Hull Creative Learning Centre Theology Series

Introductory Issues 2:

Theology Manifested


This is the second introductory session of a theology course that has, to some extent, been run already in an Anglican parish church In Depth Group years back, when I presented papers to generate discussion by introducing a range of theological types and methods. The people who discussed were self-selecting church attenders who valued regular critical discussion.

Now it is being offered in a different place, and the papers are updated. What was clearly an Anglican based presentation for Anglicans nevertheless included broad ecumenical and international content, and frankly the content remains much the same because we look at what theologians have produced. So another answer to the question, "What is theology" is simply defined by what people have done.


In narrow definition, theology is God-talk, although the issue then is what kind of God, if God, is presented as the God-talk. What is it that packs around the God, what are the limitations of the God, and how is the God known?

In terms of its content, in what packs around the God and how it is known, Christian theology draws from and contributes to several key documents and resources.

The Bible is one source of theological reflection among others. It was of course constructed by various belief communities and self-identifying groups, arranged for belief and group-identification, and used to this very day for belief and group-identification. It is a source of ethical reflection too, both positively and negatively - one sacred route towards ethical answers.

Then there are Church traditions, or a number of homes for theology. Reformed tradition promotes the faith and gift of the Gospel in Scripture. Lutherans add a further emphasis on dogma as debated. Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy would both stress continuity and tradition, in which Scripture is exemplary. Anglican theologies emphasise culture, reasoning, the examination of texts for underlying meanings and the dependence of some dogmas on culture and reasoning. Unitarians look for the wisdom of various inspiring texts produced by the religions and outside the religions. Quaker theology emphasises the Spirit and how that manifests within the individual.


Theologies vary in sources and tasks. Clearly one role is to explain dogmas in documents of agreement as truth representations (such as Church Councils, but also 'Platonic truth' claims). It should draw meaning from a story or dramatic encounter (often Biblical theologies). It should explain activity - or praxis (such as liberation, feminism). It should aid further thinking via philosophical approaches and systematic constructions (relating to identity of God, humankind and creation). It gives the religious angle when relating to social science and historical change (where theology meets sociology of religion) plus ethical comments on scientific activities, which is directly ethical. An example would be Andrew Linzey's 'theos rights' granted to animals. Clearly theology must relate to if not derive from anthropology and cultures (where theology discusses collective meaning and what binds people together). Theology gets involved with the process of writing (particularly the postmodern and nihilist) rather like the historian and anthropologist must give attention to the construction of the essay. Theology of course is internal to the Church (and included here is the drive towards ecumenism). Plus there are combinations of these!

Clearly there is much that theology can still address, but there is a further point whether anyone is asking its sort of questions. In our contemporary secularising situation: do some people still ask experience-based, dogma-free, existential questions, or are we too busy for even thses, as modern, urban, practical people? Here is a division of approach that can be tracked in some of the theological controversies of recent decades - between the existentialist and the secular.

Secularisation with pluralism is also about how we can have identity and vision in the world - that may or may not be Christian. This is theology for self-conscious, mind-body beings of a limited biological life-span. When culture is other than the theology, culture can end up subsuming theology leaving the question whether theology remains distinct only via sources of tradition and dogma.

Theology in the West

So what about theology around the Western world? Well, German lander competed with one another about having universities, and a key part in each of those universities was the Protestant denominational or Roman Catholic theology centre. Some have both. Therefore Germany as a whole developed a strong state-funded confessional and critical theological tradition in many centres. It was first into biblical criticism, and first into applying history and its own methodological limitations on doing theology.

In the United States, the separation of Church and State meant that public institutions avoided confessional and denominational theology and private seminaries produced the confessional material. So there is more of a separation of religious studies with social studies of religion and then having theology in the US.

Theology in Britain

So what of Britain? By comparison with Germany and the United States our institutional land (and it is mainly in England) is a parochial backwater, and yet there has been an interesting side-effect of changes here as a result of existing theology departments becoming religious studies departments (or moving within humanities and similar changes).

