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How should the church respond to race? – A reply to Ian Paul

Last week, I published a post welcoming From Lament to Action, the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce. Since then, Ian Paul has posted on his blog a critical response to the report, entitled ‘How should the church respond to race?’.

Ian’s post makes some points that I have also seen made on Twitter and elsewhere, relating to aspects of the report that I referred to in my post. In this reply, I am going to focus on

  • his wariness about the term ‘institutional racism’, and
  • his suggestion that the theology of the report is thin and tendentious.

On the second of these points, I’ll be touching what Ian says about Black Theology, Critical Race Theory and ‘Secular Antiracism’.

Institutional Racism

Ian says that ‘the language of “institutional racism” was coined by the so-called McPherson report, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence’. That’s not quite right – the phrase has been used in discussions of racism since at least the early 70s – but the 1999 MacPherson report certainly brought it to a wider public audience in the UK.

The MacPherson definition has been used in previous Church of England reports – e.g., in An Amazing Journey: The Church of England’s Response to Institutional Racism, by Glynn Gordon-Carter (London: Church House, 2003), p. xx. It is repeated in From Lament to Action:

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

William MacPherson, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry, §6.34

From Lament to Action does not provide extensive discussion of this definition (it is, by design, not that kind of report). It does include, however, a handful of references to ‘institutional racism’ which fill out a little what the report takes it to mean. It has to do with ‘unjust structures’ (p. 8); it has to do with ‘the church’s practices and structures’ (p. 11) or its ‘structures, systems and processes’ (p. 51); it can be ’embedded in the normal practice of an organisation or culture’ (p. 47); it can be seen in ‘a number of areas of the church’s life, most strikingly in the areas of participation and representation as well as in areas of structures and governance’ (p. 11). Most fully, it involves ‘structural, institutional and systemic blockers and barriers towards greater representation and participation of UKME/GMH people in the governance structures of the CofE’ (p. 49).

Ian makes four observations when explaining why he thinks the use of this term is problematic. I’ll take them in turn.

  • ‘[T]he language has been reached for in part because of its shock value’.

    The subject matter of the report (racism in the Church) is indeed shocking – but the use of the term ‘institutional racism’ isn’t part of that shock. It is a useful and important term, widely used in sober analyses of racism.

    Sometimes, people are treated differently on the basis of their perceived skin colour. Some of that has to do with individuals acting in deliberately discriminatory ways. Some of it, however, has to do with systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices. The word ‘institutional’ (or ‘systemic’) is used to name this.
  • ‘[T]he C of E is not a single organisation’.

    I’m not sure why this point is relevant – or, rather, I’m quite sure that it is not. The claim that the Church of England is institutionally racist does not entail the claim that the Church of England is a single organisation.

    The Church of England is a complex reality, with some national-level structures and processes, some diocesan-level, some parish-level, and all sorts of others woven around them. The report wants us, collectively, to look at all of these – at the ‘structures, systems, and processes’ involved, attending to the any of the ways in which they function in unwittingly discriminatory ways.
  • ‘When people use the language of “institutional racism”, many people hear the accusation that members of local congregations are racist’.

    It is probably true that some people will misunderstand the term ‘institutional racism’ in this way. People with a platform to speak quite widely might therefore usefully do some explaining, to help overcome that misunderstanding. The ideas are, after all, not difficult.

    Of course, we could look for another term that would enable us to make the same point – about structures, systems, processes, and culture, and about how they can have a discriminatory impact. I suspect, however, that any shorthand way of making this point is going to be liable to the same possible misunderstanding, and so will get us no further forward.
  • ‘To say that the church is “institutionally racist” could be heard as implying its basic theology needs to change—and indeed that is what some people believe.’

    I’ll be coming back in a moment to a discussion of the theological challenges that the report invites us to explore.

    I’m not sure, however, why Ian isn’t taking the report’s words at face value. The report, clearly and repeatedly, asks us to look at a whole range of ‘structures, systems and processes’ in the Church – at the Church’s ‘normal practices’, especially in the area of participation and representation. That is what its talk of ‘institutional racism’ points to.

It is vitally important that we pay attention to the reality named by the phrase ‘institutional racism’. When we ask what factors affect the differential levels of inclusion and belonging experienced by different people in various parts of the life of the Church, it is vital that we go beyond attention to the deliberate discriminatory actions of individuals. Those actions matter, and holding people to account for discriminatory behaviour is clearly a necessity. But there is much more to look at than that.

We need to look at systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices. Or, rather, we need to listen to and learn from the huge amount of work that has already been done on investigating and analysing the discriminatory effects of our systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices.

By way of parallel, consider my academic discipline: doctrinal or systematic theology. This discipline is not a single organisation any more than the Church of England is, but it is nevertheless possible to examine the institutions, systems, practices and cultures that it involves.

One of the factors that shapes my discipline is that Black students tend, as they specialise, to get funnelled towards practical theology or political theology more readily than towards systematic theology or philosophical theology.

Many factors seem to be in play. In part, it follows on from a similar funnelling in previous generations, which means that visible Black role models are more likely to be working in those areas – and that affects who appears at the podium, who appears in bibliographies, who appears in references and citations, and so on. In part, it has to do with hiring practices, and the judgments of shortlisting panels and interview panels. In part, it has to do with assumptions consciously and unconsciously made by teachers, when advising students about module choices, dissertation topics, and routes to further study. In part, it might also have to do with the role of different backgrounds and experience in shaping what questions students think are urgent. And so on – there are lots of factors that people have investigated and discussed as they have tried to explore this well.

