Who is ducking what in the C of E?

ImageGen.ashxOn Friday, Linda Woodhead expressed in the Church Times her serious reservations about the recent series of reports on change required in the Church of England (under the general heading of ‘Renewal and Reform’).

Many of the responses I have read so far have been distinctly coloured by Woodhead’s previous comments and writing. This was, after all, the person who a year ago commented:

Imagine, for a moment, that all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight, leaving only the clergy. Obviously there would be a financial crisis, the current parochial system would have to be radically reformed, a great number of churches and vicarages would need to be sold off, and the Synod would have to cease or change.

But the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue…

This bizarre notion arose because ‘The more I reflected on it, the less sense it made to think of a Church of England without England; it actually made more sense to think of a Church without congregations.’ Though some reading last week’s article saw its analysis as a reflection on ecclesiology, this isn’t the kind of ecclesiology that most thinking people would relate to.

Woodhead was also one of the main figures behind the so-called ‘Westminster Debates’ on the state of faith in the nation. Although ostensibly involving sociological analysis of where we are at, it became clear that there was a theological agenda, and within that evangelical male clergy were the main problem.

Notwithstanding these back-stories, it is important to take Woodhead’s critique in its own terms. She starts with an arresting analogy:

IT TAKES courage and humility to admit that you need to see a doctor, and men are notoriously bad at it.

It is an ‘irresistible’ jibe, but perhaps a bit unfortunate, in that the Church Times styles her as ‘Dr Linda Woodhead’, when her doctorate is in fact honorary, and most universities would consider use of the title misleading.

I would in fact agree with a number of her criticisms of the reports, which are an uneven collection. The Green report (on senior appointments) has had the worst reception so far, though that was in large measure due to the poor way it was released and communicated. (See David Keen’s review for a more positive appreciation.) I think the report on ministry training has some refreshing and much needed recommendations—though also a serious problem or two. I agree with Woodhead too that ‘a mild sense of panic leaks out of all the reports’, and I am not sure how helpful this is. But beyond that, her analysis seems incoherent and unpersuasive.

Her opening criticism is the lack of action, expressed in the opening quip about an ailing man refusing to see the doctor. But the reports seem problematic because they are ‘resolutely practical and pragmatic’, as if that is not what is needed. In the next, rather confusing, metaphor,

“The car is stuck in a ditch! Quick! Grab the tools nearest to hand and get it out!” But, the more I read, the more I worried that the hard questions that needed to be asked had been sidelined: why the vehicle fell into the ditch; whether it needed a different engine and new running gear; and whether it was going in the right direction in the first place.

Yet, if a car is stuck in a ditch, getting it out does seem to be the most urgent task. And, despite Woodhead’s analysis, the questions about why it is in the ditch, whether it needs a different engine, and whether it is going in the right direction are all answered rather fully in each of the reports—rather too fully for many tastes. The general answer to the last two questions has mostly been ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively—and quite a few people have been unsettled by that. You might not like the answers offered (and Woodhead clearly does not) but it is a strange thing to suggest that they are not there.

Her central objection appears to hinge on the understanding of what the church is:

As for the nature of the Church, and the priorities for its recovery, it is simply assumed that the improvement depends on more and better clergy; that only congregations can fund it (with a fillip from the Commissioners); and that being a Christian is a matter of “discipleship”.

On the question of clergy, all the research evidence points to the importance of good, stipendiary leadership in growing churches, so this is an odd objection (unless Woodhead in fact objects to churches growing). On the second issue, that of giving, everyone I know believes that giving is a sign of spiritual commitment and maturity; congregations where faith is flourishing are the ones that are giving, whatever their social context. Perhaps the key to both of these is the third, the idea that being a Christian is (in slightly mocking inverted commas) about ‘discipleship’. This is where the analysis becomes nothing short of extraordinary.

It turns out that Woodhead believes that the concept of “discipleship” is ‘theologically peripheral.’ This rather begs the question of what on earth Woodhead has been doing with her time—because it cannot have been spent reading the gospels, where the notion of discipleship is theologically central. In Matthew, five sessions of Jesus’ teaching of his disciples (after the fashion of a new Moses) is interspersed with five accounts of the disciples participating in and emulating Jesus’ ministry. In Mark, the question of confession of Jesus as Messiah and following as disciples forms the hinge of the whole gospel in chapter 8—rather helpfully placed by Mark at the centre. In Luke, the central motif from chapter 9 to chapter 19 is that of ‘following Jesus on the way’. In John, the shift is to disciples as witnesses, testifying to all they had seen and heard—and the goal for the reader is ‘that you might believe’ (John 20.31).

