Good morning. Thank you all for gathering together today for this somewhat experimental lay–led Service of the Word. And thank you, Helen, for getting me involved by asking me to do the Reflection. My theme for this lay Reflection is lay theology.
I’d like to suggest that each one of you is what is known as a ‘contextual theologian’.
When you find yourself unable to pray, because a beardy guy in the sky keeps popping into your mind, and that’s not how you want to picture God anymore, but you don’t know how else to visualize the entity you want to address – that’s it; that’s when you’re doing contextual theology. Or when you’re not even sure what it’s proper to want from that entity, what it might make sense to say to it, or pray for – that’s contextual theology too. Contextual theology is when you’re struggling to decide which parts of the Christian tradition are still viable and valuable, here and now, for the context you’re in, and for the context you are. When you hesitate over certain liturgical phrases, like ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’, or ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead’, or when the question, ‘Do you reject the devil?’ makes you smile ironically (or when it doesn’t, for that matter) – that’s when you’re doing contextual theology. When you take it for granted that all living things have been evolving for millions of years but you still read Genesis in search of moral or poetic insights about the place of humanity in the cosmos – again, that’s contextual theology. And when a child puts you on the spot, asking, ‘Why did God create viruses?’ that’s some more contextual theology you’re doing. Even if you’re a quiet atheist, attached to the Church of England as a beautiful cultural heritage to be preserved, or as a useful existing network for promoting social justice, I would suggest that you are still doing contextual theology.
We are all contextual theologians – especially when we encounter something in the Bible that doesn’t seem right, or that doesn’t seem right for our times, and most especially, when that something seems to come from Jesus.
Take today’s Gospel reading from Mark, for example.
At first glance, it seems pretty obvious what Mark is up to here. The church for which he’s writing – a church that’s clearly full of Gentiles who need to be told about the Jewish purification rites – has been doing some contextual theology. A new context – the mission to the Gentiles – has raised difficult questions for Jewish theology. It has forced the Jesus movement to ask, how much, if any, of the Jewish law applies to Gentiles when they undergo the new purification ritual – the new baptism into Christ? (N.B.: This passage probably isn’t about the vanity of ‘external’ rituals.) In response to these questions, leaders in the early church – most notably St Paul – have theologized something previously unthinkable for Jews, namely, that God has erased the ancient distinction between clean and unclean foods, and indeed, between Jew and Gentile altogether. But Mark doesn’t seem to want anyone to see ordinary people doing this contextual theology, as if they were just accommodating the gentile world. He’s worried that, to some people at least, annulling these boundaries will look like abandoning the commandment of God and replacing it with mere human innovation. So, very ingeniously, he traces the innovation back to Jesus and to what looks, if we’re honest, like a bit of toilet humour Jesus indulged in while sparring with the Pharisees and scribes. ‘Yes!’ Mark is admitting in this passage, ‘a really big change is taking place here. But, look! It’s not an abomination; it’s Good News. It came from the Lord himself, not from us poor, error-prone mortals.’
But that’s not the end of Mark’s contextual theology by stealth, dressed up as a divine declaration. He seems to want to make sure it will be really hard for anyone else to come along and do the same thing, after he’s done doing it himself. Strategically, and rather ironically, therefore, just before Mark tells us how Jesus did away with the need to purify clean from unclean substances, he tells us how Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees and scribes for failing to purify the divine from the human in Jewish law: ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’, he told them.
Well, I wonder how that makes you feel? I can tell you how it makes me feel: it makes me feel silenced. It feels like Mark has fashioned a very big stick with which to beat down anyone else who tries to do a bit of contextual theology. What Mark seems to be saying is that, if a contextual theologian can’t show that her innovations are not really innovations at all but go back to Jesus, she is likely to be told, ‘You abandon the commandments of God and hold to your own merely human notions.’ Most people, under threat of such an attack, are likely to keep their contextual theologies safely to themselves, never attempt to share them with anyone else, and certainly never dare to show up for any kind of theological discussion. I definitely wouldn’t want to!
But wait; maybe there’s another way of reading this passage – one that invites, even calls us to theologize, freely and with confidence, rather than hide our ideas for fear of such reprisals. What if, with Christ in mind, and with the God-man mind of Christ that Paul tells us we have (see 1 Cor 2.16), we simply shift our focus away from those two seemingly mutually exclusive terms – God and humanity – and attend instead to the relationship between them, the relationship that is revealed in Christ to be an eternal relationship of love? When doing contextual theology, maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not, is this of God, or is this of humanity? Perhaps, instead, we should be asking ourselves, is this of the love between them in which both participate, ‘neither separate nor confused’, as the old Christological phrase goes? Is this of the Holy Spirit, in other words – the mutually begetting love between the Father and the Son, or even more expansively, between Creator and all Creation?
All you need is love to do contextual theology, that love.
Maybe it would be in the Spirit of that love if we were to paraphrase Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees and scribes this way: ‘You abandon the relationship of love that is the covenant between God and God’s people by holding it for yourselves and excluding others.’ The problem was that some of the Pharisees and scribes thought only they themselves were holy, and treated most of their fellow Jews – the people of the land whose work precluded scrupulous attention to purity – as if they were unclean and outside the covenant of love. Whenever contextual theology makes us nervous about the purity of apostolic Christianity, we would do well to remember that, if the early church had not, in the Spirit of the love between God and humanity, dared to declare the Gentiles clean, we wouldn’t be gathered here today.
All you need is love to do contextual theology.
With that thought in view, I arrive, finally, at my main objective: what I’m really up here for is to draw your attention to two upcoming opportunities for you to participate in some collective contextual theologizing.
If you would open your pewsheets, please, under the heading ‘Notices’, you will see what I’m talking about. Coming up first is our Deanery-wide implementation of the national church’s 5-part Living in Love and Faith Course. This course will run for five consecutive Monday evenings, alternating venues between St Michael’s in Southfields and St Paul’s, Wimbledon Parkside. In the words of its authors, this course is an invitation to ‘learn and pray together’ as part of a process of ‘discerning a way forward in relation to matters of identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage.’ I can’t think of a more important or more challenging call to collaborate in contextual theologizing. I’ve tried to make it easy for everyone to get hold of the course materials: there’s a slim course booklet, which is the main text, and an optional companion book. You can download both for free from the St Barnabas website. If you prefer hard copies, like these, or you don’t have access to the Internet, let me know, and I can help you place an order. The course booklet costs £4.99; the heftier companion book has the heftier price of £19.99.
Coming up second on the calendar is our first meeting with Dr Ben Wood, our new Theological Consultant. This will happen online, via Zoom, on the 22nd of September and take, as its provocative opening thought: what if George Orwell and St Augustine had a chat about baptism? Ben promises to be a lively and unconventional interlocutor. He is a Quaker and a disestablishmentarian, so I suppose that means he wants to get rid of us – or at least of our status as followers of a state religion. He describes himself as a contextual theologian interested in making theology both public and political. What will it mean to have him as our Consultant Theologian? Nobody knows; it’s all for us to invent. Please do consider being part of that collective invention process.
You are a contextual theologian. You’ve been theologizing on your own for a long while now; maybe it’s time to join in some collaborative contextual theologizing. You don’t need a degree in theology. You don’t need any special training, affirming, or commissioning. All you need is love.