Men and Women in Marriage

In an earlier post, I provided a brief analysis of the Church of England’s 2012 Response to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage. I now want to provide a similar analysis of its more detailed 2013 follow-up: the Church’s Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) report on Men and Women in Marriage.

This time, however, the context for my analysis is rather different. I am myself a member of FAOC, and I was a member when the report was proposed, when it was discussed, and when it was published. As a member, I share responsibility for the report, even if (as is always the way with reports produced by committee) it is not what I would have written had I been left to my own devices.

Men and Women in Marriage was ‘commended for study’ by the Archbishops in their Foreword, and it seems to me that the best way for me to accept my responsibility for it is to take that commendation very seriously – to study the report, to ask what agenda it suggests for further deliberation, and to seek to promote that deliberation as vigorously as I can.

If you are looking for criticism of the people involved, or gossip about the process by which the report was produced, or salacious revelations about the Commission’s discussions after publication, I’m afraid that these posts will (in all these ways, as no doubt in others) be disappointing.

An analysis of this report is the natural next step for my argument, however. The report is explicitly presented as a follow-up to the 2012 document. In the Foreword, the Archbishops say that it aims to provide a ‘short summary of the Church of England’s understanding of marriage’ and, more fully, that

It sets out to explain the continued importance of and rationale for the doctrine of the Church of England on marriage as set out in The Book of Common Prayer, Canon B30, the Common Worship Marriage Service and the teaching document issued by the House in September 1999 [The reference is to Marriage: a Teaching Document from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, Church House Publishing]

That description could be misconstrued, however. Our report did not provide an evenly balanced summary of all the main things that the Church of England has wanted to say about the nature and purpose of marriage, but was an attempt to set out more fully the background in the Church of England’s thinking to the specific arguments made in the debate about same-sex marriage. So nearly everything in the report is (as the title says) about the necessity of marriage taking place between a man and a woman – and about ‘how the sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God’ (§3). Other topics (including such central topics as faithfulness and public commitment) appear only briefly, and only insofar as they relate to that central topic.

Like the original response to the government consultation, then, this is a report about gender – specifically about the importance of gender difference to marriage, but also more broadly about the wider importance of gender in society. And that’s where my analysis, spread over the next two or three posts, is going to focus.

Applying for Jobs

I wrote this for a Departmental postgrad handbook, the publication of which has now been delayed – so I thought I would post it here.  I’ve been involved in another shortlisting process this week, and it only served to reinforce these ideas.

Writing an Application

I am not an extrovert.  The process of writing a job application – a document in which I am supposed to praise myself to strangers – is a peculiar kind of torture.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve done it now, but it has never lost that sting of embarrassment and awkwardness.

I think, though, that I have now learnt how to do it.  Of course, you’d have to ask the members of the Department here, who read my application for my current job, whether I did the right thing – though I guess it can’t have been too awful, given that I’m here.  But my confidence is not based so much on that, as on the fact that I have also now had the experience of reading hundreds of other people’s job applications.  Probably more than a thousand.  And whilst I won’t pretend that it is as unpleasant an experience as writing my own, I do find it dispiriting in its own unique way – because so many people who write them throw their chances away.

So, here is some advice from a serial application reader, about how to make sure your application is not prematurely thrown on to the ‘reject’ pile.

You have seen an advert for an academic job that you would like, and you have decided to send in an application.  How do your maximize your chances of being one of the lucky few chosen to get called to interview?

It is worth remembering that the first and most important purpose of your application is to get you on to the shortlist.  That may sound obvious, but it actually underlies everything else that I’m about to say.  Imagine that I’m in charge of this particular job search.  Imagine me sitting with a huge pile of applications in front of me – often fifty or a hundred, sometimes many more – and with not very much time.  I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me, just to picture the situation.  Imagine me trying to make a fair but quick decision about which applications to throw on the reject pile, in order to get it down to a manageable size – an initial long list.

At this stage, I can promise you that I am not going to be reading each application in great detail, developing a rich and well-informed picture of each applicant’s individual character and strengths.  There simply isn’t the time.  Rather, I’m going to be skimming through the applications in haste to see which of them match their selection criteria.  In fact, the last several times I’ve done this, I’ve had a spreadsheet open in front of me, with the name of every applicant down the side, and a list of criteria across the top, and I’ve simply gone through writing some variant of ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’ in every box.  Only when I’ve used that process to weed out most of the applicants will I spend more time with the applications still standing, trying to make a final selection.  So that is what you are up against, at least to begin with.

But – and this is the most important thing to realize – in any well run process, you will have been told in advance what the criteria are, in whatever ‘Further Particulars’ or ‘Person Specification’ or ‘Job Details’ document was made available to prospective applicants.

So, in order to maximize your chances, you need to follow these simple rules.

Rule 1: Read the Further Particulars carefully.

Rule 2: Read the Further Particulars carefully again.

Rule 3: Read the Further Particulars carefully one more time.  (If you’ve reached this step, you are already ahead of the majority of other applicants.  Trust me.)

Rule 4: Find out whatever else you can about the job.  If it is an academic job, do you know someone in the relevant department?  Give them a ring and ask them to tell you what sort of person the department is looking for.  Do the Further Particulars give the details of a key contact, and invite you to get in touch?  Use them, and ask them whether they can give you more detail about what they need from the appointee.  Unless you take up stalking at this point, you’re not going to do yourself any harm, and you may get a clearer sense of what the criteria in the Further Particulars really mean.

Rule 5: Don’t simply submit the same application for every job.  Just don’t.  Your aim in your application is not to say how great you are in the abstract.  It is to show that you fit this job, and that this job fits you.  The application you wrote for another job last week will not work for this job, unless the two jobs are identical.  If you haven’t got time to write a fresh application for this job, then you don’t have time to apply for this job.