Theology has been dominantly, although not exclusively, Anglican - an established religion for public universities. A generalised Christian culture once supported having theology departments in public universities and no doubt dominated by the established Church. However, later last century a movement took root in that a broad secular university must show no confessional basis for its activity. This isn't just about having no test of belief, but about what is available. Thus a division has opened between the seminary and the university. There was also a realisation that whereas theology looked to the sciences and social sciences to inform its content, the sciences and social sciences did not look to theology for any of their explanations.

Outside the seminary, a confession or otherwise regarding theological material should be irrelevant: indeed, all that is required is to deal with the material. But the trend regarding content was broadening out into religious studies, so that most theology departments now include various and different approaches to Christianity, the content of other faiths and humanism, and such departments overlap with other disciplines. And the effect of this has been to broaden theology in Britain in a way that it is not broadened in Germany or not mixed in the United States. Arguably, Germany remains State-supported and also institutional of confessional content, a bit like Britain was, and the Unied States in public institutions remains broad in religious studies, a bit like Britain.

So Britain is mixing them up. I give an example of Linda Woodhead at Lancaster, a place that made the move towards Religious Studies, who combines Sociology of Religion with Theology. Elaine Graham at the Universities of Chester and Manchester has lectured on the post-secular, fitting theology into a public space of a strange kind of social religious renewal. Similar has happened in the University of North Wales at Bangor, in its School of Philosophy and Religion, and previously with a rural Church Sociology and Theology mix when Leslie J. Francis was on the staff. He has since moved to Warwick, and of all of them Robin Gill led the way in Newcastle, Edinburgh and Canterbury with a particularly intensive mix of theology and sociology. And in the University of Hull, a Department of Religion has replaced the Department of Theology, and one offering is BA Religion and Social Change as its single honours course that aligns the study of religious and theological concepts. There are still doctrinal stances in Hull: particularly Roman Catholic. There is the cross current of spirituality and healthcare. There are joint degrees, of course, including Religion and Sociology, Religion and Creative Writing, Education, Philosophy and Religion, and Philosophy and Religion. David Bagchi of the theology Department moved to the Department of History.

As well as this, English theology, almost recognising itself as a junior partner, is more tentative and less sure of its footing. Arguably there is a decoupling between minority Anglicanism and English or British culture, particularly on sexuality, and that adds to theology's uncertainty as having a general ethical insight. Theology therefore claims less, is less systematic, and is more open to question. Even liberal theology is treading with light feet: Professor Keith Ward in Oxford has spoken of making few claims these days and this is someone who was once Holding Fast to God (1982).

We must not neglect Scottish theology here, but it might well be a separate subject. It has its own relationship of Protestant and biblical insight, philosophical too, with input into American social theology and drawing from Germany's biblical criticism. The Baillie twins are particularly relevant. It has had its own mix of liberalism, social reflection and revelation in the biblical text; Edinburgh of course was able to be a home for theologians deprived of rights to attend at Oxford or Cambridge.


A couple of examples of British theology might help. Sarah Coakley I'll mention shortly as offering multi-layered experiential theology. First we have a strong example of British theology as non-triumphalist, careful, restrained, seeing the difficulties and having a sense of balance between history and story, truth and myth, and not escaping into some sort of Platonist pure land. It's that of Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

When he became Archbishop of Canterbury some of what he rested as 'proposals' into the debate firmed up as beliefs he held, such as the virgin birth. When Bishop John Spong of the United States accused Rowan Williams of 'neo-Mediaevalism' (Anthony, Andrew (10 February 2008). "Profile: Rowan Williams". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 November 2012), for teaching what he didn't believe, Williams claimed he does believe in the bodily resurrection and doesn't know how to convince Spong that he does. But Williams is aware of the problem of doing history. He knows that the birth narratives are stories and unlikely as history, and that history cannot penetrate resurrections. Ernst Troeltsch showed the limitations of history long ago.

