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.
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:
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’.
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.
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’: