Preparing for responsible companionship

Theological perspectives have changed. Tonight I am meeting with our “Readers’ Council” to hear their concerns about their “Continuing Ministerial (Professional) Development”.These changes in theological perspective will be very much on my mind.

Reader ministry in the Church of England was “revived” in 1561 and in 1866 to minister in poorer parishes “destitute of an incumbent” and to cope with the population explosion in cities in the early 19th century. They had a different point of view from the clergy. The Bishop of Bangor (in 1894) saw the advantage of “Christian men who can bridge the gap between the different classes of society” – And the Dean of Manchester  recognised that most Readers were “more in unison with the masses with whom they mixed”. Although the Diocesan Readers came from the professions, the Parochial Readers were described as ‘the better educated from among the uneducated’. Nowadays Readers and clergy train together both before and after licensing and ordination. I have been ordained long enough to remember that this was not always so, and to remember that the idea that Readers and clergy could train together seemed preposterous. Now we take it for granted and appreciate the advantages of learning together.

This movement of theology is reflected in many of our traditions. From a Roman Catholic perspective, Ilia Delio traces the development of theology from the preserve of the priest in his academic study to a vast lay, creative and inter-disciplinary movement. This huge paradigm shift is dated back as recently as the 1970’s when only 5% of theologians were non-priests. That figure has grown to over 60%. Theological education is now well beyond the control of the institutional church. Diarmuid O’Murchu lists three features of this shift in his book Adult Faith:

  1. Theology is no longer reserved to the academic domain.
  2. Theology has gone global, even beyond the boundaries acknowledged in multi-faith dialogue.
  3. Theology has become quite multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary. “The contemporary lay theologian seeks to address the here-and-now of evolutionary creation … [casting] a wide net within a contextual landscape … [seeking] dialogue with partners in various fields of learning, transcending wherever possible the dualistic distinction between the sacred and the secular” (O’Murchu, p66f).
  4. Lay theologians do theology in a vastly different way from their clerical counterparts, who “prioritise the church, its traditions, teachings and expectations” (O’Murchu, p119)
  5. Christian theology has become radicalised as theologians “sought to realign Christian faith with one pervasive theme of the Christian Gospels: the New Reign of God”. (O’Murchu). Christian life is increasingly seen as “empowerment” and “called to be a counterculture to all forms of destructive power … facilitated not by some new benign form of hierarchical mediation, but by dynamic creative communities.” (O’Murchu).

For O’Murchu the “Kingdom of God” is “the companionship of empowerment” with theology being the “servant wisdom” of that companionship, so that “theology once more becomes a subversive dangerous memory, unambiguously committed to liberty from all oppressions and to empowerment for that fullness of life to which all creatures are called.” (O’Murchu, p65).

Theology has changed. In many traditions theology was thought to have been the preserve of the clergy. Readers and other lay ministers helped to open those boundaries, but their tendency remains to “prioritise the church, its traditions, teachings and expectations.” Now we increasingly realise that theology goes beyond the church (why has that taken so long?). Our shared “ministerial development” is to realise this, to overcome the tendency to prioritise the church and to engage with the “companionship of empowerment” wherever that is found.

4 thoughts on “Preparing for responsible companionship

  1. Very timely as I was ambushed by a bunch of old ladies after church concerning the marriage legislation vote. The conversation was very much “from the church” rather from anything else and about loss of a controlling voice as society organises itself without really being all that bothered about what we think.

    I also think the reader stuff is interesting as readers are so varied in their theological abilities as well as ministerial. There are still far too many spurned would be vicars who see the freedom of and need for readers as a sort of unofficial OLM scheme. We’re very fortunate here but I feel for others!

    thanks for sharing.

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  2. Christian theology has become radicalised as theologians “sought to realign Christian faith with one pervasive theme of the Christian Gospels: the New Reign of God”. (O’Murchu).

    Great post David. And newnortherner’s words about (thank God) the “loss of a controlling voice as society organises itself …” hit a nail squarely on the head. I’m absolutely with O’Murchu’s vision of a Jesus who seeks “empowerment” for every human person, child, woman or man – so that it will be primarily a person’s humanity that “empowers” her/his “ministry” rather than any sense of a given “priestly” authority to control anyone. I’ve seen control freaks turn purple-faced in response to Diarmuid O’Murchu – and, naughtily, wanted to laugh at them.

    Thanks for flagging up that we do have some progress to celebrate. The tide has turned and all the shouting in the world cannot push it back. We’re learning a new and more inclusivelanguage, and have made a fresh start at least on developing a more Christ-like leadership, one that doesn’t seek to control anyone – leadership that says to brokenness “Today you will be with me in paradise”. But there remains some need for shape and order in leadership, of course. Will time show us how to get the balance right? I think so. I hope so.

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