Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Tradition, teaching, cooking and serving for a nourishing Church

I reject the idea that the 'tradition' of the Christian Church is just a load of stuff from the past, which we receive unchanged from those who have gone before us, and pass along unchanged to those who will come after us. That, to me, is like saying that a recipe handed down through a family's generations must always be made with the same ingredients as used by the originators of the dish--and if even a pinch still remains from the larder of the multiply-great-grandmother who invented the dish, in the same packaging, all to the better. What foolishness! Ingredients go stale, go off the market; learning over the decades and centuries may tell us that something is not beneficial, and we should find an appropriate replacement (or leave it out altogether--does any educated woman still use 'belladonna' to make her eyes sparkle, or lead to give herself a fair, smooth complexion?). As well, methods of preparation change--few of us still make our morning toast by holding bread in a pair of tongs over the kitchen fire, and most of us will resort to melting chocolate in a microwave rather than in a double-boiler. Recipes are living things, often representative of a time gone by, and of people whom we love but see no more--but they are adapted and adjusted to new knowledge and circumstances.

How we use what has been left to us by Christians who have gone before us is, in my view very similar to family recipes. Tradition involves change and adaptation, as much as (and perhaps more than) it involves fidelity to the past. I admit here that I am deeply indebted to the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's view of tradition in After Virtue, where he explains that a 'living tradition':

is a historically embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations.(p.222)

In MacIntyre's view, tradition is not about 'stuff' (sayings, authoritative texts, ceremonial), although the 'stuff' is important. It is the constant questioning about whether the stuff is the right stuff for this group of people best to accomplish and embody what they intend. The endeavor of accomplishing and embodying, over time, for MacIntyre, is a practice. He uses the example of a hospital or a university as a practice, which is constantly engaged in a (sometimes quite heated) argument (the tradition) about how best to do the tasks, and be the community, which they are called to do and be. It is, I think, a more than adequate way of describing the Church--or at least, what the Church (on earth) is meant to be.

All Christians are part of the tradition--not merely the 'professional' theologians or the ordained. This, I think, is part of what Congar was trying to express when he spoke of the 'duty and corresponding right' of the lay person to be a fully mature Christian (see previous post). Those involved in the public ministries of the church have a primary responsibility to facilitate growth so that all Christians can take part in that ongoing argument, rather than allowing the 'professionals' to determine the tradition without challenge.

This, I believe, requires better preparation of the teaching office of public ministers. They need to know their 'stuff'--what has been said, done, believed, succeeded, failed, or just frankly botched--but the 'stuff' is only the beginning. Tradition, using MacIntyre's description, is more about method, although it relies on good content. The 'method' part is the real work. It involves selecting the appropriate elements of content, combining them in good order and proportion, questioning and testing to see what will help the faithful (corporately and personally)answer its calling in ways that are life-giving to them and to those among whom they live and move and have their being.

To go back to the cooking analogy, a pile of random ingredients don't constitute a finished dish--certainly not one that is nourishing and satisfying, while still creating the desire to return to it (whether to make it or partake of it) again and again, or to share it with others. The cook, if she or he is any good, chooses the vital ingredients without which the dish will not be what it is meant to be (it is silly to think of risotto without rice), what will add nourishment and flavor, reject what is harmful or detracts from the finished product, prepare the ingredients, combine them in the right order and under the right conditions, and serve the finished dish.

The 'cooking' is an important part of the task of the public minister, but the 'dish' (whether it is a sermon, an educational program, pastoral visit, etc.) is not an end in itself. The 'diners' have to be well-served by what is prepared. It needs to be appropriate to the needs of those who receive it; as Archbishop Temple once famously said, 'it is harmful to give the best beef to a man with dysentery.' Admittedly, this is not easy when there are members of a congregation at so many different stages of life and faith, but, just as one must supply the needs of all at the family table (the infant, the growing adolescent, the food-allergic, the elderly), it cannot be neglected without bad effect on the well-being of all who eat there. All need to be nourished, not so they can stay at the table--but so they can get up from it, and get on with what they need to do, contributing to the table fellowship, to the life of the family, and in the wider world.

