The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches has a long history and an impressive record of producing collaborative theological work – collaborative across church traditions and across global contexts.
As one of the members of the current Commission, though, I often find it hard to explain the work it does to people who are used to “normal” academic conferences. The ordinary model for academic work in our subject prioritises individual effort and recognition and values disagreement. Can you imagine trying to get an academic conference to produce, at the end, an agreed statement on the matters under discussion? So if I say that every year I travel some distance round the world in order to try to produce agreed documents with theologians from other parts of the world – and the outputs will take a few years to emerge and won’t have my name on them – well, it can raise eyebrows.
I’m working with a subgroup of the Commission who are trying to put together materials on how Christian churches make decisions on moral issues. Not what decisions the churches make, but how they make them. We’re working on the hypothesis – which might or might not turn out to be correct, in the very long run – that it’s easier to deal with disagreement if you understand how the other group reached the position they did. We’re also working on the even more controversial hypothesis that it’s worth looking not just at how churches say they make decisions on moral issues, but how they do make decisions on particular issues in particular contexts.
And that is why last month I spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur, hosted by the Council of Churches of Malaysia, discussing papers about: the changing interpretation of pacifism in the Mennonite church; how Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Reformed churches across Europe came to accept the lending of money at interest; polygamy and the Presbyterian church in the Cameroon; Methodist churches and slavery in the antebellum USA; women’s theological education and liturgical role in the Syrian Orthodox church; interfaith marriage and the churches in Malaysia; and similar equally complex and fascinating stories.
We’re trying to make sense, as an international group of theologians, of how churches make sense of their changing situations – how they interpret and reinterpret the Bible and theological tradition, how they resist and reflect culture, how they respond to changes in science or economics or politics – and how they read history itself theologically. My own research interests mean I’m particularly interested in asking who makes the decisions and who implements them, whose voices are heard in what contexts, who speaks for “the church”; and in why a particular question suddenly becomes urgent or controversial for a church body.
It’s hard to make a neat theological system or map out of a whole world’s and two millennia’s worth of real life. However, we’re hoping to find some useful ways of talking about all this bewildering variety – seeing moral decision-making as interpretation; distinguishing different levels at which things can change; and, at the very least, breaking down some stereotypes about how different churches make decisions (no church is an authoritarian monolith, or an anarchic space where “anything goes”) and it’s a privilege to be involved in the work.
By Dr Rachel Muers