Speaking of Together in Love and Faith; a short reflection.

‘At last,’ you, or we, might think: a diocesan bishop who has spoken his mind.

Others, of course, might wish that Bishop Steven hadn’t spoken his mind, for his is a challenging mind.

I was pleased to receive a copy of Together in Love and Faith which I read with great interest. In some ways I found myself more interested in + Steven’s journey and his theological method than in his conclusions.

I would want to gently suggest that Together in Love and Faith should be used as an exemplar of Theological Reflection (and Narrative Theology) on ministry courses irrespective of whether tutors share his conclusions.

In his pamphlet Steven draws on scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. He not only cites Scripture but describes (pages 25 & 26) his seven-fold methodology for engaging with Scripture (let me stress that one more time: his seven fold methodology).

There can be no doubt that as someone schooled in the Charismatic Evangelical tradition Bishop Steven continues to take Scripture, and the primacy of Scripture, very seriously indeed. To deny this is to refuse to engage with his overall argument. And yet many of his critics have, and no doubt will continue to do so, favouring instead pre-prepared, ‘oven ready’, and simplistic rebuttals.

Now to be clear I haven’t always agreed with Bishop Steven on a whole range of issues. When I served in the Oxford Diocese I was a frequent, but hopefully friendly, critic. On some issues I still believe, perhaps arrogantly, that I was more right than wrong, and on other issues I have had to reluctantly concede that he was more right than wrong!

Some of our conversations over the years have been robust, yet we remain respectful of each other. But even when I have disagreed with Bishop Steven I have always had to concede that he is a deep thinker, There is genuinely no laziness in his thinking. If you are going to push back you really do need to have thought through, war gamed even, your own position. So I find the question raised by one critic, ‘what was Bishop Steven thinking,’ interesting, for, to say it again, the one thing we do know about him is that he does think. (He also feels).

Bishop Steven has clearly been thinking about his response for an awfully long time; too long, as he acknowledges, for some of his more progressive critics. Mea culpa.

‘Better late than never,’ isn’t however a position I would want to take, and I certainly wouldn’t warm to such a criticism from elsewhere, for to repeat myself, what we have in Together in Love and Faith is an insight into the heart and mind of a diocesan bishop struggling, personally, pastorally, ecclesiologically, and doctrinally with the church’s most contentious issue. Together in Love and Faith must, on these grounds alone, be regarded as a gift to the Church of England, if not the ‘church catholic.’

To return to the ‘oven ready’ rebuttals, of which ‘he has just capitulated to society, or culture,’ is the easiest, and ecclesiologically most shallow.

It surely stands to (ecclesiological) reason that a bishop in an established and national church, a church which (rightly or wrongly) sits in the legislature, should spend a considerable amount of time thinking (for again that is what Bishop Steven does) about the relationship between church and state, or state and church?

But it is also surely wrong, and ecclesiologically myopic, to suggest that in thinking about the relationship between church and state, to conclude that the Church of England should simply accommodate itself to the state, or as various critics seem to advocate deliberately set itself over and against society, for as Bishop Steven writes:

Whenever the Church faces a question about an ethical point or doctrinal understanding or adjustment to advances in knowledge, it is vital for the Christian community to take this question to the Scriptures,’ (page 25).

This statement, even if Bishop Steven’s methodology and consequential conclusions are to be rejected, must surely leave no doubt over the primacy of Scripture in his thinking and reasoning. Scripture, for Bishop Steven, still seems to carry the trump card, as indeed it does for many of us who advocate for equal marriage and the blessing of civil partnerships.

As a quick aside: his method of biblical exegesis is in many ways ‘old fashioned,’ (traditional even), with it’s stress on the use of analogy (cf Origen) in biblical reasoning, what + Steven offers is decisively not some uber liberal, progressive, ‘let’s throw away all the rules,’ model of biblical exegesis, whatever his critics say.

So to conclude in just forty eight pages Bishop Steven offers a thoughtful (theological and narrative) reflection where his data sets include the personal, the pastoral, the ethical, and the doctrinal, all considered through the primacy of Scripture, and where he also reflects on, as any member of the clergy in an established church should, the nature of the relationship between church and society, or state.

Disagree, by all means, with his methodology, but please leave the oven ready one liners on the shelf; they really don’t help.

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3 thoughts on “Speaking of Together in Love and Faith; a short reflection.

  1. Could you please clarify what you mean by Croft’s ” seven fold methodology”? I see seven sections of which perhaps three could fall under the category of “methodology” for engaging with Scripture (trajectories; fruit; analogies) but others clearly are just headings.

    • Thank you: whilst I think that you are right to group the 7 into 3 broad categories they 7 sections do, in my view, comprise the overall methodology, as they are all issues that need to be addressed / questions that need to be answered. We could get hung up on the difference between method and methodology but this wouldn’t, perhaps, be particularly useful. I am content that the 7 are methodological.

      • I would not want to get hung up on the difference between method and methodology but there is a difference between being methodical in the sense you describe (structuring an argument into seven steps) and a methodology for how to ascertain what is faithful Christian teaching.

        No one is likely to disagree with the desirability of proceeding methodically. But one can only agree or disagree with Croft’s methodology , once one has identified what it is.

        The three aspects I have highlighted are of course well known. The argument from trajectories has been explored for many years now and the discussion suggests that many people accept the principle of discerning trajectories. But Croft does not engage with detailed arguments that have been offered over the last thirty years or so in this area and his own application is rather odd, especially for someone trained in OT scholarship.

        The use of analogy is also well established in ethics but its application here is not very rigorous, referencing a range of very diverse issues as if they work in an analogous way. E.g., the defence of the slave trade and of apartheid were theological innovations which departed from historic, mainstream Christian teaching. The issue of remarriage of divorcees became such a controverted matter in the CofE because it had adopted a uniquely rigorous position, refusing to go back to biblical teaching in this area, unlike all other Reformed churches (cf. Eastern Orthodoxy). Lending money at interest was forbidden within the covenant community in favour of support for the poor but it was not generally prohibited as intrinsically wrong which opened up a room for exploring the circumstances in which it may be legitimate (and are we confident that we have got it right now in this area or indeed in the area of remarriage after divorce or did we throw out the baby with the bathwater?).

        The matter of fruit is answered rather well in Vaughan Roberts’ response. And it is by no means a one-liner put down.

        In two areas I was shocked at the carelessness of the treatment of Scripture in Croft’s essay. His treatment of Leviticus is not worthy of a clergyman with a PhD in Biblical Studies. Scholars may legitimately raise questions about the threefold division of the law but Croft does not do this, offering an alternative logic of helping the church to discern how to apply the truth taught in this part of Scripture to the church today.

        And I was astonished to see his claim that “Jesus himself is largely silent on the matters of human sexuality” – surely he would/should not need to have read any secondary material (such as John Nolland’s article at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/anvil/26-1_021.pdf) to know that this is not true.

        I do not deny that Steve Croft wants “to take this question to the Scriptures” and I applaud the sentiment that we must “approach the Scriptures poor in spirit, with empty hands, in need of light and guidance, rather than bringing our own certainties” (p27) but I am afraid the essay does not read like a good example of this.

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