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
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: https://scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9780334059356/ghost-ship

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).

 

 

 

Multiple emergency integrities and the practice of the Eucharist in the time of coronavirus

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Image by @MythAddict

The current controversy around online eucharists animating a good deal of Christian social media represents a new chapter in the churches’ long history of wrestling with questions thrown up by eucharistic practice.

While theologians have debated online sacraments before, I doubt that they have had in mind this peculiar conjunction of elements: whole communities in lockdown nationwide and across the globe; relatively widespread access to reliable, easy-to-use videoconferencing tools in the home; and the relatively widespread acceptance of and familiarity with such technologies. While churches have known times of plague and restricted Eucharistic practice before, the conjunction of these elements today seems new. And so we are facing an impetus to think about Eucharistic practice and theology afresh.

Commenting on Twitter on Rev Dr Julie Gittoes’ recent Church Times article on fasting from the eucharist as a eucharistic practice, I suggested we might find the concept of ‘multiple emergency integrities’ helpful in this situation and in respect of that controversy. I want to have a go here at trying to explain what that might mean, as a way of beginning to test that proposal.

The basic idea is not that anything goes, nor the tolerance of mutually exclusive options or relativism. Rather, what I mean is the recognition that in this unprecedented situation there may be no one way of upholding unimpaired shared commitments around Eucharistic practice and theology. Instead, in the name of those commitments there may be several ways of seeking to honour them, which are provisional and experimental, and present different practical options for holding together those commitments under the strain of the present emergency.

To show what I mean, I’m going to sketch an Anglican Eucharistic theology that is fairly minimal and in keeping with the written forms of Order One of Common Worship (CW), which is an authorised liturgy of the Church of England (C of E). I’ve gone for COmmon Worship on the assumption that it is more widely and frequently used in the C of E than the Book of Common Prayer, and represents a genuine development of Eucharistic theology in continuity with the BCP and yet also goes beyond it in taking onboard insights from the C20th liturgical movement, liturgical theology, and the riches of early Christian tradition. I’m also trying to keep in mind the C of E’s canons, the relevant Articles of religion and the Lord’s Supper liturgy in the BCP itself. I’m mindful too that this will be more descriptive of the Church’s official doctrine as expressed in its authorised liturgy and historic formularies, that local practice varies quite a bit, and that there may be more breadth to actual operative and espoused Eucharistic theologies in the Church than its official forms would seem to afford!

In Common Worship, the service of Holy Communion is an act celebrated by the gathered people, in the presence of God and by the enabling of God. That corporation work is performed together with the help of the uniting ministry of the ordained president, and through the people’s participation verbally and physically in all the actions of the liturgy.

The people gather in order to confess their sins and be assured of God’s forgiveness, to praise God, to attend to God’s Word in the reading and exposition of the Scriptures. They celebrate and give thanks to God for God’s gifts of creation and redemption as they gather around the Lord’s Table. There they recall the story of creation and redemption, and pray for the coming of God’s Spirit so that, as they participate in the ritual meal instituted by Christ to remember his death and resurrection and look forward to his coming, they may share also in his redeemed, renewed humanity and so be united in him. They do so looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of God, its peace and its justice, and the intimate direct communion with God prefigured in this feast. And, in at least some of the Eucharistic prayers, they connect that longing with the cries of our contemporaries and voice that solidarity in intercessions for the earth, the sick and the oppressed, and for the empowerment of the church, presumably to stand with them, to work for what the kingdom will bring. They thus offer themselves thankfully, as living sacrifices, in the service of God, ‘to live and work to your praise and glory.’

With a nod toward the eucharistic theology of the late Dan Hardy, we could see the vision of Holy Communion set forth in Common Worship as a gathering up in the Spirit into a formative intensification, orientation and renewal of the complex meanings, affects, and dynamics of weekly Christian lives in, with, from, against and for the world, in order to be sent forth again. And it is the work of the Spirit, forming socially the body of Christ by means of the forms of Word and sacrament, repentance, prayer and praise, which intensifies, orients and renews. That, we are told, is what is offered us by Christ in this way.

