Why do we send ordinands to theological college?
On the face of it, that question has little to do with the debates over gender and equality in the church this week, and on the nomination and withdrawal of +Philip North as bishop of Sheffield. But one of the things that I think is happening right now is that we are realising that we can’t be silent about theology.
So: why do priests need theology degrees? One answer is that a theology degree gives us time to broaden and deepen our understanding of God and the traditions of the church, which hopefully help us understand ourselves better too. A degree is a gift of time and focus. There is nothing that I learned in five years of academic theology that I haven’t used at some point in parish ministry — and that means my degrees were useful.
Knowledge is useful. But knowledge only gets us so far with God. One of the other gifts of a theology degree is that it helps us understand the limits of our knowledge. Any degree worth its salt puts us up against ideas that clash with our expectations of the world. Some ideas fall into place quickly, and illuminate other things we only half-knew. Other ideas provoke and annoy us, so that we have to question what we assume. When we engage with an idea that surprises us, it changes us. Wether we ultimately accept it or reject it, a new idea helps us learn what we think about God.
The process of doing this time and again — letting a new idea come and rearrange our thinking — gives us the greatest gift of all in a theology degree. We come to realise that we can change our minds. And that is invaluable to the church. If I believe that at one point in my Christian journey I believed something to be true, that I now believe to be false — but also believe that I was Christian then and am Christian now and God loves me still — then it must follow that I can allow other people to be wrong too. I can believe that they are both Christian and mistaken, and still beloved of God. We can change our minds.
And imagine what might be possible if the church were truly full of people who believed they could change their minds.
This idea makes some people nervous. Surely we should have conviction. Surely God needs us to be clear. Well yes. At any given moment, we have to be utterly committed to the best vision of God we have seen. We have to proclaim the gospel believing with every fibre of our being that it is good news.
But sometimes, God gets at us, and teaches us something new. Our understanding of good news shifts a bit — and we go on preaching it, glad for what we now understand.
If we believe that God is infinitely more than we are — infinitely greater and more loving and more complex — then there will always be something new for us to learn. We believe that Jesus embodied all the fullness of God; but that doesn’t mean we yet understand the half of it.
And that is where I come back to the current confusion in the church over Philip North, and what the circumstances of his appointment and withdrawal mean for our mutual flourishing. If Philip North believes that I cannot – simply cannot — be a priest, because it is not possible for a woman to be a priest, then his desire for my flourishing should involve a desire to persuade me of that. He shouldn’t leave me to follow a vocation I have misunderstood, and give my whole life to a task that he believes is not from God. That is not how love works, nor how we long for another’s flourishing.
And similarly, if I believe that the the good news of Christian faith is that Jesus sets us from prejudice and inequality — proclaims and creates our equality in the loving gaze of God — then my desire for Philip North’s flourishing must involve hoping he comes to believe that too.
Mutual flourishing does not mean that we politely agree to disagree and separate ourselves from each other while sheltering under the same umbrella organisation. It does not mean appointing bishops tit for tat. It means we commit ourselves to continuing the disagreement, and not letting that disagreement divide us as we share in the body of Christ.
And this is what has become impossible in the church of England.
At theological college, we fought all the time. We fought over scriptural interpretation, ecclesiology, real presence, ontological and functional views of ordination, the importance of tradition, the relationship between theology and modern philosophy, feminist thought, and the body politic. We disagreed all the time. We sometimes lost our tempers, and sometimes fell silent in frustration and rage. And then we went for coffee.
The final gift of theology degree is the gift of friendship — with people who affirm your understanding of God, and with those who challenge it on every point. What we knew — always — was that were in this together. Giving your life to trying to know and serve God is a bit of specialist pursuit in this world. Those of us who are in this game need to be in it together, and need to recognise that in each other even when we can’t reconcile our theologies at all.
When I was in the Scottish Episcopal Church, our bloody minded unity in the midst of diversity was express most clearly in sharing communion. We could fight all day, throw every idea into uncertainty, and then gather at the table to share in the body of Christ. The mystery of how God comes to us in communion in infinitely greater than the mystery of how we can be in one church when we so often disagree. Communion is what we can share while we passionately defend our best understanding of God, while also admitting that there’s still more to learn, and (therefore) I could be wrong.
But what does that mean in England?
The Church of England is not as eucharistically centred as either the Scottish Episcopal Church or The Episcopal Church in the States. I think most non-English Anglicans are shocked when they realise how little England really cares about communion. But it gets more complicated than that, since in 1993, the Church of England decided that people could belong to the same church while not being in communion with each other. That’s what resolutions A, B, and C created: a church in which people who were of the same denomination were not all in communion with each other. The Church of England teaches that it possible to ‘opt out’ of recognising someone’s orders, or the validity of the sacraments in a particular parish, while still belonging to the same church. The church of England has not been in full communion with itself since 1993.
So what holds us together?
Ironically, I suspect our valuing of communion is the thing that Philip North and I share most deeply. And if I ever did have reason to work with him, the work I would most like to do would be to explore how we could help the church re-value the eucharist as divine gift and blessing. But we can’t do that, because the structures of the Church of England mean that he is not in communion with me, even if I am with him, and even if we are both priests (and he a bishop) in the Church of England.
I have no solution to this.
I regret that Philip North has had to be the test case that exposes the confusion of the Five Guiding Principles and their call for our mutual flourishing. I want Philip North to flourish — I really do. And until he persuades me otherwise, that means I want him to change his mind about the ordination of women. And I want him to want to change my mind, and I’m happy to keep arguing it out. But what we can’t do is pretend that we want each other’s theology to flourish. We just can’t. The theologies are incompatible. If I believe God creates our equality and works for our liberation, I can’t want a theology to flourish that says the opposite — or that says, as the Bishop of Maidstone is consecrated to say, that women’s flourishing only comes through subordination. I don’t believe that is the will of God. I don’t want that theology to flourish.
And I as I write this, there is a voice in my head saying ‘can I say this? will I ever be able to work again — to take a new post — if I say this?’ And that is the greatest tragedy of all in the Church of England. We are afraid to talk about theology because it might divide us, and because if we nail our colours to the mast we may become un-appointable. We fail to proclaim love because we get caught in fear.
I believe that the only hope for the church is that we recognise sincere passion for God, wherever we find it. We need to be able to affirm that in each other, even when we can find no way to make sense of our theological differences. For me, the clearest affirmation of our mutual recognition is our willingness to gather at the table. When we take bread, and say ‘the body of Christ,’ we reach the limits of our knowledge. Where knowledge breaks, and love holds, communion begins.