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


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)

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.

Beacons (a pre-Advent poem)

It is flood season now.

The sky muffled and drab

The road river runs between

muddy hawthorn tightly clipped

to white-tipped severity.

The bend brings them into view:

Curled copper turnings

dressing the dark boughs

Like fantastic candelabra

Here and there their glowing splendour

Has corroded into dusky green.

And I must turn aside to see

this wonder

Memory, repentance and reparation: the Sam Sharpe Lecture and the Church of England

For an institution with such a penchant for commemoration, the Church of England has a powerful capacity for forgetting. For an institution with such a searching liturgy of confession, the C of E has a remarkable resistance to repentance. And (if we count ourselves as members of this Church) we need to ask ourselves why.

I’m prompted to these reflections by the invigorating experience of attending, for the second year running, one of the Sam Sharpe Lectures, run by the Sam Sharpe Project, a collaboration of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Jamaican Baptist Union and others. The Project is named after the enslaved Baptist deacon who organised the Baptist rebellion of 1831-1832 in Jamaica, and was executed by the British colonial authorities for his role in it. It seeks to explore and promote his story and legacy, in the context of the British Baptist Union’s strategy for turning its Council’s historic 2007 Apology for Slavery into concrete actions: The Journey. The focus on Sam Sharpe symbolises an emphasis on the faith and agency of enslaved people and their descendants and the theme of liberation from below which the Project foregrounds as his legacy. The annual lecture is one of its main means for exploring and furthering his story and his legacy and thereby development of the British Baptist Union’s process of repentance and reconciliation with their brethren.

This year’s highly distinguished lecturer was Professor Verene Shepherd, Professor of Social History at the University of the West Indies, the Director of The Centre for Reparation Research at The UWI, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a past member and chair of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Co-Chair of the National Commission on Reparations in Jamaica and a Vice Chair of the CARICOM Reparation Commission. Prof Shepherd was chosen, we were told by the Revs Wale Hudson-Roberts (the racial justice coordinator of the British BU) and Karl Johnson (General Secretary of the Jamaican Baptist Union), with the express hope that her lecture would provide impetus and resources for taking that process forward.

After hearing her speak, it was easy to see why. Professor Verene Shepherd spoke on the Women in Sam Sharpe’s Army, but also on reparations. It was at once an exercise in the recovery of memory through historical retrieval of the role of women in resisting slavery, and an argument for reparations in the names of those women, and the men, too, whose names, punishments and in some cases their testimony, are recorded in the sources.

Women enslaved in the Caribbean had no choice but to resist slavery, Prof Shepherd argued. They formed part of a long history of black women resisting enslavement, abolitionists who should be remembered alongside the men & white women usually commemorated. And indeed those women are now being commemorated in Jamaica. Sharpe went from plantation to plantation, Bible in hand, to swear the enslaved people there to rebellion, and to organise them into revolutionary cells. Women responded to Sam Sharpe’s call to resist. Their experience of slavery suffices to explain their participation. The forced exploitation of their labour, the appropriation of their reproductive agency to reproduce slavery, rape, their legal defeminisation and racialisation to justify their treatment: this coercion provoked gendered patterns of resistance to white supremacy enacted through racialised slavery. The sources attest women’s daily acts of resistance to wear down the slavers, like malingering, as well as outright armed revolt. And they suffered their share of the horrific exemplary punishments meted out by the British governor: hangings, lashes of the whip, permanent transportation. And for them we should engage in the path of reparative justice, Prof Shepherd urged us.

(The Unveiling Ceremony for the Freedom Monument at Montego Bay, Jamaica, commemorating those who fought for emancipation in the war of 1831-2. Image: Montego Bay Cultural Centre).

For them, and for many other reasons she adduced. Reparation, she argued, rests on moral, political and economic grounds, not only with respect to enslavement but also emancipation (a racist act that compensated slave owners by reckoning the enslaved as property), post-colonial indebtedness and under-development and other legacies of colonisation post-emancipation (‘a century of intellectual apartheid’); climate change, and centuries of environmental degradation; and the strictures of neo-colonialism. We should see reparation, she argued, as part of decolonial justice and a way to address the continuing harms of anti-black racism to people of African descent globally.

