‘The Integrity of Theology’ by Rowan Williams

(prologue and chapter one in:  On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)

For some time now I have had a shelf in my mind set aside for questions relating to a postmodern discomfort about ‘us and them’ categories, particularly in relation to evangelism.  Bless you Rowan Williams for providing a framework that might begin to work towards some responses to these concerns!  (NB This post reflects more of my language than his and I’m not guaranteeing I’ve completely grasped his superior intellect!)

The first gem comes from his description of a ‘three fold division of theological reflection’.  I imagine them as an intertwining rope.  Williams labels them celebratory, communicative and critical.

  • celebratory – the living faith context of speaking about and to God.  prayer.  worship. discipleship. devotion.
  • communicative – the interaction required with other worldly wisdoms in order to communicate something about God.  Hence we might draw on sociological insights to increase our understanding of a biblical concept!
  • critical – questioning leads us to humble experiences of the truth.

The second gem from this short chapter on theological integrity comes from his discussion of language.  Theological conversations, as with most human interactions, are susceptible to a two level discourse – there is a stated language and subject, but also an unstated and frequently unconscious level to the conversation.  For a theology to have integrity, it must find a way to deal honestly with the unstated agendas.

This two level discourse is illustrated perfectly in the tweet and blog furor over Rob Bell’s soon to be released book on the theology of hell.  There has been widespread condemnation of Bell (i.e. Bell himself, not just his ideas!) based on a three minute promo video for the book and the domino effect of key ‘theological players’ taking a swing!  How is it possible to have a theological conversation about a book before it has even been read!?!  There is something else going on – this cannot be a conversation purely about the biblical texts on hell (which by the way, would not fit into a twitter sized communicae).

Rowan William’s proscription for theology with integrity includes the following:

  • allow for answers, ie. have an actual conversation
  • response and continuation of the conversation are essential
  • invite collaboration
  • do not claim to be final
  • critical self-perception – develop a dynamic of repentance in theological language
  • decline the attempt to speak from God’s point of view
  • steer away from gross generalities
  • work within the same narrative dynamic revealed in scripture  – a story of humanity’s response to God’s working in the world and God’s response to the humanity
  • speak to God, not just about God
  • acknowledge that praise of God is a labour for us – it requires work, effort, it costs us something
  • be open to the lessons of contemplative prayer where language ceases to be important for our deep and abiding communion with God

How does all this relate to my distaste for ‘us and them’ dynamics in a conversation about evangelism?  At it’s heart, the postmodern suspicion of clearly defined boundaries is a psychological honesty about our own finitude.  I do not know everything there is to know about the world (the world wide web has made that blindingly obvious);  I do not have the same religion as other families at school but I still really like hanging out with them (world wide population movements have blessed us with that in real terms);  and our moral compass has been smashed – my mother/father/lover/friend is a good person but they have sent me into life-long therapy and besides all that bad things happen to good people!

Williams is suggesting we embrace our limitations.  I know what I know, but that leaves an awful lot of stuff I don’t!  I know that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected.  I know I believe his claims to be the Son of God.  I know I am ‘a sinner’ and I know what I think that means!  There are lots of these kinds of claims to knowledge I could make.  But to state that I know the spiritual plight of my next door neighbours (of whom, by the way, I know dispairingly little) is to overstate my own capacity for truth and insight.  However, I do know that they are good neighbours who return the balls that regularly fly over their fence.  I do know that that they are human beings within whom God imprinted his image.  I even know that they are co-contributors to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in.  There are a range of truths and insights about our shared humanity (including theologically) which I can embrace.  In fact, I know more about what we have in common than I do about what might divide us.  So, to distinguish between myself and them with absolutising categories tells a story I am not able to tell with integrity.

With William’s advice in mind, I can move forward.  I can engage in conversations about Jesus sharing truthfully from my own experience and interaction with the texts and traditions.  But it is a conversation not a proclamation.  An invitation not a declaration.  I do not lose myself and my own convictions in the dialogue, but neither do I become closed to learning something new.  Is not God – the Sovereign and Supreme Creator of the Universe most worthy of this kind of respect?  Surely Jesus can look after his own reputation in this kind of interaction – especially with the Holy Spirit at his disposal!  My confidence is evangelism shifts in this way to the stated content of the discourse (i.e. God), rather than the unstated and largely unconscious need to have others agree with me, to validate my ego’s explanation of the world.

‘Trends and directions in Contemporary Theology: Anglican Theology’ by Ian Markham

(in Expository Times, 122 (5) 209-217)

Cute and useful little article!  (However, it does not include consideration of non-western thinkers and movements and is overly focused on the US.) Markham identifies 5 streams of contemporary anglican theology:

1. liberal

eg. Richard Holloway; John Shelby Spong

2. conservative

perhaps the largest group;  eg. Philip Jenkins, James Packer, Philip Turner, Ephraim Radner,

3. mystical – including the ‘radical orthodoxy’ movement

“The battle between liberals and conservatives is being fought out in the battleground of the Anglican Communion.  much of this theology is being expressed in communiques, statements, and most recently in ‘pastoral letters’.  However, more nuanced Anglican theologies are emerging in the academy, of which the most influential are using the language of ‘mystical theology’ and ‘radical orthodoxy’… [and are] … a response to postmodernism – our sensitivity that we cannot simply ‘argue’for the truth.” (p.213)

eg. mystical feminist theology – Sarah Coakley;  radical orthodoxy – John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock

