In a very insightful article (‘An Unworkable Theology’; June/July FIRST THINGS), the theologian Philip Turner makes a distinction between the formal theology and the working theology of a Church. The formal theology is to be found in a Church’s Creeds, confessional statements, liturgical forms, and similar documents and statements. The ‘working theology’ of a Church is contained in ‘the resolutions passed at official gatherings’ and in ‘what clergy say Sunday by Sunday from the pulpit.’ Formal theology is not necessarily what actually governs the pastoral life, effective beliefs, and real behavior of a body’s clergy and people. Rather the working theology is what moves ‘the conversations that occur at clergy gatherings…the advice clergy give troubled parishioners’, and such similar real-life situations.
Turner then notes the existence of ‘a theological chasm’ which separates ‘a theology of divine acceptance from…a theology of divine redemption.’ The main, real, working goal of a Church that holds a theology of divine acceptance is to embrace more and more people. The key ideas of this accepting theology are divine love, toleration, inclusion, openness, a refusal to draw boundaries, and a reluctance to judge. ‘Church’ is about accepting ourselves and one another, as God is imagined by this theology to accept us. The logical outcome of this theology is seen in the current debate within Turner’s own Church about admitting non-Christians and non-baptized people to Holy Communion. The Gospel, for the proponents of acceptance theology, is about embracing and including the excluded, and is not about changing or ‘converting’ outsiders. Therefore, admitting the non-baptized to Communion is an almost perfect emblem of the Gospel for such folk. God, on this view, wills to include the non-baptized through his Church’s unconditional openness, not through repentance, conversion, baptism, or anything else that might establish a principle of exclusion or that might draw a line of separation and division.
In contrast, a theology of redemption holds that God’s love makes demands upon us. This theology, which is rooted in the actual, historical Gospel of Jesus, in the New Testament of his followers, and in the Creeds and doctrine of his historical Church, holds that people need salvation from a fall, need to be redeemed from a kind of slavery to sin, and need to convert from something inadequate and bad. While the Gospel is indeed inclusive, in that it is potentially open to every human being, the way to inclusion involves requirements: requirements for conversion, repentance, amendment of life, and an attempt at Christian living and personal holiness, all of which in turn can bring separations and exclusions even as they show the way to inclusion within the divine life. Separation and exclusion from God and the life of his Body, the Church, are, to be sure, a matter of our own free choices and actions. Nonetheless, to ignore the separation created by rejection of God’s offer of redemption is to mislead the lost and to leave unfilled what is in fact a desperate human need. To try to include people in the meal, while pointing them away from the real food, is no kindness to them.
Turner suggests that the debate over Communion for the non-baptized may well be much more significant than disagreements over sexual morality. I am inclined to think he is right. Think of it this way. Usually Churches are what they imagine and usually they get what they seek. If a Church says, ‘There is no essential difference between us and the non-baptized,’ then they may well be right. If a Church says, ‘The unbaptized, non-Christian world is not in fundamental need of redemption, only inclusion,’ then that Church, while quite mistaken about the needs of the unbaptized, is quite correct in asserting that they offer the world nothing except affirmation and acceptance.
I hope that Professor Turner, whose analysis is so clear and perceptive, will find his way to a Church that has a theology centered, not in a therapeutic, non-judgemental saviour of its own imagining, but rather in the real, living, and redeeming Jesus of the gospel and of the historic tradition of Christendom.