That is also the context in which to think with the liturgy about the relationship between Christ, the believing community, and the elements. The emphasis in CW, as in the BCP, is on present participation in Christ’s body and blood, alluding to 1 Corinthians 10:16-21. The BCP does so with the goal of assurance, forgiveness, eternal security, and sanctification, CW with more of a missional and eschatological direction. But participation or communion, rather than presence or even reception, seems to be the key category in both. The invocation of the Spirit in CW’s eucharistic prayers varies a little in its somewhat ambiguous petitions. Nevertheless, the overall tendency is to ask for the Spirit to come down upon the people’s action of remembering Christ’s death with the elements of bread and wine in order that, by consuming them, the people may feed on Christ’s body and blood by faith, and be united in him, offer themselves to God and eventually be gathered into the feast of the kingdom. The prayers envisage the elements consecrated in this prayer not as containers or modes of a local presence of Christ (the Article’s and BCP rule this out explicitly), nor do they lose their creaturely natures. Rather, within the action they become signs by which the faithful participate in what they signify. By the Spirit, they mean Christ’s body and blood, and the meaning of Christ is, for the believers, inseparable from the truth or reality of Christ, because of who he is and because has sent the Spirit to witness to him in these and other ways.

Where does this leave questions of Eucharistic practice in the time of coronavirus? I think it is possible to see diverse approaches as seeking to honour this sort of understanding of the Eucharist within the straightened forms of sociality possible under lockdown, as prioritising different aspects of it and finding ways to honour the others in more strained ways (not that Eucharistic practices were without some strains and compromises already).

Let’s take three typical examples, assuming for the sake of argument that the communities and their presbyters (or priests) in all of them are adhering to the Archbishops’ guidance about not entering churches, are broadly signed up to these beliefs about the Eucharist, and are variously active in supporting others pastorally and practically. Let’s also assume that they hold that participation in Christ is not limited to the Eucharist but that it has an especial value in making it explicit and mediating its social dimensions.

We could imagine a community that is holding online Eucharists, led by the president, where everyone participates in the liturgy and partakes of elements in their own home. We could imagine another which has decided to fast from the Eucharist and pursue other forms of maintaining worship and fellowship in common. And we could imagine a third where the presbyter leads a service of Holy Communion but only those in their own household partake of the elements, while others watch, give thanks for their spiritual communion with Christ and as to receive him in their hearts. NB: as has been pointed out to me, the Church of England in its Coronavirus Guidance for Holy Week and Easter has endorsed the second and third options, and explicitly ruled the first out. It is nevertheless worth thinking through as a logical possibility and as something some parishes seem to have tried, at least prior to this guidance being published and received.

The first community celebrating the Eucharist together online might judge that the proper priority in its context and for its members and their Christian life and witness is to maximise the integrity of its members’ explicit, sacramental participation in the rite and the Supper, that the resources involved are worth dedicating to that goal, and that for that purpose the exclusion of those without the Internet is better than no eucharist at all, and that the strained form of its gathering is a bearable compromise with the form of the liturgy and its socialising function. Indeed, they might argue, it preserves that function, albeit with limited bandwidth, at a time when it is sorely needed. This approach would raise the most significant questions for the Church if it were proposed it should be regularised for less extraordinary times, and that controversy in prospect is reflected, I suspect, in the Church’s guidance.

The second, fasting community might judge that it is more fitting, more appropriate to the dispersed nature of its life in its context (and to the impaired character of gathering online) to fast from that most social and corporate form of Christian worship. It might do so confident that its members are not cut off from Christ, and that they can extend and improvise other ways of maintain fellowship and common prayer, and still feed on the Word of God in sharing the scriptures, online, by phone or through letters or emails. They might also judge that with limited resources they might better put their limited resources and energies into supporting more vulnerable member states if their civic communities, including those who are poor and/or marginalised, in whom  one may also encounter the Risen Christ who keeps his solidarity with them.

The third Christian community represens in effect a middle way between these stances, offering a way of allowing many of its members to see and hear the Eucharist and benefit thereby, while compromising the community’s participation in the sacrament (though not in Christ) for the sake of maximal integrity of the connection between gathering and participation, and perhaps thereby reducing the amount of resources needed, which may be freed up for other forms of care and service. It is also an approach which, in contrast to the first, avoids raising serious questions for those Anglicans who maintain, on the basis of the manual actions in the rubrics of the BCP, that the physical proximity of the priest to all the elements is essential in their consecration. I’m grateful to those who’ve pointed this out to me on Twitter.

Essentially my thesis is that there is a significant degree of integrity – of principled coherence and fidelity to the Eucharistic theology of the CW liturgy – in each of these options. It is not obvious that any of them is so straightforwardly and thoroughly impaired as to be unconscionable, though there are significant challenges that can be made to each. It is not yet obvious that one of them should stand as a general rule for every Eucharistic community in every context. There may be value, rather, in seeing what reflections and developments emerge from each experiment, before drawing firm doctrinal and regulatory conclusions.

