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franciscan - September 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Theology in the pew

by Mary Welsh

By ‘theology’, in this context, we mean thinking which challenges, and may appear to undermine, the tradition of the Church based on the Bible and the Creeds. ‘The person in the pew’ is an abstraction, a composite animal, which has as many differing views as the individuals which make it up. That is one of the glories of the Anglican scene: people are allowed and even encouraged to think for themselves.

Some show as sturdy a resistance to new thinking as they do to changes in liturgy, ministry or parochial administration. Others are stimulated and even feel liberated by change: they welcome new forms of liturgy, women in the priesthood and even attitudes to the miraculous which are less literalist than they used to be.

It depends very much on who you are, and where you are, on how the thoughts of today’s theologians reach you in the pew. If the preachers are reading new theology and distil any of it into their sermons, some of it may sink into your consciousness. How you react to it may depend largely on your view of the preacher. If you like, admire, respect him or her, you are less likely to be incensed by, say, the idea that the Incarnation is central to the Christian faith but the Virgin Birth does not have to be taken literally. Even then, your own background and cast of mind will affect your reactions.

How else does contemporary theology reach lay people? Much of it does so through press, radio and television, which inevitably dramatise, take out of context, warp and highlight bits of sermons, reports and controversies, as in the recent headlines on Hell and programmes on bones found near Jerusalem. Unless leaders in parishes do their best, by sermons and magazine articles, to acquaint people with new thinking and discoveries in a constructive way, it is the media’s distortions which remain with them, often causing distress.

Unfortunately, it seems incredibly difficult to get people to read for themselves and/or to come together in groups to thrash things out. This again varies from person to person and place to place, but one suspects that loving God with all your mind is not a top priority for most people.

Those of us who are theologically trained or of an academic cast of mind have a duty to explore new approaches to the faith: to read, assimilate and discuss with people; to sift and adapt our thoughts and share what we learn. But for such people there are two pit-falls to beware of. The first is that, however fascinating their thinking may be, it has to be looked at, not only as it appears to them, but in the light of its possible effect on the more conservative, less academic Christian. This places on the ‘theologians’ a great responsibility to be selective in where, when and how to share new ideas and to be skilful in transmuting them into a form which can be grasped by people unversed in their way (stories rather than technical jargon, for instance – taking a hint from that supreme teacher, Jesus of Nazareth).

The other pitfall is to assume that the mind (especially the theological mind) is more important than ‘heart, soul and strength’. Some of the most profound insights into Christian faith and life come from men and women who are not trained academically or theologically, but see and understand in the way of an artist or a poet, or with simple common sense. The ‘ordinary’ person in the pew is often growing and maturing in ways which do not depend on acquaintance with the writings of theologians, either the Fathers or our contemporaries or the generations between.

We do have to remember, however, that our concern should be also with people who do not occupy pews. If they think, as many do, that ‘science’ has disproved religion or that Christians believe a lot of nonsense, it is important that their Christian friends should have grappled enough with such views to be able to convince them that they are mistaken.

Mutual respect and concern between the two types of Christian will go a long way towards understanding. We might benefit, too, from having at least one ‘theologian’, ordained or lay, in every parish – or at least deanery – who can ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ new thinking and share it in as many ways as possible with congregations.

Bultmann, looked upon by many as one of the most disruptive theologians of this century, was well aware that doctrine came second to living for the Christian. He taught, for instance, that believing in the cross of Christ is not so much a matter of deciding the date of the crucifixion or even of contemplating doctrines of the atonement, as of “making Christ’s cross one’s own.”
That is a good perspective for us all.

Revd Mary Welsh is a priest in Bath & Wells Diocese and was Vice-Principal of Gilmore House.


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