Theologians and the Church?

I have recently returned from the Theologians and the Church event that the Centre for Theology and Philosophy hosted at New College, Edinburgh (It was worth the trip just to hear Graham Ward’s plenary).

The conference hoped ‘to bring together the next generation of theologians to explore the relationship between academic theology and the worshipping community. Postgraduates from all traditions and none are invited to gather and discuss the role theologians play in the life of the Church, be it pastorally, educationally, or ecumenically.’

The event organisers originally hoped that forty people might attend.  In the end registrations were capped at just over one hundred and twenty people.  The passionate desire of these post graduate students (mostly from elite universities), to connect their theology into the church, was palpable.  This desire spoke the most to the possibility for the future connection of theologians to the Church.

The obvious manifestation of that desire went beyond attendance.  It surfaced in papers, self -conscious jokes about praying, then actually praying before giving a paper, and then the long conversations over coffee about how deeply people’s theology arose from a passion for their faith. That anecdotal observation brought Jamie Smith’s work to mind.

Jamie Smith’s work has the ‘Christian College’ in his sights, suggesting that the Christian University, should be ‘nourished ex corde ecclesiae, “from the heart of the Church”’.[1]  Within this Jamie invites the ‘ecclesial university’ to ‘extend and amplify the formation that begins and continues in Christian worship’.[2]  Jamie’s compelling thesis is that theology can be about the mission of the Church, part of the passionate engagement of radical discipleship.  For to often theology is an intellectual pursuit separated from our core passions, when in reality our core passions are engaged in other locations, the ‘thick practices’ of life outside the Church.  Jamie invites theology to be honest about the ‘thick connections’ that even those intellectualizing theology make.  For if intellectual theology is actually practiced by those who are embedded in deep worship of a form of life, why can’t Christians embed their theology in the ‘thick practices’ of the Christian life?  At least that’s how I read Jamie.

So back to these students from Oxford, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Kings College London,  et al, that are not ‘ecclesial universities’ but are distinctly secular.  How do these students, myself included, embed their theology in the Church?  It seems that events like this one at Edinburgh offer such possibilities.  New College with its rich ecclesial history, claimed for a short period of time as a location for ecclesial theology, as an ecclesial university.

Then some students are fortunate to be in church environments that support their theology as passionate discipleship, but many less so it seems.  And many remain in academic environments antithetical and often hostile to theology made and given from the ‘thick connections’ Jamie suggests.

Perhaps it’s time for a new underground theological education, a la Bonhoeffer, a training of confessing academic theologians that takes place underground.[3]  Might that foster the kind of connections some of the students are looking for? (at the same time perhaps giving rise to students passing around rumours that one of their peers or professors was suspected of being part of such an underground movement).

For in a secular Europe often at odds with the thick connections theology students desire, perhaps such an underground movement would embody the very notion of ex corde ecclesiae? For how can theology be connected to the heart of the church unless it is undertaken with risk, to reputation and station in life.


[1] Desiring the Kingdom, 221.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Many thanks for Steve Hamilton for reminding me of Bonhoeffer here, in conversation on this topic.

Further Reading:
Jason Clark :
  • kjwardley

    Hi Jason – Thanks for the warm remarks – glad that you found the event worthwhile; we are seeking publication and have today (13/12) sent out a call for submissions.

    One tiny correction though – although both Ian and myself (who organised the event) have friends at the CTP down in Nottingham, this was actually done out of New College itself, under the auspices of SST and with the invaluable support of the School of Divinity and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI), as well as Trinity Forum, Hope Trust and the Church of Scotland.

    A pedant’s point maybe, but I’m sure you’ll understand that we need to give due credit since their funding made it possible.

    Thanks again for your support.
    Best regards
    Jason (the other one)

    • Jason Clark

      No pedantic at all. Thank you for the correction. And thank you for hosting such a good event.

  • Anthony Paul Smith

    I fail to see how this is actually anything new. It’s always been those in the study of theology who weren’t confessional who have been pushed to the margins…

    • Jason Clark

      Anthony, I’m not sure what you are referring to as no being new, the event, the topic, the people involved?

      Are you suggesting those who study academic theology are always pushed to the margins? If so what margins, and how? The margins of society, the church? or both? How do they contribute to such processes themselves?