4. eccelisology & culture

“This group shares a relatively conservative doctrinal emphasis..[with an understanding that]… faith depends on revelation… [which is ultimately]… the disclosure of God in the Eternal Word made flesh – the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  There is also agreement that the Christian community is central.  Faith is learning the language that enables one to participate in the Church.  The difference with Radical Orthodoxy is the possibility of dialogue across disciplines.” (p.214)

eg. Katherine Tanner, Daniel W, Hardy, David Ford, Martyn Percy, Esther Reed, Keith Ward,

5. Rowan Williams – in a category all on his own!

Three major themes to William’s work – (i) the centrality of the Christian community, with a particular interest in the way language functions in the discourse of faith;  (ii) the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity; (iii) the centrality of  Scripture, in which he encourages a ‘literal’ reading of scripture which draws us into a conversation – with God, ourselves, and our critical faculties.

“Williams is setting out an agenda for Anglican theology.  It is one that learns from conservative theologians the importance of authority and limits to pluralism.  It recognizes as foundational the conviction that God is revealed in Christ and discovered in Scripture.  It learns from the liberals the need to recognize that God is always bigger than the boxes in which we insist on confining God.  This Rowan Williams’ inspired Anglican Theology recognizes the centrality of prayer and appreciates the insights of Radical Orthodoxy.  It is happy to share an appropriate emphasis on recognizing that God is disclosing Christ to us in a vast array of cultural discoveries.  It is also a theology that gently takes issue with the extremes in each group.  To the conservatives, they need to think carefully at precisely what point a fellow Christian is no longer struggling in Christ to discern the truth of God’s Word; to the liberal, he has no time for the theologies that fail to recognize the achievement of the creeds, to the advocate of Radical Orthodoxy, he worries about an inability to engage; and to the sociological interfaith, ecclesiological movement, he insists on a strong sense of Christian identity within the Church.  This mixture of both learning from these conversation partners and yet taking issue with them is producing a distinctly Anglican approach to theology.”  (p.217)


God’s Next Big Thing: Discovering the Future Church by Scott Cowdell

(John Garrett Publishing; Melbourne, 2004)

Scott Cowdell will supervise my guided reading project, starting next week, which was the original motivation for reading this book -what a blessing!  Great writing, sharp intellect and deeply spiritual reflections engaging both head and heart – I am so excited about the academic year which is about to start!!!

God’s Next Big Thing is divided into two parts.  The first global/Australian cultural analysis is locating the church in the post-modern era and was particularly exciting for me with it’s strong critique of capitalist modes of being as a core driver of western culture’s evolution.  Cowdell favours a definition of post-modernity as an hyper-extension of the modern era which draws this out more clearly.  I still think postmodernism is a new epoch of western culture, but I valued being able to chart it’s economic heritage.

Included in part one is a fabulous chapter on the emerging church where, as a high-churchman, Cowdell argues for an emerging church that is mystical, mature and militant (by which he means prophetic engagement with the wider world).  I particularly appreciated his depiction of the immature church that is so prevalent today – insecure, defensive with an addictive & co-dependent personality.  It reinforced my own image of the Western Church being in denial about it’s midlife crisis.  Mostly however, it was just so exciting to read a Christian from a different ‘tradition’ to my own, reaching the same conclusions by a different path.  Surely a sign that God is in this ‘next big thing’.

The second part of the book is devoted to suggestions for the way forward in which he addresses liturgy; the lay vocation of the Church; and organised religion (rejecting institutionalism and managerialism in the Church).  Whilst I don’t share Cowdell’s passion for the defined Liturgical Movement tradition from which he comes, I do share his conclusions on the need for depth, mystery and beauty in our worship as a balm to the postmodern soul.  I also agree with his theology of the laity as having a ‘vocation’ that is ‘serving at an alter in the world’ – called to be disciples  in whatever life situation they find themselves, as opposed to devoting their service to the maintenance of religion.  His discussion of lay presidency is insightful in this regard.  His discussion on sexuality is really interesting!

Christopher Cocksworth & Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity

(Canterbury Pres; UK, 2nd Ed 2006)

I read this book quickly while searching for an Ordination gift for a friend.  I am definitely going to have to buy another copy and take it away on retreat sometime to ponder and pray over!  The authors cover the root, shape and fruit of priestly life and, as the title suggests, launches from the ‘being’ aspects of ministry to explore the ‘doing’.  Returning to the basics in this way increased my capacity to explore how I might imaginatively and genuinely express my calling to anglican priesthood in the time and place which I live.   It’s a book which is theologically sophisticated – drawing extensively from the bible, church fathers (east and west) and christian wisdom from diverse traditions.  Yet it reads like devotional literature and I found myself inspired, spiritually nurtured and excited about being me.

Richard Giles, Times and Seasons

(Canterbury Press; UK, 2008)

Richard Giles has been renewing Anglican liturgy in the catholic tradition for decades, through his deep and subtle understandings of space, beauty and rhythm.  ‘Times and Seasons’ is a practical, theological resource book for renewing worship across the church year.  Often what is missing when we get creative with our worship, is easy access to, and understanding of, the rich historical and theological traditions of the elements of worship we are hoping to breathe new life into.  However, unless we connect with what God is doing in the worship event our creative efforts will struggle to touch peoples inmost being.   Richard Giles provides that in this book.  It’s fantastic and I highly recommend it – for traditional, emerging, evangelical, catholic, charismatic, all forms and styles of worship!