Rule 6: For any application where you are allowed to write a covering letter, do so – and use it to set out clearly how you meet the criteria given in the Further Particulars.  After a brief and formal opening paragraph, the content of which doesn’t really matter, take those criteria one by one, and write a paragraph highlighting the ways in which you meet that criterion.  So, if they say they want someone who can teach modern Jewish philosophy, who has published at least two articles, and who can juggle flaming torches, you should write a covering letter with a paragraph that highlights the experience you have teaching modern Jewish philosophy, a paragraph pointing out that you have one article published and another on its way, and a paragraph explaining that you can indeed juggle three flaming torches, and on a good day four.  Follow the order in which the criteria are given in the Further Particulars; use the same language that they use.  Make it as easy as you can for a panel member reading your application to see at a glance that, yes, you meet their criteria – or that you come close, and are on your way to meeting them soon.  You may be able to combine a number of the smaller-scale criteria into a single paragraph – but try to make sure that you still clearly cover all of them.

Rule 7: Tweak your CV so that it provides clear evidence to back up your letter.  Your letter can refer the reader to your CV for more detailed evidence (‘As you will see from my CV, I have juggled flaming torches in market towns across West Kent and South London’).  See below for more CV advice.

Rule 8: Make both documents – your letter and CV – clear, uncluttered, and readable.  A covering letter that is six dense, narrow-margined pages of unbroken prose in Comic Sans (and, yes, that does happen) is not going to do you any favours.  Unless you are given different instructions (did you read the Further Particulars?) the rule for non-academic jobs tends to be a one-page covering letter and two-page CV.  For an academic job, I’d aim for two pages for your covering letter, without getting too precious about hitting that length exactly, and let the length of your CV be determined by what needs to go in it to provide full evidence of the way you meet the criteria.  Aim for well-ordered clarity and simplicity – for professionalism, elegance, and readability.  Avoid dense complexity like the plague.

Rule 9: Check what you have written.  And check it again.  And again.  And again.  And then get someone else to check it.  Eliminate typos, clumsy formatting, bad grammar, awkward phrasing, sentences of baroque complexity, any impressive-sounding phrases that you don’t actually understand, and any lavish adjectives that aren’t matched by the evidence.  By the time I’m on application number 75, I’m just about ready to scream at every covering letter that reads like a bad entry in a highbrow literary prose-writing competition.  Just cut to the chase!  Tell me what I need to know!  Please!

Rule 10: Select good referees.  Choose people who know you and your work.  Choose people who like you and your work.  If possible, for academic jobs, choose people who are prominent enough to be known to your selection panel.  Ask them (if at all possible) well in advance, and then send them a copy of your application (both the letter and the CV) and a copy of the Further Particulars.  If they have to send in the reference themselves (rather than being approached by the selection panel), send them a polite reminder a week before the deadline.

Rule 11: And, finally – read those Further Particulars yet again, and make sure you’ve done everything you were asked to do, exactly as you were asked to do it.

And good luck!

Creating a CV

I have always found writing a CV an anxiety-inducing task.  It’s not awkward in quite the same way as writing a covering letter is awkward, because it is more formalized, so it feels less like you’ve been asked to tell a roomful of people just how marvellous you are.  But I could never shake the feeling that I simply didn’t have enough to put in my CV, and that other people’s were bound to be much more impressive.

Just as with covering letters, though, the experience of reading hundreds of other people’s CVs, as I have sat on numerous appointment panels, has helped me to realise that approaching the task the right way can make a big difference.  Just as with your covering letter, you can put yourself quite a long way up the pile just by writing your CV sensibly.  I should say, though, that I only really know about CVs written by candidates applying for academic jobs, so if you’re applying for some other kind of job you’ll need to take the following advice only cautiously.

The first piece of advice, though, goes for all job applications.  You should definitely produce a new CV for each application.  That doesn’t mean you need to start each time from scratch, but it does mean that you need to rework the content and presentation so that it matches the job you’re applying for.  (And this is the one bit of the advice I’m giving you that I have consistently followed myself – so I now have a hard drive littered with the carcasses of dead CVs, because I’ve written so many.)

Just as with your covering letter, remember that your CV is going to be looked at by people who have a number of criteria in mind, and are checking to see that you meet them.  So your task in laying out your CV is to make sure that all the evidence they need is very easy to find.  It’s not a bad idea, for instance, to rearrange the CV so that its main sections follow the order of the criteria from the job description – though do remember that, by convention, your list of publications should come at the end (and that’s where an appointment panel member will automatically turn if they’re interested in what you’ve written).

If you’re applying for an academic job that requires someone who has a PhD, the education section of your CV only really needs to tell the panel about your PhD, any Masters-level degrees, and your undergraduate degrees.  No one on the panel is going to be interested in what exams you passed at school – unless there’s a criterion in the job description about ‘a good general education’, or something similar.

When you give your employment history, briefly explain your key duties for each job – if (and only if) it will help you demonstrate that you meet some of the criteria from the job description, or if it will help you demonstrate that you have directly relevant experience.  Use, where you can, some of the language from the job description.  If they say they want someone who can ‘communicate clearly in written and spoken English’ for instance, and you had a summer job as a tour guide, you might want to say that it ‘required clear oral communication with diverse audiences’ or something similar.  Do keep it brief and relevant, however. I, for instance, have finally been persuaded that I no longer need to mention my teenage paper round, even though it did demonstrate some key paper-folding skills and an ability to work on my own when tired and cold.

If you have some teaching experience, look through any written feedback you got (from formal student feedback questionnaires, or from peer review, or from a mentor, or whatever) – and quote it, briefly.  (If it is good, that is.  This is not one of the settings in which you are being asked to demonstrate laceratingly honest self-awareness.)

Include as full a list as you can of any presentations you have given at conferences or symposia or seminars, or to other audiences outside the university.

List whatever other of your involvements or activities you think are relevant.  And remember, they are relevant if you can tie them to the criteria given in the job description; otherwise, they are not.  Mentioning you were in your university chess club is probably going to be ignored in all bit a few rather unusual academic contexts.

When listing publications, you will probably feel (like almost everyone else who has ever produced a CV for an academic job application) that you don’t have enough to put down.  Don’t scrape the barrel – the panel are not going to be interested in the paragraph you wrote for your school magazine when you were eleven.  But do put in commissioned pieces that are not yet written, and forthcoming pieces, as long as you describe them as such honestly, and are clear about their exact status. Oh, and if you list book reviews at  all, separate them out into a distinct section of your list, even if they’re kind of all you have for now.  It doesn’t do you any good at all if someone looks at your bibliography and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s a good long . . . oh, hang on a minute, they’re all book reviews!’