She took us through the history of the development of reparations justice, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commissions 10 point plan. She emphasised the responsibility of colonisers, the intergenerational psychological trauma of enslavement (a point also made by last year’s lecturer, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin), the continuing effects of slavery and colonialism (as recognised by the UN’s Durban Declaration of 2001), and monetary compensation and debt cancellation as means to help Caribbean nations achieve UN development plans. The benefits of the exploitation of the enslaved are, she noted, like the harms, also transmitted across generations. These are not simply things which others did to the dead, long ago.

The Baptist Journey is proving to be a slow one, going by Wale Hudson-Roberts’ assessment in an article from 2017. Other institutions, such as a number of universities and seminaries in the US and the UK (Glasgow, Cambridge and Bristol), have gone further, faster. But at least there has been a serious, fully articulated apology and there is a commitment to action and a process and a relationship within which efforts can be made, and initiatives like the Sam Sharpe Project pursued, to drive the process forward. All these developments are well in advance of the position of the nation states responsible of the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, including the UK. We tend to remember ourselves instead as a nation of Wilberforces, the ones who ended the slave trade, as David Cameron did while telling our former colony Jamaica to ‘move on from the painful legacy of slavery’, and while his government enacted the hostile environment that would result in the Windrush crisis. As Afua Hirsch wrote recently, ‘The Caribbean is Britain’s own Deep South, where enslavement and segregation as brutal as anything that existed on American soil took place at the hands of British people.’ Yet because it happened far away, the British are remarkably complacent about our major role in the slave trade and plantation slavery: ‘that distance facilitates denial.’ We forget the century and more of colonial rule that followed emancipation even more easily, except as the background to the arrival of The Empire Windrush in 1948.

I think it is fair to say that the Church of England, as an institution, shares in this national complacency about British slavery, slave trading, and colonialism. For all the slow progress of the Baptists’ Journey, they are far, far ahead of Anglicans in England. The Church of England’s Synod voted ahead of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade accept an amendment to a motion on modern day slavery, which apologised for the Church’s complicity in the slave trade and recognising the damage done to the enslaved. Chiefly in view here was the ownership of the Codrington Plantations and those enslaved there, in Barbados, bequeathed to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1710. Both Archbishops at the time, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, supported the amendment and the following year they participated in a Walk of Witness as an act of repentance. Sentamu called on the British government to apologise for slavery, and Williams advocated that the Church of England consider paying reparations. These actions come far short of the British Baptist Apology and the process to which it has committed itself in relationship with its Jamaican counterpart. To my knowledge, no comparable steps have been taken since. Indeed, little if anything appears to have happened on the question since 2007, even while other British institutions have researched their complicity and, in the case of Glasgow University, produced a practical plan, worked up in partnership with the University of the West Indies. And this failure of repentance seems to be bound up with a failure of memory, as Duncan Dormer of the USPG points out.

Reparation as a process of addressing injustices and wrongs committed seems deeply in keeping with the sort of repentance envisaged by the New Testament. It is powerfully exemplified for us in the story of Zaccheus. It is consistent with the repudiation of the cheap grace Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified in his book Discipleship. The intergenerational effects (harms for some, benefits for others) of slavery and colonialism, and the continuity provided by institutions involved, provide a basis for exploring reparatory justice on the part of institutions like the Church of England. Indeed the Church has, as Rowan Williams pointed out in 2006, core theological reasons, in belief in the body of Christ and the communion of saints, not to distance itself from the sufferings of the enslaved or its own part in owning and exploiting them and in justifying and defending slavery.

Professor Robert Beckford, in his response to the lecture, picked up on this failure and underlined its ecclesial seriousness. It is no wonder, he remarked, that the Church of England struggles to attract black and brown people when it fails fully to apologise or make reparations after participating in genocide. It signals that something has gone wrong with the Church’s theology. You can’t call yourself people of God and refuse to perform the Shalom required when the peace of God is broken, he argued. ‘You can’t call yourself my brother and sister and convince me you think I and my ancestors are fully human if you don’t repay this debt.’

