Contextual theology

The Rectory - February 2005

Revd Canon Andrew DeucharI am writing this in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a time in which, since the late sixties, we have focused our prayers on the need to response to Christ's prayer 'That they may all be one'. It is of course a prayer that has been adopted by a church that is disunited in a way that could not have been conceived of when St John wrote his Gospel.

But it is a prayer also that should not be used in a narrow, exclusive sort of way, to refer simply to the process of creating some sort of institutional or organic unity between groups of Christians who have over many centuries have dug themselves deeper and deeper into their own cultures and structures. That would be to fall into the trap that we so effectively fall into at every turn - of domesticating the Gospel.

'Mission-Shaped Church' is a report that was published last year by a Working Party headed up by the Bishop of Maidstone, Graham Cray, to try to provoke us into thinking about 'new ways of being church', a phrase that seems to be the height of fashion at the moment, and justifiably so. We are all being challenged - and none more than our two parishes - to examine our priorities and to think imaginatively about how in the context of our current environment we can be more effective in our mission and ministry. And it is a challenge that is both urgent and exciting. At the heart of 'Mission-Shaped Church' is an important assumption - that the context in which we are working and living must be taken seriously in that process of self-examination.

Contextual theology is a concept that has developed over the last forty years or so - perhaps in response to the apparent retreat of the Church from the heart of everyday society. It is an interesting concept, because it suggests that theology and the practice of the Church can change and develop alongside the rapidly changing environment in which we live in the modern world. It might even ask us to consider the possibility that God changes and adapts to new situations. It is a proposition that inevitably leads not towards unity in a structural, institutional sense, but to a radical diversity, with a range of very different images of God. It might even lead us to a position where we are required to accept that Christianity as traditionally understood and taught does not contain the whole complexity of truth - a way in to exploring in a really productive way our relationships with people of other faiths.

The fullness of truth, as expressed in Jesus' prayer in John 17, that we should be one even as the Father and the Son are one, is way beyond our grasp. It is far richer and more complex than can be encompassed by the teaching and practice of One Church based on a theology developed in contexts totally different from our own. Today we are being challenged to our roots by a world that is unconvinced by the claims that Christianity makes. It is a moment of enormous opportunity for us all really to grasp the nettle of immersing our church life back into the reality of God's world and God's people, and to rebuild our theology, and from there our institution into something that is transparently Godly and Godward.

Andrew Deuchar
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 6th February 2005