It might be, perhaps, that Woodhead prefers Pauline theology. Discipleship, as such, does not play a large part here. Instead, Paul focuses on the notion of ‘the body of Christ’, but I suspect that she would find this far too congregational, with its rather naive assumptions of membership, commitment, and community disciplines.

It gradually becomes clear that what Woodhead is offering us is an entirely secularised vision of the Church as a modern institution. We should have a positive view of modern society; to reject its ‘secularised, materialistic culture’ is nothing more than ‘paranoid and unevidenced projection’. We really ought to be aiming for ‘cuts and closures.’ Leadership in the Church should be decided by ‘open competition, proper accountability, transparency, and 360° assessment’ since ‘[i]t works for the rest of us’ in secular employment. (Looks like the Green report’s managerialism really doesn’t go far enough.) We shouldn’t be trying to ‘bring society into church’ (that is, tell anyone about our faith and expect them to act on it) since this is far too congregational. And we should raise money by means of ‘an annual membership charge along the lines of the National Trust, and com­petitive charging for some as­­pects of the Church’s work.’ Goodness; all those scare stories about privatisation wrecking the Health Service must be completely wrong!

Nina+Mustonen+HUOM!+KERTAJULKAISU!For Woodhead, a model example here is the Church of Finland and its initiatives in offering internet prayers. Because membership is defined by a near-mandatory tax, it turns out that it is ‘one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world.’ And yet actual weekly church attendance is 1.8% of the population and falling (compared with 9%–12% in England at the moment, depending on how you count). And those that do attend treat faith as a strictly private matter.

Most Lutheran Finns are not like Nina Mustonen, a parishioner in Helsinki’s Pakila district, who attends church most Sundays. But similar to most Finns, she doesn’t feel comfortable talking about her faith.

She says she prays, but those thoughts are private. “Going to church brings a form of continuity. I believe there’s a higher power, but I don’t spend much time thinking about what the Bible says,” Mustonen explains…

Mustonen, a grocery store clerk, says religion is not a discussion topic in her workplace. In fact, she says she would feel uncomfortable if a colleague brought up matters of faith.

Is this really a ‘more imaginative vision’ of the Church’s future? It rather makes me want to run back into the arms of Green and his managerialism crying ‘All is forgiven!’

Woodhead’s solution to a declining church is not for the decline to end, and numbers (and depth of understanding) to grow, but to redefine the church as that section of society which vaguely supports it. This sounds very much like a return to the past, where bishops claimed the Church consisted of half the country, because that was the number who had been baptised—despite many of them never darkening the doors of a church ever again.

bonhoeffer-centuryThere is, in fact, a better vision, one that actually involves listening to God rather than worshipping at the altar of sociology. Martin Davie expounds this rather well in his latest blog post. There, he cites two people who do know something about theology, and rather a lot about both discipleship and sharing faith:

[T]he teaching of Matthew 16:18 is clear and unmistakeable: ‘I will build my church.’ To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon on this verse from 1933:

‘…it is not we who build. He wills to build the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess – he builds. We must proclaim – he builds. We must pray to him – he builds. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of building. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church; you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me.’

Davie goes on to cite Michael Green, from his latest book When God Breaks In (Hodder 2014) p.222:

There is no way in which human beings can orchestrate the sweeping power of divine interventions, such as the ones we have looked at. They are the work of the living God, with or without human agency, and they take different forms. They come at the times of his decision. But what we can say without fear of contradiction is that they never appear when all God’s people are apathetic, prayerless, unconcerned about holiness, flippant about the great issues of life, death and judgement, or disposed to reject the authority of Scripture. Scepticism in theology and hedonism in lifestyle never spawn significant spiritual revival. That in itself ought to be a significant pointer to the way in which the Church should be moving.

Woodhead is absolutely right to note in her conclusion, that ‘There is a bigger, better, and more exciting Church of England out there, waiting to be born.’ But it is to be found somewhere other than in her reduced, secularised model rooted in sociology.