      Do you see some antipathy between confessional theology and academic theology, and how is that at play within the conference purview?

      • K Jason Wardley

        Anthony – speaking as someone whose confessional boundaries have always been a little fuzzy I actually have a great deal of sympathy for the question. Indeed, in the “state of the nation” paper by David Fergusson that we circulated as part of the conference pack (and which informed some of the round-table questions) he asks whether confessional theology has now ended.

        The question remains, however, if that activity is still “theology” (in either the original Greek sense or the later popular understanding) or better described as “philosophy of religion”. Speaking personally, I work in a French milieu where the borderlands (as Donald Mackinnon described them) between philosophy and theology are pretty ill-defined.

        We received some pretty diverse submissions in the end, and if you had wanted to have submitted a paper tackling the conference theme then I would have certainly considered it. If you did then sorry, it might have been overlooked (we did receive a lot of submissions).

        Meanwhile, if you’re going to be at Liverpool Hope next summer for Steven’s thing then we can pick this question up again…

        Jason (the other one)

        • Anthony Paul Smith


          My point was more directed at the general mood of this conference, as reflected in a number of places I had read about it before as well as in this post. A kind of underlying sense of being marginalized academically because of one’s faith commitment, something akin to the usual persecution complex common to Christians. I heard this kind of thing all the time at Nottingham and never understood what the issue was. There are, after all, plenty of confessional universities to attend where you can do this intellectual work under the auspices of “the Church” (I’ve never understood this strange appellation) and more than not one chooses to attend a seemingly “secular” university. I can’t help but wonder if all of this is bad faith, a certain way of giving oneself freedom to do work that might not find a very welcome place within an ecclesial setting AND the sense of spiritual superiority that comes from feeling as if one is persecuted. It’s something I find common to Christian theologians and all too unreflective. After all, the departments mentioned in the original post all teach CHRISTIAN theology and so it seems to call them secular is to forget that the world of theology is bigger than Christianity and yet those many of these so-called secular universities won’t even hire a Muslim to teach Islamic thought.

          Now that’s not to downplay the openness your comments suggest, but that is lacking in the original post, so my original comments were directed towards the mood it suggested.

          And no, I didn’t try to submit a paper. I finished and defended my PhD in the summer and left that den of vipers for Chicago. Which I suppose also has some vipers about, but far less vindictive it seems. I am hoping to make it to Liverpool though.

          • Jason Clark

            Antony beyond any ‘persecution complex’ it would seem that people deeply committed to the Church as a practice and location of faith, wanting to undertake academic theology are feeling a dislocation between their theology and the Church. I do think you highlight something key within that, of how there is a academic freedom that ecclesial and confessional faith environment finds problematic.

            I must admit that in the papers made there was no evidence of a persecution complex, just a deep desire to explore how theology by those of faith in secular environments might be undertaken in connection to the church. And there was no maligning of the institutions people were studying at, that your comments seem to suggest as being extant.

          • Anthony Paul Smith

            But they’re not secular. That’s my point. Nothing about them, except the fact that most of the institutions academic Christian theologians belong to are largely uninterested in their work, precludes working in “the Church” (which of course means some local body). Anyway I realize you all want to talk about how real theology is praying or something so I’ll just go read some books now.

  • geoffh

    Thanks for the post, Jason. Would love to have been there.

    • Jason Clark

      Next time we’ll get you along :-)

  • Marc

    Hi Jason

    If you look at the RC Church (for example and as I understand it) their theology is already connected to the heart of the Church because their theologians generally come through an RC seminary.

    The difference here as far as I can see is that anyone can go off to Bobs Theological College, get some theological qualifications and then…well then what?

    How do you get to be at the heart of the current evangelical movement when anybody can really believe exactly what they want in terms of theology, where fads tend to come and go, where what is God for some is Satan for others, where there are so many differences.

    I think you can maybe embed theological learning within your own church, maybe your denomination, that maybe possible but to influence the wider church you need to be a very gifted theologian.

    As for it being an intellectual pursuit, there are some very gifted theologians out there and there are also many who may like the sound of their own voices or maybe the prestige they believe it brings them…I certainly know a few people who seem to want that.

