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Posts Tagged "Andrew Bennison":

Women Bishops, Sexuality, and When Theology Ignores People: by Andrew Bennison

 

Announcement and presentation of the new Diocesan Bishop to the Church of England, the Venerable Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester at Harnhill Farm, nr Cirencester.  News; Citizen: 26.03.15. Photos by Anna Lythgoe

Announcement and presentation of the new Diocesan Bishop to the Church of England, the Venerable Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester at Harnhill Farm, nr Cirencester.
News; Citizen: 26.03.15.
Photos by Anna Lythgoe

Today the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England, Rachel Treweek, will be consecrated in a service in Canterbury Cathedral. As the most senior female bishop, and the first to sit in the House of Lords, Treweek’s appointment is a landmark moment – a shattering of the ‘stained-glass ceiling’ that has been welcomed with joy by so many women and men in the Church.

 

Listening to the news on BBC Radio 4 this morning, I found myself reflecting on why female bishops matter so much to me, as a Christian. A few months ago, just before her appointment was announced, I attended an event organised by the Diocese of London at which Rachel Treweek – then Archdeacon of Hackney – was a guest speaker. The theme for the evening was ‘hot topics’, and Rachel reflected generously and diplomatically on how we might approach issues of disagreement within the Church. One comment, above all, stood out for me: questioned on how she would engage with those who oppose women’s ordination, Rachel replied that she would push them, as an ordained woman, to follow through fully the logic of their arguments to their (arguably absurd) conclusions: ‘What you’re really saying is that I’ve not been called to be a priest. I’ve misheard God’. The weakness of an opponent’s argument is thus exposed not by force of counter-argument, or by superior theological understanding, but by forcing it to confront its lived-out, practical implications for ordinary people – a process which soon makes obvious its deficiencies. In other words, the argument is brought up short by its failure to account for lived reality.

 

Rachel Treweek’s comment reminded me, then, of a point which is too often neglected in our theological disagreements: however carefully and beautifully constructed our theology may be, unless it has purchase on lived reality it will ultimately be deficient. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current fractious debates in the Church over sexuality: even the most beautifully constructed and philosophically coherent conservative theologies – Pope John Paul II’s elegant ‘Theology of the Body’ is a case in point – ultimately fall short, as they fail to account for the complex lived experiences of human beings. A ‘traditional’ view on human sexuality is impossible to maintain when confronted with the powerful witness of gay Christians, whose lives demonstrate so clearly the fruits of a deep commitment to Jesus Christ. Doing theology in isolation from lived experience is thus ultimately a form of idolatry, in which the ‘neatness’ and ‘beauty’ of one’s philosophical or ethical schema is prized over love and attentiveness to human beings.

 

To make this claim is not of course to argue that theology should simply be the slave of human ‘experience’. Lived experience cannot be the sole basis of theological enquiry; it is always brought into dialogue with the rich witness of Scripture and Christian tradition. But it must have a place. The Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley has been particularly helpful in drawing attention to this fact: her recent volume of systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self, boldly proposes a théologie totale – a methodology in which systematic statements about God emerge from a rich dialogue between Scripture, tradition, culture and human experience (understood through sociological enquiry as well as through prayer). Reading Coakley’s volume, I was struck by the realisation that this is nothing new: Christian theology has always been in dialogue with people’s lives. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged for instance not primarily from intellectual enquiry, but also through the lived experience of prayer and worship. Indeed, we frequently seem to forget that the truth of the New Testament itself is conveyed not principally through written rules and propositional statements, but though conversations and encounters: most obviously, the encounters of Jesus with specific individuals recorded in the gospels, and the encounters of St Paul with emerging Christian communities, made accessible through his letters. Theological thinking ignores lived experience at its peril!

 

So, as the most senior female bishop is consecrated in the Church of England, I am deeply thankful: thankful firstly for the extraordinary gift of our female priests and bishops. But I am also deeply thankful for the reminder that God’s reality is not abstract and distant, but incarnated in the witness of Rachel Treweek and countless other men and women, whose lives testify to the joyful, mysterious, captivating love of God in Jesus Christ.


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Andrew has been generous enough to let us re-blog this post in its entirety from his Musings on Mystery. He describes himself as follows: “History teacher, Christian, identical twin, London-dweller and countryside-lover (among other things). This blog is my attempt to share my experience of the mystery of God, and to create a space for generous conversations.”

It seems particularly fitting, and welcome, to have this blog by a man on the day our first woman diocesan bishop is consecrated. Also being consecrated in Canterbury cathedral today is The Reverend Dame Sarah Mullally – to be consecrated as Bishop of Crediton.