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43 thoughts on “Who is ducking what in the C of E?”

  1. I find Linda Woodhead a curious figure. She writes and thinks a lot about the Church of England, perhaps out of sociological curiosity, but at the deepest level she simply does not understand what the church is all about.

    It makes me think of 1 Cor 1:18-25. “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” The wisdom of the world says, “if you just make the church more attractive to people, if you affirm gay marriage, if you look like the world – you’ll attract more people.”

    But the wisdom of God says, preach the foolishness of Christ crucified – this is the way he builds his church.

  2. The Church of England is about whatever its people decide it’s about, within its terms of reference. That’s not a narrow concoction of simplistic interpretations of quotes from the Bible. It’s about the reality of God and how us “people of England” wish to make sense of that reality. The history of failed initiatives (Decade of Evangelism, Anglican Communion Covenant) suggest that running the Church in recent decades do not understand what makes either theological or ecclesiological sense to most of us. Biblical literalism and the command and control politics currently dominating church policy-making look set to kill off the Church of England as a national Church. It is only new thinking, in understandable language, that has a hope of reigniting popular interest in the Christian tradition as a worthwhile resource for living. Character attacks on obviously credible authors are unlikely to help with that.

    • Thanks Dave. I would be really interested to know where, in the blog post, there was evidence of biblical literalism, command and control politics, or character attacks? I have aimed in this piece to identify, set out and critique what I have read. Isn’t that what academics should be up for?

      If there is any unhelpful rhetoric, I think it would be found in a woman rather sneering at men who don’t go to the doctor! Or mocking the notion of panicking bishops trying to pull a car out of a ditch.

      • Thanks Ian. I was referring to the Church in general there, particularly about the command and control politics. But your biblical references (John 20.31 and Matthew 16:18) seem intended in a literalistic sense – otherwise why quote them?

        The most obvious personal attack is the reference to Linda Woodhead’s doctorate. That doesn’t contribute to your case. It’s merely an attempt to undermine an opponent’s academic standing. It’s attacking the person, not the argument.

        Regarding men’s reluctance to go to the doctor, I took that as a truism that I suspect is well documented somewhere. I certainly applies to me! And given the state of the Church the bishops are supposed to be leading, I’m not sure how you justify not mocking at least some of their recent output.

        You’re obviously used to speaking to your own constituency. You’d be right if you suspected it’s not mine (any more). But you haven’t engaged with the substantial point I raised (who should decide the mission of the Church of England). That’s disappointing.

        • Thanks for the clarification. Taking your point in turn…

          I am not sure I understand what you mean by biblical literalism. The quotation from John is universally recognised by commentators as a final summary statement by the author of the gospel, so much so that many argue that chapter 21 is a later addition. The verse includes key theological ideas from the gospel, particularly ‘believing’ and ‘life’, and it also forms an ‘inclusio’ with these ideas as they are expressed in chapter 1 (especially John 1.12).

          On the doctorate, first please note that this was a minor point in passing—and might in fact have been an error of a copy editor at the CT rather than anything else. I have never heard of anyone who has an honorary doctorate style themselves as ‘Doctor’—it is not acceptable practice, I guess partly because it irks those who have worked for earned doctorates. It is really quite an important point of academic integrity. If I put an honorary doctorate on my CV as a qualification rather than an honour, I would be guilty of falsification.

          On the substantial point, I think you are at best half right in your claim ‘The Church of England is about whatever its people decide it’s about, within its terms of reference.’ The reason for this is that the ‘terms of reference’ of the C of E remove from us this freedom to choose what we are about. It sets out what the Church is very clearly in its formularies, and all the ordained make a vow of obedience to these formularies.

          In particular, the formularies commit the Church to be accountable to Scripture and scriptural theology. As I point out, the NT record of Jesus’ teaching makes ‘discipleship’ a central theological category, and the command to ‘make disciples’ a central task. We are not at liberty to sideline these, on the basis of sociology or anything else.

          I say this not as an evangelical, but simply as a historic Anglican.

          • By biblical literalism I mean the belief that the words in the Bible are literally authoritative for Christians. That’s an evangelical position not shared by others with at least equally valid claims to Christian identity. The gospel authors were story-tellers, doing theology for their time using recollections of Jesus as source material. There is no sensible justification for accepting their conclusions as binding on a 21st century church.

