Saturday, 29 April 2017

Theology and the Local Church

According to Facebook’s ‘On this Day’ feature, I wrote the following note on 29 April 2009. I find it amazing that I’m still thinking these things through even today.

What is the role of the theologian in the local church? I think it’s a question worth asking.

There appears to be a recognition now in many ecclesial circles that it’s important for Christians to think about their faith, and I do believe that this is good theological practice. But again, I ask: What is the role of the theologian in the local church, the role of the person who has formally studied theology at university or college, who has perhaps gone beyond an undergraduate degree, or who has not sat on his or her studies and continues to read the latest releases by, say, Walter Brueggeman or John Webster? Is the theologian meant to be a gadfly, buzzing around the latest trends that infiltrate the popular mindset (e.g. is the theologian meant to slag off The Shack when it’s an object of praise)? Is the theologian meant to lead worship, Bible studies, or preach? Or what? And how, if someone is a theologian in a formal sense (whatever that in itself might mean), does someone handle the criticism that is implied when no-one really takes you seriously, seeing you merely as a pedant?

(Partly, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, gentle reader, I’m asking the wider question of myself.)


  1. My one previous attempt to post a long comment on Terry's blog disappeared without trace, but perhaps I will have better luck this time:

    Every few years a fashionable new idea washes over the leadership of the Church of England and the ripples find their way into all but the most staid of parishes. Theology does provide some perspective and helps us to avoid getting carried away by every relativistic impulse, rootless innovation, and fashionable cultural borrowing. I say 'theology' rather than theologians, and I include, broadly, church history, biblical studies, and so on within the definition of the term. To be fair, parish clergy are often pretty good at keeping their footing and going on forming their congregations in the traditional patterns of worship, life and spirituality, but (lay) theologians can help.

    More generally, being a theologian in a parish is just an ordinary vocation, not a special one. I am not a great fan of the idea that one is 'called' to preach, lead Bible studies, or whatever in some special, theologically or spiritually significant way that is different from the call to be a PCC member, sacristan, or whatever. There is of course no place for ambition in any role. The role of the theologian is, like the role of every parishioner, to work as part of a team alongside but also in support of and as responsible to the parish priest, doing whatever is needed, is requested, and is in line with one's natural talents and acquired skills.

    If one is teaching and preaching one is responsible in a special way to the parish priest who is charged with cure of souls and one must learn to obey as well as to question. But, that point apart, being a theologian is not a special role in which one creates a job, let alone an empire, for oneself set apart from the range of tasks which many people perform. In fact, it is usually the case that the same person has several different skills and one benefits as a theologian (gains acceptance, if you want to put it pragmatically) from being challenged to take on and accept other roles that one might not have considered alongside the theological aspect.

    Of course this is a personal matter, and I am only speaking from experience. Having spent more than a decade preaching and trying to offer some theology to a parish, I have also served as church warden and treasurer, climbed on the roof, pounded the streets delivering leaflets, and any number of other things. At the moment I am taking a break from all but unobtrusive tasks because one cannot and should not be expected to be visible and therefore open to criticism, much of it withering, for ever. (I have put that bit in so that you don’t think I am painting an idealistic picture.)

    If you always put forward a positive message, treat everyone as synergoi not as students, and don’t make a habit of critiquing things other people say, I don’t think anyone will see you simply as a pedant.

    1. I've read through your comment a few times since you posted it last night and all I can say is: Thank you! There's a lot in here I feel I need to reflect on. When I wrote the original note back in 2009, I was in a slightly different place to where I am now; if I were to write this today, I'd write it differently. But the issues remain for me, and your comment has given me much to think about.