If you’ve had any reviews of or responses to your published work, quote them briefly.  (Again: only if they’re good.  It might be possible to win points by quoting a review of such startling, excoriating venom that you elicit awed sympathy from your reader – but that’s quite a high risk strategy.)

Finally – and I cannot stress enough how important this is – make sure your CV is neat and well presented.  You need, I am afraid, to become utterly, obsessively geeky about formatting.  In particular, you need to learn to use indents properly, and paragraph spacing.  Your CV should be neat, clean, readable, and elegant.  It should look thoroughly professional and polished, with headings of consistent style, consistent spacing around paragraphs, lists that have been formatted consistently, consistent punctuation in the bibliography . . .  You get the picture?

Imagine a panel member reading through a stack of a hundred applications on a late night train, with tired eyes and an incipient headache.  Imagine them faced with CV after CV that is a jumbled mess of crabbed 10-point scrawling, hunting wearily to see which of the criteria each one meets, and how well.  Then imagine them turning to your CV, and finding light spaciousness and legibility, and all the evidence they could need laid out in exactly the order they are looking for. You might be amazed how much difference that can make.

On Connoisseurship

I like cheese. I like trying new cheeses; I like returning to old favourites; I like knowing the cheeses that I like. If you ask me about my favourite cheese, you’d better be prepared to settle down for a bit to listen, because it’s a subject on which I have quite a bit to say. I even – I admit it – like turning my nose up at inferior cheeses, and not just at the cheeses but at the shops, the restaurants and the nations with poor cheese selections. I am, in my own small way, a cheese connoisseur.

It may be a trick of the light, but I think there is more and more such connoisseurship around. I can without exertion think of people I know who are coffee connoisseurs, music connoisseurs, car connoisseurs, game connoisseurs, beer connoisseurs, television serial connoisseurs, whisky connoisseurs, Dr Who connoisseurs, computer connoisseurs, book connoisseurs, tea connoisseurs, film connoisseurs, and Buffy episode connoisseurs.

Yet I am deeply ambivalent about connoisseurship as a way of engaging with the world.


On the one hand, connoisseurship is a good thing.

To be a connoisseur is to be engaged in delighted exploration of some small aspect of creation. It involves a formation in discrimination – the ongoing discovery that some small portion of your view is not a blandly monochrome smear, but is richly dappled, and beautiful.

To be a connoisseur can also mean a delight in inviting others on journeys of exploration. It can involve becoming an evangelist for the beauty of some small aspect of creation, infectiously teaching others to taste a richness there that they have been missing.

And to be a connoisseur sometimes goes with a turn away from mass produced items – the repeatable and predictable – to smaller producers, to artisans and cottage industries. It can be a small, and very enjoyable, gesture of resistance to economic empires.


On the other hand . . .

To be a connoisseur can mean that enjoyment becomes harder to come by – that one cannot simply drink a cup of cheerful coffee, but must analyse and compare and criticise, reserving one’s delight for the very few occasions on which one’s exacting criteria are met.

Worse, to be a connoisseur can lead to a delight in disliking: an ever more finely honed ability to pour scorn on the items that fall short: the inadequate, the ordinary, the mainstream, the popular. Some connoisseurs can be recognised by their grimaces: the sign of the permanent bad taste in their mouths.

Still worse, to be a connoisseur can involve the cultivation of superiority, an education in despising the lumpen mass of ordinary people who never look beyond their instant coffee, who think a cheese is just a cheese, and who think there is no telling difference between a Mac and a PC.

To be a connoisseur can mean developing a taste for luxury, to justify spending more and more on less and less, year by year willing to divert more and more resources and then still more into one’s quest to complete one’s collection or further one’s education – until one is willing to make purchases that one’s undiscriminating former self would have regarded as obscene.

And to be a connoisseur can require a training in falsehood, learning to declare distinctions where no distinctions exist – relishing the subtle tastes of an expensive wine that in a blind tasting one would confidently have identified as plonk.


There is more and more such connoisseurship around – and I am very ambivalent about it. I am ambivalent about my own tendencies to connoisseurship (part of my general geeky obsessiveness): a version of every paragraph above could turn up in my self-description. And I am ambivalent about its spread around my world.

It strikes me that I could start collecting examples of connoisseurship, refine my categorisation of its problematic and positive features, identify excellent exemplars of these vices and virtues. Perhaps, in time, I could become known as someone who displays fine discriminating taste when it comes to displays of fine discriminating taste . . .

Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.

XKCD 915: Connoisseur – Randall Munroe – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Oh, and just in case you’ve been wondering: the quick answer is probably Curworthy. For now.


Disagreeing about Marriage – and Gender

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to begin delving into some of the earlier documents relating to the Church of England’s response to same sex marriage – and I’m going to start with ‘A Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘.

It seems to me that the document makes two moves that are at least partially independent. It argues that the proposed legislation is contrary to the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage’, and it argues that there will be legal problems with its implementation, and in particular with any guarantee that the Church can continue to refuse to celebrate same-sex marriages. I’m going to focus almost entirely on the first of these strands: the argument about the intrinsic nature of marriage. Strange as it may seem, I think that the core of this argument is not directly about same-sex sexual relationships – so that the claim made in §5 of the document is true, at least to a first approximation – the claim that ‘our response to the question of same-sex marriage does not prejudge the outcome of that continuing theological and ethical debate’.

Instead, it is all about gender.


Summarising the argument

The argument of the document (which, let me stress, is not my argument!) can, I think, be set out as follows.

1. There is an essential complementarity between men and women.

2. The acknowledgement and expression of this essential gender complementarity is necessary for the flourishing of human society.

This complementarity has been recognised and expressed in societies down the ages; it is ‘enshrined in human institutions throughout history’ (Summary), and this acknowledgment serves ‘the common good of all in society’ (§4).

