By Lieve Orye
“Thinking the Church Today” was the central theme of the Society for the Study of Theology conference at the University of Nottingham last week. During three buzzing days theologians from all over the UK, but also from Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium discussed what Church is or should be today, how it should be reflected upon, and how it could be understood as both continuity and discontinuity.
Church, dialogue and interruption
Lieven Boeve, founding member of the Anthropos research group, and first speaker at the conference, set the tone with his paper ‘Interrupting Scripture, Interrupting Church’. His was a rich paper in which the historical-dynamic, dialogical concept of Revelation as developed at Vatican II was taken forward encouraging theologians to continue the Vatican II practice of rereading doctrinal texts in view of perspectives developed in the context of the day. A key point was that in continuing this dialogue on how to understand Revelation today even its dialogical nature had to be thought differently. The suggestion was to reconceive it from the perspective of otherness and difference which brings more into focus the asymmetries in dialogue. The human person cannot be understood as first a being in itself that in a second step decides to relate and engage with the other. Rather, Boeve noted, we find ourselves always already in relationship, addressed by the other and being asked to answer. He noted that the previous strategy of dialogue as ‘mutual and critical correlation’ between faith and modernity that was based on the presupposition of continuity no longer functioned when such overlap eroded. In response, strategies of discontinuity had been advocated by theologians, some of who questioned even the very desirability of dialogue. As a third alternative Boeve proposed to reemphasize the necessity of dialogue but to reconsider its nature through the notion of ‘interruption’, a notion that involves both continuity and discontinuity. What is interrupted continues but continues differently. It involves the intrusion of an otherness that halts the narrative, draws attention to its narrative character and forces it to open up towards the other. Both Revelation and Church can interrupt. But also, both self-securing concepts of Revelation and Church can be interrupted.
Church and persons with disabilities: Receiving (from) the other
Both 'interruption' as well as 'otherness' were words that found a frequent echo during both formal and informal conversations at the conference. Let me mention one that provoked ample discussion within my reach of hearing. The third plenary paper by Mary McClintock-Fulkerson in many ways took up this question of Church and otherness, interrupting the rather abstract reflections in terms of exclusion, inclusion and pluralism using her ‘thick’ ethnographic description of welcoming people from group homes in UMC Good Samaritan. Visiting this church, meeting these people ‘with disabilities’ for the first time, she found herself, one could say, 'interrupted', questioned in her own openness toward the other. This interruption, and her fieldwork, helped her to see ‘inclusion’ and ‘pluralism’ as concretely given shape: inclusion took the shape of people from group homes being welcome in the Sunday service but on the condition of being as much as possible ‘like us’ – wandering around and making noises were seen to be disruptive and were discouraged. Pluralism took the shape of a special service, each Thursday evening, where people of the group homes could ‘be themselves’. McClintock Fulkerson argued to continue theological reflection on welcoming the stranger differently: Inclusion nor pluralism are in themselves good concepts to think with if we wish to honor all creatures, people from group homes included. That is, inclusion, welcoming the stranger, is important but how to go beyond a welcome that is conditioned by the standards of ‘the normate population’? Pluralism on the other hand does not set such standards and takes the needs of different groups seriously. But, by providing different services according to the needs of particular groups these are not really challenged to change. It remains easy to consider the ‘special needs service’ as ‘not really worship’. The interruption is neutralized. Allowing herself and theology to be interrupted, McClintock Fulkerson suggested adding a new category: “'receiving from the other’ may well be a crucial element of real (ecclesial) welcome”. She told us that she finds her theological categories questioned and challenged: how do you theologically take seriously people who will never be able to understand Christology or the Trinity, who will never have ‘the correct beliefs’, who even seem to communicate very differently and for whom “church” seems to “work” very differently? How do you honor the Imago Dei of people with disabilities? A first new way toward creativity in our practice of welcome, she noted, is humility. This means acknowledging that there is grace that the church does not control or even know. Second, we need new categories informed by disability studies that help us recognize that ‘disruptive’ behaviors are in fact a different form of communication, and from sociology, to help us understand ourselves as habituated into specific bodily proprieties and sensitivities. Thirdly, we need to look for a theological genre that is not simply doctrine but that nevertheless can result in a different critical theological lens to “discern how or if a faith practice has a discernible normative effect”, even when that faith practice is very different from what we are used to.
Structural problems, no structural solution?
The SST conference itself was in fact an effort in ‘receiving the other’, in being more welcoming to women. A women’s reception to start up the whole event, an extra tag to sessions that addressed issues of gender and diversity and a panel discussion “Gender, sex and systematic theology: present realities, future aspirations” were the major means to do so. In the panel session gender equality or the lack of it, the structural reasons for inequalities as well as personal experiences were discussed by a diverse group of scholars such as Margaret Adam (St Stephen’s House, Oxford), Jenny Daggers (Liverpool Hope University), Mary McClintock Fulkerson (Duke Divinity School), Karen Kilby (Durham University) who had been voted vice-president of the Society in the annual general meeting the day before, Katja Stuerzenhofecker (Universities of Manchester and Chester) and the President of the Society, David Brown. As in several other sessions I went to a major problem in all these matters seems to be that the effort to bring the issues, the differences, the problems to the surface, the development of categories, data and comparisons, also immediately seems to set the scene for making these issues unsolvable. I think Claire Hein Blanton, a young PhD student from Aberdeen, said it well in a conversation over dinner later on: “it is a structural problem that might not have a structural solution”. For me, this becomes very clear when the situation of people ‘with disabilities’ is addressed. It is not enough to devise new categories that would allow in theory to recognize their ways of experiencing the divine. As McClintock Fulkerson would quickly note, our bodily proprieties of fear and uneasiness are not that easily overcome. This can only be done by what is hardly ever addressed in these discussions, the need to take time and to be with each other, doing ‘work’ and acknowledging the ‘work’ done by the other to engage, to attune, to give and to receive. Rather than new theological categories that make 'theoretical' room for the other, we need theological language that redirects our attention to such concretely 'receiving the other'.