Public ministers, in their teaching role especially, need to use the 'stuff' of the church to help strengthen and nourish the laity. They must know the content--scripture, history, theology, pastoral theory, liturgy--but it needs to be served well. Furthermore, they need to pass along good 'methods of faith' to those they serve, teaching them to use the content of the Church's tradition to grow into the adult Christians that Congar says it is our duty and right to be.

'Cooking', however assumes that the dish served will be digested and converted into energy, sometimes an energy that could not have been predicted when the meal is planned. Likewise, what is taught to faithful Christians does not enter the system without transformation. The Church's teaching is not simply content to be memorized and repeated unthinkingly; it does not, when it is done well, produce unthinkingly obedient Christians. An Irish Catholic bishop, during that country's raging debates over abortion, said that 'We don't dictate to people. We have no right to dictate but we have no option but to teach.' Mature Christian faith needs teaching, but what is learned may--no, sometimes must--take directions that the teacher did not anticipate.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Theology: the heart of ministry

Somehow, a lot of people (at least ones I worked with and/or taught) felt that 'theology' is academic, and 'real' training for ministry needs to focus on 'practical' skills. Skip all that theology junk--I even had one student tell me that it was 'arrogant' to think we could learn anything about God by studying theology.

Perhaps he was right. However, I don't think so. Even if we can't learn anything much about God, we can certainly learn to do theology--learn to speak of God. Not only to speak of God, but to speak wisely and well of God. Theology is, literally 'words about God'--theo and logos. But logos isn't any old words, at least not for the Christian, who believes the Logos, Christ himself, is the embodied wisdom and logic of God.

Theologians and pastors have a distinct responsibility to speak wisely and sensibly about God, at least as much as any learned person in any field of endeavor has a duty of care to speak thoughtfully about his or her chosen object of inquiry. If, for example, I go to my physician, complaining of feeling fatigued, forgetful or confused, she should not tell me that the hamster that runs my brain has fallen off its wheel. (Granted, I sometimes say this about myself--but I am not a physician.) She has the responsibility to take a history of my symptoms and recent activities, order any tests which might help in a diagnosis, and to prescribe treatments that have some basis in good medical science which are likely to help my condition. I expect her to have kept current in her knowledge, to confer with others if she does not have ready solutions to my problems, and to respect my needs and preferences concerning my treatment (in other words, to respect me as an intelligent adult capable of informed choices regarding my own care).

Pastors, and the theologians who help prepare them for ministry, have parallel responsibilities. As a theological educator, my work has not been to stuff people's heads full of data, that can be readily accessed to quote unthinkingly in sermons, sprinkled on as an afterthought like scattering croutons on a salad. My work is not about making people into 'academics' rather than practicing pastors, but that does not mean that I ignore my own responsibility to help them grow in diligent and energetic study of all things that strengthen the faith (theirs and those among whom they minister). My work is about helping future ministers speak wisely about God--to actually do theology--so that they can help those among whom they will be serving to do the same.

This means looking at what others have said about God, and deciding whether it is something we actually agree with, or something we wish to challenge as unwise speech. Take, for example, Rufinus' comments on Christ crucified, and how this effects our salvation. A reasonably good translation of the text can be found here:

This has become my favorite text on how not to speak of God, after a student was taken in by the vivid 'hook and bait' imagery. But is this what we really want to say? (By the way, I think that is the key question we should always ask of any piece of theology, ancient or modern, 'academic' or from the pulpit in our own churches.)