Williams is not a liberal in that, aware of the problems, he focuses on narrative and story and does so in such detail that it is as if he is talking about history. The story elements are givens; orthodoxy is a given. It is the material you work with, whatever its status. Orthodoxy is a tool rather than an end in itself and produces "dialogues" to work with: as in Christ, crucified and risen and the faith community that re-enacts and participates in the drama. So the orthodoxy is detailed and cannot be short-cut, indeed it may involve several detaours. The purpose of this theology then is to use language and get that language to its fullest meaning, and expand one's collective vision. This positive is contrasted with the negatives along the way, what is unearthed as uncomfortable. Inevitably there is the cultural, social and political side, so that theology is meshed up in the everyday; on the other hand, theology ought to be teased out in its Christian essence in order to tackle the world. Getting a clear Christianity from the culture isn't easy. There are lots of negatives involved, much of what Christianity isn't as well as what is, so there is both dialectical method (opposites clashed to tease out what's right) and the apophatic method (what God is not - and is not many things). But in establishing a 'gospel' and establishing theology in culture, one ends up in the process of communicating.

One aspect is that Williams doesn't communicate very well, as this material is so dense that it gets lost into wherever it is: what's the bigger picture, one might ask. Well, one picture is a sort of Radical Orthodoxy without the purity - he likes the postmodern narrative of RO but not its Platonic purity: Williams is more Aristotelian on the business of getting one's hands dirty. Williams is also a multiculturalist; and this is that each individual is a member of a collective group that communicates its meanings. Thus his sympathy for the operation of Sharia Law in the UK: and his failure to see that some collective systems are oppressive and some individuals like individualism. He sees that, but he is not much of an individualist: thus as Archbishop he promoted the Anglican Communion as a sort of Anglican Covenant Church, and raised the importance of bishops.

Yes, he is a sort of Catholic, possibly more Orthodox than Roman, but an Anglican version of the Orthodox, and a bit more Roman as a Church. The Anglican Covenant was his spectacular failure: his own Church was more individualist; its liberal element was just strong enough to resist the direction he wanted. The institutionalism of Williams undermines his ethical concern, that became well developed before he took on the Church of England role. The Church in Wales bishop office was less demanding, and had less institutional potential. It also undermined his interest in wider culture: as again he was supposed to act institutionally.

His theological background would be Martin Luther, Richard Hooker, St. John of the Cross, Sergii Bulgakov, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Raimundo Pannikar; his focus is turning theology back on to prayer and ritual, and in such is interested in human nature, Christology, Word and Spirit, various aspects of the Trinity, the resurrection, sacraments, the church, ethics and politics, patristics and the history of spirituality. In such a broad field what you don't get from Williams is a theory of everything. His theology as 'British' is that it is resistant to closing it all off into a system, that the theology continues to interrogate, and that it remains subtle and careful with other material. Look how he tackles economics, for example, in trying to learn and handle the material before focusing on a social gospel of a more long-term basis for economics. Look how he respects the texts of other religions, so that he will do exegesis on the Qur'an or Bhagavad Gita as if these are to be taken as givens. He also tackles matters biographically, and no ones life is a system. He also tackles the tragic as tragic, indeed Christianity is a story of a tragedy in and of itself, whatever else it becomes.

My difficulty with Williams is that his theology is a bit like being in a dense jungle with lots of mirrors nailed to the trees. You are never sure what you are dealing with, and you rather think there is less present than is being described. He is trying to have his postmodernism, modernism and traditionalism and eat it all, through some many courses of meals, and you think that all the attention to detail needs a logical knife taking to it: the slash and burn of a Bishop Spong, for example. I don't get involved in deep meanings of say the infant narratives if I think Jesus was born like anyone else in obscurity in or around Caparneum, for instance. Williams will speak of trying to "avoid unclarity" whereas clarity is simple enough. Fantasy cannot take the intellectual load he applies.