The result of this funnelling, however, is a de facto segregation in my discipline (not absolute, but deeply ingrained), and it is one that has an impact on career trajectories, promotion, prestige, influence, and income. Something similar happens along gender lines; something similar along class lines – the complexities and intersections here are endless – but there is undoubtedly a racial dimension.

You can understand some of this picture if you focus on the deliberate discriminatory actions of individuals – but not very much of it. For a deeper understanding you need to look more closely, and draw on other intellectual tools. You need to look at culture, habits, and practices; you need to look at systems and structures. That is what discussions of ‘institutional racism’ are about.

That is what the term refers to in discussions of the Church of England, too. And there has been a great deal of investigation and discussion of these factors. After thirty-six years of reports, with hundreds of pages of analysis; after the Minority Anglicanism Project; after book-length discussions from Mukti Barton’s Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection to A.D.A France-Williams’ Ghost Ship; after testimony after testimony after testimony, I don’t have any doubt that the Church of England suffers from various forms of institutional racism. The question rightly posed by From Lament to Action is: What are we going to do about it?

Theology and Race

In his post, Ian Paul makes (or quotes approvingly) various claims about the theological approach that he thinks is advocated by or assumed in From Lament to Action. The impression created over the course of Ian’s post is that the report is driven by a single, narrow and controversial theological agenda, not necessarily fully visible on the report’s surface – and that it is a theological agenda problematically driven by secular, untheological concerns.

Every part of this analysis is wrong, as I will try to explain.

Black Theology

According to one of the quotes that Ian’s post includes approvingly, we are told that From Lament to Action, ‘wants to make compulsory a module on “Black Theology” for ordinands’. That’s not quite true: the report actually says that ‘Participation in an introductory Black Theology module … or module on Theologies in Global Perspective … to be a requirement for all ordinands.’ So were this recommendation to be implemented in full, no TEI would be forced to teach a Black Theology module. Nevertheless, it is true that there is a clear recommendation here for TEIs to consider teaching Black Theology.

The post goes on to say that ‘”Black Theology’ is not the theology of Black Christians”‘ That is true – in the same way that ‘feminist theology’ doesn’t mean ‘all theology written by women’. Black Theology is defined by its subject matter. It is a discipline that analyses the effect of racism on theology, and looks for ways of overcoming it. I would be shocked if someone got through a Diploma or BA in Theology, Ministry and Mission without some serious engagement with feminist voices. I think it similarly important to engage with voices from Black Theology. Of course, students and their teachers don’t have to agree with everything they engage with – but serious and open engagement is important.

Ian’s post tries to persuade us, however, that this engagement is unnecessary or undesirable, because Black Theology is ‘a narrow and quite hotly contested school of theology’. And in order to justify that description, he provides a description of Black Theology that first narrows it down so that it sounds like the work of a small coterie gathered around a single figure, and then misrepresents its substance quite drastically.

Ian’s post tells us that ‘Anthony Reddie … [is] the foundational author of “Black Theology”‘ Anthony is a friend of mine, and I think his work is important and very well worth engaging with. But Black Theology as a movement – even if we limit our focus to the British context – is older and much wider than just Anthony’s work.

As one indicator of this, look at the academic journal Black Theology. Launched as Black Theology in Britain in 1998, and re-launched (with Anthony as editor) as Black Theology in 2002, it has run through (by my count) more than 50 issues in that time. There are hundreds of articles to explore, by hundreds of authors. Or look at the work of the Centre for Black Theology at Queen’s, Birmingham, under the leadership of Dulcie Dixon-McKenzie, and the line-up of speakers who have addressed the Black Theology Forum there. And if we look beyond the British context, the variety of voices and the breadth of the discipline become even more striking. You could, for instance, look at the many authors discussed in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, ed. Dwight N. Hopkins and Edward P. Antonio (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), and work outwards from there. And there’s much, much more than that, if you go looking – my comments here only scratch the surface.

Black Theology is diverse, complex, and multi-faceted. Any serious investigation will show you that it can’t be reduced to the work of one person, or to one approach, or to one set of conclusions.

Critical Race Theory

But what of the substance of the report’s theology? Ian tells us that ‘Some have criticised the report for buying into the values of Critical Race Theory, even though that idea is not mentioned anywhere’. That kind of ‘Some have criticised…’ formulation is always irritating. It means that an author gets to plant an idea in readers’ heads, but doesn’t have to take responsibility for defending it.

But Ian is right: the report never mentions ‘Critical Race Theory’.

Nor, as far as I can see, is Critical Race Theory mentioned in Anthony Reddie’s SCM textbook on Black Theology (London: SCM, 2012), or in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology. In fact, in all the thousands of pages of the Black Theology journal, I can find about five passing references to it.

I would not have any problem if there was a much more substantial engagement with Critical Race Theory in these contexts – but there isn’t, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that those who criticise the report in these terms either don’t really know what they’re talking about, or are erecting a deliberate straw man.

The mention of Critical Race Theory is a complete red herring.

Secular Antiracism

Towards the end of his post, Ian draws on the words of an unnamed friend to describe ‘Secular Antiracism’, and give his post’s fullest characterisation of the substance of the report’s approach. The words used are not Ian’s own, but he does at least partially endorse them, suggesting that From Lament to Action ‘leans too much in [this] direction’. Here it becomes clear that he thinks the theology of the report isn’t really theological, or isn’t theological enough, but is instead being driven by non-theological concerns.