            I don’t recall seeing the word “disciple” or “discipleship” in the canons. Either way the commitment required of clergy in their work is to use the formularies “as their inspiration and guide”. Given the thought and care that will have gone into the drafting, this suggests precisely the liberty not to sideline but to update how this requirement is understood and expressed “in every generation”. Without this openness to change over a lifetime, ordination would condemn clergy to only ever rearranging the past, never being part of “creating all things new”.

          • Dave, I don’t know what you mean by ‘literally authoritative’. You appear to be mixing two categories here, of authority and interpretation.

            On the subject of discipleship, I rather like David Runcorn’s questions on the TA website:

            What if our response (and Angela Tilby’s) was to say at this point – we understand the word ‘discipleship’ but for a variety of thoughtful and theological reasons we don’t use it. We prefer the word ……. for these reasons …….

            Can anyone fill in the blanks here?

            What word do we claim to be authentically Anglican that sums up our calling to be a church being led and leading others into radical conversion of life, taking up your cross, faith, prayer and holiness, self denial and the service of others, following Jesus, loving enemies, peacemaking, justice, attentiveness to scripture, obedience to the divine will and being formed in the likeness of Christ?

  3. One has to ask, what is the value of sociology as an academic (or any other) discipline? It is no more than a subjective description of the world around it, and is generally framed in terms which are all too redolent of the Frankfurt School. It can offer its own diagnoses, but is logically unable to offer solutions. It criticises but has nothing to contribute. If it were merely vacuous, that would be an unfortunate thing, but it does damage by its apparently plausible analyses which are in fact opinion dressed up as scientific inquiry. Its conclusions are determined before it sets to work.

    • Alan, You might have a point in this case about ‘opinion dressed up as scientific inquiry’. For me, though, this does not lead to writing off genuinely helpful insights from sociology. The problem is (as I pointed out in previous posts) the approach under scrutiny does appear to have a quite specific theological agenda, but without the needed theological grounding.

  4. I love your conclusion Ian, and the quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
    Our church leaders over the 50 years I have been consciously aware of them have been “minded to build the church” with the result that Bonhoeffer predicts. What should be the visible expression of the Kingdom of God has become the realm of men and has shrivelled inevitably as a result.

  5. Ian,

    I think we need to fair in applying the context that Linda Woodhead gave to her remarks. St. Paul said: ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow…For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ (1 cor. 3:6, 12,13) He still warned that ‘wood hay and stubble’ would not survive the fire of Day of the Lord scrutiny.

    The sovereignty of God is not in contention here. Instead, the issue is whether the clergy/congregational emphasis of these reports is truly being: ‘the salt of the earth’.

    You responded to this excerpt from her Church Times article:

    ‘Imagine, for a moment, that all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight, leaving only the clergy. Obviously there would be a financial crisis, the current parochial system would have to be radically reformed, a great number of churches and vicarages would need to be sold off, and the Synod would have to cease or change.

    But the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue…’

    This bizarre notion arose because ‘The more I reflected on it, the less sense it made to think of a Church of England without England; it actually made more sense to think of a Church without congregations.’

    She actually clarifies her rhetorical remark later on: ‘My point about a Church without congregations is tongue-in-cheek. Success always depends, in part, on activists. But once the Church starts to exist for the benefit of activists alone, it ceases to be a Church, and becomes a sect.’

    She has a point in relation to the national institution. Does it only exist to build congregations (primarily by resourcing ordained leaders and then tracking attendance figures) which, in turn, build society, or is a more direct approach more effective?

    Christians are not only told ‘not to forsake the assembling of yourselves together’, but also to have a transforming influence on society (‘You are the salt of the earth’). The Average Sunday Attendance is no barometer of whether we are doing that.

    She summarises by saying: ‘Overall, then, the report on the health of the societal Church must return a mixed verdict. Some parts look healthy; some do not. So, what makes the difference?

    The single most significant factor seems to be a willingness to abandon a paternalistic mode of action.’

    What she then highlights are examples of unhealthy dogmatic paternalism:

    ‘It is the difference between asking parents to have their child baptised in a Sunday service, among people they do not know, and making the family the centre of the event. It is the contrast between designing a funeral with the active participation of the bereaved, and telling them that they cannot even have the music they want.’

