Saturday, 5 December 2015

What’s Essential for Healthy Life in the Church? A Quotation from Frances Young

A friend has posted a quotation – a quotation still applicable despite its age – from Frances Young that is pretty much my attitude towards ecclesia and academia in a nutshell:

There is a mood abroad in society which elevates activity at the expense of thought and disciplined study, which devalues pure research in favour of applied, which turns the word ‘academic’ into a word of criticism, a synonym for ‘irrelevant’, ‘impractical’ or ‘niggling’. People are prepared to accept slipshod thinking and superficial slogans, as long as some practical contribution is the outcome. And this mood has invaded the church. The emphasis is on effective service and practical action, on pastoral work and being available to people willy-nilly, on political campaigning and social engagement. Of course such things are important, but I cannot help feeling that if everyone stopped rushing around in little circles and began to think about the centre of it all, then the enriched life of the church would in itself ensure that it has greater impact. People seem to assume that it is boring, ineffective, irrelevant to invest time and effort in disciplined study of the Bible and the Christian past, that preaching must be ‘with it’ or it is dead, that theological thinking is destructive – a burden for the church rather than an asset – and all we need is simple faith. How can they be so short-sighted? For me the theological quest has been vital, study of the Bible and the tradition crucial, the search for meaning central; and my own conviction is that a rediscovery of what it means to study the Bible and think theologically is essential for healthy life in the church.

Frances M. Young, Can These Dry Bones Live? (London: SCM Press, 1982; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), pp. 2–3


  1. This is true. I think the problems arise when we come to think that our own gifts or interests or perspectives are the only ones worth considering and that anything else is 'less than'.
    My husband has spoken of his intense frustration growing up as a very intellectually-minded person in a non-intellectual, wishy-washy church. I am not drawn to the deep theological arguments in the same way. My searching for God has been more of a spiritual searching for truth.
    It strikes me that there are three ways of responding to God, just as there are the three parts of the Trinity: there's the intellectual side in the form of theology. the spiritual side in the form of understanding God and oneself from a spiritual perspective (in the manner of St. John of the Cross, etc.) and there's the social side, the practical application of 'love one another'.
    I am reminded of the Church of England's words "for though we are many we are one body". The Trinity is not the Trinity without each of the three. All three are needed for GOD to be manifest.
    There's a sermon in here, somewhere, I reckon, but my brain is a bit foggy. I hope I've made some sense. You've made a very important point.

    1. Yes, I think you're right regarding the three responses - though others might find others as well. And I think the tendency is for a particular local church to manifest but one response as its 'public face'. So, for example, my church is (rightly) pretty heavy on the social response - we have a food bank, a weekly meal for the socially excluded, and so on. Spirituality comes next, I'd say, but an acceptance of the worth of theology seems to depend on how well it can be practically applied. Other churches, though, I dare say are the complete opposite!

    2. Interesting stuff... as someone who tends towards the introverted, academic, thought-rather-than-action end of the spectrum, I can identify with the author's sentiments. On the other hand though, I can see that if the church were overly research-focused, that probably wouldn't be very helpful either. And there are times when I feel that my own (admittedly rather shallow) intellectual approach to faith does miss out some crucial elements...

      So, great (in theory) that we're a diverse body of introverts and extroverts, thinkers and activists, academics and people-lovers. Just a shame that much of the time we (including me) only value those who are more like us, and that church leadership often doesn't have much space for giftings and callings that don't fit their desired profile.

    3. As far as I'm aware, social psychologists hold that it's only natural that we value those who are more like us. But I assume the gospel moves us beyond such naturalistic relations, which is why the Church has to be a diverse body with room for different gifts, skills, callings, etc.