By Sarah Puryear

The year 2020 brought two contemporary challenges to the fore: the pressing issues of the COVID pandemic and racial injustice. What does the Church’s faithful theological response to these issues look like? In the rush to respond compassionately to urgent questions, we run the risk of coming at them from an insufficiently Christian perspective.

In a recent virtual study day hosted by the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, Archbishop Rowan Williams cast a vision for theology that springs from the life of the Church and its experience of prayer, the sacraments, and Scripture. The virtual nature of this event enabled almost 800 people from 25 countries to participate online.

After his address, a panel discussion followed among Christopher Beeley, director of the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies; Michael Battle of General Theological Seminary; Katherine Sonderegger of Virginia Theological Seminary; Jeremy Begbie of Duke Divinity School and Cambridge University; and Hans Boersma of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, who touched on some of the salient points and implications of the lecture.

When current events exert pressure on the Church for a response, our call is to return to the gifts God has given to the Church that sustain its life, Williams said. In this lecture, Williams focused on Scripture as the center of where we find “the grammar of the central difference that is made when God’s work enters human life.”

Williams examined how 1 Corinthians and Ephesians 1 reorient us toward the two central questions of the New Testament: how is humanity different in light of Christ? and what does that difference tell us about the character of God? Both passages highlight the Church’s utter dependence on the free action of God, who did not choose the members on the basis of their merit or success but on his gracious gift.

Scripture shows us that “what’s different, because of Christ, is that the freedom of God’s welcome and absolution and renewal has become real here and now.” Through the Holy Spirit, God gives each member gifts to be shared in a community marked by mutuality and interdependence, rather than competition and hierarchy.

Williams demonstrated the dynamic relationship between these two questions; the answer to the first shapes the answer to the second, which then casts new light back upon the first question. As Scripture reveals to us how God’s love in Christ has transformed us, we come to see God’s power, wisdom, and love with greater clarity. That, in turn, influences “our storytelling, our worshiping, our growth to maturity as Christian persons and praying persons,” as well as our engagement with and witness to a broken world.

The members of the panel discussion highlighted the archbishop’s emphasis on Scripture and prayer as the wellspring of the Church’s life in Christ, from which we must drink deeply before addressing the issues of our day. The panel members also considered how to apply this theological approach to today’s pressing questions. For instance, both the problems of racial injustice and the pandemic have highlighted the suffering of the marginalized, those who, like the Corinthians, lack the social status and success deemed valuable in our society.

Yet when we turn to the New Testament, we see that God chooses to identify himself with the weak and powerless, for it is Jesus, “this humiliated, rejected, executed human being,” whom God chooses to be “the vehicle of God’s invitation to this kind of community,” one marked by humility and interdependence.

Theology must first send down deep roots into Scripture and prayer before responding to the needs and questions of the world; only from that vantage point can we cast a faithful vision of what redeemed and forgiven humanity looks like to the world around us.

“We must always remember that we are in the context of a world that has been renewed by God in Christ,” Williams said. “It is that perspective which nourishes our vision, which kindles our outrage, and energizes our engagement.”