    ‘It is the shift from school chaplains who were there to give Christian “instruction” to the employment of chaplains – even in non-faith academies – to support the moral and general well-being of the whole institution. It is the difference between being a Church that works with other agents in society – and is open to being changed by them – to one that claims to be the sole repository of truth.’

    Is Linda Woodhead truly encouraging the disbanding of CofE congregations, or is she really advocating that the Church adopts a more participative approach to society including negotiating social partnership without an ordained broker? Is her vision of a far less intensely top-down prescriptive approach focused increasing clergy and their congregations so heretical? I find her phrasing is far more incarnational than portraying growth largely in terms of increased average weekly attendance, when we know that ‘God does not dwell in temples made with hands’.

    My main concern here is, although sometimes poorly expressed in theological terms, Dr. Woodhead makes some valid points.

    Dr. Woodhead’s reference to one aspect of the Church of Finland’s engagement with the internet emphasized the importance of ‘popular and par­ticipatory “church” spaces’. She explained, ‘Even if your only concern is to stock con­gre­gations, it is short-sighted not to nurture these feeders.’ She did not hold it forth as a model church in its entirety.

    Although you are right that discipleship was a central and not peripheral theme of Christ’s ministry, the point that Woodhead is making is that: ‘”following Jesus” is being used as an analogue for leadership (Jesus and clergy), and followership (laity).’

    Christ Himself said as much while exposing the danger of religious power hierarchies: ‘But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.’ (Matt. 23:8,9)

    Her central charge is that ‘Sadly, this helps explain their di­m­in­­ished ecclesiology, with its nar­rowly clerical and congregational emphases. I kept feeling that they were wanting us to follow the disciples rather than Jesus.’

    It is because of the undue clergy-congregation emphasis that she asks rhetorically, ‘How do [people] connect with the Church? In descending order, the five most common points of contact are: funerals, visits to a cathedral or historic church, weddings, Christmas services, and christenings. Regular worship came in sixth place.’

    To counter that: ‘But surely the main way that people have contact with ‘the church’ is by meeting, living next to and working with members of the church—Christians!’ misses and somewhat makes her point. If that’s the main mode of contact, why isn’t lay interaction the key measure of the church’s impact on society? More especially given the examples commended in the Archbishops’ proposal of the ‘Programme of Reform and Renewal’):

    ‘There is a remarkable breadth and quality of service and commitment offered through community ventures, food banks, credit unions and many other initiatives through cathedrals, parish churches, and fresh expressions of church.’

    Instead, undergirding the Archbishops’ proposal is the key report ‘Resourcing the Future of the Church of England’ that refers to ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’. In turn, the latter, (while admitting that ‘growth in depth’ and ‘growth in the outworking of our discipleship’ are also important) cites case studies in congregational growth for which the headline figure is always Average Weekly Attendance.

    Improving the number and quality of stipendiary clergy (of whom the most gifted have shown no past proof that they can reverse decline) might be a constant focus for the reports, but I’m with Dr. Woodhead on the need for the church to orient itself towards a more participatory, collaborative and less prescriptive approach to the wider society. She doesn’t need to engage in doctoral studies in order to make that point.

    • David, thanks for the engagement, but I think you are missing something central. ‘The sovereignty of God is not in contention here’. Er, actually, I think it very much is. Woodhead appears to see baptism as having a purely social function, with little or no connection to the idea of affective encounter with God or the concomitant response of discipleship (since this is ‘theologically peripheral’). The whole project appears to be reducing the theological function of the church to a sociological dynamic, comprehensively in purely human terms.

      The goal of social engagement is nowhere in these article expressed in theological categories, such as ‘mission’ or the ‘kingdom of God’.

      ‘ why isn’t lay interaction the key measure of the church’s impact on society?’ Because Linda Woodhead chooses not to measure that!

      • Thanks for your reply,

        While taking issue with ‘reducing the theological function of the church to a sociological dynamic, comprehensively in purely human terms’ is valid, you have yet to engage with the clergy-congregational emphasis that she criticizes.

        In terms of divine sovereignty, you state: ‘Er, actually, I think it very much is. Woodhead appears to see baptism as having a purely social function, with little or no connection to the idea of affective encounter with God or the concomitant response of discipleship (since this is ‘theologically peripheral’).’

        In fact, baptism (the infant variety) is a very good example.