3. Acknowledging and expressing this complementarity is central to the purpose of marriage.

‘Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.’ (Summary.) This is what the document means when it speaks of the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman’ (Summary), and says that ‘marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman’ (§1): the emphasis falls firmly on ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Of course, there are other goods proper to marriage – mutuality and fidelity – but these are not at issue in this debate, nor are they unique to marriage (§9). ‘[T]he uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women’ (§10). This understanding of marriage is ‘a matter of doctrine’, ‘derived from the teaching of Christ himself’ (§1), ‘derived from the Scriptures’, and ‘enshrined within [the Church of England’s] authorised liturgy’ (§2).

4. Marriage is the primary social institution by which our society acknowledges and expresses this complementarity.

‘Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.’ (§11)

5. If marriage ceases to be a way for our society to acknowledge and express this complementarity, our society’s capacity to acknowledge and express at all will therefore be seriously reduced, and society as a whole will be harmed.

This is why the problem can be seen as the government’s attempt ‘To remove the concept of gender from marriage’ (Summary). And this is what is meant by the claim that the proposals would ‘change the nature of marriage for everyone’ (Summary). It’s not that the authors of the report think that the strength of my marriage will be undermined if other people enter into a union of which I disapprove. Rather, they think that marriage as an institution will be less capable of performing one of its most important social functions if it ceases to be clearly defined in gender terms. And this is also what the authors of the report mean when they say that the legislation will involve ‘imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage’ (Summary). The ideology in question is one where ‘men and women are simply interchangeable individuals’ (§12) – which is the only alternative the report imagines to its own account of essential gender complementarity. And all of this is why the report can plausibly say that this is not (directly) an issue about the acceptability of homosexual sexual activity, but about the fact that ‘the inherited understanding of marriage contributes a vast amount to the common good’, and that this will be lost, ‘for everyone, gay or straight’, if ‘the meaning of marriage’ is changed (§5). ‘We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage’ (§13) and ‘the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole’ (§8).

6. The essential complementarity is biologically grounded, but it is not reducible to, capacity for procreation

It is, according to the report, fundamental to the definition of marriage that the couple be ‘open to bringing children into the world as a fruit of their loving commitment’ (§25); it quotes the Common Worship liturgy to the effect that marriage is the ‘foundation of family life in which children may be born’ (§2). More precisely, marriage relies upon a ‘biological complementarity with the possibility of procreation’ (§6); more precisely still ‘This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation’ (§10; my emphasis). ‘And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning’ (§10).

7. Properly acknowledged, this complementarity will be expressed in specific and distinctive contributions from men and women in all social institutions.

The report states that ‘a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender’ (§12). After all, this is a fundamental reason for supporting ‘the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions’ (§12). In other words, marriage is the means by which we recognise and celebrate an essential gender complementarity, which needs to be recognised and affirmed for the sake not just of marriage but the sake of ‘all social institutions’, which will flourish more fully if the ‘specific and distinctive contributions from men and women’ are given full expression in them.


Understanding the present debate

This is only one document, and I don’t want to build to much on it at this stage.  I’m therefore going to limit myself at this stage to two comments on this.

The first relates to my previous post. I assume that it is not unfair to think that something like this thinking is being expressed both in the House of Bishops’ promulgation of their Pastoral Guidance, and in its defenders’ reaction to the question posed by Linda Woodhead. And, as I suggested in my previous post, I think grasping this point helps to make sense of their reaction.

We are, such a person might think, dealing in this debate with a fundamental structure of creation, and of society – and of our law’s relation to that. We might all agree that questions about fidelity and mutuality go as deep as this question of gender complementarity, but nothing else comes close. In particular, questions about remarriage after divorce and questions about the precise circle of people you can’t marry are clearly not even in the same league as this question. We are dealing with a fundamental structure of creation, and therefore with the very possibility of flourishing in a society that has to live in harmony with creation. That’s clearly what was really being said when the bishops talked about there having been no fundamental divergence between civil and religious understandings of marriage until now – and all this fuss over secondary details is a mischievous smokescreen.  It’s all about gender – and this criticism from the likes of Woodhead, her colleagues, and now Higton – well, it dramatically misses that point.

Have I got that right? Is that a fair representation of the source of the impatience with Linda’s question that I’ve been hearing? I realise I’m putting words into mouths here, but I hope I haven’t slipped into caricature?


Thinking about gender

My second comment, however, is – well – Wow!

Because we’ve all been (understandably) focused on the foreground issue of same-sex marriage, and the long-running disagreements in the church about homosexual practice, haven’t we missed something else very important going on here? Because it looks to me like we’re seeing here the publication, at least in outline, of a whole massively controversial social theology of gender, as if it were unproblematically and straightforwardly the Church’s teaching – and it is happening without debate and without serious scrutiny. (I mean, yes, there’s been loads of scrutiny of this document and other related documents, but not much of it has focused on this issue.)

Let me put it this way. Suppose that we were to hear that the Church was putting together a commission to work, over the next couple of years, towards the production of a report on ‘Gender in Church and Society’. Suppose this commission were asked to state the Church’s understanding of how gender works – how our understanding should be shaped by scripture, how it should be shaped by engagement with tradition, how we should relate to our tradition’s many failures in this area, how we should understand gender to relate to biology, how gender should be acknowledged in our accounts of roles in the church, what we have learnt about gender in our debates about priesthood and epsicopacy, how gender should function in society more generally, and where we stand on questions of complementarity and equality in every sphere of society, how we should respond to other accounts of gender alive in our society, and so on.

Suppose such a commission were created. What kind of work do you think we would expect that commission to do, whom should we expect it to consult, what would we expect its members to read, with which debates would we expect them to engage, if we wanted them to carry out their task well, and with integrity?

Have we, as a Church, done that work together?  Are we putting forward the account of gender outlined above because, after careful and prayerful deliberation together, asking all the relevant questions and listening to all the relevant voices, we have concluded that this is what we have to say about gender as part of our witness to the gospel of Christ?

If not – well, don’t we have some rather urgent thinking to do?


Disagreeing about Marriage

As you might possibly be aware by now, especially if you’re a member of the Church of England, there has been some fuss about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage over the past few days.

