Ding ding – round 2: Emergent’s vs The Church – a question of authority.

6 09 2011

In order to make sense of this post you will need to read carefully Pete Philips’ post and Kester Brewin’s post.

In many ways it’s the healthy backlash of Greenbelt conversations that are now made more public through social media than might have been the case in the past. The debate centres round the Emerging Church and its relationship with what is sometimes called the inherited church (the church today as it has been received through the various traditions). This post is not an attempt to define the emerging church movement, but there are certain names that are associated with the movement who can help you gain a better sense of it such as Maggi Dawn, Kester Brewin, Andrew Jones, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Pete Rollins.

Part of the argument is that emergent thinkers do not take seriously their inheritance. In fact, some might say that they consistently and intentionally deconstruct the inherited church and its theology and rewrite its own rules and structures (or lack of them). But this raises some serious questions that both sides need to pay more attention to. For instance:

  • Where does authority lie?

If, let’s say, emergent’s begin with philosophy and theologians begin with the bible then they are likely to end in different places. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a classic example – let’s just imagine there are only four sources for theological enquiry (Scripture, reason, experience and tradition). Depending on which one of these sources you begin with will depend on where you end up. Let’s use the controversial issue of homosexuality and the church – if a person wants to reflect theologically and they choose to begin with scripture they are highly likely to find texts that confirm the incompatibility of the Christian faith with same sex relationships. However, if that person begins with experience and that is of knowing well someone who is struggling to be a person of faith and a homosexual they might well find themselves in a different place to those who begin with scripture. Why? Because they place a greater emphasis on experience than they do on the biblical text. Experience has greater authority than scripture. Neither is right – but they began in different places.

So do the emergent thinkers and the theologians of the inherited church believe the same about authority? And where it lies? I suspect not and we might be in danger of comparing apples with oranges.

Something else that lurks beneath this discussion, and something I’m very uncomfortable with is a Christendom sense of power that assumes that the church needs to subsume everything (even language) so that emergent thinkers will ‘come over’ to the light. The church stands its ground and eventually others will see the error of their ways and become more like us.

More could be said …

  • What is the purpose of theology?

This has been an interesting debate in the field of practical theology. Paul Tillich believed that the context (the world) provided questions to which Theology would provide the answers. In that sense the purpose of theology was to answer the problems of society. Seward Hiltner was influenced by Tillich but took a different approach he believed that the context ought to change the theological assumptions so that both the context and theology could be transformed through enquiry. Today we have Ballard and Pritchard, Emmanuel Lartey, Stephen Pattison etc. Who want to see a much greater dialogue between theology, context and other academic disciplines. What I suspect is happening in the emergent vs church debate is that theology is being used differently and for different reasons by the two sides. Is this apples and oranges again?

More could be said …

  • Why have the emergents emerged?

This is a serious question that people like Phylis Tickle are beginning to open up but I don’t think academia has taken seriously enough. I can only speak for myself here, but my narrative does resonate with other practitioners. The reality is – theologians have let me down! They have failed to provide the resources and conversations necessary for me to make sense of my faith and my context, and, therefore, I have been compelled to begin to pen my own. In fact, I was trained to do so! – I was trained not to be a Methodist Minister but a theological reflector, and then when my reflections lead me to a place the church doesn’t like I am labelled a liberal, an emergent, a heretic (take your pick) – it’s the alpha model of evangelism: ask any question you like but this is the answer! So are the likes of Peter Rollins offering alternative (and negative) theologies because the theologies they have inherited are not fit for purpose? It says a lot (either about me or about the church – you choose) that the most stimulating Christology book I have read in the last couple of years is by Philip Pullman!!! It is interesting that in my Methodist tradition I am being asked to ‘take holy risks’ as a pioneer and practitioner, but our theologians are not given the same instruction. Instead out theology remains safe (although one exception would be our thinking around the Palestinian/Israeli debate). But not only does it remain safe, it fails to match my experience or context. Next year the Methodist and Anglican church will produce a document exploring the ecclesiology (the understanding of church) for Fresh Expressions. I have no idea what this document says but I am worried about it – I’m worried that it will not resonate with my practice and experience. If it doesn’t then I might need to re-assess where I sit in relation to the church. But … more worrying still – what if this document doesn’t resonate with the experience, theology and practice of a whole host of pioneers? Does that make the theology wrong? Or are we in need of correction (like the heretics we are!). Or will we have the courage to pen our own ecclesiology (which takes us back to Kester Brewin’s post). Or, even more worrying … what if it is so bland that we can all sign up to it!