Sarah Coakley perhaps makes herself easier to understand. I recall reading her first in what was then called Modern Churchman, when she justified the doctrine of the Trinity from the experience of prayer, from below so to speak. Back in 1986 she presented it as Can God be Experienced as Trinity, thus posing it as a question, but coming to the correct answer of course. She writes:

In the absence of an absolute appeal to authority and tradition (such as that assumed in most patristic writing on the Trinity, and still of course wielded in Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles), the drift to binitarianism or unitarianism may appear inevitable or even realising. ('Can God be Experienced as Trinity?' Modern Churchman, 1986, New Series, Vol. XXVIII, no. 2, 11)

The person realising it is the theologian is James Mackey, who writes in the continuing stream of what was the Myth of God Incarnate published in 1976, a book Rowan Williams has regarded as as far as liberalism can go - well, as far as it can go whilst remaining distinctively Christian. She also considers David Brown, who reconstructed the Trinity from the being deconstructed, but unconvincing for her as he tries to read doctrine into biblical texts. She sees that you cannot do this - the texts have to stand for themselves. And earliest Christianity was not trinitarian - nodding towards an economic trinity, perhaps, but not always and not everywhere. But Mackey's faith of Jesus (21) isn't enough to reconstruct the Trinity, whereas Brown draws on religious experience (20), and she moves this to prayer, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in prayer and an experiential Christ beyond historical evidence (21) and beyond one person to the whole redeemed humanity in response to the Father (22). Thus the Trinity is back.

Come forward three decades and the theme is similar. She writes (2013) God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ Cambridge University Press. Now the context is an institutional crisis over sexuality that heightens the Church's social distance and the quest at large for spirituality over religion. The terms ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ are problematic for feminists. There is a right contemplation of God, right speech about God, and right ordering of desire as a set of questions and intended coherence and one again prayer is a co-ordinating means. This coherence was there - yet in different ways - at the making of the Trinity as doctrine, and should be there now. Again she wants to emphasise the Spirit in this development. Her emphasis again is reflective of British theology in being tentative: proposal is both more modest and more complex. It is to set the story of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity within a constellation of considerations – spiritual, ascetical, sexual, social – which the dominant modern textbook tradition has tended either to ignore, or to sideline, in favour of its more purely cerebral account of the intellectual issues issues, along with the imperial political backdrop. But it is just as much to query, and correct, some of the more simplistic and reductive reactions to that text-book tradition, as well. (5-6)

So this vision of God’s trinitarian nature is about the source and goal of human desires, worked by the Spirit, sometimes painfully, into the likeness of the Father's Son. God's love for the world is ecstatic, erotic, basic, and underlying the creation, including the human.

Now this is a kind of systematic theology: one using eroticism, but the criticism of it is contained within: that early Christianity in the first centuries could find little or nothing in Jesus’s teaching about eros as such; it just took it that Plato's eros as leading to perfect beauty as not incompatible with with Jesus's teaching on agape or indeed the interest of Jewish scriptures in examining the erotic as beautiful.

So British theology is careful, considering, goes into the issues and the detail, interrogates, doesn't want to close off issues. It is liberal in a reluctance to jump to doctrinal apologetics but also in the modesty of the project. Williams perhaps tries to do too much: he thinks he can whereas specialists can bring him unstuck - the economy being an example, arguably. There is a role for focus. My view of Sarah Coakley is that she sees too much, and it is all ahistorical speculative metaphysics where the motive is trying to dig Christianity out of its own confused mythology on sexuality. So here is a theologian who, unlike Williams, is more focussed and specialist, but she still leave matters open to debate and doubt. British theology synthesises and leaves open.

My critique of Coakley is that her theology is inevitably sectarian. It shows Anglican angst. Her theology is self-defeating: it is clearly an institutional concern for a sexuality gone wrong: she tries to be orthodox and sexually inclusive. Williams however seems to be so complicated, when a more secular basis for understanding things employs occams razor: make it simple, make it direct. Use direct speech. Science and social science seeks clarity and directness via research and research provides answers and questions that we don't expect as well as do. Theology is, it seems, is capable of imagining its way to upholding what it wants. One day Williams was sexually inclusive, next he could argue the opposite.

Main Points Summary:

Theology has several homes, represented by denominational traditions.

Much theology is American and German, even if we give focus to the English and Anglican



Dr. Adrian Worsfold