It is difficult to overstate the gravity of this challenge to the Church’s moral standing, but also to its claim to be one of the churches of Christ, and its right to the enjoyment of the fellowship of all Christians of African descent (and not just African descent) whose history includes the history of slavery and colonialism. It is therefore a deeply troubling challenge – ‘uncomfortable’ is far too mild – but also I think a profoundly salutary one. Indeed, I think it is an act of generosity. Nor is Professor Beckford the only one challenging the Church on this issue: there are those on the inside like Canon Eve Pitts who have been raising it for many years, a work of astonishing faithfulness.

The Church has many challenges on its hands, including other legacies of devastating failings. Yet this challenge also goes to the heart of its identity and its mission, indeed to the integrity of the gospel it proclaims. It requires deep, extended listening, learning, dialogue, reflection and a path toward action. It is a challenge for a deep theological reflexivity about the Church’s history and its reluctance to face up to it. It is, finally, an opportunity for the Church to work at reconciliation with people in the Caribbean and of Caribbean heritage, including fellow Anglicans, including its own members, in making amends, and so also to enter itself into the freedom the gospel affords, in Rowan Williams’ words, ‘to face ourselves, including the unacceptable regions of … our history.’

Avengers and the problem of evil: part two – omnipotence otherwise

In my last post, I argued that the Avengers films help us diagnose a possible problem with certain formulations of the problem of evil. The films present quasi-deities who intervene to redress evils at successively greater orders of magnitude, culminating logically in Thanos’ intended annihilation of all living beings in the cosmos in order to eradicate the evil inherent in them. When we ask how God can be all powerful (in an all knowing way), good and yet tolerate horrific evils, we may need to be careful about the logic of divine intervention we are implying, and where it leads.

There are many approaches in the Christian tradition to understanding God’s role in relation to evil. All seek to uphold the goodness and justice of God, but in other respects they vary widely. As with most subjects in Christian doctrine and practice, this one is highly contested, now probably more than ever. My particular focus here is on how Christian thinkers conceive divine omnipotence in respect of evil.

In the modern era, if I can venture a broad generalisation, in contexts shaped by the enlightenment movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, there has been a tendency to think of God in interventionist ways, and to treat divine omnipotence (and other divine attributes) as an easily conceivable predicate with a simple meaning continuous with other discourses about power, one that can readily and straightforwardly be deployed in syllogisms. The inconsistent triad is a product of that development (I suspect much of the history of traditional Christian-centred western philosophy of religion is, too). Its influence is felt when divine omnipotence is asserted, problematised, defended and denied.

Questions of the nature of divine power in relation to creatures run through every area of Christian thought and teaching, but I want to focus briefly on three that seem especially relevant to the topic of evil: creation; Christology; and pneumatology.


I’m fairly persuaded by those (such as Kathryn Tanner, Janet Soskice, Denys Turner, and before him Herbert McCabe) who take the doctrine of creation ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) to be key to the way Christians should understand what they mean by the concept ‘God’. It’s an idea with its roots in the concern to affirm the uniqueness and unrivalled primacy of the Creator which early Christianity found in second Temple Jewish texts and in Jewish Scriptures they took as scriptural such as what biblical scholars now called Second Isaiah. Thomas Aquinas is usually taken as one of the conceptually clearest exponents of the doctrine and its implications, and it’s his sort of approach (informed by readings by David Burrell, McCabe, Turner & Tanner) I have in mind here.

Creation out of nothing is a negation. It says that God did not create everything out of pre-existing material. Not only the basic ordering principles on which the order of things hangs, but the reality to which they lend the possibility and character of order, come from God. The consequence of that affirmation is to distinguish God from creation, and God’s creative action in respect of creation from other kinds of action, cause and effect, in an unparalleled way. This second consequence distinguishes the difference God makes in creation from every other difference in creation. It is, as David Burrell puts it, not a difference within the world, but one which nevertheless appears in the world. It is the difference between the whole cosmos in all its vastness and minute complexity, its empty tracts, its burning stars, its worlds, barren and life-filled, and the myriad forms of life which inhabit, furnish and transform some of their ever-changing surfaces and sub-surfaces, and… nothing: not even an absence. It is a difference for which there is no category because it is unlike any difference knowable to us, any difference within the world. It is the work of omnipotence, if you like, but it is not an intervention.

It is a difference that makes possible differences of every kind. It is a difference directly and intimately present in every difference in every particular, at the very heart of everything that exists: the making real of each thing by the touch of the One who is simply and essentially Reality, as a flame ignites by contact with itself, to borrow Aquinas’ metaphor.