The summary of ‘Secular Antiracism’ given in Ian’s friend’s words is this: ‘white people are not just historically advantaged (white privilege), but irreducibly racist (white guilt), even if they deny they are (white fragility). This racism is the basis of the modern West (white supremacy), and it works it concert with numerous other forms of privilege based on sex, gender, sexuality, ability, colour, fertility and so forth (intersectionality), all of which need to be upended’.

I don’t know what the friend was trying to describe, or what kind of conversation it was. I am interested in these words solely as they are deployed by Ian as a summary of the theological leanings of this report, or of Black Theology, or even of Critical Race Theory. As such, they provide a wildly inaccurate description – quite shockingly so.

  • Take ‘white guilt‘ for instance. You might assume, from Ian’s deployment of these words, that this would be quite a major theme in the report, or in the theologies that he is criticising. And yet ‘white guilt’ is a phrase that I can’t find anywhere in the report, or in Reddie’s Black Theology, or in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology – and the only reference I’ve been able to find in two decades’ worth of the Black Theology journal is a in a book title in a singe footnote.

    Casting the terminological net a bit more widely, there is one pertinent discussion of ‘guilt’ that I have been able to find, in an article by James Cone that appears both in the journal and in the Cambridge Companion, but Cone is talking about the need for people to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from past injustices that have continuing impacts in the present, and the need to take responsibility for correcting the systems that perpetuate those impacts. (James Cone, ‘Theology’s great sin: silence in the face of white supremacy’ in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, pp. 143–155: p. 149.)

  • Something similar is true with ‘white fragility‘. I happen to think, myself, that this is a useful concept. It is useful to have a name for the various forms of defensiveness that commonly emerge when White people are made uncomfortable by discussions of racism that suggest that, however well-meaning they might be, they might nevertheless be complicit in institutions, systems and practices that perpetuate racial inequalities. I can, however, find no significant mention of this concept in any of the sources I’ve just mentioned.

  • By contrast with ‘white guilt’ and ‘white fragility’, ‘white privilege‘ is a concept that does turn up quite a bit in these sources – though I don’t think it turns up at all in From Lament to Action. It is another useful and important concept, though I’m not sure you could tell that from the deeply unhelpful summary given here. I’d recommend as a starting point an influential 1988 paper by Peggy McIntosh: ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies’https://www.collegeart.org/pdf/diversity/white-privilege-and-male-privilege.pdf (Working Paper 189, Wellesley Center for Women, Wellesley, MA). There’s more to say than you’ll find in that paper, but it is one good starting point.

    The very simple idea is that, in our society, people who are not perceived as White tend very widely to experience a range of specific and serious difficulties, that tend not to be widely experience by people who are perceived as White. ‘White privilege’ refers in particular to the second half of this sentence. It names the fact that people who are perceived as White do not widely experience these specific, serious, widespread difficulties; that is their privilege. This claim is entirely compatible with the claim that there are in our society other sources of widespread disadvantage – in relation to poverty, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, geographical region, and so on. In fact, the same discussions that focus on white privilege often include discussion of the complex interactions between multiple sources of prejudice (and that, incidentally, is what is meant by ‘intersectionality‘).

  • Finally, there’s the phrase ‘white supremacy‘, which also turns up quite a bit in these sources, though it too does not turn up at all in From Lament to Action. It can be used in a variety of ways. It can refer to the blunt belief that White people are superior, Black people inferior. But it is also widely used to refer to less blatant realities – for instance, to patterns of speech and action that trade silently on the assumption that Whiteness is the norm, Blackness the exception. That is still a very crude summary, but it is a little more recognisable than the one Ian presents.

Summaries can play an important role in enabling wide discussion within the Church. Not everyone has the time or expertise needed for independent engagement with complex bodies of work like Black Theology. Judicious summaries, based on careful engagement by those who do have the time and the expertise, can be a real gift. The summary that Ian promotes here is, however, not one of these gifts. It is a caricature, that neither displays such careful engagement nor invites it.

Yet there is a rich, complex, exciting world of theological discussion of race and racism out there, in Black Theology and beyond. If you take the trouble to engage, you will find material you agree with, and material you disagree with; you will find ideas that challenge you deeply, and ideas that excite you; you will find passages that infuriate you, and passages that delight you. You will get drawn into extended, diverse and lively conversations.

Don’t let yourself be scared away from all of this by misleading caricatures. Dive in!

Further Work Needed?

Having said that, however, there is one last element of Ian’s post that I want to mention. He notes that From Lament to Action ‘speaks of gathering evidence of “theological prejudice, European and white normative frameworks in our theological foundations”‘. This report therefore, he says, ‘assumes that fundamental prejudices and normative frameworks are there’ (my italics). But Ian is not convinced. ‘I would want further work,’ he says, ‘and a much wider conversation, on all of these things before devising actions on anything like this scale.’

What is missing here – unsurprisingly, perhaps, in a post that shows a marked unwillingness to engage with Black Theology in any serious way – is an acknowledgement that we have been talking about this stuff for more than thirty years. We have produced, as a Church, endless reports, and their production has been one small part of a much wider theological discussion of race and racism – rich, vibrant, and multi-faceted, as I said a moment ago.

The task of From Lament to Action was not to initiate a discussion of all these matters – that happened a long time ago. It was not to summarise the mountains of analysis and discussion that we have already produced, for the sake of those who have not been listening. Its task was, rightly, much more limited. It was asked to review the many recommendations made in the course of the endless discussions and debates that we have already had, and to try to move us, at long last, to action.

The Life of Christian Doctrine – now published

The Life of Christian Doctrine is now out. The cheapest way of getting it at the moment (before a paperback version comes along) seems to be the eBook version available on the publishers’ website.

