The churches in Britain are committing intellectual suicide if they do not invest in theological education and theological creativity among lay people (those not ordained to reserved ministry posts), say the co-directors of religion and society think-tank Ekklesia.
The comments from Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley came in an interview for the Church Times at the end of last year, written by Huw Spanner and published in the article 'Open Bible, engage brain' (CT, 30/11/07 - http://churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=47952)
Simon Barrow, a co-director of Ekklesia who in the past has been heavily involved in lay training in the Church of England, says: “I believe that everyone in the church who wants to study it at a deeper level should do so – though there can be a false democracy that says that everybody is capable of thinking about things deeply, and that isn’t always the case.
“Nonetheless, theology needs to belong to the people, and if you go to communities in Latin America and Asia and elsewhere, you will see it being done by ordinary people. That is what the whole phenomenon of base communities was about. But a lot of the formal church institutions have been resistant to this sort of development, because if you really start to empower lay people to think theologically you will no longer be able to get away with running the church as a top-down institution as in the past. So, it is a threatening thing.”
Barrow believes that, if anything, its commitment to lay-focused and lay-centred education has diminished over the years. In part, he blames this on that “bizarre notion” that cultivating good habits of thinking about the meaning of the Christian faith and how it engages and communicates with society should be left to specialists.
“Here is a good example of the trouble this has got us into,” he says. “Look at the rise of the new atheism, with Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and so on. Where is the response to this? By and large, professional theologians disdain such debates, perhaps understandably, because they are conducted in such simplistic terms; but on the other hand an awful lot of people in the pews simply don’t know enough to engage with these arguments, which are having a considerable influence in our culture.”
Barrow relates the study of theology unequivocally to the mission of the Church. “It’s not simply about equipping people for various tasks within the Church, it’s about the whole encounter and engagement of the people of God with the world, both locally and globally. If lay people don’t study theology, it really is intellectual and spiritual suicide for the Church.”
Someone else who has felt the impact of studying theology is Jonathan Bartley, the founder of Ekklesia. “I [first] did a discipleship training course and by the end of it I was a free marketeer, rabidly capitalist and pro-capital punishment; but then I did another theological course, called Workshop, which is run by the Anvil Trust; and it transformed not just my outlook on life but the way I lived it.
“Since then, I have bought a house with a friend and we now have three houses knocked together, with 10 adults and six children all living under the same roof to try to explore the New Testament idea of koinonia. It was that course, too, that led me to set up Ekklesia, to promote radical theological ideas in public life. And it has also influenced the way I bring up my disabled son, as I have reflected not only on Jesus’ identification with the vulnerable but also on the way an omnipotent God in a sense disabled himself by becoming human. I’m still working all these ideas through.”