This time last week I was in Edinburgh, at a conference put on by the SST. The theme of the conference was Theology and the Church, and it was excellently run, with some extremely high quality papers given.
The question of the place of theology in the church is one that has been asked over and over again, and one that particularly interests me since making the (not so easy) transition from studying for a degree at Oxford, to being a full time baptist minister "oop north".
It struck me, when I first arrived here, as sort of odd that there were so many people in ministry who seemed to think my academic pursuits would get in the way of my ministry. There isn't a lot of room for theology in church ministry, I was told. Over the past few years I have heard that sentiment repeated over and over again.
I trained for ministry at Regent's Park, Oxford, which in my opinion is, of course, the only place to train (I kid). But one of the massive privileges of training at Regent's is the exposure to a real Oxford education. I did my degree alongside other Oxford students, went to lectures with other Oxford theologians, took tutorials with Oxford tutors. Perhaps my zeal for Old Testament is even, in part, due to the fact I was tutored for Old Testament at Christ Church college. I adored my time there, and though I arrived feeling as though I'd be out of my depth for three years, I slowly learned to swim, and by the time I left I had grown to love academia and the pursuit of theology.
And yet for me, I felt that there were two clearly different sides to my life at Regent's: the degree, and the ministerial training, and it was during the latter that I discovered the church's distaste for theology. I was told, on many occasions that my 'choice' to be a college based student studying for a degree, rather than a church based student getting practical experience was a barrier to really being formed as a minister, as "theology is all well and good, but what has it got to do with running a church".
This is an interesting question, and one that I have been reflecting on a lot since becoming a minister, and attempting to run a church. In the past few weeks I've been told several times to stop blogging. My theology, it seems, is getting in the way of my job. What an interesting place to be in. I wonder if the state of the church, both in general, and specifically here in the valley, has been affected by the divorce that has occurred between church and theology. If ministers aren't 'doing theology' I wonder what it is they are doing? More importantly, I wonder why they're doing it.
While I was at college a fellow student expressed concern for me, that understanding salvation was all very well and good, but how was I going to get through leading my first funeral if I was only equipped with words from books. Since being here on this estate I've been asked outright how I feel my interest in theology is going to reach these people, who I've been told have no concept of or interest in theology.
Well I guess that depends on what your definition of theology, doesn't it? Because when I led my first funeral, understanding my own position on salvation was extremely helpful. When speaking to a church member who was dealing the suicide of a family member, I'd say theology was pretty helpful. When engaging with people who live on the estate (which I live on) who 'know nothing of theology', I've found that not patronising them when it comes to matters of God, Religion, and Prayer has made our conversations as engaging for me as I hope it has for them. In setting up new ventures, such as the tea room I have opened, I've discovered that thinking through what it means to be church by reading the thoughts of people such as John Colwell (Living the Christian Story) and working out what it means to be hospitable through writers such as Letty Russell (Just Hospitality: God’s welcome in a world of difference) are an imperative part of the process. Unless I know why I have this feeling in my gut that it is important for me to do this that and the other, unless I understand why I believe what I believe, whatever it I embark on is going to be messy, and a little pointless.
Perhaps my ministerial formation wasn't as rounded as my colleagues who were placed in churches, but I get the feeling that it was much more useful than they give credit for. My 'theology' is what equips me to make decisions, it's what equips me to relate to people, it's what equips me to do everything I do here, and reflect on it before and after.
The conference in Edinburgh was a great start to a conversation that needs to continue between theology and the church. I can't shake the feeling that there is a gap between the two that needs to be closed. Newsflash. Ministers are in the business of the theology. Stop running away from it guys, and we might actually accomplish something that doesn't look to the outside world hypocritical, rushed, or simply pointless.