The book is both a discussion of the place of doctrinal thinking in the life of the church, and an exploration of the roles that it plays specifically in the Church of England.

To give you a flavour of the general argument, here are a few brief extracts.

From Chapter 1: What is Doctrine?

In the midst of things – in the midst of people gathering for worship, discovering how to follow Jesus at home and at work, saying their prayers and failing to say them, reading the bible and hearing it read, singing hymns and worship songs, sitting in silence, gathering for baptisms, celebrating weddings, crying at funerals, sinning and repenting, telling and hesitating to tell their friends about their faith, praying for the sick, sitting with the dying, visiting prisoners, helping out at foodbanks and refuges and credit unions, discovering God’s work among their neighbours, praying with icons, attending sung eucharists, speaking in tongues, praying for healing, arguing about money and about sex and about music and about candles, joining protest marches, struggling with the immigration system, crossing themselves, sitting through sermons quietly or noisily, going on retreats and to big Christian festivals, responding to evangelistic appeals, decorating churches and chapels, leading school assemblies, sneaking into the back pew hoping not to be noticed – in the midst of all this tangled and various life of the church, there are also people pursuing doctrinal theology.

When I say ‘doctrinal theology’, I have in mind a varied and changing collection of activities. I am thinking of activities of conversation, reflection, confession, teaching, proclamation, deliberation, argument, and apology, and all sorts of others. And I have these activities in mind insofar as they provide people with opportunities to express and explore claims about God and God’s ways with the world. Christian doctrinal theology takes place wherever Christians express claims about God to which they take themselves and their churches to be committed, and wherever they explore what that commitment demands of them. I am not thinking primarily of the activities of people identified as accredited ministers or professional theologians. I am, instead, thinking of activities that one can encounter among all sorts of people, in all sorts of forms, wherever the life of the church extends – and that are caught up in currents of influence and interaction that stretch far beyond the church.

These activities of doctrinal theology can be found, by an attentive observer, laced through all the activities of Christian life. They are there in the mix, as part of the untidy weave of threads that makes Christian life what it is. They might, at their best, be amongst the activities that help Christians grow together as followers of Jesus, in worship and witness and discipleship, and in the capacity to share that life with others. These activities of doctrinal theology are not the whole story, but they are one part of the story of Christian faith. Understanding the forms that these activities take, and the roles that they play – understanding, that is, the ‘nature of doctrine’ – is the purpose of this book.

This book is an attempt to answer two questions. First, there is the question of the relationship between doctrinal theology and ordinary Christian life. The practices of doctrinal theology are laced through the whole of Christian life, and all kinds of people are involved in them – but they are also practices that can be developed and refined to an extraordinary degree. People devote their lives to them; institutions are built to foster them; libraries are filled with writings that emerge from them – and doctrinal theology can appear to become detached from the life of ordinary belief. What is the connection between the community that sings ‘Jesus is Lord’, and the theological commission that pronounces that ‘Following the teaching of our common father Saint Cyril of Alexandria we can confess together that in the one incarnate nature of the Word of God, two different natures, distinguished in thought alone (τῇ θεωρίᾳ μόνη), continue to exist without separation, without division, without change, and without confusion’?[1]

I will be arguing that the kind of articulacy and sophistication displayed in the latter statement – and, more generally, all the forms of articulacy and sophistication of which doctrinal theology is capable – are no more and no less than forms of service undertaken for the sake of the church’s life, the life of ordinary belief. Doctrinal theologians who can explain the most recherché technicalities of doctrine do not thereby know God better than do ordinary believers. They may know something of the shape that ordinary lives of worship, witness and discipleship should take, if they are to be true to the ways in which God has given Godself to the world. They may help to hold those lives in shape. It is, however, those lives themselves in which God is known, insofar as they respond to and embody the love of God, and such lives will always and endlessly outstrip the diagrams that doctrinal theology draws of them.

The second question emerges from the first. Doctrinal theology, as I have just described it, is involved in the reproduction of the life of the church. Yet the life of the church is always broken, always distorted, always sinful. Whatever true knowledge of God is embodied in the life that any Christian community lives, it is always mixed with ignorance, with misunderstanding, and with the deliberate refusal of knowledge. The life of the church is a series of always failing experiments in the knowledge of God. If doctrinal theology helps to reproduce the life of the church, it will be helping to reproduce all of this failure – all of the exclusions and imbalances of power, all of the forms of harm that mar the church’s response to God’s love. Its work is no freer from these failings than is any other element of Christian life – and it can all too often be what Emilie Townes called ‘the doo-wop pom-pom squad for the cultural production of evil’.[2] My second question is, therefore, is about the role that doctrinal theology can play in the church’s learning – in the processes by which the church is taken deeper into God’s love, and taught both to repent of its failings and to discover new ways of inhabiting that love. I will argue that doctrinal theology can, at its best, help equip the church for this journey – a journey deeper into the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and at the same time a journey out into the world. These are not two journeys but one: the Spirit of God draws the church further in to the gift it has been given in Christ, by drawing it out into new encounters, engagements, and improvisations, and especially by turning it towards the cries of those who suffer, including the cries of those injured, marginalized, erased, ignored, or forced into passivity by the existing patterns of the church’s life.