Do we really want to say that God owed Satan anything? Do we really want to say that God in Christ needed to resort to a deception (quite literally, a 'bait and switch') to affect our salvation? I don't think we do, if we actually believe that all that is, belongs to God, and that God is the source of all truth. Rufinus certainly speaks of God here--in vivid and memorable terms. But is it wise speech? I certainly wouldn't credit it as such, and I certainly would hope that any minister would think twice about asking his or her congregation to build a life of faith on the idea that God needs to resort to lies and deception on our behalf. I would consider it as irresponsible to do so as I would if my health care professionals spoke of the hamster in my brain, and expected me to take it seriously.

In Laity, Church and World, Yves Congar said that a lay person has the 'duty and corresponding right' to become an adult Christian. The US Catholic Bishops, furthermore, have said that 'adulthood implies knowledge, experience and awareness, freedom and responsibility, and mutuality in relationships', and that lay adults are 'called to exercise the same mature interdependence and practical self-direction which characterize them in other areas of life.' This statement about the lay person's vocation to exercise adult judgment in matters of faith is applicable to Christians of all denominations. And it is, in my view, the responsibility of ordained ministers to help this happen.

Theology is not an 'academic' exercise for the aspiring minister, any more than anatomy and biochemistry are for the aspiring doctor, 'hoops to jump through' before the 'real', practical stuff of ministry (or medicine) can be exercised. Theology, learning to think and speak well and wisely of God, and helping--no, make that requiring--others to do so, in order that they may fulfill their vocation as Christians, is at the very heart of ministry.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Who is ministry training for?

This is not a question about who should train for ministry. It is a question about who training, and training institutions, are meant to serve. I only have a few years of experience teaching in (and at some level, running) institutions that train people for Christian, and particularly, Anglican, ministry, and some experience of being a degree earning student in another institution.

The truth is, I think there is a lot of navel-gazing as to the purpose of ministry training. Most institutions limit their vision to 'training men and women' for ministry. Well, that's fine, as far as it goes. Yes, that's what they are supposed to do, and they deserve to fail miserably if they don't do that. But the students aren't the 'end users', so to speak, of the work of seminaries, part-time training institutions (an important mode of preparation in the Church of England), or on-line degree programs.

Neither are the faculty. I think some seminary faculties mistake themselves for think-tanks, or for university departments of religion. Those are perfectly good things, and certainly the institutions that train ministers should prove themselves as communities of theological enquiry and innovation. Too often, however, they take on an almost 'tribal' outlook, where enquiry is actually limited by a stated (or more often, unstated) theological position which is held unquestioningly. And sometimes, that position (most often, it seems to me, currently having to do with some very boring aspect of human sexuality), occupies a more important role in the insitution's life than the much broader range of Christian theology. If it isn't a single-issue ideology, it is holding to a view of tradition (often denominational, or even sub-denominational) that is seen to be exempt from examination. What I find funny is that often the claim is made that the view of tradition, or the single-issue, claims to be about 'increasing inclusiveness/diversity'. But, if the party line is not held, a scholar or prospective student will be told that s/he is not going to be a good fit with the institution.

I propose that, although students and faculty are important factors in ministry training, the goal is not either to provide a great experience for the student, or a stable living from which faculty can pursue their research agendas.

The focus on ministry training needs to be the people in the congregations who will be served by those preparing for ordination, licensing, or other service to the Church. I heard, too many times when I was Director of Studies for a Church of England part-time ministry training program, how much our students were giving up to prepare for ministry, how we had to make things 'easier' for them to study, that because (mostly) they were training for non-stipendiary ministry we could not expect the same from them as from those preparing to be full time ministers who were paid and housed for their service. Ministry Division of the Church of England required the same things from both NSM and stipended ministers. However, we could not extend the training period to something that would make it possible to study part-time and non-residentially at a more leisurely pace. S0, the exigencies of the situation required producing sub-standard, inadequately trained people for ordination and licensing as Readers.

As a lay person, who spends most of her in-church time in the pews, I find this completely unacceptable. When a person walks into a new church, returns from a long absence, or comes for the first time in their lives, they do not care if the person leading the service is paid or not, part- or full-time. They care if the service is led reverently, the preaching is solid and thoughtful, and any pastoral contact is helpful. If these three basics aren't met, that person (certainly, if it's me) is going to walk out and not return.

