Letter from the Vicar (July 2009/August 2009)
The word ‘theology’ hasn’t had a very good press in recent years. When an argument or point of view is regarded as complicated or overly sophisticated, politicians in particular will characterise it as ‘theological’. Even in the Church, theology doesn’t have the best of names.
Theologians are sometimes regarded as people who delve into the minutiae of the faith, people who make things unnecessarily complex and difficult. At best they are seen as just about necessary to help train new clergy and to explore subjects that most Christians will never get round to considering. At worst, however, they are seen as positively destructive of Christian belief, because they ask difficult questions and undermine the simple faith in which we were brought up. I think that this negative attitude to theology is deeply regrettable and potentially very damaging. I believe that in our age the Church is deeply impoverished by lack of theological depth. In particular I consider that there is far more richness and complexity within classical Christian theology than either modern ‘traditionalists’ or un-theological liberals assert. Those who style themselves ‘traditionalists’ assert that traditional Christian theology supports a conservative approach to Christianity. Those who style themselves ‘liberals’ tend to agree and so discard theology in very large measure.
Both, surely, are wrong. Traditional theology is full of variety and richness and cannot simply lead us in one direction. But to discard it altogether is truly to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We have to hold onto the wealth of tradition that has been handed on to us, always interpreting in the light of modern conditions and experience. I also have to say that in the past few years I have seen too many newly-ordained clergy with inadequate theological knowledge. Our theological colleges and courses have often ‘dumbed down’ the solid theological content of their curriculums and substituted what I sometimes describe as ‘theology lite’ – syllabuses which concentrate on the practicalities of the ministerial life, rather than its underlying principles. I know the newly ordained need to know how to take a service or to visit the bereaved but what are they curates for unless to learn precisely that? I would put much more solid theology back into the theological colleges and courses and leave the practical stuff to us training incumbents.
The result of the decline of theology is plain to see in the Church today. There is a lack of confidence among many clergy, especially those of a more catholic or liberal persuasion. Conservative evangelicals continue to give theology high priority in the training of their ordinands and it is often the case that young non-evangelicals are often in awe of the (very narrow) theological knowledge of their evangelical counterparts. I also think the decline of theology has affected the standard of preaching in the Church today. Finally I believe many of the divisions we face in the Church today are due to an unsubtle interpretation of our traditions. Of course better theology isn’t going to solve all our problems, but it may go some way to helping to resolve some of the difficulties that exist in the Church of the twenty first century.