From Chapter 4: The Emergence of Doctrine

The life of the church is the continuous and uneven unfolding of the word that God spoke to the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the one who was, who is, and who is to come. This unfolding takes place in the lives of worship, witness and discipleship that Christians negotiate together in the midst of the world. It takes shape in the care they offer to the vulnerable, in the circulations of money around their communities, in the ways they share food together, in the attitudes they adopt to the political regimes that surround them, in the habits of worship that they foster, in the words that their teachers pass on, and in their readings of the scriptures. It always takes shape in the life that particular people are building and tending together in some specific place. The unfolding of God’s abundant gift takes the form of a polycentric collection of lived experiments in faithfulness.

The life of the church is not glorious. Every one of these experiments in faithfulness is a failure. Some of the experiments are luminous, some ignominious – but all of them are experiments conducted by people caught up in the circulations of harm that we call sin. All of these experiments both acknowledge and betray Christ’s lordship; all of them both help and harm the world.

As Christianity spread across the ancient world, its life was shaped for good and ill by the telling and retelling of God’s ways with the world. Christians pursued this telling and retelling in proclamation, confession, teaching, and controversy. For contingent reasons – reasons of habit, memory, effectiveness, and power – this telling and retelling coalesced into recognisable shapes, arranged around familiar loci. Practices arose in which those loci could be named and the flow of Christian storytelling around them discussed. The articulated statements of the faith became building blocks for argument, the means by which the faithfulness of Christian forms of living could be debated. Doctrinal theology emerged in the midst of Christian life, as one of the ingredients by which the church became what it was.

Doctrinal theology is no freer from ambiguity than any other ingredient in the life of the church. From the start, it has been entangled with the processes by which the story of Jesus is passed on, explored, and embodied. From the start, it has been no less entangled with the powerplays of Christian leaders, the forms of myopia and exclusion that have marred the church’s life, and the fractiousness that has split churches apart. Those engaged in its practices don’t stand at any safe distance from the church’s broken life.

The question I will be exploring over the remainder of this book is whether, and in what forms, doctrinal theology might be of service to the church in the midst of all this ambiguity. How, precisely, might it help Christians negotiate lives of worship, witness and discipleship together? How might it help them acknowledge the failures that in every situation mar their negotiations? How might it help the church explore and inhabit in the midst of the world the abundant word spoken to that world by God in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?


From Chapter 6: Doctrine and Belief:

Belief is social, and improvisatory. Christians discover together habitable settlements. They find ways of living together with each other and with their collective past, with their scriptures and with all the demands that they face. Every such settlement is an experiment in faithfulness, an essay in quest of the truth of the gospel in this particular place. Every such experiment is in part a failure, a betrayal of the love of God.

The Spirit can work in and through the processes of improvisation that form these experiments, leading people deeper into God’s truth. The Spirit’s characteristic work is to hold people fast to what they have already been given: the gift of God in Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The Spirit’s characteristic work is also to draw people forward, enabling them to uncover or receive more of the abundance of what they have been given, and challenging them to think again about what they thought they had received. The holding fast and the drawing forward are not two works, still less dynamics that stand in tension with one another. They are one work: the Spirit continually beckons people further up and further in to the gift already given to them, by beckoning them further out into the world.

It is because of this shape to the Spirit’s work – luring the church deeper into what it has already received by leading it out into the world – that the church cannot avoid asking: How does what we are discovering fit with what we have already been given? How does this work of the Spirit in the present relate to the work of the Spirit in Christ? How do the new possibilities we think we have seen relate to scripture, or to the apostolic tradition? These questions are asked in all sorts of ways, explicitly and implicitly. They are asked and answered by the whole church. There is no reason to think that it falls particularly to doctrinal theologians to provide answers to them. They are answered primarily by a practical wisdom that discovers, or is discovered by, fittingness. People find a way to live together with what they already know, and with what they are finding.

Nevertheless, doctrinal theologians can, by the grace of God, play a role in this. Theirs is only one ministry amongst others, but they can bring certain kinds of resources to the process (though one should be wary of their selectivity); they can warn of some of the ways in which it might go wrong (though one should be wary of their hastiness in judging, and of their misplaced certainties); and they can propose ways forward (though they have no special vantage point from which to do so). Their resources, warnings, and proposals need to be tested, challenged, and interrupted in conversation with the whole Body of Christ. There must not be a one-way process here, with doctrinal theologians engaged simply in delivery; that is a recipe for the reproduction of the church’s existing failures, and for the amplification of the theologians’ own sins.

Their work is better thought of as a venue in which certain kinds of conversation can be staged – conversation between the life of ordinary belief in the present and the articulate tradition, conversation between local belief and the belief of the wider church, conversation between the scriptures and the whole history of the church’s believing. There are no guarantees of insight, no guarantees of progress or growth in such conversations, but in them a church may learn to see its present life differently in the light of its inheritance, and its inheritance differently in the light of its present life. And through such conversation and discovery, by the grace of God, the Spirit might at times work upon our life together.


From Chapter 8: Doctrine and Disagreement

Doctrinal theology can … be thought of as suspended between two forms of the passion for truth. On the one hand, there is a passion to hold fast to what we have been shown, both to the features of the truth that have become visible to us and the forms of error that we have learnt to identify and to avoid.

Yet as doctrinal theologians in a polycentric church and a divided church, none of us stands in or speaks on behalf of the centre. We each stand in one peripheral, diasporic territory, one failed experiment amongst others. We stand within particular Christian communities, each shaped by what it has truly received of God’s gift in Christ, but each also shaped by what we have missed, and what we have misunderstood. On the other hand, therefore, doctrinal theology is properly marked by a hunger oriented towards the abundance of God’s gift, its infinite exceeding of our grasp. And that abundance is, in part, reflected or exhibited in the diversity of the church – for all its many failings and errors. It is echoed in the diverse church’s capacity to surprise, unsettle, disturb, challenge, and excite. Each of our traditions stands in need of the rest of this Body, and of the gifts that our fellow members bear. We witness to the truth that exceeds us, the truth of the Word to which we are all accountable, by holding together, searching for the gifts that we might have to receive from one another. In always contingent and ramshackle configurations, the product of happenstance, self-protection, and the limitations of our resources as much as of any carefully planned engagement, we hold on to one another as a way of waiting upon the Spirit, holding on for a blessing.