    • Jason Clark

      certainly Roman Catholic (as with other denominations), theology takes place in situ with Church ministry. Many evangelical groups have a similar process, although not on the same scale.

      The group at this conference are asking how those doing theology in the academy can be connected to the church, whilst studying in non confessional institutions. At least that’s the question I heard.

      I know as many people who don’t do theology who like the sound of their own voices ;-)

      • Marc

        I agree…but what if all the (for instance) evangelical churches came together they could make larger places for students to study in situ and to have that connectedness that is missing?

        Maybe part of the part of theology is that it does need to be situ, Jesus certainly would have been at the temple so maybe that is a good example?

        I too love the sound of my own voice:)

    • Jason Clark

      Hi Marc,

      Many protestant and evangelical groups have seminaries, dedicated to the integration of theology and faith. But the context of this event was those doing theology in secular spaces and how they might be better connected to the church? Any ideas on that?

  • Paul Wilson

    Hi Jason

    I would love to have been at the conference – it sounds great. A few years ago I wrote some comments entitled “The best of both worlds” in which I compared 2 (stereotyped) churches – A & B.

    I described Church A as
    Lots of activities
    Theologically naïve and dogmatic
    Discourages thought
    Trite answers to difficult questions
    Spurious prophecies
    Holds people in intellectual infancy.

    Church B I characterised as being
    Theologically serious
    Encouraging people to think
    Relates faith to daily living
    Sensitive to individual differences
    Cautiously charismatic
    Not very exciting
    Fewer charismata
    Less emphasis on God acting right now
    Less expectation
    Ineffective in evangelism.

    Both churches might well describe themselves as evangelical, and want to take the bible seriously. But Church A views Church B as liberal, whereas Church B views Church A as fundamentalist.

    Church A might well be “young earth creationist”, or at least embrace ideas such as “intelligent design”, and thinks that any concession to mainstream science is selling out to the world.

    Church B is aware of the variety of literary forms in the Bible, and thinks that Church A has totally missed the point, and is defending an untenable position. Church B sees all truth as God’s truth, whereas Church A sees the Bible as the only reliable source of knowledge. The Bible must therefore be defended from attack, because people’s faith depends on it. Church B is more liable to acknowledge difficulties in the Bible (internal discrepancies, culturally conditioned parts, etc) and looks for a way of accommodating these without resorting to what it sees as implausible explanations.

    Church A is popular, and attracts a mixture of people – some who have a robust faith and live with integrity, others who just like to piggy-back on the faith of others and be part of a successful church.

    Church B attracts three sorts of people who find Church A difficult.
    (i) people who think seriously about the faith
    (ii) people who have demanding jobs, and cannot give the time-commitment which is expected in Church A.
    (iii) people who have outgrown church A, or have become disillusioned.
    But it has few people with a sense of evangelistic mission; they always gravitate to churches of type A.

    Is this a correct analysis? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?

    Twelve years later I am still asking the same question. There are lots of A-type churches, many of which are large and growing. Type-B churches are more difficult to find, and are less obviously successful. But, even supposing that there are type-B churches to be found, are thinking believers forced to choose between spiritual vitality and intellectual integrity?

    A B-type church is perhaps unlikely to become the best of both worlds. For an A-type church to rise to the challenge would certainly entail opening the door to theology, with the risk of violating a well-established culture and being labelled ‘liberal compromisers’. But there is often a ring-fence around church A to stop this from happening. In the 1970’s evangelicals sometimes saw charismatics as trouble-makers. Now charismatic is fairly mainstream, and it is the turn of thinkers to be viewed with suspicion.

    I suspect that A-type churches will continue to occupy their territory, but may appeal to a decreasing constituency. Perhaps the challenge is for the theologically aware to engage in grass-roots church-planting and create communities which genuinely are the best of both worlds?

    • Jason Clark

      Hi Paul,

      Your suggestions remind me of the work of Rob Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001 (

      He suggests that if we take Bebbington’s quadrilateral of what makes Evangelicals that there has been a bifurcation between crucicentric-biblicists and activist-conversionists. I wonder if what he says might help with your work above, of how there has been a bifurcation that we can taking place with desire and connections to theological reflection?

  • Joel Daniels

    Any chance that Ward’s plenary will be online, or otherwise distributed?

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