Doctrine Matters, or, “It’s the theology, stupid!”

Community Forum at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, 20 September 2012
Led by the Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston

Introduction: the importance of theological conversation

I am very grateful for the warm welcome Felicity and I have received at CDSP and for the opportunity to address this Community Forum.  I am going to offer some thoughts about the place of doctrine in the life of the Church and the wider world, and especially the role of the ordained ministry in teaching, exploring and applying doctrine.

Christianity does doctrine in a big way – and arguably more so than any of the other major religions.  Just think for a moment of the central place of the creeds in our worship and faith.  They, of course, were the result of massive arguments in the early Church about how to understand and express the Christian faith.

There have been continuing deep arguments over doctrine throughout Christian history – leading to splits, divisions and even -warfare.  So it is not surprising that some people want to down-play doctrine.  It is seen as too authoritarian, too restrictive and too divisive.  It is surely much better to focus on orthopraxis – how we live the faith, our behaviour and spirituality, rather than on our often contentious beliefs.

I am going to argue for the central place of theology in the life of the Church, in line with the approach of ‘faith seeking understanding’.  I do so in the belief that our key role is ‘to proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation’. This means taking seriously both the foundational events, scriptures, creeds and traditions of Christianity, and the contemporary situation we find ourselves in.

The subject matter which I have chosen to try to address today comes under the title “doctrine matters”.  That’s deliberately ambiguous.  I have chosen it because it seems to me that what we believe, what lies at the heart of our ministries, at the foundation of our mission and ministry, is of profound importance.  There is a huge danger for all of us of being consumed by the internal concerns of the Church.  We spend a lot of time thinking about finances, structures and the like.  And there is also a huge danger of being overwhelmed by a sometimes indifferent society which can seem to push religion, or religious faith, into the private sphere, and religious institutions onto the margins, and which regards faith as something really rather intellectually suspect.  It’s important that we build up what Rowan Williams has called ‘a proper confidence’ in our Christian faith, so that we really do express something which can “capture the imagination”, as Rowan Williams has said, of our generation.  In order to do that, it is vital that we look at the foundations of our faith, so “doctrine matters”.  The subtitle for this, to adapt a well-known quote from Bill Clinton is, “it’s the theology, stupid!” – theology really does matter in the life of the Church.  And clergy have a vital role to play in exploring and sharing good theology at every level.

Doctrine matters:  four assumptions
The idea that “Doctrine Matters” is based on four assumptions.

The first assumption is that theological enquiry is absolutely vital (literally life-giving), and essential.  If it’s been squeezed out of our ministries, something has gone wrong. 

The second assumption is that there is a tremendous amount that actually inhibits our theological enquiry.  All of us, I have no doubt, will have piles of unread books sitting in studies, and probably the cost of those unread books would be quite astronomical.  That’s just a symbol of the fact that there’s a huge amount of pressure that inhibits that theological enquiry. 

The third assumption is that we as clergy have a pivotal, central role in stimulating theological conversations.  If we don’t do it, we are neglecting a central part of our ministry. 

And the last assumption is that theological enquiry is best done in community, as we exchange one with another.  I’m going to examine these four assumptions now each in turn in more depth.

Theological enquiry is vital and essential.  There are at least two reasons for this.  The first is the classic “faith seeking understanding“.  I came to faith as a teenager in one of the churches indeed in this Area, and as a teenager I was full of searching and questioning.   I had a conviction that any faith that was worth having could stand up to any enquiry, any questioning, which could be put to it, and if it collapsed and fell to bits, then there was something wrong with it.  Now that perhaps was the brash confidence of a teenager, but I still retain something of that view, that it’s important for us to probe and test and investigate what we believe.  If we’re not doing that pretty actively, we can find that there can be a sneaking or growing feeling sometimes that what we’re standing on isn’t as secure as we thought – that it perhaps might be really rather incomprehensible, or indeed incoherent, and we can, if we’re not careful, actually find ourselves afraid to look.  The “faith seeking understanding” is crucial.  There is a huge amount of very, very good theological material around, and to engage with it is essential.

We live, as we know, in an era when most people don’t go to church, a so-called secular society, and in that sort of environment, what the sociologist Peter Berger called ‘our plausibility structure’ can be really rather threatened.  We don’t have things which are constantly reinforcing our faith from the culture around us, and it’s very important in that sort of environment to be constantly seeking to understand our faith.