There is therefore a proper curiosity to doctrinal theology, a pleasure in encounter and discovery, which will and should always be looking beyond the boundaries erected by our doctrinal decisions, with a magpie’s eye for the glint of something bright that has not yet been grasped. In the conditions of confusion in which we all live, it might even be that my neighbours’ error – a real error, one that does real harm – anchors their capacity to see something in the Word that I have missed, or to see the error in my own way of seeing. We should not so hold on to what we believe we have already been shown as to defend ourselves from all possibility of seeing more.

This is the deeper reality pointed to by Vincent of Lérins, when he declared that Christian truth is that which is taught ubique semper, et ab omnibus; everywhere, always, and by everyone.[3] For Vincent, this meant that, as Thomas Guarino puts it, that we will not find the truth by looking to teachings ‘confined to one geographical area, to one time period, or to a small group of believers’; heresy is characteristically innovative, and local.[4] The thoroughly non-Vincentian recognition that, in fact, all Christian teaching is innovative and local need not lead us to abandon his insight altogether. It really is the whole Body constituted by this polycentric diversity – everyone, everywhere, always – that is the form taken in the world by the imperfect, error-riddled, and fissile but rich, complex, and beautiful apprehension of God’s abundant gift in Christ.


From Chapter 9: Doctrine and Change

Doctrinal theologians are not the heroes of the church’s story. They are not virtuosos of the faith, from whose sheer intellectual creativity we can expect reformation, nor is their work unusually dangerous, always courting damnation. Forget the chiaroscuro. Doctrinal theology is one ordinary ministry amongst others in the life of the church, and – to the very limited extent that such distinctions are at all meaningful – it is not the most important. Doctrinal theologians are not those in whom the mind of the church specially resides – which is to say, we are not the head of this body. Instead, we are people with a particular set of roles to play in the life of the body, roles that matter, and that it is worth trying to play well. At our best, we can assist with some of the processes by which the church holds fast to what it has already seen, heard or tasted of the gift that God has given to the world. We can assist with some of the processes by which the church grubs out the distortions and restrictions that mar its reception of that gift. We can assist with some of the processes by which the church in deep engagement with the world discovers just how much more it has yet to know, as it journeys deeper into the abundant love that God has opened for the world in Jesus of Nazareth. And that is more than enough.


[1] Anglican–Oriental Orthodox International Commission, Christology: Agreed Statement (2014), §1. Available online: www.anglicancommunion.org/media/103502/anglican-oriental-orthodox-agreed-statement-on-christology-cairo-2014.pdf (accessed 29 Nov 2019).

[2] Emilie Townes used this phrase in ‘Thin Human Imagination: Searching for Grace on the Rim Bones of Nothingness’, a paper delivered at the Society for the Study of Theology in 2019. Such scholarship, she said, helps to reproduce ‘an evil matrix of ableism, racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, militarism, ageism, and more’.

[3] Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium 2.5, cited in Thomas C. Guarino, Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 4.

[4] Guarino, Vincent, 5, 11.

The Life of Christian Doctrine

Coming soon from Bloomsbury.

The lives of Christian churches are shaped by doctrinal theology. That is, they are shaped by practices in which ideas about God and God’s ways with the world are developed, discussed and deployed. This book explores those practices, and asks why they matter for communities seeking to follow Jesus.

Taking the example of the Church of England, this book highlights the embodied, affective and located reality of all doctrinal practices – and the biases and exclusions that mar them. It argues that doctrinal theology can in principle help the church know God better, even though doctrinal theologians do not know God better than their fellow believers. It claims that it can help the church to hear in Scripture challenges to its life, including to its doctrinal theology. It suggests that doctrinal disagreement is inevitable, but that a better quality of doctrinal disagreement is possible. And, finally, it argues that, by encouraging attention to voices that have previously been ignored, doctrinal theology can foster the ongoing discovery of God’s surprising work.

Table of contents

Part I Locating Doctrine

1. What is Doctrine?  
2. The Story of Doctrine in the Church of England  
3. Locating Doctrine in the Church of England

Part II. The Nature of Doctrine

4. The Emergence of Doctrine  
5. Doctrine and Intellectualism  
6. Doctrine and Belief  
7. Doctrine and Scripture  
8. Doctrine and Disagreement  
9. Doctrine and Change  
10. Coda: Serving the Church

Bibliography
Index

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 5

This is the fifth of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the firstsecondthird, and fourth.

The rest of the report

We have now covered most of the theological substance of the report – and most of the arguments that I wanted to analyse. There’s quite a bit more material in the report, but rather than go through it in the same detail as in my earlier posts, I simply want to point out a few things that struck me, none of which do much to change the basic argument – or to explain why the authors take the negative stance they take.

Pastoral responses

The initial material on pastoral application seems at first to be surprisingly open, given the arguments earlier in the report. That is, it seems for a moment to hold open possibilities of welcome, even of the celebration of transgender people who have transitioned, despite everything the report has already said to condemn them. So the report mentions a variety of frameworks, including a ‘diversity framework’ in which transgender experience would be ‘celebrated and honoured as part of normal human diversity’ (p. 13). Instead of, as one might have expected by now, simply ruling out such a response, the authors instead briefly advocate an ‘integrated’ response that can ‘draw on the best each framework offers’ – including this diversity framework (p.14).

