Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Public Theology

I wandered down my Blogs of Choice this morning and discovered a post that just 'clicked' for me. I pondered a long rambling comment, but thought it better to unpack the thoughts here on my own space. 

Her topic is 'doing theology in public', and in line with the best of Laurie Green, implies throughout her article that theology is not just a bookshelf topic but a way of life. My take on this is that we don't just read theology, but we do theology and are theology. For a Christian, theology is implicit in every action of our lives, intentionally or otherwise. 

Then I arrived at the killer sentence in Maggi's post:
Theology is much more interesting done in a broad context; it saves it from the angels-on-a-pinhead  stuff, and from disappearing down rabbit holes that are really not that important.  But what I fear to some extent is that Christian theology is becoming more and more privatised, and the gap between those who are totally inside it and totally alienated from it is widening. And we really shouldn't let that happen.
I couldn't agree more, but I have a very clear view about a contributory factor in this apparent departure. I have posted on this before, and have used an image on this post to highlight my view. In the picture that you can see at the top, it is clear who the priest is. Why? The clothes he wears tells us so. 

Priests in many circles don't like to call themselves priests - ministers, if you please. Priests in many circles have also decided that the uniform of ministry, the Number Ones (to coin a military term) are 'unhelpful' and 'barriers' - so stop wearing them. Dog-collars are pulled out for meetings with bishops, synod meetings and maybe even funerals. The rest of the time they are regarded as the dirty secret of ordination - the 'thing we don't like to do'. 

I meet many people from a diverse population in my work. I meet young and old, Christian and non (including those of other faiths), men and women. I wear a uniform, and my uniform is my theology. The life I lead is therefore projected through the lens of this little piece of white plastic. There are probably 500 kids in this town who can greet me as 'Father David' without flinch or awkwardness, and with all warmth and openness. They know who I am and what I do; I get the 'high-fives' and from the tinies a group hug. I can talk about God, but also I don't need to. With adults my collar doesn't eclipse the fact that I like a beer, am a normal bloke, like fast cars, swear a bit, laugh with the lads, be an idiot at times - they happen and I am still a priest. The implicit theology about priesthood that I believe very firmly that I bring is valuable. If I was the same person out of uniform, much of it would be lost. Not least of all, I'd have to waste half the time in every encounter explaining my Christianity, then my job - before I got around to asking them about them! 

Multiply my experience across a whole country, and we have a problem. If people in paid or public ministry seem to be ashamed (and that is how it is at time perceived by others beyond me) of the signs of their office, then the rest of world will make assumptions about the stuff that they believe too - that it too is worthy of concealment. Being a shining-example Christian inside the doors of a church is easy. What is harder is to be a Christian without saying a word as we walk past. We need not just preach our theologies to the converted, we need to walk them down the street around our necks too! 


  1. You have made me feel better about the amount of time I spend obsessing about finding clothes that I would have worn before I was ordained - but that still look OK with my collar. I agree totally but have on occasion been very glad of the 'bib-stock' which I could swiftly remove.

  2. I agree with much of what you say. I deliberately spent the first year after ordination wearing the collar as often as I could in order to get the feel of it and to allow it to become part of who I am. I still wear it almost all the time unless I am on my day off or on holiday (or asleep).

    A down side, though, is that it can leave others feeling that theology and ministry are just for the professionals, that clergy are a kind of race set apart. It can, if we are not careful, devalue the mission and ministry of the laity. It also means that the preconceptions (often gleaned from the media) are brought into full play. I am concerned that although it is less the case now than in earlier times, we anglicans still have a rather clericalised church that struggles to value the ministry and theology of its lay people.

    Like you, I believe the answer to this is not, as some of our colleagues seem to believe, to take the minimalist approach to the uniform, but to ensure that we take care to provide positive experiences and to enable others in their mission, ministry and theologising.

  3. Lovely, David. I couldn't agree more. We're regular people, the church is led by regular people, our place is in the public square and the pub as well as the altar.

  4. I think my minister is ashamed of her collar (they have always been called dog collars) in the Methodist church. It is expected in the church that it be worn at church social functions but she often wears a scarf an d dose not where it when not on church related functions

  5. I am with Revsimmy too on this - that things that make statements (like collars) can also give less positive ones. We want our theology to be implicit, but need to be careful what that theology may be perceived as being.

  6. It's interesting that you wrote on this today. I've been thinking over the idea of how we live our theology. I see this is such a key to understanding who we are in Christ. It seems so many think that theology is just a topic for debate....just like worship is only something we do on Sunday. On the the contrary we are living them both! Thanks for this post.

  7. Thanks to you all (and those of you hidden here, but on Facebook) for your generous comments and support in this. I confess that at times I feel like a very lonely voice (deanery chapter is the pinnacle of that at times), and so it is helpful that I really am not alone.

    All that said, thanks to Maggi for the timely prompt.



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