        The child’s godparents are ‘sureties that he will renounce the devil and all his works, and constantly believe God’s holy Word, and obediently keep his commandments (until he come of age to take it upon himself)’.

        Baptism cannot direct sovereign grace because grace and the resulting new birth are not acts of human will (John 1:13) Baptism may provide the child with a blessed encounter with God, but we might debate whether its an *affective* one for a newborn baby.

        So, the infant rite is extended on the same basis as the blessing akin which Christ willingly bestowed on the little children. It includes a promise on the part of godparents to ‘bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’ (Eph. 6:4). Yet, despite all that a parent might do (2 Tim. 3:15), the child’s concomitant response of discipleship is under the sovereign will of God. Baptism is the overt concomitant response of discipleship, not the other way around.

        I reiterate her words, ‘It is the difference between asking parents to have their child baptised in a Sunday service, among people they do not know, and making the family the centre of the event.’

        Let’s contrast the wording of Canon B21: ‘‘It is desirable that every minister having a cure of souls shall normally administer the sacrament of Holy Baptism on Sundays at public worship when the most number of people come together, *that the congregation there present may witness the receiving of them that be newly baptized into Christ’s Church, and be put in remembrance of their own profession made to God in their baptism.*’

        The desirability of baptism in Sunday Service is its benefit to the congregation, in terms of their witness to receiving the child into Christ’s church and their remembrance of their baptismal profession. Of course, if there is no on-going engagement with that reception of the child, the purpose of the witness is thwarted.

        The congregation is not indispensable to baptism, more especially when it consists of people whom the parents don’t know. It’s the dogmatic insistence on adiaphora like the presence of the congregation that Woodhead describes as ‘paternalistic mode of action’. Hence, it could be a lot more meaningful (and popular) to accept the request to baptise the child at home without sacrificing theological integrity.

        ‘Why isn’t lay interaction the key measure of the church’s impact on society?’ Because Linda Woodhead chooses not to measure that!’

        My question was related to the ‘clergy-congregation’ focus of the Task Group reports. Unless, Linda Woodhead ran those groups, her choice not to measure lay interaction doesn’t really come into it.

        Despite its theological shortcomings, her critique provides a significant challenge to the clergy-congregation emphases of the Church. Perhaps, it will encourage the CofE to re-focus on resourcing in areas that will not only ‘equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up’ (Eph. 4:12), but will also benefit the entire society by abandoning the adiaphoric form and ritual that don’t always connect:

        ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’ (Gal. 6:10)

  6. The point about Linda Woodhead’s honorary doctorate is rather ungenerous I feel as well as misleading. Her title is Professor in fact. The comment might lead those unfamiliar with her work to doubt her academic credentials. (Though I am surprised if any theologian would be unfamiliar with her work). However the opposite is the case – she is one of the foremost Sociologists of Religion in the West and has a global reputation. Her publication record is vast and therefore the fact she didn’t gain a doctorate along the way is now irrelevant. Sociology of Religion as a subject is very valuable in helping us understand our context better and her work is absolutely key within this field.

    • Manon, thanks for the comment.

      On the doctorate, first please note that this was a minor point in passing—and might in fact have been an error of a copy editor at the CT rather than anything else.

      On the formal point, I am not being ungenerous, but simply honest and factual. I have never heard of anyone who has an honorary doctorate style themselves as ‘Doctor’—it is not acceptable practice, I guess partly because it irks those who have worked for earned doctorates. (‘Professor’ is not a qualification so much as a job title.)

      I am not here casting any question about Linda Woodhead’s academic record in sociology. But I have a major question about why and whether a sociologist has much to say on the theological issue of what the church is for. If I read an undergraduate essay which proposed ‘the concept of discipleship is a peripheral theological issue’ I was seriously mark it down. It is a nonsense.

      What makes it doubly difficult is the proposition (by Woodhead and others) that what is being offered here is somehow factual, objective, and theological-agenda free. None of this is the case, and I think it would help her case if she came clean on this.

      • Hmm. Simply factual and honest? Ian, that you as a conservative evangelical ex-university teacher would mark down dismissal of discipleship as a useful concept is merely a reflection of your particular theology. If you are unaware that this is not the only position within Christianity or the Church of England, you invite questions about your own qualifications as a teacher. It is not nonsense at all for some of us with different priorities.

        As for theological agendas, are you seriously claiming you don’t have one?