It is a difference which realises a contingent cosmos, ever changing, full of inter-dependencies, home in places to fragile ecosystems and vulnerable creatures. On this account, the evanescent life of plankton, flies and beetles in their food chains is as much the work of omnipotence as the uplifted mountain chains or the glaciers which grind them away. Indeed, it is all these and everything connected to them, however remotely, at once and together and all the time, through the physical, biological and social systems and processes from which they emerge, but achieved from God’s side in no time and with no motive other than the desire to share the gift of existence and multiply its recipients. That exercise of divine power produces systems of energy and motion at every level of scale, with their relative integrities, and finite organisms, with their several powers, drawing and producing and circulating and expending energy, information, and affectivity.

None of this does away with the problem of evil. But it does recast it. Evil, on this account, is something contingent and adventitious to creation, a kind of difference that arises within it by the reduction and impairment of the ordered existence and functioning of systems, corporeal, psychological, social and environmental. Some of that impairment seems intrinsic to certain ecosystems, to the operating of food-chains, for example. Some of it seems wanton, excessive, and meaning-collapsing, to borrow Marilyn McCord-Adams’ definition of horrific evils. And it involves the de-formation of creaturely agents and structures so that their capacities mal-function, working destructively and oppressively from their impaired created powers.

On this understanding, God’s creative power is the source of capacities of resistance and repair, and some accounts of God’s governance of creation stress the divine restraint of forces of evil and the upholding of creatures against them. But in Christian tradition Jesus Christ is central to how God addresses the phenomenon of destructive evil in creation. The dominant paradigm in Christianity for understanding who Jesus Christ is, and how God acts in him, has long been the incarnation: the advent of God’s own Word in the form of this particular fully human life.


At first glance, the incarnation looks quite like a super-heroic intervention of the order of the Avengers. Alien superheroes who live apparently human lives on earth, whether explicitly divine with divine parents, like Thor, or with superpowers and alien father-figures, like Superman, in the DC comics and films, seem to echo this Christian doctrine.

In a way, there is plenty of precedent for them in some of the ways in which Christians have imagined Jesus. Indeed, the history of Christianity is haunted by efforts to grasp Jesus Christ’s identity by understanding him in terms like these, a Demi-God with tremendous powers and a degree of vulnerability who defeats his enemies through his victorious sufferings and his overcoming of them. It is an enduringly powerful picture of the Saviour, easily attached to powerful historical human figures with putative divine missions.

Yet it does not do justice to the New Testament portraits of Jesus, especially if those in the Synoptics are taken into account. For, variously rendered, with their different themes, emphases, and theologies, but sharing basic commonalities of plot, they present an individual who is, as Hans Frei argued, irreducibly particular and just so of cosmic significance; the subject of a life in history and yet, as one whose identity is inseparable from that of God, whose life, death and resurrection matter decisively and comprehensively for the life and identity of everyone, even every creature. Jesus for Matthew in particular is someone in whom is combined a genetic and cultural heritage that looks back to through the genealogies, to Abraham, and yet also ‘God with us’,  whose identity is of ultimate import for Israel and for every people. That combination marks a contrast with the identities of the Avengers and their enemies, and the logic of intervention they share, even at its maximal scale.

Toward the end of Age of Ultron, Ultron seems to suggest that he is putting humanity on probation. He is asked, What should happen if they fail the test? ‘Ask Noah‘, he replies, and implies he is God’s instrument of annihilation (as pointed out here), foreshadowing the mission Thanos has already adopted. In the narrative of Genesis, in its eventual form, God appears to turn away from this way of thinking, promising never to wipe life from the face of the earth. As Christine Hayes suggests in one of her online Yale lectures, God seems to learn from the episode. It is as though the development of God’s character in the narrative enacts the exploration of a theological option that is then – apparently – left behind: a certain catastrophic interventionism. An alternative approach that works through particularity is explored instead. God henceforth takes a different approach, one that seeks to make a difference to all people through one person and his descendants, namely, Abraham. Matthew, Luke, and Paul, frame Jesus’ identity as the culmination of this project