That door is quickly closed, however. The report moves immediately to use the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (p.15) to illustrate the only kind of compassionate welcome that they are willing to offer to transgender people. In other words, the model we are offered is of Jesus challenging the woman at the well about her five husbands, and her living with a man who is not her husband. There is no hint of celebrating or honouring here: the model we are offered is of challenging someone’s sinful life. The authors want to stress, of course, the gentleness and compassion with which this challenge should be offered, but they are still bluntly declaring transgender people in the wrong, depicting their decisions and their lifestyle as sin. The rest of the pastoral advice (which I’m not going to analyse here) is governed by that conviction.

What does science say?

The report carries on into a discussion of ‘Science, statistics, medicine and therapeutic interventions’. The summary is meant – I assume – to be fair-minded and balanced. After all, we have been urged (p. 15) to ‘rise above the sex and gender culture wars’. Yet every sentence in the summary provided of the science on p. 18 – literally every single sentence – is framed negatively: ‘Limited reliable statistics’, ‘significant debate’, ‘unforeseen or unintended side-issues’, ‘harm’, ‘horrendous results’, ‘not well-enough understood’, ‘untested interventions’, ‘extremely limited evidence’, ‘lack of long-term data’, ‘a turn towards darkness’, ‘poverty of research’.

Anyone reading only this (and the pages that follow) would conclude that all the relevant science supports only the report’s point of view – which is simply not true (or even close to being true).[1] The authors aren’t even trying to present a balanced view; they display no commitment whatsoever to the balance and fairmindedness that they appeared to have promised.

The law

I don’t have anything much to say about the material on ‘law, education, and free speech’. Given that I don’t agree with the arguments at the heart of the report, I’m hardly going to agree with the implications set out here, and I’m not sure there’s much to be gained by running through the ways in which I find the descriptions offered biased, and the prescriptions misplaced.

I would note, though, that the comment on p. 23 that ‘There are proposals to change the law across the UK to let people decide their own gender’ (which echoes an earlier comment on p. 5), is, if it is meant to refer to the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, not at all an accurate summary – though it does echo the way in which the Act has been caricatured by other opponents. Once again, the authors of this report haven’t made any real effort to ‘rise above the sex and gender culture wars’.

Cultural trends

The last bit of the report that I want to point to is the final substantive section, on ‘The Cultural Trends’ (pp. 27–28). I hope I have managed, in my discussions in my earlier posts, to take the report seriously, and to discuss it on its own terms, even if I have done so in order to explain how badly I think it is mistaken. By the time we get to this section of the report, however, I’m afraid I think it has descended into farce. The transgender movement, it turns out, is the product of every malign influence that haunts the authors’ bad dreams: relativism, post-Christendom thinking, individualism, Gnosticism, dualism, feminism, post-structuralism, queer theory, cultural Marxism, and consumerism. This is not serious cultural analysis; it is not even close. It is little more than a series of lazy caricatures and tired sermonic tropes.

It is, for instance, simply not true that we are surrounded in this discussion by people who think that there are no absolutes, and no right way to understand the world or ourselves; it is simply not true that we are surrounded by people who insist that we are free from all obligations – any more than it is true that we are surrounded by resurgent Gnostics. I can’t think of a single one of the people I know who are transgender or supporters of trans people for whom any of this would be remotely accurate as a description – and you only need to give a few minutes’ thought to (to pick just one example) the convictions about ‘consent’ that are deeply embedded in these discussions to begin seeing that this description just does not stand up.

This is not the kind of account you would come up with if you were – as the authors have insisted that we need to be – committed to careful engagement with the people with whom you disagree, attentive to their voices, and determined even in your disagreement to understand them charitably. It is lazy and dismissive, and unworthy of the serious organisation that has put its name to this report.


Footnote

[1] As a corrective, you could look at a systematic review of ‘all peer-reviewed articles published in English between 1991 and June 2017 that assess the effect of gender transition on transgender well-being’, which provides links to all 73 studies that it discusses, and explains its search methodology so that you can judge for yourself whether it is cherry-picking. See ‘What does the scholarly research say about the effect of gender transition on transgender well-being?‘, What We Know, Cornell University. They found 52 studies which showed gender transition improving the well-being of transgender people, and 4 with mixed or null findings. The remaining 17 they cite were literature reviews or guidelines.


This is the fifth of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Shared Vision?

We recently published ‘A Vision for Theological Education in the Common Awards’ on the Durham website. It was the product of a year-long process of consultation around the Common Awards partnership and beyond, and in its final form it secured wide agreement around that partnership. Inevitably, however, the agreement wasn’t universal, and I thought it important to make sure that some of the questions that had been raised about the statement were also visible online. David Nixon, Dean of Studies at the South West Ministry Training Course, kindly agreed to discuss some of his questions about the statement with me by email, and then to have that discussion posted here on my blog. His questions focus on the opening sections of the statement, particularly §§4–7. Here’s that opening section:

Beginning with God.

