The problem with urban theology: the search for synthesis #1

Over the last week there has been an interesting exchange of articles between Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley and Ian Paul, who writes the popular Christian blog Psephizo.  It focused on the theology of mission in deprived areas, and whether or not Christians need to ‘take Jesus’ into these areas. It is good to see a robust and respectful encounter of two contrasting perspectives.

The encounter between different theological perspectives has been a key theme in my life.  I was raised and came to faith within a middle-class evangelical culture which emphasised ‘knowing God personally’. Believing the right things and being distinctive in your faith was emphasised.

But as I studied social work, started working with homeless people and moved onto an inner city estate in my 20s, I discovered a whole different theological worldview. This emphasised an incarnational faith and a more social emphasis. This more ‘liberal’ theology has been a key influence of much of the social action I have been involved in.

In many ways, I have been on an ongoing ‘search for synthesis’ between these two perspectives all my life. I remain grateful to my ‘conservative’ roots because they gave me a great deal, but much of my deepest growth and learning has come from quite different theological perspectives.

Positive tensions

In 2008, I was part of a Church of England urban theology group convened following the Faithful Cities report which had been criticised in General Synod.  We were asked to ‘go deeper’ in understanding the range of theological commitments within urban mission and it led to the publication of the book Crossover City (Continuum, 2010). But I found the dominance of the ‘liberal’ views frustrating because there was little attempt to really understand or appreciate the more conservative perspective.

To frame the discussions, I developed this chart:

Dialectical truth

My aim was to map some of the positive tensions at the core of orthodox Christian theology. Christianity is both personal and social. Society’s problems are caused by both social injustice and personal wrong-doing. God’s salvation is brought about through both the incarnation and the atonement. People change through both specific moments of conversion and a gradual journey. Christians are called to be both tolerant and distinctive.

This ‘dialectical’ nature of Christian truth gives Christian theology great strengths and resources to engage with a complex world.

Yet, rather than a positive tension, so easily Christians operate tribally. We carve up Christian truth to underpin our own position and view the other side with suspicion.


And this is the problem with much of the ‘urban theology’ world I have encountered. It’s emphasis has become so focused on the red side of this chart and has tended to look with condescension on the blue side as  simplistic and naive. Almost as if anything too personal is just a prelude to the enlightenment of embracing a deeper, social understanding.

When it forsakes the the blue side of the chart, the Church loses its energy, boldness and distinctive spiritual confidence. It leads to reports like Faithful Cities, which was fluent in economic and social analysis but had little to say about how the Holy Spirit changes lives.

A similar trajectory has affected the now defunct Third Way magazine, the website Ekklesia and the Greenbelt festival. It is ironic that the churches with the most overtly politicised theology often have very few people in their congregations to have any political impact.

I will never forget taking a group of liberal clergy around a hostel for men who had left prison after long sentences. In speaking with the manager after the tour, one of the visitors said ‘I suppose many of your residents were convicted falsely?’ The manager of the hostel was incredulous at the naivety of the comment and replied ‘No, in fact almost all of them will have done many more crimes than we will ever know about’.

Unreliable allies

The Church needs people who are willing to traverse confidently between these different perspectives. We need those who sympathise chiefly with one side to engage and appreciate with the strengths of the other.  I think that in their articles this week, both Philip North and Ian Paul have done this.

A few years ago, I started a campaign to protest about adverts for websites which facilitate affairs. As the campaign gathered momentum, I found myself supported, and lauded, by many conservative Christians. When I later wrote a post questioning whether Christians should send their children to private schools, I angered many of the same people.

I believe faith calls us out from our cultural silos. We need liberals who are prepared to be labelled ‘conservative’ because of their concerns about family breakdown. We need conservatives willing to be called ‘liberal’ because of their concern for deepening levels of inequality and material poverty. Christians should be ‘unreliable allies’ in the social and political circles in which we move.

Going deeper

Our mutual challenge is to go deeper in the places where we are shallow. It means being brave and taking risks. It may mean losing friends and cause offence, just as Jesus said it would (Luke 21:12-19).