The Church does not need more ministers. It needs a sufficiency of excellent ministers. Our training institutions need to produce people who preside, preach, and care well. Anything else they do is icing on the cake. But the cake has to be in place.

Been away a while

Yes, I know. I am an extremely sporadic, unreliable blogger. The truth is, I actually am not all that fond of blogging, and I don't really like most blogs. I read a couple, and most of them are self-aggrandizing nonsense. If you leave a comment on most, it's expected that you will fawn all over the blogger's exalted opinion of him/herself. If you dare to disagree, you are shunned and reprimanded (often with a particularly nasty personal email). Who needs that? And, my original intent was to write my angle on Anglican theology, which I'm not sure I can do any more. Why? The Anglican Communion seems hell-bent on self-destruction. It's not the 'nasty conservatives' who want to drag the church into the dark ages. It's not the 'heretical liberals' who want to eradicate every trace of Christian tradition. It's everyone who doesn't see a possibility for any viewpoint other than their own. And sometimes the 'progressives' are the worst about this--there isn't enough room for those who don't strictly adhere to their particular sort of progressivism. Talk about 'inclusiveness' really only means that each group wants to include those who agree with them. So, if I continue to use this space, it may be for a whole bunch of other stuff than the original intent. It may include some theology. It may just be about knitting, or other stuff I read. But right now, theology is pretty damn depressing, and I may need to use this space to heal from the injuries that working for the church has inflicted.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Nature Man and God, Lecture I

‘The Distinction Between Natural and Revealed Religion’

I think some of Temple’s most important thinking on the essence of religion and its study are contained in this brief introduction. Significantly, he blurs the distinction between ‘natural’ knowledge of God (that which can be had through observation of the world around us, without reference to supernatural revelation), and the knowledge of God which depends on revelation. Although he does not deny that the Holy Scriptures are ‘inspired’, Temple counts the study of Scripture to be a proper activity to gain a ‘natural’ knowledge of the Jewish and Christian faiths. After all, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are, along with everything else that can be claimed for them, the record of the response made by generations upon generations of people to a specific revelation. The revelation contained in the scriptures may be in dispute; the response, for Temple, is not. It is essential to study the content of religions, and not just their forms. For Temple,

'It is a perfectly reasonable, if provisional, judgement, which declares that what has been so great a power in human life cannot be altogether illusory. It is not the beneficence of religion that is here in question; about that there is much more to be said. Our question concerns its manifest potency, for evil as for good. It is not inconceivable that so great a force is grounded solely in the psychological vagaries of the human mind; but it is not unreasonable to prefer the alternative hypothesis and, merely on a broad survey of human history, to adopt the view that man’s great religion is a movement within him of some great force which it behoves him to appreciate, or his response to some object of supreme import, which it behoves him to understand, or both of these at once.' (p. 7)

For Temple, it makes no sense to separate the phenomena of religion in general, from the specific content of a particular religion. And actual faith and devotion are (almost) never based on ‘natural theology’ by itself. Faith always has an object and content; rarely is it the result of argumentation, but experience. There is, however, no ‘element in human experience which may claim exemption from examination at the bar of reason’; however it is also ‘unwise’ for religion to try to ‘exclude reason altogether from investigation of its treasures.’ (p. 17)

He is also quite clear that ‘orthodoxy’ in religion—not least the Christian religion—is annoyingly difficult to pin down: ‘it is also true that there is no one complete doctrine of the Trinity accepted by all orthodox Christians. There is an orthodox formula, which excludes certain conceptions of the Divine nature; but that formula is itself capable of many interpretations...’ (p.5). This is echoed throughout Temple’s writings, especially those that pertain to his work in the ecumenical movement.