The second reason why I think theological enquiry is so essential comes under the heading of apologetics.  There’s nothing new in Christianity in having its “cultured despisers”, but we now live in a time when huge numbers of our contemporaries are simply disconnected from the language and ideas of the Christian faith.  For many of them there is simply very little resonance with some of the ideas.  A recent book by Callum Brown spoke of the ‘Death of Christian Britain’.  You don’t have to agree with the finality of that particular thesis, but it is very clear that our particular situation today is very different from that of 50 or 100 years ago.  The much maligned Decade of Evangelism in England may not have led to vastly increased numbers in our churches, but it did, I think, in many ways signal a shift of mind-set in our churches, with a growing awareness that we are certainly no longer in a primarily pastoral context, where we can assume that many individuals are connected in some way to our churches and our Christian faith.   Rather we are in primarily a missionary-type context, where we have to work to make the links.  And in such a context apologetics is a vital area.  We need an articulate and well-expressed faith, which grapples with the major questions that people ask.  How are we to understand, for example, our doctrine of creation in the light of modern scientific understanding on the nature of the universe, which is part of the backcloth of our culture?  How are we to understand the way in which God acts in our world, given our understandings of science?  How are we to interpret the developments in genetics and our understanding of what it means to be human?  How can we understand in our plural context something of the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ and his uniqueness in the light of the insights of other faiths?  How are we to understand questions of justice and conflict in the world in which we live?  All these deep questions are around in most people’s minds, if they pause to think, and it’s important that we engage closely with those questions in the light of our Christian faith.  We need that solid core of belief that is coherent, understood, articulated and expressed in an intelligible language.  Apologetics is important.

The second assumption is that there’s a tremendous amount which hinders us in our theological enquiry.  The first thing that hinders is the so-called ‘post modern, relativising trends’ which are part of the air we breathe.  Part of this, I think, is a reaction to the multiplicity of beliefs and world views in which we find ourselves set, and the problem that comes, of course, is how is anyone to adjudicate between this whole range of views.   Some people throw up their hands in horror and say ‘well, we simply can’t do it’, and there is a profound relativising effect that we just all pick up different world views and that’s all there is to it – that they’re simply different.  You can’t say much about whether one is better than another, but they’re simply there – a given.  There’s a suspicion of so-called  ‘metanarratives’ – grand over-arching explanations – of what it means to be human, and our lives.  There’s no such thing as truth with a capital T, only my truth, your truth, and any claims to truth are to be treated with suspicion, really as covert ways of exercising unwarranted power.  Religious belief in this context can very often be treated as a matter of private opinion or simply a life-style option.  This sort of context can undermine our efforts to search for what we understand to be theological truth.  So that’s one thing that hinders us. 

The second thing is a prevalent attitude that it’s behaviour that really matters, and not belief.  Now I think that that’s actually a very widespread view.  It was reinforced for me in some of the research work I undertook a few years ago into collective worship in schools, where I interviewed a lot of teachers about what they thought they were doing.   Part of the outcome of that was a very clear and widespread view amongst teachers that what really mattered was nurturing children into appropriate patterns of behaviour – the way they treated each other.  That was what really mattered, and there was a kind of ‘absolutism’ around about that behaviour question that stood in sharp contrast to a much more relativistic view when it came to matters of doctrine or belief.  Those were to be treated in such a way that, while there was a whole range of options, it didn’t really matter which one children picked up, as long as they found one that suited them.  There was no doubt that it was behaviour that was the thing that really mattered – belief was only there in the background.  There’s nothing new in that: Stephen Sykes has pointed out that at the start of the Reformation, Erasmus held that it should be possible for Christians to agree on a few simple truths which were intimately connected with practical Christian living – behaviour was what mattered.   This stood in sharp contrast with the approach of Luther, for whom teaching the plain content of scripture was central.  For him doctrine really did matter.  Another example of the same thing is in the early 20th century when the ecumenical movement focused in the ‘life and work’ movements with the slogan ‘doctrine divides, service unites’.  Now that proved to be an impossible split – you couldn’t actually eschew theology and divorce doctrine from service. 

Then the third thing that hinders theological enquiry is the attack on what one could call the cognitive content of doctrine.  There are radically different understandings of the nature of Christian doctrine.  Some years ago the philosopher Braithwaite produced a famous article called ‘An Empiricist’s view of the understanding of religious belief’.  He essentially saw religious belief, doctrine and religious assertions as an intention to behave in a particular way.  That intention was then associated with certain religious stories whose function was to reinforce that intention.  But religious belief didn’t have real cognitive content.  It wasn’t propositional about the way things really are.   The stories simply reinforced an intention to behave in a particular way.  More well-known, perhaps, is Don Cupitt’s ‘Sea of Faith’ movement, and in that book, (although he has moved some way beyond that since), he describes religious beliefs by saying ‘they guide lives, rather than describe facts – they’re rules of life dressed up as pictures.’  Now we contrast that kind of approach with views that say that our doctrines have genuine cognitive content – for example Alister McGrath in his book ‘A Passion for Truth’.  Also the Cambridge philosopher Brian Hebblethwaite in his book called ‘The Ocean of Truth’ defends an objective theism, saying it is very important we hold on to the idea that doctrine has genuine cognitive content.  And you have to decide where you stand in that debate, otherwise it just floats around, and you find if you’re not careful that the whole ground has been chopped from beneath you.  So that your view actually matters in that more philosophical area. 