Practices of compassion and resistance

(Image by GoToVan (CC-BY 2.0) www.flickr.com/people/47022937@N03))

There’s a couple of theological ideas I keep thinking about in relation to the practical challenges and demands of the current situation. I mean the added stress and fear involved in all kinds of ways of trying to be responsible, to care in some way, while we all face the common threat and uncertainty of coronavirus, and the challenges of current restrictions, whether shopping, in other public spaces, or while staying at home, and as keyworkers, volunteers, neighbours, colleagues, friends or family or when indeed communicating on social media.

The ordinary fears and demands of social practices, which vary in intensity, according to circumstances and social positioning, for all kinds of reasons, are greatly heightened, as we know. For some of us, that’s an additional weight to a familiar experience of fear and stress around certain chronic situations or circumstances. For others, the sense of a profound uncontrollable vulnerability to powerful forces, outside our control but at the door, is new and deeply disconcerting, as Kate Bowler points out in a recent podcast.

I suspect most of us have ways of talking ourselves through this, as far as we can. My hunch is that a lot of the stuff of everyday living as a sort of moral experience involves not highflown reflection or terribly quandaries but the resort to what we can rummage from assorted aids to getting by, quotidian scraps of wisdom, that we have to hand in the toolkits or rag bags of our memories. We might reach for well-tried maxims or mottos, familiar sayings, song lyrics, the deeply grooved records of certain influential voices and their advice or admonition, things read or seen or heard in the media, images from past experience of ourselves and others, or of characters from fiction or history. We also often have, I think, patterns of response which kick in semi-automatically to certain stimuli, and scripts – ways of interacting with others in certain situations that are socially legitimated and learnt, practiced and inhabited, which we improvise with as the need arises. To the extent that any of this hangs together, it does so in part through our lived performance of some kind of consistency in our actions that we call character and personality. And in part it coheres through some larger imagined scheme of things in which that performance has or aspire to some intelligibility.  Here we try to locate ourselves against or within a whole, whether with a sense of ‘fit’ (awkward or otherwise), an aspiration to dominance, or with some degree of resigned, despairing or angry alienation.

And all this is true, also, I think for Christians. Sometimes Christian theologians can talk as if Christians had very neatly ordered, or indeed very clearly disordered, moral resources resources; resources that we imagine to be firmly established and clearly boundaried to secure a permanent and reassuring identity. But in reality I think it’s more complex, porous and messy for most of us, most of the time. We are far more vulnerable to our social and cultural environment and our place in its rhythms and systems than we like to pretend.

One thing good theology can do for Christians is help us reflect on the sources, scripts and sayings we live by, give us a bit of distance from them and help us examine them, sort them a bit, perhaps repair some and supplement others, and resolve not to resort to yet others but instead use this or that. And it can help us to attend to the larger scheme of things against which or within which we locate ourselves, to test it and to find ways of imagining it otherwise, in light of some compelling patterns, insights and intuitions about the presence of God, the shape of God’s time with and for us, of the purpose of God in the whole, in our locales and for us personally. Theology can make things worse, of course. Sometimes it can make things much worse. But it can also help us be faithful, survive, resist, repent, find flourishing, and conform ourselves to what is most real, true and good, in the measure afforded to us to perceive it and to live by, in and from its measures: the glimpsed glory of God, above all in the face of Christ.

In the midst of keeping going today, I recalled two sets of ideas that seemed helpful for the demands of the present, that come out of texts I studied with my class of final year student at the end of last term. One is in effect a summary by Wendy Farley of her book Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion; the other is a pivotal chapter in the argument of John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion (in which Farley features, alongside Stanley Hauerwas and others, as a key voice). I’m not going to rehearse their arguments in full, nor would I commend them unreservedly. But I do find two ideas helpful, generally, and especially at the moment, and I thought it might be useful to share them here.

The first is Farley’s point that to be a creature of God, to exist but not as God does, is fundamentally to be limited, interdependent with others, and so profoundly vulnerable to loss and devastation. That is not a feature of our fallenness or a consequence of our fault. It is a function of our finitude. Fallenness and fault, especially as producing, participating in and sustaining social systems and cultural practices which harm us and others, prey on that vulnerability and magnify it exponentially and unequally for some while shielding others, even from their own agency. But the fundamental vulnerability remains and will at times be exposed, sometimes with very little warning.