It is in this synthesis that the gospel of Jesus comes alive. And it is here that the Church rediscovers its role and power to transform our broken world in Jesus’ name.

You can read both the chapters I wrote for the book ‘Crossover City’:

12 thoughts on “The problem with urban theology: the search for synthesis #1”

  1. Hi again, Jon! Really like the chart. Resonates with my attempts to understand different parts of my ‘denominationsl mutt’ experiences……


  2. Some fantastic points Jon and I hope you will carry on raising them and let us hope they will begin to be heard, read and understood. On the theme of liberal and conservative unfortunately those words, which very useful as labels as a starting point also contain many challenges. I have many conservative views but would not choose that language because of the impact of the Conservative party. On the other hand I get very frustrated with people who accuse me of being liberal as a way of questioning my faith without acknowledging the views I hold have some comparison with the views of Jesus and of course we have the problem of the Liberal identity being attached to the churches and people who are neither Evangelical (which has its many problems as a badge) or the Anglo Catholics. In reality there are very few Liberals and they are a broad group with some being close to lacking in faith and others working hard to maintain a link between the AC and Evangelical traditions.


  3. Incidentally, I was reflecting on your comment about politicised theology and the lack of people who have any political impact. My own view is that one of the big challenges is that party politics which was developed in the 16th Century to bring in some clarity to our Government, has now become a factor that makes most people unable to engage in politics. So I would argue that one of the things we need to do is remove the criteria to engage in politics via political parties rather than on a wider basis for engagement. That may release some of the people.


    1. thanks for reading Ian and for the comments. One element that I could have included is how impressed and encouraged I am by the growth community organising – I think this is where people have engaged politically and smaller faith groups have often united with other groups to have real impact.


  4. A fair challenge but spoilt by a silly swipe at Greenbeit . You’re obviously out of touch with what’s happening there and it’s revival

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Hi Andy, thanks for reading and commenting. I don’t think it’s ‘a swipe’ although I can understand it being read like that due to how protective people are about GB. You may we’ll be right that I am out of touch as I have not been for a number of years. But I think even it’s most ardent fans would say that GB’s remaining theological emphasis is pretty squarely on the red side of that chart. This is its strength and calling but I have long advocated for them to have a greater mixture of voices and perspectives. They do ‘push the envelope’ in terms of who they invite to speak – but generally only in one direction. Happy to be shown otherwise. Thanks, Jon


  5. “A similar trajectory has affected the now defunct Third Way magazine, the website Ekklesia and the Greenbelt festival. It is ironic that the churches with the most overtly politicised theology often have very few people in their congregations to have any political impact.”

    See also the The Church times. At least the HTB / New Wine brigade do (try) and hold both sides in their teaching and action.

    But . . . I see / hear a lot of theory and very few practitioners. Do our bishops and bloggers live and work in poor areas? Greenbelt and New Wine are both very middle class. Sure they might send money and sometimes people to poor parts of the UK but it is telling that New Wine North folded and Greenbelt meets at Cheltenham.

    Meanwhile, the Church of England can’t fill posts in Northern Diocese or UPA parishes. Does the Holy Spirit call clergy to nice suburbs, the Home Counties, University cities, spa towns and the Cotswolds?

    If you are a minister — more so if you are an ordained Anglican priest — ask yourself where you live/work/serve, and why. Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?


  6. Reblogged this on Ash Leighton Plom and commented:
    The following is a reblog of a post that attempts to affirm the strengths of both liberal and conservative Christianity. We could caricature the same point in negative: a liberal Christian might meet the physical needs of a homeless person, but not offer them the way to save their soul. A conservative Christian might explain to someone how Jesus has died to save them from their sins, but not offer to help alleviate their material poverty. These are gross caricatures, but it is sometimes how one silo sees the other.

    To contrast meeting physical needs vs meeting spiritual needs, then: “a body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost”. The gospel actually responds to both – material and spiritual needs. Hence it is life, in all its fullness.


  7. Interesting read I started as a liberal found personal faith in more evangelical church whilst training to be a social worker. Left a policy job to train as a priest and now interested in how we can develop effective rural models of mission. majority of thinking/writing seems to write off rural as too small, too elderly and just not urban enough!


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