I spent some time today reflecting on these words from Rowan Williams’ extraordinary essay ‘Women and the Ministry: A Case for Theological Seriousness’. (The essay appears in Feminine in the Church, and is also available here.) [HT: Chris Green for drawing my attention to this essay]:
If we had to choose between a Church tolerably confident of what it has to say and seeking only for effective means of saying it, and a Church constantly engaged in an internal dialogue and critique of itself, an exploration to discover what is central to its being, I should say that it is the latter which is the more authentic – a Church which understands that part of what it is offering to humanity is the possibility of living in such a mode. What the Church ‘has to say’ is never a simple verbal message: it is an invitation to entrust your life to a certain vision of the possibilities of humanity in union with God. And to entrust yourself in this way is to put your thinking and experience, your reactions and your initiatives daily into question, under the judgement of the central creative memory of Jesus Christ, present in his Spirit to his community.
I turned then to Mike Higton’s wonderful book, Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams, wherein he offers a stimulating commentary on these words of Williams’. I thought that it was worth sharing:
If the reality which the Church helps us to explore – the reality which it teaches – is that ‘ceaseless movement towards the Father’, then we need to be cautious about how we express the nature of the Church’s teaching. It is not going to be simply the doling out of well-understood truth – a case of those who have reached and understood the truth handing out that truth to others. Rather the Church will teach by inviting others to join with it in learning, and by pointing them to the sources from which it itself is slowly learning …
Rather than thinking of the Church as the bearer of answers, it might be better to think about the Church as the bearer of a question – the bearer of the question which the Gospel poses; we might say with Williams that the Church is ‘[t]hat which transmits God’s question from generation to generation’. The Church teaches by pointing away from itself to the transforming, upsetting impact of Jesus – pointing not so much to a stable, achieved religious system as to a disruption which can bring all systems of religious practice and knowledge face to face with a reality that cannot be exhausted by any system. The Church’s paradoxical task is to preserve this questioning – to find concrete forms of life, stable practices, and a learnable language that will keep alive the possibility of our hearing this disruption, and which will allow it to be felt deeper and far wider than the circle of its original impact’ (pp. 69–70).