The logic of intervention in respect of Jesus looks different, then. But isn’t there a coincidence of particularity and cosmic scope in the case of Avengers Infinity and Endgame also? The scale of Thanos’ original and his later intended annihilation and the undoing of the former and the prevention of the latter are both cosmic. Thanos also links his cosmic genocides to his identity (‘I am inevitable!‘), as Tony Stark links the action which annihilates Thanos and his hordes in an act of self-sacrifice to his Avenger name (‘I am Iron Man‘, a remark which recapitulates his first self-revelation). There are christological echoes here, signalled by the use of the ‘I am’ formula, which Thanos had also used in Avengers: Infinity War, standing in the wreckage of the Asgardian ship (‘Dread it. run from it. Destiny arrived all the same. And now it is here. Or should I say, I am.’) But the differences made by these characters, though cosmic scope, do not extend as far and as deep as the difference the New Testament attributes to Jesus Christ, nor do they inhere as deeply in the particularity of these characters: in who they are, typically or cumulatively. For by means of the narratives about him, Jesus’ particularity comes to colour and shape the difference he makes: what it means to be the Son of Man or the Son of God, a king, or the Christ. And such is the difference made by this Jesus that one NT writer, Paul, can describe it as a new creation.

On Frei’s analysis (and that of several NT scholars), the NT presents a variety of high Christologies, of which Johannine Christology is only one. For those in the Christian tradition who have sought to understand the figure indicated by those witnesses, the parading of the incarnation has been central to combining other scriptural patterns and titles along with extra-biblical concepts. If we can summarise the overall tendency of this way of thinking, amidst its considerable internal disagreements, it is to see the union and difference between Jesus and God in the Spirit as reflecting an eternal differentiation and unity in God, in which it is grounded. The particularity of Jesus of Nazareth in its cosmic significance is then the expression of that first difference in God, in a historical life, by the joining of the One who is God in the way, with creaturely life in its human form.

There’s a good case for saying that in much of the pre-modern Christian tradition, it is this joining of One who is God with a human life that is central to salvation: reconciliation, death-defeating, justice and the healing of human nature hang off this union (in this sort of mode, Kathryn Tanner has argued that the Incarnation is atonement). It represents another mode of the work of omnipotence, one focused in and shaping a particular life with comprehensive, cosmic significance. It is, as Karl Barth argued, a work of divine freedom for this One to take on fully creaturely existence in this way (indeed, Barth would argue that this is where we learn what divine freedom is). It is a work of divine power to make creaturely life ‘his’ or ‘her’ own, such that the creature is not annulled or diminished but becomes very much himself, such that One who is God is born, grows, learns, knows joy, fatigue, hunger and thirst, works, learns obedience to God, carries out the work of divine love, suffers death and is raised to life – and in just this way remakes creaturely existence in and as this creature and unites it with God’s own life. It seems like an intervention, yet it takes place within the creation where God’s power already touches everything, and, in one person, it makes a difference with universal, cosmic ramifications: a re-creation that does not destroy but heals creaturely life, turns it back to God, and lifts it to share in the circulation of God’s own life, within the difference and unity internal to God.

Once again, these tenets do not obviate or resolve the problem of evil, but they do give it a different cast. They proclaim that in this person, evil is overcome, defeated, and exhausted; the wounds it leaves are healed and the threat it poses is finally superseded . But it also says that this difference is one in which creatures are yet to fully share. It conditions our reality, it lies hidden, its fullness may be anticipated in human lives, communities and even in our larger histories, but its full realisation in creatures is not yet and must be awaited. It structures human subjectivity in longing, lament and in hope. It prompts the question, why this way? It evokes the ancient cry, ‘how long?’


In much Christian tradition, the joining of lives and communities to the new creation in Jesus of Nazareth is the work of God’s Spirit. This incorporation into his humanity and thereby into the divine life is a third work of omnipotence, the joining of other creatures to God, which only God can do. It is, as Sarah Coakley has argued, an experiential as well as scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, one which (I think) is operative in fourth century arguments for the Spirit’s full deity. This joining has potential for helping us re-conceive omnipotence further, and the difference it makes in the face of evil.

As Willie Jennings points out in The Christian Imagination, there is considerable danger in Christian universalism. The history of modern European colonialism which he traces in selected episodes there demonstrates that thesis, in the way it fused the universality of Christ with white identity and power, premised on supersessionism, which reduced land and place to exploitable space and racialised de-racinated identities of subjugated peoples. That legacy, and the vision of Christian power it embodies, is still very much with us, including in our images of superheroes and superpower.