Religious authority is always an interesting topic in William Temple’s work. Religious belief, or trust in God, almost always begins with the acceptance of reasonable authority (p. 18)—the idea of ‘reasonable’ being the key. Authority has to be trustworthy—for a child, that may be the authority of loving parents or knowledgeable teachers; and this holds true in every aspect of life (not just religion). However, Temple encourages people to test authority through their experience. He is confident that in most cases, the teaching authority of a trustworthy religious tradition will be confirmed, rather than invalidated, through testing at the bar of reason and experience. Submission to religious authority is not ‘unreasonable’, any more than, for example, than deferring to expert opinion in medicine or law. What would be unreasonable, once ‘authority’ has been tested by experience and found not to be reliable, is to continue to submit to it. Authority, for Temple, is never about sheer enforcement of will or opinion—that is coercion. True authority welcomes challenge and testing, because it can stand up to scrutiny.

And perhaps that is why, at the close of this first lecture, Temple sets the following task for the study of Natural Theology:

'Natural Theology should be the criticism of actual Religion and of actual religious beliefs, irrespective of their supposed origin and therefore independently of any supposed act or word of Divine Revelation, conducted with full understanding of what is criticised, yet with the complete relentlessness of scientific enquiry.' (p. 27)

This, I believe, predates the contemporary love for ‘practical theology’—but it is an important element in it. Can faith claims stand up to scrutiny, through reason and experience? Is this great historic force known generally as ‘religion’, understood in its power for both good and evil? From there, the questions are many, including how people live the theology they claim to hold, and how that plays out in a wider society.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

William Temple

Obviously, I am not a terrific blogger. I often feel that my own ideas are not as exciting as they might be. So I need to recycle the ideas of others. I'm inspired by Dan's blog
on Richard Hooker.

To make a start, I am going to (attempt to) spend some time blogging about one of my theological heroes, Archbishop William Temple. Temple was born in 1881, died in 1944, and was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until his death, having been Archbishop of York for 13years previously, and Bishop of Manchester before that. Ordained Deacon in 1909, Temple produced the equivalent of a book-length work per year of ordained ministry, and never held an academic post. He is best remembered for his work in the ecumenical movement, and as a champion of social reform, most notably in his little Penguin Classic, Christianity and Social Order.

Few people read much besides CSO any more, and I think this has been true since about the 1970s. However, I think this lack goes far to explaining a common misconception that Temple was too much a product of his own time, with little enduring to say to us today. This was the underlying premise of my doctoral dissertation (thesis to my UK colleagues), . I won't rehearse the ecclesiological arguments here.

There is much to commend William Temple's writing to us today. There is a warmth, open-mindedness, and graciousness of writing that makes reading his works much like drinking good wine--it's possible to consume a great deal before realizing the effects. I used his Christian Faith and Life to good effect with an undergraduate class in theology in 1999, and I think that slim volume, which contains the addresses to the Oxford Student Christian Mission in 1931, is still the best short introduction to his work.

However, I feel somewhat remiss that I did not produce an article in 2009, for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Nature, Man and God, Temple's Gifford lectures of 1933-34. I will, therefore, over the next few weeks, to make up for that lack, and present here a series of offerings which reflect on the enduring value of that work, and ways in which Temple's largest single volume can be a resource for theological thinking now.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Have made a start

Well, I got my module handbook for the Anglican theology class (mostly) done today. There will be minor changes, but at least I have topics organised, and have chosen the vast majority of readings for each topic.

As well, it's dawned on me in the last few days that this year is the 75th anniversary of Temple's Nature, Man and God. Perhaps I should throw together an essay or two and see if I can get them published. I've just revisited Ch. XIX, 'Sacramental Universe', after hearing some dire stupidity about sacraments at a 'Fresh Expressions' event a couple of weeks ago. Temple's stuff is still pretty radical--even more radical is his 1922 chapter on worship and sacraments in Christus Veritas. Amazing to me, to tell the truth.