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Does the Church need academic theology?

By Sam Hole

Editor’s note: Guest contributor Sam Hole reflects on the role of academic theology in the life of the church, inspired by a recent event at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, “Word Made Flesh: Does the Church Really Need Academic Theology?” You can listen to the whole event here.

Thankfully, the title question of the event at St-Martin-in-the-Fields was barely raised during the event. It would hardly have stimulated debate among the chair (Julie Gittoes) and six panelists (Sam Wells, Lincoln Harvey, Alison Milbank, Christina Rees, Steve Chalke, and Mark Oakley), who were almost unanimously committed to the role of academic theology in Church life. Rather, what they offered the audience, about 150-strong, was a series of reflections on the place that academic theology should take in the “theological ecosystem” of academy, Church, and world.

(For “Church” read “Anglican,” since a set of six Anglicans and one Baptist meant that this was the assumed context of the discussion.)

What is “academic theology?” Responding to this first question, Sam Wells neatly summed up a position on which the panel largely agreed. We are all theologians, insofar as all humans reflect on questions about God. But “academic” theology is undertaken in a particular place (the academy), with marks of memberships (degrees), evaluation among peers, and an agreed language for the ensuing conversation. Mark Oakley, in agreement, highlighted Rowan Williams’s account in On Christian Theology of three modes in which theology is undertaken, with all three modes necessary for a healthy church. Theology might be celebratory (for example, in liturgy or worship), communicative (in preaching), or critical. Academic theology is an instance of the “critical” mode in operation; as such, it is also “a training for a very humble mind.”

Other panelists raised interesting examples of the value of academic theology in the Church. Alison Milbank talked of the enthusiastic response one of her colleagues received when he offered a congregation opportunities to read patristic texts (something, she noted, few ordinands now do in their training). Christina Rees, reflecting on her involvement in the early 1990s in the campaign for the ordination of women in the Church of England, recalled how her MA studies at King’s College London during the campaign enabled her to confront opponents with greater knowledge of the academic debates involved.

The panelists agreed, too, on the importance of opening academic theology to others. Women, ethnic minorities, those from working-class backgrounds, and others all need greater representation in the academy. Engagement with the arts can be a fruitful way of communicating the conversations in academic theology to a wider audience. Young people need to be encouraged to become involved in academic theology, which requires older people both to exhibit their excitement in theological discovery and to provide the young with the resources to begin that journey. Clergy need to continue to resource themselves (Julie Gittoes pointed to the Ramsey Prize shortlist as a good place to find suitable books), and to ensure their ministries make wise use of this learning.

The reader may have the impression that the conversation was highly genteel, a model of British tact laced with an Anglican seeking of the middle ground. This was indeed largely the case. Julie Gittoes chaired the conversations in a manner that ensured a respectful, constructive tone to all that was said. Steve Chalke’s was the strongest alternative voice, providing a valuable reminder of why this debate might be felt to be necessary. Chalke is an ordained Baptist minister (now ejected from the Baptist Union for his support of same-sex relationships) known for energetic social activism in education, housing, and human trafficking through his Oasis Trust.

Some of Chalke’s statements merely muddied the debate: we are all academic theologians; we need greater understanding of policymaking and fundraising, since they “are at the heart of theology.” Yet his persistent warnings of the “crisis of the academic elite” valuably highlighted the pressing context of the event. There are influential individuals and groups within the Church of England that see little connection between academic theology and the church’s flourishing — and those who want to counteract that scepticism may need to do something differently if they are to make a persuasive case.

For me, this debate brought these facts home in two respects. First, the generous tone modeled by Gittoes was a welcome antidote to some of the more bitter notes that have been struck in recent discussions of the role of academic theology among Anglicans, particularly over the worrisome lack of interest in academic expertise among the Church of England’s governing bodies. Yet the panel chose not to engage with this elephant in the room. Might polite conversation on these issues yield more fruitful results than current divisions? If so, it would have been wonderful to hear the panel demonstrate this.

Second, five of the speakers occupy a specific point in the theological ecosystem: ordained Anglicans communicating the fruit of academic research to the wider Church and world through their teaching, writing, and speaking. No one engaged full time in the academy was on the panel. Nor, aside from Christina Rees, were there lay voices to remind us that academic theology must not be confused with a vocation to ordained ministry. Is this the best model for how academic theology may serve the Church? Is the Church served well by the privileged access that ordained Anglicans enjoy to certain posts in English academia? Might lay theologians play a greater role in the Church at all levels? Both academic theology and the Church may well have a very different relationship to the academy in two or three decades; events like this are opportune moments to reflect on how these shifts may benefit the Church.

It is a joy to join in celebrating the importance (as Lincoln Harvey succinctly put it) of the particular vocation of undertaking academic theology as part of the universal vocation of all Christians. This event was a fitting reminder of the continuing need for that vocation. The challenge, of course, is how to ensure that the Church and world continue to benefit from the efforts of those in the academy who reflect on our behalf, and that is a work for all Christians.

The Rev. Dr. Sam Hole serves as Assistant Curate at St. George the Martyr, Southwark. His research concerns the 16th-century poet and Carmelite reformer, St. John of the Cross.


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