That guidance was published on February 15th, and was followed by a flash flood of reaction from all sides.  If you want to explore those reactions, get your waders on and head over to the  Thinking Anglicans blog, where they’ve been collecting links.

In amongst all this, there has been one very specific bit of fuss which has been dominating my Twitter feed , because it involves quite a few of my friends and colleagues.

It arose in this way.  The Pastoral Guidance contains the following paragraph:

9. The Government’s legislation, nevertheless, secured large majorities in both Houses of Parliament on free votes and the first same sex marriages in England are expected to take place in March. From then there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

This prompted Linda Woodhead and others to raise a question about whether this was historically accurate.  After all, they said (quite rightly) haven’t civil law and church teaching diverged before?  There was a divergence over the question of marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, and again over the remarriage of divorcees.  Doesn’t that make the Guidance’s claim inaccurate?

Linda raised the question first on Twitter, then in email correspondence (for which see here and here), and finally in a formal letter, signed by 24 academics, including several heavyweight church historians.  And the raising of these questions, and the Church’s response, have generated a torrent of comment and discussion.


Mutual Incomprehension

The more I have thought about these exchanges, the more it has seemed to me that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension at the heart of them.

Of course, you should immediately distrust me when I say something like that, because it involves me pretending to an airy overview, as if I can see more clearly and truly than all those poor saps down in the trenches – and because it might allow me to adopt an avuncular neutrality that refuses to make judgments about the actual arguments and evidence involved.  So let me say immediately that I am broadly with the 24 who signed Linda’s letter.  I think that paragraph 9 of the Bishops’ Guidance will continue to be misleading unless replaced with a more carefully qualified statement. And I think that it does matter, and that it would have been far, far better had there been a quick and cheerful admission of inadequate drafting, and the promise of a speedy revision.

I am  more interested, however, in trying to understand why such a speedy resolution of the issue didn’t happen, and why (if I am right) it was always unlikely to happen.  And, as I say, I begin to suspect that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension here – and the more I think about it, the more revealing I think it is.


Criticising the bishops

On the one hand, there is incomprehension from the side of the letter-writers as to how the House of Bishops could say what they said, and then fail to see that it needed revising once the error was pointed out.

To provide some context to this, look back to the ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘, published in June 2012, and note two things about it.

First, one of the fundamental criticisms of the proposed legislation made in that response was that civil and religious law are not separate institutions (‘The consultation paper wrongly implies that there are two categories of marriage, “civil” and “religious”‘), and that the legislation will have the effect of ‘introducing such a distinction for the first time.’  This claim is made in one of only two bold paragraphs in the central section of the response, ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’.  It has undeniably been, therefore, presented as a central argument in the Church’s response to this whole issue.

Second, note that in the opening of that section, the response states that ‘In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.’  The word ‘lifelong’ appears right there in the general definition of marriage used in the report.

Now to Linda, to the twenty-four signatories of the letter, and to me, it seems perfectly clear from an examination of the relevant legal history that there has at times in the past been some kind of distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage, and that when this has had to do with the remarriage of divorcees it  has had at least something to do with lifelong nature of marriage – and therefore with the ‘the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’.  It therefore seems perfectly clear (a) that anyone who wants to say that there has been no divergence in the past ‘between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’ is going to need to qualify that statement quite carefully, if it is not to be misleading, and (b) that this is not a peripheral issue, but has to do with the strength of one of the pillars used to support the Church’s public response to the same-sex marriage issue.

If this is where you are coming from, the refusal to admit that there’s any problem with the wording of the Guidance, and the willingness to portray those making the criticism as mischief-makers seeking to score a cheap point for ideological reasons – well, that is bound to look like unjustifiable and brittle defensiveness, a form of leadership by bluster that refuses to take serious responsibility for the accuracy of what it says.  It is hard to see it as anything else.


Criticising the critics

There is, however, another side to this story.  I think that at least some of the response to this criticism  really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism of the Guidance looks like a wilful missing of the point – an attempt to create a fuss about a detail for the sake of calling into doubt an argument that does not materially depend on that detail.  I think it really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism looks like deliberate mischief-making which is itself barely honest or at least lacking in integrity.

To get the clue to this, look back again at the Church’s ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation’ – which I assume can be taken to represent the views of at least some of those responsible for the current Pastoral Guidance.  The section on ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’ is the heart of the report, and before it gets to the two brief paragraphs on civil and religious marriage and their possible divergence, it has thirteen paragraphs that make a rather different point.  The centre-piece of this part of the Response is the other paragraph that is put in bold, paragraph 13:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

My suggestion – which I can only make very sketchily here, but will fill out in a subsequent post – is that, for at least some of those who have rejected Linda’s criticism, this is the central issue, and its centrality is so obvious, so luminously blatant, that to pretend that other aspects of the Church’s definition of marriage might be as central – especially issues about which there has been all sorts of complex and detailed disagreement for as long as we’ve been a church – can only be deliberate obfuscation, akin to the claim that the whole structure of the Bishops’ argument should be called into doubt because there is a misplaced semicolon in a footnote somewhere.

In other words, I think I can see that, for someone who inhabits the views set out in that Response to the government consultation, the criticism that Linda and her colleagues made, and that I like them would like to see taken seriously, must look like such a stark case of missing the point that it can only be a deliberate missing of the point.


Where next?

I have already said that I’m not a neutral observer on this.  I fall quite firmly into the former camp.  I think the Guidance contained an error, the error mattered, and that the document should be revised.  I think that the response to the criticism has been a damaging PR own goal.  But I think that very fact gives me an obligation to try to understand the point of view from which this could genuinely and obviously look like irrelevant mischief-making.  I’ve only gestured towards that understanding below; doing the job properly is going to take a bit more time.

So, in the next post, I plan to dig a bit more deeply into that 2012 ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England’.  It’s not the only document I need to examine, but it’s not, I think, a bad place to start.  And I’m going to look a bit harder at what it says about the complementarity of men and women, because that, I think, is the issue right at the heart of our current disagreements.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 20: Barth’s sensibility

[T]he decision as to what is or is not true in dogmatics is always a matter of the divine election of grace.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 21.