If we don’t address these problems, I think it is quite possible to have in our ministries a loss of confidence and conviction, and that can creep up on us unawares.  You can suddenly find yourself thinking, ‘I’m not quite sure how solid this is’.  We can find ourselves redirecting our efforts into social or political action, community work, moral issues, or we become liturgical experts, or perhaps we even turn to the internal constitutional matters of the Church.  These can all consume our energies.  Now I don’t want to knock those too hard, of course they’re all necessary, but they do need a clear, theological rationale, and we need to be careful they’re not a substitute for our core ministries. 

And then all of us face practical constraints on our time.  We’re all very busy people, we’re all bombarded with communications of all types, bits of paper, emails, and so forth.  We need to think very carefully about where our time goes, and what that reflects about our priorities in ministry. 

The third assumption for this symposium is that theological enquiry is absolutely essential to our role as clergy.  Now I don’t know about you, but my guess is that most people at some stage in their ministry will have had their guilt strings tweaked by some parishioner or other who will have made some slightly disparaging comment about you spending time sitting in an armchair reading a theological book, as if that’s a kind of indulgent pastime, which clergy have, which is not doing the real business which is racing around being terribly pastoral and involved and active.  Time spent on that more engaged academic study is somehow an indulgence and to be fitted into your spare time.  I think that’s simply wrong, and to be resisted, and for several reasons.  The first one comes from our ordination vows.  One of them is ‘Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading holy scripture and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to uphold the truth of the Gospel against error?’  If we are not engaged in that kind of study, we are not being faithful to our ordination vows. 

Then there is the classic role of the preacher, of a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and part of your role is to integrate, interweave, the themes of both, to be deeply rooted in the questions and struggles of our contemporary world, to be deeply rooted in the insights of scripture, and to bring the two together, and to offer insights to people through our preaching.  That is a business which takes time and effort, and we are neglecting our tasks if we don’t do that.  Of course I know all of us find ourselves ‘on the hoof’ preaching sermons where we think ‘Help! I’ve not really prepared’.  Of course that happens.  But nevertheless our intentions must be to ensure that we do that well as we possibly can.

Then there are our pastoral visits.  We get asked challenging questions in all kinds of places.  We’re not there just to provide tea and sympathy.  A crucial part of what we do as clergy is to take the questions and struggles of people and to try to engage them with the benefits and insights of scripture and of Christian thinking throughout the ages, and to try to do something so that we may have more to offer than tea and sympathy.  I have never forgotten a funeral visit I made in which I was talking to a widower, and he said to me that he had never believed in God’ since his war-time experience of a close friend of his being shot to pieces literally next to him.  His reaction was ‘What kind of a God can it be who can create a world in which this kind of thing can happen?’  It’s a question you will all have heard in a variety of different guises.  Part of what we’re about as clergy, I think, is to take that kind of question and experience and engage and struggle with it.  If you like, to take that kind of experience, and put it together with our theological understanding – what we mean by providence, and our understanding of theodicy.  And then, crucially, to find ways of expressing that which are appropriate for different pastoral contexts.

Alister McGrath has spoken, in a recent book on the future of Christianity, of the importance of what he called ‘organic theologians’.  He didn’t mean by that just clergy, although I think we can include clergy in it, but all people who are rooted in their Christian communities articulating the faith of that community, and defending it to the wider world as an apologist and a populariser.  Another phrase that’s sometimes used about our role is the idea of the clergy as the ‘theologian in residence’.   Our theological role, our grappling with our understanding of our faith, is central.  We need an integrated vision, so that we don’t just become dry academics.  Our theology needs to be integrated firmly with our worship, and with our pastoral and social care.  Theological reflection is not the only aspect, but it’s a vital one.

What we believe is absolutely essential – it’s at the heart of our ministries.  What was it, I wonder, that took you into ministry in the first place?  What was your vision of the Gospel, of what you thought you were doing?   It’s good sometimes to remind ourselves of what that is.  What is it that inspires us now?   What’s the driving understanding of the nature of our Gospel?  What is it that keeps us here – keeps us in ministry?  Our role as theologians is terribly important. 

