political witness of Christian communities, and the discipleship, ethics and political participation of their members. It would be orthodox in its orientation to Jesus Christ as its primary focus. It would be generous in prioritising this story so read over doctrines, but also in the manner of communal and individual life which patterned itself after the subject of those stories, and interpreted the ethical demands of its circumstances by the light of Christ’s identity as the clue to God’s providence. For Frei, that belief in Christ as the key to God’s governance of history had an affinity with a ‘carefully circumscribed progressive politics.’

To that end, Frei recommended that Christian theologians attend to the practice of Christianity in community in light of the story of Jesus as the centre of the scriptural witness. This is, he contends, a story whose rationality, meaningfulness and truth emerge from its rendering of its  central subject as one who is an irreducibly particular character and whose particular identity is inseparable from his being alive, from his existence, from his presence in Word and Sacrament, in community and public history, and in the poor. Its is a rationality, meaningfulness and truth which may be partially and publicly described in its coherence by borrowing concepts and bending their meanings to its logic, but which is also a truth to be lived out and discovered in the living. By examining the lives of Christian communities in light of this story, its rationality and truth, Christian theology, for Frei, helps Christians learn to live more faithfully in their times and places. To that end, such theology may and must converse with interpretive schemes, theories, and conceptual languages, especially those which allow and attend to historical human agency its integrity in context, but ties itself systematically to none.

You can find out more in the chapter, and I explore these and other themes (not least the political character of Frei’s theology) in greater depth in my next book, God’s Patience and our Work (to be published with SCM Press).