Jennings finds, however, in the story of Pentecost and especially of the conversion of Cornelius and his household – and of Peter to eat with Gentiles – an alternative vision of human intimacy, of the joining of those with different cultures and with the land, in the Jewish body of Jesus. It points us to other possibilities of living out belief in divine omnipotence in response to evil, to the possibilities of affirming omnipotence otherwise.

Avengers and the problem of evil (part one)

It’s not difficult to make a case for reading the Marvel Universe theologically. Not only do gods like Thor, Odin and Loki, and celestials like Ego, feature amongst its cast of characters, but many of the Avengers and their opponents have quasi-divine powers, albeit the supernatural is often re-naturalised by way of back-stories involving genetic or other technologies. The differences between divine and human Avengers are differences of degree. As ‘War Machine’ tells Captain Marvel at the headquarters of the surviving Avengers in Avengers Endgame, ‘everyone here has that superhero vibe.’ Noticing the way these films are populated by characters with such divine qualities allows us to ask what is done through these representations of the divine, which is to ask about these films as works of theology, in a fairly generic way. (1)

One effect is implicit in what we’ve already observed: these films blur the distinction between divinity and other (humanoid) species by way of technological enhancements of various kinds. The humans among these augmented characters are treated as still fully human in the films. They exhibit human needs and desires for relationships, for example. They have human flaws and vulnerabilities. And they are taken as representative of humanity by others, whether by opponents like Ultron or Thanos, or by allies, like Vision. Their augmentations and powers do not seem to place their humanity in question. (Perhaps the only characters who begin to really raise the question of the post-human in earnest are the AI characters, Jarvis and Ultron). Other characters tend to show the same features, they are anthropomorphically imagined, including deities. Altogether, then, the divine and quasi-divine inhabitants of the Marvel Universe seem to be a projection of an imagined humanity (a so far predominantly heterosexual humanity, though the films celebrate less conventional images of the family) on to a larger scale.

That enlargement of scale serves a number of purposes in the films. It allows them to invest ordinary human dramas of love, friendship, family and loss with extraordinary heroic, even cosmic significance. It is part of the Afrofuturism by which Black Panther celebrates and affirms a pan-African identity. It also allows them to treat standard themes of redemptive violence (even while briefly questioning them as Age of Ultron does) and noble sacrifice on a scale at once cosmic and individual. In this way, perhaps, like other stories of super-heroes, the films allow us to imagine a sense of individual agency in a vast, complex world menaced by myriad large-scale threats. In this way also, like other stories of super-heroes, it brings the Avengers – but not only the Avengers – up against the question of evil, its nature, origins and undoing.

What’s interesting to me about the later Avengers films in this respect is the way they seem to focus in on the issue of divine responsibility for undoing, redressing or preventing evil at large, or what is commonly called ‘the problem of evil’, and is both a standard question in traditional modern, western philosophy of religion, and a common reason for the rejection and loss of belief in theistic religions.

In this regard, we can trace a process of increasing scope and scale of the interventions made by divine and quasi-divine beings to redress, undo or prevent evil acts or situations. We might distinguish the interventions by individual heroes to save specific places, interventions by teams of heroes to thwart larger conspiracies and organisations (e.g. Hydra), interventions to save the planet or large parts of its population, and interventions by still a larger alliance, in Infinity War and Endgame, to undo the elimination of half the population of the universe. In a sense, the Marvel films are peopled largely by interventionist gods and their friends and we are invited to suspend our disbelief in them.

There is a thread of ambiguity attached to these heroes and their interventions and the institutions that support them. That ambiguity attaches in part to the US military, to the organisation S.H.I.E.L.D., to Tony Stark as a hero and former arms manufacturer, a semi-rogue member, even embodiment, of the industrial-military complex, and to the Avengers as a group. In each case suspicion is raised about how far the heroes differ from the villains, their links with the military-industrial complex, and the lack of oversight or checks on their actions: who guards the Guardians? This is the basis on which we are invited briefly (and not very successfully) to entertain empathy with the critical perspective on the Avengers of the self-conscious, rogue AI entity, Ultron, in Age of Ultron.

