Late last year, Huw Spanner published an article entitled 'Open Bible, engage brain' (Church Times, 30/11/07) which looked at the promise, possibility and problem of lay education in the churches. Huw generously quoted both Jonathan Bartley and me fairly extensively. Here's what I said. It was a phone interview, so it came as a surprise to me when I rediscovered it, too!
Simon Barrow, a co-director of Ekklesia who in the past has been heavily involved in lay training in the Church of England, says: “I believe that everyone in the church who wants to study it at a deeper level should do so – though there can be a false democracy that says that everybody is capable of thinking about things deeply, and that isn’t always the case.
“Nonetheless, theology needs to belong to the people, and if you go to communities in Latin America and Asia and elsewhere, you will see it being done by ordinary people. That is what the whole phenomenon of base communities was about. But a lot of the formal church institutions have been resistant to this sort of development, because if you really start to empower lay people to think theologically you will no longer be able to get away with running the church as a top-down institution as in the past. So, it is a threatening thing.”
Barrow believes that, if anything, its commitment to lay-focused and lay-centred education has diminished over the years. In part, he blames this on that “bizarre notion” that cultivating good habits of thinking about the meaning of the Christian faith and how it engages and communicates with society should be left to specialists.
“Here is a good example of the trouble this has got us into,” he says. “Look at the rise of the new atheism, with Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and so on. Where is the response to this? By and large, professional theologians disdain such debates, perhaps understandably, because they are conducted in such simplistic terms; but on the other hand an awful lot of people in the pews simply don’t know enough to engage with these arguments, which are having a considerable influence in our culture.”
Barrow relates the study of theology unequivocally to the mission of the Church. “It’s not simply about equipping people for various tasks within the Church, it’s about the whole encounter and engagement of the people of God with the world, both locally and globally. If lay people don’t study theology, it really is intellectual and spiritual suicide for the Church.”