I find that helpful for three reasons. First, it seems to express a key consequence of holding to the idea of the fundamental contingency of creaturehood that goes with believing in creation out of nothing, and with the sense of absolute dependence expressed in much Christian piety. Second, it undercuts hasty moves to find a redemptive or punitive meaning in a situation of suffering. Perhaps it also relieves a little the need to present a rationale for sufferings, to affirm or try to show that in this case also ‘everything happens for a reason’. Third, it just seems more honest. And it may be liberating for some of us to let go of any dream or hope of invulnerability, to relinquish the need to demonstrate the truth of our convictions or our moral worth and deserving by the prosperous state of our life or health. And in so doing this insight can help divest us of an illusion.

The other idea is the notion differently parsed in Farley and Swinton of practices of resistance, compassion and redemption. In Farley these are compassionate actions incarnating the attention that Simone Weil describes whereby God is present (almost sacramentally for Weil). In Swinton these are actions which mirror, participate in, attest and are vehicles of God’s redemptive movements in history, as focused and ordered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (that’s Swinton read through Hans Frei), in the time between his resurrection and the full ramification of the redemption achieved in him. Farley’s notion by itself is too restricted a sense of divine presence amongst creatures for me, too remote from the incarnation, which Swinton foregrounds, but powerful seen in its light. Swinton’s vision is a bit too ecclesiocentric or overly church focused (here more Frei would help) in its diagnosis of evil and its practical theodicy of addressing it. The threat posed by evil to our love of God is indeed real and unsurpassed in seriousness, but evil threatens other dimensions of our creaturely existence as well, other relations integral to the love of God and the goods internal to them (as I’m sure Swinton would agree). A bit more of a doctrine of creation would help here. And of course Christian practices do not automatically shape good character, nor are they often innocent of deformation.

Nevertheless, there’s something illuminating and empowering about thinking of the things we do now to care for one another, however mundane, in terms of ways of resisting the threat opened up by our augmented vulnerabilities and our fears to turn away from God in turning away from one another; ways of resisting the magnified effects of our structural and social sins; ways in which we may hope that God is present and which attest, to our hope in God; ways of practicing which can be carried out in solidarity and cooperation, in giving and receiving, with our neighbours near and far, wherever and in whatever measure our commitments converge with theirs, as we often discover that they do, as we may be (re)discovering in these days.

Failing faithfully: The Rise of Skywalker

Warning: plot spoilers aplenty!

As expected, The Rise of Skywalker tied a big bow around the Skywalker saga, even if it left a number of plot threads hanging. (Here come those spoilers… read on at your peril). All the Sith were defeated by all the Jedi. The climactic double battle of Return of the Jedi was conclusively reprised. The grandson of Vader turned back to the light. What Anakin’s mother helped create by sending her son away, his daughter helped rectify, by drawing her son back. Where Anakin and Ben fell to fear and the temptations of dark power and promises of destiny on that side, Rey (like Luke before her) resists. The last Palpatine becomes the last Skywalker. The story that began, cinematically, in the deserts of Tatooine was put to rest there. You don’t have to be a theologian (or a student of Irenaeus) to appreciate all that recapitulation. Lando Calrissian returns and even C-3PO gets rebooted. As a film, especially as a Star Wars film, it’s ok, it’s enjoyable and satisfying in some ways. But the comparison with its predecessor raises some deeper issues about how we handle inheritances that are relevant for Christian theology, at least.

All those dramatic unities, plus some stunning action and the film’s many comic moments, made for a satisfying sense of an ending. In a way, unless the repetitions, the fight sequences, the comic turns, had been laid on so thick, you wouldn’t have believed it was really over. The deep code of the Star Wars franchise lies in the abiding tension between opposites, and the need to resolve them. While the rhetoric is always about restoring balance to an unending and unstable duality (‘restore the balance, Rey, as I once did’), the emotional and aesthetic logic is really about resolution: the victory of light over darkness, the clarification or redemption of identity and character in choosing the light and rejecting the darkness. In this respect it really is very Manichaean.

This same tendency also helps explain what – in addition to the prevalence of the theme in western culture – drives the plot unerringly toward the eventual redemption of the bad Skywalker, and the exorcism of the evil empress Rey from Rey’s future.

It was always more than likely that the final film in the third trilogy would succumb to the gravitational forces of these features of the Star Wars mythos, as much as to its predominantly straight romantic plots (one Lesbian kiss notwithstanding). Indeed, the two are shown to be supremely connected in the (admittedly rather well executed) Ren-Rey subplot and bond. Like the rejuvenating Emperor Palpatine sucking life from the bonded pair of Rey and Ben, The Rise of Skywalker draws much of its vitality from its dyadic pairings and doubles. In fact, it does so even when it acknowledges the weakness of the device. We are allowed to admit, in the words of Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde, that Starkiller Base was a bit of a dumb idea, but the plot is still drawn back to the idea of planet-killing power and a final attack on something like the Death Star, indeed a sort of Ur-Death Star, in the form of the hidden Sith Temple and the Final Order fleet on Exegol (complete with obligatory weak point that only comes to light, ex machina, at the equally obligatory prior Resistance/Rebel war council).