Ultron was dreamt up by Tony Stark as the presiding AI genius of a global defence system against alien incursion, which Stark, with the assistance of Dr Bruce Banner, creates in secret and without anyone’s authorisation. It is an intervention that creates a quasi-human quasi-divine entity (who in turn inadvertently creates a second, the Vision) as a means of preventing evil on a planetary scale. Ultron’ assessment of risk is the converse of this: the danger comes from the Avengers, indeed from humanity. Eventually Ultron concludes that a planetary level solution is required, the mass extinction of humanity (and presumably other creatures, but Marvel is, despite itself, a firmly anthropocentric universe). As Wanda points out in that film, Ultron’s plan betrays the lineage of Stark’s scheme. The continuity between them is the augmentation and expansion or upscaling of power as a rationalistic response to the threat of evil.

Ultron’s scheme rests in part on appropriating the Space Stone, one of the Infinity Stones through which fundamental dimensions of reality can be manipulated (Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Time, Soul). As Thanos’ appearance and speech at the end of the film suggests, we are to enderstand Ultron’s taking of the stone as part of a larger plan by Thanos to obtain all six stones, in order to wield their combined power through a gauntlet constructed to hold them and allow their power to be used. But there is continuity also between Ultron’s scheme and Thanos’ grand plan. For Thanos’ plan is also a coldly rationalistic response to evils in the cosmos, one which he previously been carrying out in piecemeal interventions: to eliminate half the population of the cosmos in order to eliminate the competition for resources to which Thanos ascribes social (and perhaps ecological) evils. What distinguishes Thanos’ plan, successfully accomplished by his snap of the fingers of the gauntlet at the end of Infinity War, is its scale and scope, and the degree of divine power required to achieve it. It is a work of a kind of omniscient omnipotence, the ultimate divine intervention, paralleled only by the act that undoes it.

Or nearly. Near the end of the convulsed plot of Endgame an earlier Thanos, having learnt of the Avengers’ plan to reconvene the infinity stones in order to bring back those annihilated by his finger snap, is transported forward through time to the Avengers HQ just after the success of that plan. Faced by the revived and reassembled Avengers he announces the lesson he has learnt: that the survivors of his semi-annihilation have not been able to adjust to what his later self has done. He will have to scale up his intervention to a total wipe-out, and a fresh start. By way of the connections between the planning of Stark, Ultron and Thanos, this intended act is the culmination of an escalating logic of intervention by gods and demi-gods with ever closer approximations to a sort of omniscient omnipotent total intervention.

There is a horrible logic to this escalation. Limited interventions can at best halt, limit or prevent certain acts or events causing horrific suffering. But the causes of such suffering are complex, systemic and pervasive and the vulnerability of living beings to it seems inherent, extensive and may at best only be mitigated. Thanos’ choice to annihilate everyone and start again perhaps recognises this intractable difficulty in intervening to stop and prevent all suffering, but does so without any real compassion for actual living beings, or any real appreciation of the goods of their fragile, ambiguous existence. It is, in the end, a pitiless rationalisation of pure multi-genocidal will to power: ‘I am inevitable.’

This line of analysis raises a question, I would suggest, for formulations of the problem of evil which involve some sort of omniscient omnipotence as one of their key premises. For popular (and academic) constructions like the ‘inconsistent triad’ – God cannot be both omnisciently omnipotent and good and yet permit the existence of horrendous suffering – seem to imagine omnipotence in interventionist terms, making specific differences to the world or to the conditions of creaturely existence. Such accounts may need to show how they can avoid implying or requiring the kind of escalation of intervention we find in the Avengers films. On the whole, as I’ll argue in a second post, the emphasis in much of the Christian tradition has been on imagining divine intervention in a rather different way.

(1) I’ve seen many of these films, but not all, and I’ve not read the comics.

Though it’s Spring, there is no hidden life on Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday on a warm spring day. Has you thinking you can almost feel the advent of resurrection. The resurgence of life from death-like winter courses through the imagery of Easter, after all, so it’s hard not to see it anticipated on a day like today, hard not to imagine the hidden life in the buried grain, the unseen sap rising, pushing life through the limbs. It’s the Johannine Jesus, after all, who compares the fruitfulness of himself in death to the death a grain of wheat (Jn 12:24). One of my favourite Easter hymns announces that ‘Love has come again like wheat that springeth green.’