In playing this role we are part of a long tradition.  To use the well-known words from the Declaration of Assent, we are to ‘interpret the Gospel afresh to each generation’.  This tradition  began with the evangelists as the Gospel writers reflected on their experience of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  It runs through Paul, the early Christian Fathers, the apologists, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on.  We are part of that tradition of trying to understand the Christian faith in each generation.  In the 19th century the Lux Mundi publication from a Catholic perspective sought to put the Catholic faith into its right relation with modern intellectual and moral problems.  That was in the light, amongst other developments, of the huge revolutions that had taken place post-Darwin, and so forth.  Some of you will have been involved in the ‘Gospel and Our Culture’ movement and the thinking of Lesslie Newbigin.  One of my predecessors as Bishop of Kingston, Hugh Montefiore, wrote a book ‘Credible Christianity – the Gospel in Contemporary Culture’.  And, of course, we have the towering example of Rowan Williams and his writings.  That’s a long tradition and we are part of that in our various places of ministry.  It is not escapism; it’s not indulgence;  it’s not a side-show – part of our central role is provoking this theological conversation and engaging with people’s deep beliefs.

The last assumption, and more briefly, is that theological enquiry is best done when we engage one with another.  There is rather a thought-provoking verse from Proverbs: ‘as iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens the wits of another’.  As we engage with one another, as we open ourselves up to different understandings and perspectives, we find our own perspective becomes sharpened and clarified.  That’s part of what this symposium is about.

As we engage together we depend on the authority of scripture, but we need to interpret scripture, and we need to use our minds.  The classic Anglican basis of scripture, tradition and reason exemplifies the importance of us engaging as a church and as clergy in our theological conversations.  We need to share not only in places like this, but in chapters, study groups, in our church communities and the like.  It is crucial that we engage in this way.

There are very substantial resources within this room and within our churches and very often we fail to draw on them.  It always saddens to me to find, as every now and then I do, someone – quite often a member of the clergy or a lay person – who has a major area of expertise which has never really been utilized fully.  We need to be constantly looking for those areas of expertise and finding ways of utilising them.

Here at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) and in the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) there is a fine example of theological engagement.  It seems to me that the spirit of ecumenical dialogue – a real readiness to listen and to engage with different perspectives – is deeply embedded in the method of doing theology.

After ten years as a bishop in a very diverse diocese I am even more convinced about the need for what I call relational theology.  At its simplest this means taking time to get to know the person you are engaging with, their background and context, what has shaped them, what they really care about and the like – and then start your theological conversation – and this is often best done over a meal or the like.

In the Anglican Communion at this critical time of development of the Anglican way of being Church we need relational theology more than ever.  Now the Covenant is struggling to command wide assent it seems to me that the indaba process of careful listening and sharing offers a more fruitful way forward.  It will take a lot longer – building relationships takes time, care and effort.  But in the long run it offers a much sounder basis for developing a vibrant Anglicanism for the plural, global context of the 21st century.

I want to put to you what I am calling the ‘Dean Richardson way forward for Anglicanism’!  I want to take the amusing story the Dean told in his sermon in Chapel a couple of weeks ago and give it a new twist.  If you remember he described a bike ride he had done with his daughter and her two children.  They had gone across the Golden Gate Bridge for a concert one evening – had a very good time – and then realised that to come back they had no bike lights.  After a bit of thought they improvised with what they had.  The Dean found he could get a white light from his mobile phone.  His daughter, being a generation younger, knew how to get a red light from her phone.  So with the Dean at the front holding his mobile phone, and his daughter at the back with the two children in between they made their way back across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Anglican Communion has come a long way in its journey and much has been achieved.  We now find ourselves at a difficult juncture.  The way forward is to find the deep treasures we have within our tradition, to look at what we have, and then to work out how to use it effectively together to go forward.  And I would suggest that key to that becoming more aware of the treasures we have is the Continuing Indaba process.  This will, I believe be the work of at least a generation.  It is not a quick fix, but ultimately this relational approach will build a much more secure foundation for the Anglicanism of the future.  At every level of our Church life we have huge riches and knowledge amongst both clergy and laity.  We really do need to encourage our using this together – and especially in our theological engagement.

Conclusion:  Don’t wait until retirement!

To draw to a conclusion – I hope I have been able to share with you something of my conviction that doctrine really does matter.  It lies at the foundation of our mission and ministry.  It is a central part of our task to engage in and encourage theological conversation.  We must not short-change that role.

One of things that has been impressed upon me recently is the number of books which are churned out by rather able clergy in their retirement.  Now, on one level, that’s obvious and you can see the reason why they produce their ‘credos’ then – what it’s all been about.  Wouldn’t it be good if more of us could find time to engage in that  task as a central part of our day-to-day ministries and not wait until retirement for that to occur.