The crisis of the church isn’t simply about outmoded worship, and outmoded structures – it’s about outmoded theology. The thrust of Kester’s post and the end of Pete’s post ask if those who want to identify with the so called emerging church are willing to articulate with a much greater clarity and confidence what they really believe and unless the theologians of academia and the church appreciate and are attentive to the needs of those known as emergent – there will be no dialogue.

More should be said …

Now here’s the disclaimer: This is huge! And I may well have misrepresented certain stances and I may well not agree with what I have written here next week! What I can be sure of is that this post hardly scratches the surface and this issue will not go away!


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6 responses

8 09 2011
@drgeorgemorley

I think your comments about theology are great! And “speaking as a theologian…” [arf arf]… I don’t think that any formal church-produced theology can possibly scratch the itch – probably ever, but especially at the moment with flagging institutions and oppressively ‘successful’ dining club churches. And as for a theology which is articulated by committee…. And don’t even get me started on ecumenical documents!! I think the ONLY way to be doing theology is for YOU and a whole host of other pioneers plus some friends and allies in academe to just get on and do it, keeping talking to each other, and see what happens. In fact, this is just as much ‘the church’ doing theology, but without the institutional [financial] pressures. And it’s the way the best theology has always been done, hand in hand with Christian believing and engagement in the signs of the times. Think Bonhoeffer… Theology has to arise out of prayer and practice, and to foster prayer and practice, and if that makes it a bit wobbly at the edges sometimes… bring it on!

8 09 2011
Ric Stott (@RicStott)

Great post – I think you’ve framed the questions really well. (Its interesting that Lou Davies picks up the theme of authority from our session at GB on her blog http://silkworm.posterous.com/liminality).

I think the exchange between Pete P and Pete R on twitter demonstrates the limitations of the medium for serious and nuanced discussion but does perhaps serve as an illustration of the tension your talking about.

I’m no academic but I am (I hope) a fairly intelligent reflective practioner and it does concern me that whilst there are good people in that closed room preparing the report on theology of fresh expressions there are few if any practitioners in there. As I think about the common spirit amongst the other VFX pioneers from a range of church/theological backgrounds I do wonder if there is an underlying pioneer theology/eccesiology that we share but haven’t yet fully articulated. I find often find this common spirit with other people doing similar work – not necessarily the fresh expressions that work with the edges of the church but the pioneers who are starting from totally different contexts, immersed in the cultrue and community to seek indigenous expressions of Christ communties.

It would be a shame (and a real missed opportunity) if, as you say, the report comes out and is either so bland anyone could sign up to it or so restrictive (keeping the power in the hands of the institution) that it limits possibilities. If the latter happens it will force some of us out I think.

I agree – there is much much more to explore here.

11 09 2011
Rob Wylie

Great post and great comments, i’m no theologian or academic, i like rambling as you are aware… its good to know you guys are going through this process of trying to work out what it might look like… what i see and experience is that it wont be long before it hits the fan as inherited church clashes as it already is in my own locality with fresh expressions and pioneer ventures. The question i have is will the ‘church’ be bold enough?

16 09 2011
Anonymous

[...] Kerster Brewin then did a reply, to @PMPhillips and everyone. Simon Sutcliffe (@VFXHanley) did a post on it all; after some Twitter exchanges, he did a follow-up blog post. So that all gives an idea of some of [...]

19 09 2011
Edward Green (@EdwardBGreen)

I waded into this one too with two posts http://www.future-shape-of-church.org/?e=52

25 09 2011
Mark Hewerdine

Thanks for this post – really good response to issues Kester’s raising.

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