Rowan Williams’ ‘Borgo San Sepulcro” draws on the same idea. Williams compares the opening eyes of the risen Christ to the ‘wax lips of a breaking bud/ defeated by the steady push, hour after hour’, the hunger in those eyes to impart the overwhelming life within to rooms waiting ‘to be defeated by the push, the green implacable rising’ while we, sensing his gathering strength, wait for his spring. The imagery suggests the inevitability of the return of life, the inevitability of Christ’s resurrection. And so Holy Saturday, when it’s sunny and warm, can feel like the prelude to resurrection, the green and the flowers like signs of a gathering strength, an impending overthrow of death.

But I think that pathetic fallacy is deceptive, theologically.

At the heart of the story of Jesus Christ is what Hans Frei called ‘the pattern of exchange’, which was also at the heart of early Christian understandings of incarnation, atonement and human transformation. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ takes on our condition and imparts to us a share in his own: his sinlessness, his right standing with God, his relation to God as Son, his Life-filled humanity. In this way, in his person, humanity is rescued from sin and death, reconciled with God, assimilated to a God and united with God. A corollary of that logic is the rule Gregory of Nazianzus articulated: that ‘the unassumed is the unhealed” (Ep. 101). What of our humanity and condition Jesus does not take on, is not transformed.

The sense we can have on a sunny Holy Saturday, the intuition to which so much of our Easter imagery leads us, runs foul of that rule, it seems to me. For if Jesus Christ assumes our death, then he assumes its finality, its exhaustion of creaturely breath, its coldness and its rigour, its silence. If he assumes our death, his body must become a painful gap in others’ lives. It must tear bonds and shatter hopes. It must pierce his mother’s soul and scatter his friends. It must alienate him from hope of sharing God’s own life.

For that is what the gospels indicate. Jesus, whose power to take the initiative is reduced step by step after his arrest, is utterly inactive from the moment of his death. He does nothing, who has stilled storms, revived the dead, multiplied healings and driven out the prince of demons. Crucifixion has worked its horrid tortuous efficiency upon him. No-one can say of him, do not weep, he is only sleeping. Sometimes, in films, the hero is reduced near to death only to spring up and surprise and reassure us with the hidden reserves we had been led to hope they have, the hidden strength, cunning, knowledge, or deeper magic of which their enemies knew not. Something of that runs through stories like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. Not so with Jesus Christ. He is dead beyond recall. His enemies succeeded in killing ‘the author of life’ (Acts 3:15). And his body has already become a painful gap in the lives of his followers. He dies God-forsaken.

Life has to come to Jesus Christ. Peter’s testimony in Acts 3:15 announces not Jesus’ hidden strength become manifest, but the action of a God who raised him from the dead. They same is true in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. There it is God’s faithfulness to his Holy One which explains why he raised him, freeing him from death; why it was ‘impossible for him to be held in its power.’ Jesus Christ must await the Spirit’s recreating power. His resurrection is not his recovery at the last minute, not his reassertion of himself. It comes after the devastation of death. It comes after Holy Saturday.

Jesus Christ’s death, and the silence and the gap it introduces, then, underscores the reality of our death, reveals its truthfulness, and the horror of certain deaths, like murders (whether at the hands of the state or its enemies or for other motives). It underscores the reality of our varied griefs, too. It reveals thereby also the gap between the Risen Life he embodies and dispenses, and the possibilities of our creaturely reality. The resurrection is not a historical possibility, but something that comes upon creation, the second touch of God’s creating power reconfigured to incorporate us into the life of God in the person of the Risen Jesus Christ. We hope not for the unwinding of death, or of time, its instrument, but something more and new.

The sequence of Holy Saturday-Easter Day is instructive, but it is not the pattern for the whole liturgical year. Before long we will be back in Ordinary Time, the figure of the ambiguous character of our present in which death lives on, apparently unscathed by its cataclysmic defeat, and yet the new has come in the Risen Jesus who reigns at God’s right hand, and sends his Spirit. Something more than the possibilities of our creaturely historical existence is also at mysteriously work, in and through our histories. Not the rising sap, but the quiet insurrection of the risen Lord.