  1. The Common Awards institutions have different approaches to theological education for Christian ministry, but these approaches are held together by our worship of one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; creator and sustainer of all things; victor over death and source of life, the One who is above all and through all and in all. The mortar that holds our vision for theological education in place is confidence, trust and delight in this God, and the horizon of our vision is the fullness of life and love that God has prepared for all things, towards which God is drawing all that God has made. Our vision for theological education begins and ends with delight in the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
  2. We therefore focus on God’s activity before considering our own. We focus upon the eternally active life of the triune God, and upon the activity by which God shares this life. We focus on God’s action in creating and lovingly sustaining the world, in reconciling creatures to Godself and to one another, and in healing, fulfilling, and perfecting what God has made, drawing all things into the knowledge and love of God. It is God who establishes the Kingdom, God who draws all God’s children into that Kingdom, God who ministers and educates.
  3. When the activity of God’s creatures serves God’s purposes, it is because God is active in them, drawing them into God’s mission in the world together, and making their action bear fruit. The first note in our vision of ministry, and of theological education for ministry, should therefore not be our own effort, determination, or commitment, but our confidence in God’s work in the world, our thankfulness as recipients of God’s grace, our trust in God’s bounty, our assurance of God’s enlivening presence, and our resting in God’s strength.
  4. The activity of God in which we are called to rest is a triune activity. It is the activity of the Spirit, conforming God’s creatures to Christ and to Christ’s ongoing action in the world, and so drawing them to share together in Christ’s relationship to his Father, who sends us out in the power of the Spirit as Christ’s witnesses in the world. It is a work that the triune God begins, continues, and will complete.

David:

I really like the flow of words, images, sentences here, and I do understand that you have to produce something of manageable length overall (not another article or book), but in terms of Beginning with God, I would ask two questions: Why do we begin with God? and Who says that we should begin with God?

You say that ‘We … focus on God’s activity before considering our own’, but I can’t readily find anywhere else in the statement where our own activity is given much weight, especially our own activity in relation to working out who/what/how God is to us.

It might be okay to begin with God, but the assumption then is of a dialogue, a Jacob-like wrestling with God and theology, as to just what this God is. The wider picture is of context, and the way that context informs our theology (not dictates) – this would certainly be the emphasis of various missional initiatives, linked to a liberation theology overview.

I wonder if too much weight is being placed on God’s story almost independently of our own existence, a criticism made of Barth at one point?

Mike:

Thanks for these questions; they’re important ones. Before attempting some answers, though, I should perhaps start by saying that I can’t, of course, answer for anyone but myself. The text was a collaborative production, and I can only speak about the way I understand what we produced together.

Beginning the piece with God is a decision made in a specific context, and by specific people – in this case, it was the initial working group, though it’s been affirmed by most (not all!) of the feedback received from then on. For me, that decision sprang from a feeling that theological educators in the churches today are often pushed towards performance anxiety, made to feel that the future of the church depends on our action, our leadership, our entrepreneurial success, and if we don’t measure up (and we’re subject to constant measurement) we’re failures. It was in that context that it seemed good to emphasise trust in God. I guess we could have begun with a description of this context, to make sense of the focus on God – but it’s difficult to do that without making that context itself the focus.

I hope that the focus on God’s action before our own is not a focus on God’s action instead of our own. It’s meant, I think, to be a way of framing our thinking about our own action, and there’s quite a bit later on about people being called and empowered in all sorts of different ways. For me, this is quite an affirming and supportive way for all of us involved in theological education to think about our action, the action of those we teach, and the actions of those amongst whom they minister. I’d want to say that even wrestling with God like Jacob or Job or the Psalmist is something that God draws us into and sustains. I don’t think there needs to be a competitive relationship between a focus on God’s story and a focus on our stories – and hope we haven’t fallen into that.

It would, however be all too easy to slip from saying ‘God’s action is the sustaining context for our action’ to saying ‘My authoritative account of God sets the limits upon your action’. This piece leaves open the question of how authority and discernment work – not least, I think, because they’re issues on which we (the theological education community) differ. I hope it does at least leave the question open, rather than close down the kind of approach you sketch. It does, after all, insist that this God is at work in the world beyond the church (§9), that we need to discern and respond to that work (§10) and to name and celebrate it (§18), and that all our learning takes place ‘in the whole course of our interaction with one another and our presence and engagement with the world’ (§25), and so on. Does that leave the door open to what you want to say?

David:

Thanks for the clarification in your first paragraph here. Perhaps parish ministry has insulated against this as I don’t particular feel it (and resist it when I do), but I would fully support this resistance.

This is of course the usual danger of some more ‘liberation’ methodologies, (a kind of pelagianism isn’t it?) that it’s all down to me/us. However it does seem a little bit of a paradox that the context has inspired a universal approach! I need to think that out a bit more.

I don’t think the way the statement relates our stories and God’s story is competitive, and your ‘drawing into and sustaining’ is again a useful clarification, but I am mindful of Gerard Loughlin’s comment that where you begin here deeply affects where you end up. As you know he favoured starting with God, but I always think it’s a useful experiment to see where you end up if you start at the other end (and I don’t think it’s ever quite as black and white as it appears). There’s so much bad history, and bad current practice, which illustrates the value of such an experiment in the ‘other direction’. So you haven’t slipped into anything too difficult, but you don’t seem to have excluded that either – i.e. it might still be possible (unfairly) to interpret this as constricting others’ actions based on my account of God. Am I being unfair here?

This also links with another concern which is the emphasis on ‘witness’. I wonder if it’s helpful to relate this to Rowan Williams’ lecture on ‘The Christian Priest Today’? If so, what has happened to the images of watchman and weaver? It strikes me again that ‘witness’ is rather a passive approach, non-participatory, or at least that it has that risk. The action happens, and at best I am at one remove. You can see why this, combined with my other concerns, still asks the question how do we really enter a very tight (closed?) circle about our relations with God, and who holds the keys to the door? So this might open up the whole question of authority – or is that unfair too?!