 

 

The Decline Of The Church And The Strangeness Of God: by Andrew Bennison

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I find that few things are more humbling, as a teacher, than being forced to go ‘back to basics’: you’re trying to explain an idea or concept and – despite your best efforts – the looks of confusion and incomprehension remain. You realise at this moment that it is pointless to continue re-wording, revising or clarifying your explanation – the weaknesses in understanding are much more foundational, and you need to return to the fundamental premise or first principle of your topic, without which nothing further makes sense. The lesson plan is ditched and you need to think on your feet. In my experience the ensuing process is often unexpectedly fruitful for the teacher: returning to the starting point of your knowledge can prompt you to see the whole topic in a new light. This might involve re-discovering what originally fascinated or perplexed you, and being startled that what has over time become dull and prosaic now strikes you afresh as radically strange, complex and exciting. In short, the experience can lead to something of an epiphany.

 

Of course, this experience is not confined to classroom teaching. Last Sunday (Pentecost) I was taken by surprise when a curious member of my family, who is not a church-goer, asked me a simple question: ‘What is the Holy Spirit?’. My reply, which sought to sketch out a Trinitarian theology in layman’s terms, produced only confusion and incomprehension. I soon realised that this was the wrong question to be answering; for a meaningful conversation to develop I would need to go ‘back to basics’, and start with the question ‘What is a Christian?’ And so I did. I set aside some time to write an answer to this question for an imagined interlocutor who knows none of the stories or vocabulary of the Christian faith – indeed, for whom the word ‘faith’ itself produces little recognition. The experience was extraordinary. In my writing I discovered afresh the outlandish ‘strangeness’ of Christian faith when explained systematically. It felt simultaneously familiar and radically unfamiliar. Indeed, it sounded so odd that I felt embarrassed at the prospect of sharing it with friends and family. And yet I still believed it with my whole heart.

 

For me, the true epiphany was the thought which followed on from this: could it be that the crucial task of the Church in our time is to rediscover the ‘strangeness’ of Christianity? The Church of England is currently facing up to a profound existential crisis, prompted by the sustained – and possibly terminal – decline of church-going in recent decades. The ‘Reform and Renewal’ programme currently proposed to meet this crisis is couched in the calm, dispassionate language of institutional decision-making, but I cannot help but suspect that a dominant motivation is fear. Indeed, as someone contemplating a lifetime of ministry in the Church, I am myself conscious of the fear which the prospect of decline instinctively provokes: am I setting myself up, I wonder, for an unstable career in a dying, demoralised institution, forever on the back foot as churches and congregation disappear around me and the Church progressively loses its influence in the public sphere?

 

Confronted afresh by the ‘strangeness’ of Christianity, however, I begin to see the prospect of ‘decline’ in a new light. As I consider the ongoing wrestling with mystery which characterises my life of Christian faith, I am sceptical that a majority of those in historic Christendom have ever orientated their lives in faithful response to the call of Jesus Christ. The Christian life is hard – it is, after all, the way of the cross – and the testimony of history would seem to indicate that ‘Christian’ has been for many Western people down the ages (perhaps even for many churchgoers) more a marker of identity than a description of their lived inner reality. Could it be therefore that the collapse of Christendom provides the opportunity for the revival of the strange, distinctive witness of the Church? Could it be that, shorn of its cultural dominance, architectural presence and political influence, the Church of England is freed to refocus on what truly matters most: hospitality, fellowship, prayer and worship? I was struck by the Revd Sam Wells’ sermon observation at St Martin-in-the-Fields on the Fourth Sunday of Easter that ‘the critical mass of the sorted and normal no longer assumes church is part of what it means to be sorted and normal’. When our Christian identity loses its comforting sense of security for us, I wonder whether we will find a renewed security in fellowship with God and one another, embracing our new-found freedom to live as salt and light in the world?

 

Of course, I do not want the Church to decline numerically. I desire to see more and more people finding the peace and healing that comes through knowing God in Jesus Christ. But if, as seems likely, the Church does continue to decline, our hope in Christ – the one who reminds us always not to be afraid – can be undiminished. We will still gather to break bread with glad and generous hearts, rejoicing afresh in the strangeness of God, whose loving reality is both mysteriously immanent and radically unknown. And perhaps we will then pray with renewed confidence: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love’.


s200_andrew.bennison Andrew Bennison was at Trinity College Oxford and now teaches history. He blogs at Musings on Mystery and describes himself thus: “History teacher, Christian, identical twin, London-dweller and countryside-lover (among other things). This blog is my attempt to share my experience of the mystery of God, and to create a space for generous conversations.”

 

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