So, I’ve come to the end (I think) of my posts on §1 of the Church Dogmatics – which is all that I originally promised to do.  The jury is still out on whether I’m going to carry on into §2…

Most of what I have read so far I have found very congenial – so much so that there must be a good chance that I am reading my own views into Barth’s prose.  The idea of dogmatics as a reparative discipline that begins in media res, that stands under discipline and under judgment, that is determined by attention to the criterion to which the church points, its Lord – all that makes sense to me, and is what I would want to say of myself, to the extent that I too am a dogmatic or doctrinal theologian.

And yet – there’s something less easily assimilable here, for me.  I don’t think I can put it any more precisely than to say that Barth’s whole conception of dogmatics is embedded within a certain spirituality – by which I mean that it is embedded within a certain deeply felt construal of the nature of the Christian life, of what the church is about.  That construal is focused on election and assurance, on divine decision, the spoken promise, and our response in trust.  I don’t mean to say that this spirituality is prior to Barth’s dogmatic exploration, simply that there is a coherence between his conception of dogmatics and this theological sensibility.  Barth’s dogmatics is one part of a settlement that has this overall flavour to it.

It is, I suggest, precisely because Barth’s conception of dogmatics is so thoroughly, so seamlessly embedded in this spirituality that he can take it as read that proclamation of the Word is the heart of the life of the church, and that the content of the preaching of God’s promise in Jesus Christ is the primary subject matter of dogmatics.  And so it is only because his conception of dogmatics is so deeply embedded in this particular Protestant spirituality, this particular flavour of soteriological imagination, that he can practice the relative abstraction of content that gives his work its dogmatic character.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing.  But I think I do need to ask what happens if one is operating with a different spirituality, a different soteriological imagination, a different church?  Dogmatics, after all, if it begins in media res, cannot begin within an invented church, an ideal church constructed from first principles.  Precisely if I am to follow along the dogmatic path Barth has set out here, I have to take seriously this question about the difference between my own ecclesial context and his.  And in my context, I don’t think I can pursue a dogmatics in which proclamation can have quite such an untroubled supremacy, in which the doctrine of the Word is the obvious starting point for dogmatic reflection – or a form of dogmatics in which there can be quite so clear an abstraction of conceptual content from ecclesial practice.


This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 19: Depending on Grace

Hence, if we say that dogmatics presupposes faith . . . we say that at every step and with every statement it presupposes the free grace of God which may at any time be given or refused as the object and meaning of this human action. It always rests with God and not with us whether our hearing is real hearing and our obedience real obedience, whether our dogmatics is blessed and sanctified as knowledge of the true content of Christian utterances or whether it is idle speculation.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.18

I remember my bewilderment the first time I read this.  Was Barth saying that one day God might decide that the Nicene Creed was no longer going to be true, and another day decide to go the whole hog and decide that all statements about God being triune are wrong? Was Barth imagining a shape-shifting God, arbitrary and capricious, who each morning decides what will be true of him?

We could only take this to be Barth’s meaning here if we understood the task of dogmatics to be the production of accurate descriptions of God – of texts that, in and of themselves, successfully refer or correspond to God. If that were the case, a claim about the truth of dogmatics would be a claim about a relationship between the text, or the text’s content, and God.  But dogmatics doesn’t deal with descriptions in the abstract; it deals with the church’s speech – the church’s life as its speech.

The fundamental task of dogmatics is to ensure that the church in all its speech places its trust in God and not in itself.  But the same words that, spoken yesterday, were a lively protest against some way in which the church has been trusting itself might today have hardened to become part of our self-protection.  Think of my previous two posts (here and here).  Yesterday’s necessary protest against a focus on religious feeling, a focus that had placed the church in judgment over the gospel, might become today’s failure to allow the whole person to be caught up in response to the gospel – and might conspire in making us theologians feel like we are capable of an intellectual mastery of that gospel.

This is why Barth, a little earlier, could say that ‘dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets’ (16).  In dogmatics, identical repetition of what we have heard is always in danger of being a betrayal of what we have heard.

The prayer that accompanies dogmatics is, therefore, not prayer to a capricious God, asking that today that God might deign to smile on our descriptions.  Nor is it a prayer for arbitrary and fickle inspiration – a miraculous ability to guess today’s divine password.  It is, rather, a prayer to be shown – and to be shown truly, by the one who sees truly – where our trust, our faith, has curved in on itself, even when we have not changed our words.  It is, in other words, a prayer to hear the judgment under which we stand, and be shown how to respond.

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Surprising Emotional Sense

Frances Spufford’s book Unapologetic (subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, and published by Faber and Faber in 2012) is wonderful.

My paperback copy has a puff from John Gray on the front, saying that it is ‘a rare book, a book that carries conviction by being honest all the way through’, and that seems about right to me – though I recognise that I might be being swayed by the deep, almost eery familiarity of the voice in which it is written. One of Spufford’s earlier books, the equally (though differently) wonderful The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading (Faber and Faber, 2002) perhaps explains why: it shows that he and I grew up reading many of the same things (at least until our teens), captivated by the same stories and the same worlds. One recurrent emotion I had when reading Unapologetic was therefore jealousy: I would finish a passage and think, ‘Damn, I wish I’d written that – and I would have done, too, if it hadn’t been for your peskily slipping in first.’

There is one central respect, though, in which the book charts territory unfamiliar to me. And it is not exactly a minor facet of the book. It is the very fact that Spufford explores the sense that Christianity makes, the sense that Christian belief and practice make, by focusing on the patterns of Christian feeling, of sensibility, of emotional experience.

Now, I grew up in a charismatic church; I was (and in some strangely metabolised ways still am) a charismatic. The idea that faith was meant to be emotionally involving, sometimes emotionally overwhelming, was axiomatic for me and for those around me. But I have since been trained in forms of theological thinking and writing that don’t habitually look in this direction.

