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A Theology of Reception that Pays Attention to People…

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by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

In 1965 Bishop John Robinson – already famous for his iconoclastic book Honest to God – challenged the Church of England with a call for a ‘New Reformation’.  Claiming the traditional Church had got in the way of people’s experience of God, he argued for a revolution in theology, starting the other way round, that is, with lay people’s experience and beliefs, and building up from there.  Robinson’s book was radical in its day, and saturated with the language of the secular gospel which was fashionable then, but which has not stood the test of time.  He thought that Christianity needed to be radically reworked into something that made sense to a secular age, and that much of its traditional theology was deaf to the new currents of thought running through modern society.  He wanted to see in its place an immanent, human-centred theology, rather than the transcendent, anti-humanist shape he thought it had taken hitherto.

Robinson’s book is a bit like a running commentary on key points of the Protestant Reformation – that’s why he calls for a ‘New Reformation’.  But in all last year’s reflection on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest against indulgences I didn’t see any reference to it.  That’s probably a sign that the radical theology Robinson represented has long passed its sell-by date.  From here – at least to me – that 1960s theology looks excessively critical of traditional Christian doctrine, and excessively dependent upon a concept of secular modernity that itself was crying out for criticism.

But perhaps something at least ought to be salvaged from what Robinson was attempting to do.  One of the things that motivated him was a fear that the Church of England as human institution had become an obstacle to belief.  In his terms, this was because its worship, its way of reaching decisions, the narrow social circle from which its leadership mostly came, in fact much of the Church’s cultural baggage, looked out-dated and irrelevant to modern needs.  I’m not convinced by the terms in which Robinson put all this, partly because the Church has changed a bit since then, but more seriously because his idea of what is, or was, ‘relevant’ in the modern world gave too much away to contemporary trends, and was insufficiently attuned to the way the Gospel is a standing challenge to them.

But Robinson was on to something in his suspicion that the Church could be encountered by people as itself an engine of oppression, not liberation.  If ‘relevance’ as he conceived it was problematic as a way of trying to think about what the Church should be like, it doesn’t require much imagination to apply parts of his analysis to current issues.  For many who feel damaged or excluded by the Church, Robinson’s language would surely have some resonance.  The Church is, or can be, an obstacle to the very thing it stands for – personal redemption.

I’m not trying to prop up Robinson’s theology here.  I don’t think that can or should be done now.  But there is usually something to be learnt from those with whom we disagree, and it’s striking to see how Robinson was concerned to try to put ordinary people back at the very centre of the way the Church of England thought about its mission and its message.  To borrow a phrase from another book, this time by Vernon White, he was urging Christians to pay attention to people.  People matter, for Robinson, because Christ came as a person; therefore, as Christ is in everyone, or (if you’d rather) is there for everyone, not one single person can be put out of the Church’s concern.

But this cuts two ways.  First, it has the uncomfortable implication that even in the most distressing and painful episodes – and heaven knows there have been an awful lot of those for the Church of England to reckon with recently – there is always something more to be done, not only for those who have suffered, but also for those who, one way or another, have caused or inflicted that suffering.  I do not think we have, as Christians, even begun to work out how to come to terms with that particular challenge.

But, second, it also suggests that we cannot let people off the hook when they actually are responsible for making decisions.  Institutions are made up of people, after all.  Though we talk understandably about the ‘Establishment’, about a particular class or group, just as we talk about the ‘Church’, in the end that can only be a kind of short-hand for people who occupy particular positions and exercise (or fail to exercise) particular responsibilities.  Paying attention to people doesn’t just mean being nice to all people, but holding people to account.

So even if I can’t follow Robinson’s call for a new Reformation into the sort of revised, ‘bottom up’ theology for which he was calling, I do think his instinct that the Church needed to reconceive or relearn its vocation was essentially correct.  To my mind, you don’t need to revise traditional Christian doctrine to do this.  But we have got to learn again how to start thinking, as Christians, outwards and upwards from the experience of those who have found the Church an obstacle in their lives.  We need a theology of reception, as well as proclamation, and to hear the truth spoken to us from those who see themselves outside the Church, or abandoned by it.

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