        (with apologies to Manon for butting in)

        • Of course I have an agenda—and one which I am quite open about! I don’t think I have ever claimed that my comments are value free, and so I don’t think a sociologist can claim so either.

          You say that fact that I ‘would mark down dismissal of discipleship as a useful concept is merely a reflection of your particular theology’. No it’s not—it’s about reading the range of issues and language in the gospels and wider NT. It is perfectly possibly to claim that this notion should or should not shape the contemporary agenda for the church—but to dismiss it as ‘theologically peripheral’ is hardly credible as a statement of theology.

          Do say more about the grounds on which you would set this aside, particularly in the light of NT understandings of the ekklesia, and Anglican formulations about the task of ordained ministry set out in the ordinal.

          • I don’t recall Linda Woodhead claiming anywhere that her writing was value free.

            Theology is a broad field. The criteria for “theologically peripheral” depends on our priorities within it. The issue that is holding the Church of England back is precisely the one you’ve specified: do traditional historic NT understandings and Anglican formulations any longer provide a useful measure of theological significance for a 21st century national Church. Simple observation (and I suspect Linda Woodhead’s sociological research) suggest not, given it has been (and remains) the declining Church’s almost exclusive yardstick.

            Useful theology needs to use “words about God” that connect with mindsets constructed from the language and cultures of today, not 100 or 2000 years ago. That means acknowledging the mythology of Christianity for what it is: the Church’s inheritance of stories that preserve and illustrate its values. It is history and art and anthropology, not the be all and end all of contemporary theology. At least not if we believe that God is a foundational metaphysical reality, and that including God in a world view makes better sense than not.

  7. I don’t think any sociologist would claim to be objective or value free in that sense. It’s in the nature of the discipline to be open about your commitments and subjective experience and that this colours your research. I’ve not read anywhere that she has said this..A sociologist has much to say about the church and what it’s for if you accept that we can learn something from experience and people’s real lives. I say this as someone about to complete a PhD in Practical Theology so i do accept that my theology is affected by my experience and also that there is much to be gained from learning from other disciplines. I accept that other (non practical, if there can be such a thing) theologians might not agree. Could it be that it’s just a misunderstanding of the role of the different disciplines? (Happy Dave that you butted in).

    Professor is also a title here in Britain surely, and reflects someone’s academic standing. i do also know of those who call themselves Dr after being awarded it as an honorary title. I am working blooming hard for mine though (all being well, of course).

  8. Regrettably, your aspd hominem remarks about Linda Woodhead leave a nasty taste in the mouth and blunt the force of your post. She has not styled herself “Dr”, the CT has. I have heard her speak several times and met her once. She has either been referred to as Professor or just as Linda. Apart from the CT, I have never heard her referred to or introduce herself as Dr.

    • Thanks Daniel—as you can see, I largely agree with you. I don’t anywhere say that she calls herself this; my comment in the article is that ‘the Church Times styles her’ and I note in comments above that ‘might in fact have been an error of a copy editor at the CT rather than anything else’.

      It is quite an important point of academic integrity; if I ever had an article that misrepresented my qualifications, I would be cross.

      But that whole paragraph is only 38 words out of 1,931. I am much more interested in discussing the other more tasty 1,893, if you have any substantive comments on those.


  9. Thank you to the good people who have defended me against the unfortunate implication that I make up falsehoods about my qualifications. Dr Paul has kindly made clear that this was not his intention. My CV is on my website and is public. It lists my qualifications. Needless to say, I have never made false claims and never would. It also makes clear my theological qualifications. I will not labour them here. This is a distraction. My ideas should be judged on their merits. The points I was trying to make are very well represented by several people posting on this blog, and I am very grateful to them for trying to bring clarity to the discussion, and avoid misrepresentation. May the discussion about the central issues rather than the ad hominem distractions continue.I thank Dr Paul in advance for clarifying his remarks, and posting this response.

    • Linda, thanks very much for commenting, and for clarifying that I was correct in noting you should not be styled ‘Dr’, and that (as I suggested) this was an error of the Church Times and not your own.

      With you, I hope we can focus continued discussion on whether ‘discipleship’ is indeed a peripheral theological idea, and whether the Church should function as a secularised social institution, or have a theological vision of encounter with God at its centre.