On the one hand, I work in the shadow of Karl Barth. Barth was resolute in his insistence that the truth of the Gospel is not determined by whether or not it makes emotional sense to us. Faced with the generation of his theological teachers lining up in support of the Kaiser’s aims in the First World War, and justifying that support, at least in part, on the grounds of the deep emotional sense that it made – the strange stirring of their spirit, the deepening of their prayer – Barth barked ‘No!’ We cannot (as I was saying in my previous post) use the ability to satisfy us emotionally as a criterion for the success of our interpretations of God’s Word. That Word can and does come to overthrow, to cast down, to devastate. For all we know, the expectations and habits of our emotional life may need to be derailed and led to disaster before we are in a position to hear God’s ‘Yes!’ And although Barth insisted that the whole of our existence, intellectual and emotional, is caught up in this process, in both the No and the Yes, his tendency was to focus not on what happens in us but on the Word that brings it about. And so those of us theologians who bob about in his wake have tended to be nervous of a renewed focus on the emotional sense that Christianity makes, for fear of making that emotional sense once again the criterion for the Word, rather than allowing the Word to be the criterion for the emotional sense.

On the other hand, I work in the (shorter) shadow of George Lindbeck. Lindbeck (for complex reasons that I have had fun exploring elsewhere) spoke out against what he called ‘experiential expressivism’: the idea that what is basic about Christianity, what provides its continuity, is a flow of deep religious experience – such that the doctrines, the appropriate interpretations of the scriptures, the institutional forms of Christianity should all be understood as attempts to express that experience and allow it to shape our whole existence. Lindbeck spoke in particular against the idea that the religious experience in question is one flavour, one culturally particularised form, of a universal human possibility – such that our thinking about Christianity must reckon with a fundamental hierarchy running from universal human religious experience at its pinnacle, down through that experience’s particularised cultural forms in the various religions, and so on down to the doctrines, practices and institutions in which that experience is inadequately represented. Lindbeck argued, instead, that on the whole the practices and doctrines of Christianity shape a distinctive landscape of religious experience, and that it is a mistake to structure our accounts of Christianity around the idea of a common pattern of human religious experience. The only way to understand Christianity is by way of thick description of its particularity, not by establishing an account of universal human possibilities first and turning to their particular actualisation in Christianity second. And, once again, although this account is one in which ‘experience’ still features, the tendency for those of us floating along behind Lindbeck has been to place our focus elsewhere.

(And, yes, of course there are exceptions and countervailing tendencies – in Barth and amongst Barth followers, and in Lindbeck and amongst his followers – to this tendency to face away from ‘experience’, from affect. Lindbeck’s colleague and postliberal co-agitator Hans Frei, for instance, turned in the last years of his life to thinking about religious ‘sensibility’, and the forms of description appropriate to it. But I digress.)

Spufford’s book, it seems to me, does not need to be cut by any Barthian or Lindbeckian censor. It is, precisely, a thick description of a learnt pattern of experience, a discovered landscape of emotional sense. Spufford does not say, ‘You, dear reader, already feel in such and such way; do you not see how you could, with an extra push, come to feel in this Christian way too? In fact, do you not see how, deep down, you already do feel this way?’ His book is (look at the cover!) not an apologia. Rather, it is an invitation to the reader to explore and to understand the landscape of his, Spufford’s, Christian experience, and to see what sense it makes, how it hangs together.

Yes, Spufford is concerned to explain how this way of making emotional sense is more interesting and complex than his readers’ caricatures may have allowed them to recognise; yes, he is concerned to say ‘Come on in, the water’s – well – bracing!’. But that is no different from the work another writer might do to display the internal intellectual sense that Christianity makes: the ways in which its ideas hang together. The latter author might, of course, make use of all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of understanding that he assumes his readers already have, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new world of sense will be required of those who do become Christian. So, too, Spufford makes all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of emotion that he guesses might make sense to his readers, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated by these means either, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new emotional landscape will be required of those who do become Christian.

You can learn a new pattern of thinking, and be surprised by the sense it makes. In much the same way, you can as a Christian learn to make new emotional sense of the world, and be surprised by the sense it makes. That you can feel this Christian way, that I can feel this Christian way, is not evidence, any more than the fact that I have learnt to say the creeds with confidence is evidence. To think of it as evidence is to make a category error. I don’t think Spufford is saying (or I don’t think he should be saying) that the patterns of feeling he describes might be a more-or-less direct sensation of the divine, but might not, and that there’s no way of saying for sure. Rather, he is (or should) be saying that this way of feeling, of making emotional sense, is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that we Christians believe that this way of making emotional sense speaks truly – just as we believe that saying ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth’ is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that it too speaks truly. We’re not dealing with evidence, but with a lived response, a learnt response to the gospel.

So, when Spufford describes his experience in prayer in church, as he introduces his discussion of God, I take that as a route towards understanding something of what the word ‘God’ means – just as learning to say ‘thank you’ in prayer, learning to sing praises, and learning to declaim the creeds are such routes. We learn what the word ‘God’ means by being involved in these Christian habits and discourses and patterns of feeling, and in the processes of learning to explore them more deeply. And we learn more deeply the more the whole of us is caught up in these processes.

And, yes, as Barth would insist: our learning takes place under discipline, and it takes place under judgment – but that’s a whole other discussion, and not one that need make me any less grateful for Spufford’s book.


Edited to clarify a couple of phrases and remove some typos.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 18: Dogmatics as an Act of Faith

[D]ogmatics is quite impossible except as an act of faith, in the determination of human action by listening to Jesus Christ and as obedience to him. Without faith it would be irrelevant and meaningless.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 17.

We’ve reached the third subsection of this first article of the Church Dogmatics on ‘The Task of Dogmatics’.  The first subsection, ‘The Church, Theology, Science’, established all the key themes that we have been exploring so far: theology as a reparative activity in the midst of the life of the church, under discipline and under judgment.

The second, ‘Dogmatics as Enquiry’, discussed in more depth the possibility and necessity of Dogmatics as a form of human enquiry: it is possible because God has indeed made Godself known; and it is necessary because our reception of or involvement in that knowledge is always questionable. That subsection, in other words, worked from the certainty of God’s revelation to the unavoidably human labour of dogmatic enquiry.

