Liam Beadle explains why even the Church is sometimes guilty of presenting Christian faith as merely a helpful tool rather than something inherently valuable

For the last year, Private Eye has printed ‘The New Coalition Academy’ school newsletter.

Predictably, the headmaster is David Cameron, and the deputy headmaster is Nick Clegg. A recent instalment of the newsletter (Private Eye no. 1288, p. 19) included ‘The Headmaster’s Easter Sermon’, a parody of the Prime Minister’s recent address to church leaders. In it, Mr Cameron refers to ‘the central message of Christianity, which has made such a contribution over the years’. The comedy, for the discerning reader, is in the implication that Christian faith is merely part of something bigger – in this case, the ‘Big Society’ – and that its value is to be assessed by its effect.

The parody is painfully close to the truth. Christian faith which is valued because of its contribution to something bigger is not being valued as Christian faith: it is being valued as a social phenomenon. It is not, however, our politicians who have fallen into this error. It is the Church herself. This can be seen in her approach to theology, mission and liturgy.

The pastoral cycle

Theologically, the Church’s capitulation can be seen in the rise of what is called ‘Practical Theology’. This branch of theology often employs a so-called ‘pastoral cycle’, which is a pictorial way of representing a common theological method. The very beginning of the ‘pastoral cycle’ betrays its theological inadequacy: ‘The starting point is the present situation; the more-or-less routine existence of a given context’ (Ballard and Pritchard, Practical Theology in Action, p. 85). But starting points are not neutral. The story has often been told of the Irishman who, when asked for directions to Dublin, responded that were he going to Dublin, he would not start from here. The point is well made. If Christian faith is inherently valuable, theology ought not to start with ‘the present situation’, but with what the Church of England’s Declaration of Assent calls ‘the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds’. In Ballard and Pritchard’s pastoral cycle, theological reflection is simply a tool which can be used to interpret an experience which has already been explored using other disciplines. This is the Christianity ‘which has made such a contribution over the years’. The faith of the Church is reduced to being ‘helpful’.

Lack of confidence

The Church’s capitulation is not limited to her theological method; it has also influenced her mission and evangelism. Mission-Shaped Church was first published in 2004. It begins – presumably to Ballard and Pritchard’s delight – with a chapter about ‘Changing Contexts’. In that chapter, it is flatly claimed that ‘The gospel has to meet people where they are’ (p. 6). The gospel, it is therefore implied, is at the mercy of the context into which it is to be proclaimed. The roots of this lack of confidence are not hard to discern. First, the report is wary of appearing ‘triumphalistic’ (p. 23). Secondly, the chapter titled ‘Theology for a Missionary Church’ is the fifth chapter out of seven: by this time, the report hopes to have convinced its readers on other grounds. Thirdly, the report’s ecclesiology is almost non-existent, to the extent of quoting, approvingly, George Carey’s claim that ‘Ecclesiology is a subsection of the doctrine of mission’ (p. 24). Fourthly, the Scriptures are said to be ‘a gift of God from the past’ (p. 89), which is an astonishing denigration of their present authority and power. In short, the Church of England’s most influential text on mission is timid, anti-intellectual, anti-catholic, anti-evangelical and weakly charismatic.

One of the primary ways in which the Church’s capitulation has been expressed is in her liturgical worship. The Winter 2005/6 edition of Praxis: News of Worship includes a front page article by Tim Lomax on ‘Liquid Worship’, in which he laments ‘fixed order worship with everyone expected to sit in rows and do the same thing at the same time’.

‘Liquid worship’

In order to justify what he calls ‘fluidity’ – ‘in which people are free to move between the options for worship when and how they choose’ – Lomax appeals to advertising slogans such as Burger King’s ‘Have it your way’. Essentially, the argument is that people like choice when they go to a fast food restaurant, so we ought to give them choice when they come to church, too. In the ‘Liquid Worship’ model, it is therefore assumed that the Church’s practices are only tenuously related to her faith: the way the faith is expressed liturgically is unimportant.

In some ways, this is the most serious capitulation of all, because it is the one with the most damaging effect. In Deuteronomy 31, God commands Moses to teach the people of Israel a song. The intention is that the song will remind the people of their fall from grace when they indulge in false worship following the death of Moses. Liturgy is exercising a pastoral function: remembered words, used in worship, are announcing the judgement and grace of God, so that the people of God are formed and reformed.

The Anglican emphasis on corporate worship is not dissimilar: the liturgy of the Church expresses the Church’s faith, recalling her to right thinking and right living. Where what happens in worship is dictated by the worshipper’s own decision, liturgical formation becomes a pious desire rather than a lived reality.

In conclusion, ‘Practical theology’, Mission-Shaped Church and ‘liquid worship’ are not the problem the Church of England faces. They are symptoms of the problem. The real problem is a lack of theological nerve. ND