A deep church curriculum...

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A thesis: if a Deep Church vision is to have a viable and vibrant future it needs curriculum. And curriculum needs institutions; not just one institution, many. Discussions in the blogsphere have to translate into formal, intentional, accredited learning and research if they are to have a pervasive transformative impact on our lives. From gathered essays the Deep Church conversation will need to move to the publication of peer-reviewed critical responses and texts books. The content has to solidify and find modes of delivery that form the minds and hearts of a new generation of thought-leaders and agents of societal change.

 This is a simple, more or less self-evident proposition once we understand the history of western culture and the church, and the role of tertiary education in their development. It is a proposition that applies equally to other significant and Spirit-inspired movements or proposals for ecclesiological change. If, for example, the church is to do serious engagement with the political sphere or the arts or the marketplace there needs to be institutionally embedded curriculum that forms the minds and lives of those who would lead that engagement. And, in turn, there needs to be a disciplined intellectual tradition that is informed and nurtured by the experience of its practitioners.

 Here is an illustration, no doubt known to many of us, of why church life is unavoidably grounded in institutional training. The Anglican communion worldwide and within the UK is in painful public turmoil. Splits along continental (‘provincial’) fault lines seem imminent. And the lines of division could tear apart the fabric of the Church of England too. Battle lines are being drawn. The struggle is partly focused on the Church’s educational resources. One faction – the conservative evangelicals - have strategically sought theological ownership of one and then a second of the UK church’s training colleges. This makes perfect sense. The Church of England is its training institutions. And in the last half-century there have been broadly two theological perspectives taught in its colleges – one evangelical (and resistant to critical scholarship), the other ‘liberal’ (in its embrace of critical scholarship and theological progression). Colleges have been aligned with one or the other. So there is some truth in the observation of Dr Michael Nazir Ali (the Bishop of Rochester) that there are now “virtually two religions” in the Church of England. Of course matters are more complex: an argument could be made for there being three or four very different, distinct understandings of the “one true faith”. But the point remains. Those differences reflect the theological education offered in distinct communities of learning. Sixty year-old clergy I know still voice the theology that they learnt in their twenties (Bultmann, Tillich and co). These patterns are mirrored in the global character of Anglicanism.

 Of course ideas have legs. The battles of ideas are always fought in the messy world of church politics, mission and wider societal forces. But ideas find their legs in the education system. It is not for nothing that when New Labour surrendered control of the Bank of England and its manipulation of monetary policy for social ends that it devoted renewed attention to the education system where it has seen opportunity to right the wrongs of done to the poorest by opening up access to full participation in society and wealth creation. And in tertiary education the government, like so many in western democracies for the last hundred or so years, sees a context which can incubate a particular vision of a multicultural, politically tolerant, religiously “neutral” society. Ideas have legs. And if ideas are ever going to run legs and heads have to be trained to work together. It is schools, colleges and universities that provide this training. And the gate-keepers to new ideas are those with doctorates and scholarly publications to their names.  So, if Deep Church (DC), and the emerging church vision with which we are associated, is to have any legs, it needs a context of training. If this basic thesis is accepted there are paradoxes to be resolved and hang-ups to be overcome. For one thing, in the Deep Church conversation I frequently hear the voice that says DC means a return to the patterns and content of catechesis adopted in the first centuries of the early church. But in the world now dominated by the industry, resources and lengthy periods of learning offered by our universities church-based catechesis has no hope. Now it is, of course, true that the Alpha course demonstrates that programmatic instruction in the faith in a church context is possible without formal accreditation and study. But the Alpha course only goes so far and it is has not yet demonstrated that its informality is capable of defining a thoroughgoing discipleship and ecclesiology. The church’s historic, pre-industrial, mode of delivering catechesis may enshrine eternal principals, but it needs up-dating.

 But of course this is no big deal. Arguably, what Deep Church wants is what, until twenty years ago our university Theology and Divinity departments offered – albeit to a socio-economic elite of whom the majority would “go into the (established) church” (posh speak for “get ordained”). When he coined the expression “Deep Church” C.S. Lewis had conversation partners who already knew what he meant. Perhaps this is one reason why his call for a common front among evangelicals and Catholics rooted in the deep tradition of the church was not heard as a battle cry: that tradition was not only self-evident to many, it was available in the “catechesis” offered in degree level theology. And no self-respective “university” was without its theology department. But now the call to rediscover Deep Church is a battle cry because the classic theological curriculum offered by our “universities” is no more. (In the original, medieval sense of the word, this also means our universities are “no more”, but that’s another story). Theology degrees have now moved away from classic, confessional Christian theology into religious studies, philosophy, critical theory and a narrowly (non-theological) historical study of the Christian texts. It is not that these are illegitimate subjects of study. It is that it is now hard to find a degree course that teaches essential Deep Church foundations (the bible – in their original languages and with sympathy for their theological character), patrology (early doctrine, spirituality and liturgical theology), church history (with faculty competency in all periods and without a partisan attachment to just one tradition) and doctrine (that is not just modern and “systematic”). As Douglas Knight will tell us there are places in the US where this curriculum is available, but in the UK the consumer is bereft of choice.

 There are painful and potentially tragic ironies here for those of us who have sympathy for the emerging church agenda. Whilst a Deep Church curriculum is now hard to find in the universities, the emerging church conversation has been invigorated by the energy, life and creativity that has come from some significant advances in theology and biblical studies in the last 30 years. In part, emerging church writers are popularising and applying the work of hard-nosed theologians (the likes of N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauwerwas and Walter Brueggemann). And these theologians are the product of, and would all advocate, a classic Deep Church theological curriculum. With the demise of theology in the universities is the stream of life-giving theological water about to run dry? In the UK we might ask, which institution will raise up the next N.T. Wright. Where will the next Lewis come from? And the question is the more acute because, for many in the emerging church scene there is a fundamental antipathy to institution. There is a hope that it is possible to be church in community relationships free from hierarchy, control and regulation. Whether or not that is possible – a question for another time – it raises the question whether there will ever be the kind of investment of time, energy and resources in an institution which could take forward a Deep Church vision in a way that would serve the concerns of those in a broader emerging church context.

 On this very question of the institution Deep Church of course offers some good news. There is little in the Christian tradition to support outright opposition to institution. Current ‘Christian’ forms of such opposition surely reflect the relatively recent concerns of one strand of (non-Christian) modernity and its rugged individualism. But there is plenty in the Christian tradition and in Scripture – in Deep Church – that can help us recover a healthy understanding of how communities and institutions should function. Indeed, one result of recent work on Pauline theology has been to show how far the centre of Paul’s theology is concerned to offer a new vision of Israel’s polity that is organised around baptism and eucharist, but is free in the replication of the life of Jesus and the power of his Spirit. But for a full and proper understanding of that you probably need to take a module on Pauline theology taught by someone with training (a doctorate) in the subject and the institutional resources (a library, for example) to make study possible.

Crispin Fletcher-Louis is Principal of Westminster Theological Centre.