The third subsection, ‘Dogmatics as an Act of Faith’, treads the same path as the second, but backwards.  That is, it begins with Dogmatics as ‘a part of the work of human knowledge’ (p. 17), a work that requires ‘attentiveness and concentration, . . . understanding and appraisal’ – but then asks what it means for this labour to be completely shaped (‘determined’) by the way in which God has made Godself known.

In one sense, this third subsection adds nothing new.  To say that Dogmatics is an act of faith is to say no more than that it takes place under discipline and under judgment.  That is, it demands ‘obedience to the call of Christ’ – it demands the discipline of discipleship, of resolving to know nothing but Christ and hum crucified, of bringing all our speech and action again and again to the foot of the cross.  And it demands the acknowledgement that truthfulness is not in our hands, that ‘It always rests with God and not with us whether our hearing is real hearing and our obedience real obedience’ (p. 18), because our apprehension of Christ is always questionable.  To say that Dogmatics is an act of faith is to say again that its criterion is Jesus Christ, and its success in conforming to that criterion is not in its own hands.

Yet Barth runs through this argument one more time in order to make a specific point.  Dogmaticians have to take their position under discipline and under judgment – the position in which dogmatics is both possible and necessary – as the whole determination of what they do.  That’s what it means to do Dogmatics – and to talk about Dogmatics, Barth has to talk about the dogmaticians commitment to that discipline and their acknowledgement of that judgment.  And yet – the nature and quality of that commitment and acknowledgement must not themselves be taken as the criterion for the truth of what the dogmatician says.  That commitment and acknowledgment must not themselves move to centre stage.

A dogmatic statement is not true because of the depth of the commitment of the dogmatician. It is not true because it makes deep existential sense to the dogmatician. It is not true because it resonates in a heart shaped by discipline and open to judgment.  It is true if and only if it conforms to Jesus Christ – and the dogmatician’s commitment is precisely to take that alone as his or her criterion.

Barth says that he or she must do this ‘for better or for worse’ (p. 18), which I take in this context to mean that he or she must follow this criterion even if it leads to dogmatic claims that make less existential sense, that resonate less clearly in the echo-chamber of her heart, that make deep existential commitment harder and drier.  We must not, says Barth, make ‘the sensus, the human determination, the experience and attitude of the knowing subject’ into ‘the criterion of theological knowledge’ (p. 19).

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 17: The Dynamics of Repair

[D]ogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and the prophets said, but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 16.

In the previous post, I picked Nick Adams’ pocket in order to describe the ‘reparative logic‘ that drives Barth’s dogmatics.  In Barth’s exposition of the necessity of dogmatics (pp. 13–17) it seems to me that he describes two contrasting dynamics that shape the work of repair.

FIrst, there is the meditative dynamic.  Having described the church as finding itself ‘challenged to know itself, and therefore . . . to ask, with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know, what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’, Barth provides a small-text paragraph on the relationship between faith and understanding in Augustine and Anselm.  He cites Augustine’s description of the need to seek understanding of what we already know by faith, and then Anselm’s description of faith’s search for intellectus fidei, a ‘genuine intus legere [inward reading] of Scripture and dogma’ (p. 16).  He even cites with (qualified!) approval, Anselm’s ‘remoto Christo‘ method in Cur deus homo – that is, Anselm’s desire to understand, of any given component of the faith handed down to him, and in the light of the whole structure of that faith, why that component stands where it does.

Anselm’s method is nothing more than an extension of monastic lectio – a lectio that is explored by meditatio. I have written a little about this elsewhere:

To say that Anselm’s meditatio is a practice of articulation, then, is to say that it provides the passage between reading and composition, between the texts of lectio and the articulated texts of the Monologion, the Proslogion and the rest. And the tools of such meditatio are ‘the rules of logic and grammar’. They allow Anselm to ask of a difficult text, ‘Why this word here?’, and ‘How does this go with that?’ They provide a set of techniques and vocabularies of conceptual distinction and connection, by which the unruly, disorganized materials discovered by lectio can be categorized and strung into chains of connected argument.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm

Such meditatio takes the jumble of truths yielded by patient reading of Scripture and dogma, and seeks to order them, to see how they hang together.  In Anselm’s description of the composition of the Proslogion, it is clear that

The . . . disorder of his earlier conclusions distressed him, and he sensed or hoped that a further articulation—a more articulate articulation— of the fruits of his earlier meditation might be possible. Its birth was not without its labour pains: a ‘restless anxious mood’ of the kind that Carruthers says ‘was regarded in monastic circles as a common, even necessary preliminary to invention’—that is, to the drawing together of the materials sorted and stored by memoria into an articulated composition. The driving force of the meditation that gives birth to the Proslogion is this restless desire for unity, for economy or elegance in articulation: ‘one single argument’.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting Mary Caruthers, The Craft of Thought

The meditative dynamic that is visible here is a dynamic generated from within the materials of the inherited faith, as they seek to settle into a more economical configuration.  The meditative dogmatician is the servant of this settling.

This is not dogmatics in the Barthian sense, however, even if it might be the seedbed for a Barthian dogmatics, and the labour involved might be a precondition for a Barthian dogmatics.  The meditative dynamic to which Barth alludes in this small-print section (and which can make sense of much of what he says in this section, up to p. 16) is contained within a different dynamic – one that, for lack of a better phrase, I’m going to call a contextual dynamic.  Given the many uses of the word ‘contextual’, this is potentially very misleading, but I am simply trying to do justice to the word ‘to-day’ in the phrase ‘what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’.

The energy that drives a Barthian dogmatics is only secondarily the delight of articulation, of meditative exploration of what has been received.  Before that, the primary energy is the energy of judgment – the discovery today, in some particular context, that the church stands under judgment – that the source to which it points stands over against it and calls it into question.  Barth’s reparative endeavour begins with the discovery of a problem, a failure, a contradiction.  It begins by hearing (fallibly and partially, of course) a word of judgment.  Perhaps it would be better, instead of calling this the contextual dynamic of dogmatics, to call it the penitential dynamic.


This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.