More than likely, but not inevitable. For as enjoyable as Rise was, its predecessor, The Last Jedi, had shown another way, and opened wider the possibility of doing more interesting things with the stuff of the Star Wars universe and the Skywalker story at its culmination. To be fair to Rise, while it often carried on as if The Last Jedi was a temporary diversion in the nostalgic recapitulatory trajectories set running in the Force Awakens, it also carried forward and built on the better features of the latter film. Rey is of course chief among these, a female hero who is not defined by sexual allure, nor any gender stereotype, nor absorbed into her bond with Ren/Ben, but who develops complexity and responsibility through several powerful and complex relationships with friends and enemies. C-3PO has more to him here as a character, without losing the comedy, than in many of the previous films. Poe and Finn emerge as more rounded characters, more fully centred in their friendship with Rey and one another. And, in another theme with strong theological resonances in Christianity, in Rey’s resolution of the question of her identity, the bonds of friendship, the lineaments of character and the construction of adoptive family win out over the vaunted destiny of aristocratic blood.

Still, Rise steadfastly ignores what The Last Jedi offered. And it offered much. It put the Jedi order firmly into perspective. It lauds two female leaders’ strategic and tactical nous over the chauvinistic insubordinate heroism of Poe, a character we had learnt to admire for his exceptional skill, courage and capacity for friendship. It lampooned the subplot of the obscure quest for the key to the enemy’s obscure but fatal weakness. It praised carefully calculated self-sacrifice (in Vice-Admiral Holdo), but also celebrated Rose Tico ‘saving what you love’ over Finn’s pointless, hate-fuelled martyrdom. And while it gave us plenty of exhilarating light-sabre action, the survival of the Resistance turned most on the massive distraction of the non-dual between Luke and Kylo-Ren. Although it too used plots echoing earlier sequences (like the rebels escaping Hoth), it did so to more creative effect. The cunning stratagems of love and experience in The Last Jedi offered Star Wars a more searching revaluation of its dominant grammars, vocabulary, gender codes and heroic virtues. By and large, The Rise of Skywalker blocked these improvisations on the old scripts, and nowhere more blatantly than in the sidelining of Rose, perhaps the moral centre of the previous film.

In these ways, the contrast between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker reminded me of a profound challenge facing Christian theologians. It’s a challenge well encapsulated in Marika Rose’s recent book, A Theology of Failure and her notion of faithful infidelity or faithful failure: of working out what in one’s tradition must be betrayed in order to be faithful to what one loves in that tradition, and to those it has worked to oppress, in reproducing it. (I am not really doing justice to the searching and sophisticated argument of that book; I and others sought to do so here). It’s a challenge that Rian Johnson, the Director of The Last Jedi, seems to have been alive to, and which he embraced. It’s a challenge which I think it’s fair to say that J.J. Abrams was also alert to, but at which, by comparison, he faltered somewhat.

The comparison between the practices of Christian theology and those of creating drama are a bit tired now, and in some cases its exploitation leaves it seeming exhausted and over-stretched. Nevertheless, in this case it is pertinent and useful to note that theologians too face choices about how to retell a set of stories whose prior tellings (and perhaps even some raw materials) have passed on ambiguous legacies, and forwarded codes, scripts and identities which have proved damaging, as well as those which have nurtured life or resourced survival. For example, Christian theologies, too, have sometimes stressed and construed certain dyads with terrible consequence. Think of the many iterations of Christian orthodox identity and their superseded Jewish others; or various hierarchical and essentialist Christian constructions of masculinity and femininity; or some of the ways the scriptural master/slave distinction has been taken up in the social structures and practices of Christians and Christian societies; or racial constructions of white Christian identity over against black in the modern period. Deciding what faithfulness means in respect of one’s theological heritage in any given context, and what failures or infidelities fidelity to Christ demands today, is a perennial penultimate task for Christian theologians (and no doubt in other ways for thinkers in other traditions, religious or otherwise).

Rise of Skywalker fails in the extent of its fidelity to earlier telling of the mythos, where The Last Jedi showed a deeper fidelity in its willingness to fail that tradition to a greater extent. Today, as much as ever, Christian theologians also have to learn to gauge the measure of their faithfulness and what betrayals, what failures, it demands.