      • Ian,

        With the greatest respect, I would also hope that you, in turn, engage with the clergy-congregational emphasis of the current CofE ethos (as evidenced by the Task Force reports) that constitutes the thrust of Linda’s critique.

  10. I’m late to the conversation I know – but I think there’s something important to add which I haven’t seen noted:

    That is that Linda Woodhead only represents one (albeit a dominant one) stream of the Sociology of Religion and her conclusions will be shaped by the school she is part of. Another school is that of Rodney Stark, an equally respected published and peer-reviewed sociologist, whose findings regularly clash with Linda Woodhead’s.

    Stark’s research very much supports Ian’s perspective. Some may reject these findings because they disagree with the liberalising agenda, but Stark is not an evangelical Christian (like Woodhead, I’m not sure if Stark is a Christian at all or purely interested from a sociological perspective) – but Stark’s academic qualifications are at least equivalent to Woodhead’s, so denying him a hearing because you dislike where his conclusions lead is disingenuous at best.

    Whilst working on my MA I spent a lot of time comparing the writings of Stark and Woodhead and have personally found Stark’s perspectives to be the more convincing.

    • Nick, thanks for the comment—that is very interesting.

      Do you have a link to anything which points this up? Where does Stark articulate this? Is your MA thesis available?

      • Thanks Ian – this is stretching my recollection a bit to provide exact references (I read so much in preparation and writing, which was over 18 months ago) – however will do my best (I can’t check back as my Shibboleth log-in has expired so can’t reread articles).

        The gist of it is this: Linda Woodhead argues that nominals and nominalism is where the churches strength is and where it should focus (‘Nominals’ are the Church’s hidden strength’ Church Times 26 Apr 2013) – essentially focusing on a ‘believing without belonging’ style of Christianity (or Grace Davies’ Vicarious Religion – Davie, G ‘Praying Alone?’ Journal of Contemporary Religion). Woodhead’s vision for Christianity is as a sort of vague spirituality for the nation, a bit of a conscience for the nation – somewhere people can go when secularism gets a bit dry for a bit of spirituality and moral guidance (although the churches moral vision must be in line with secular values).

        To hear/read Linda Woodhead’s vision of Christianity sounds very similar to that which Christian Smith and Kendra Dean (also sociologists) term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (Smith, C ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ in Collins-Mayo, S & Dandelion, P. (eds) Religion and Youth, p. 41) – the tenets of which boil down to:

        1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
        2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
        3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
        4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
        5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

        Stark however holds to what he terms a ‘Supply-Side’ model for religious growth – that the easier/less demanding and more wide-spread a religion is, the weaker it becomes. Stark’s thesis (which is expounded in most detail in his book ‘The Rise of Christianity’) is that it was the confidence which early Christians had in their identity as disciples and in the teachings and identity of Jesus was the reason behind its growth and strength – despite being in a deeply hostile culture. One of Stark’s major interests is in Gender and Religion – so he writes quite a bit on the kind of religion that attracts men, and notes that it is confident and risk-taking faith.

        I’m afraid I can’t find the article(s) where Stark/Woodhead directly critiqued each others work but am convinced I remember it existing!

        However there are other sociologists and their studies which further challenge the proposals Linda Woodhead makes (albeit most indirectly) – for example a lot of the work produced by Christian Smith and Kendra Dean which is based on extensive research, and Dean Kelley’s research (little of which has been rebuffed) which suggests that nominalism and Christendom Christianity (i.e. I’m Christian because I’m English) is in fact toxic to the church rather than Woodhead’s suggestion that it is the strength and future.

        My MA Thesis (which focused on trends amongst men and young people and what that might herald for our ecclesiology and mission) currently isn’t available online, but would be happy to email it to you if your interested.

        Hope that’s helpful.

        • Nick, that is really helpful, thanks! Linda has commented here, so will be receiving emails about further comments, and I will be really interested to see what response she has to these points.

          I have Stark’s book, and your comments make me want to read it even more! And yes, I would love to read your dissertation…

        • Hi Nick,
          I am *really* late to this discussion, but I, too, would very much like to read your MA dissertation, if you would be willing to email it to me. I’m at the early stages of a PhD looking at the relationship between the wider family and guests who come to christenings and the developing ecclesiologies at work in the Church of England.
          Many thanks in advance,

  11. Back to Ian’s critique of Linda Woodhead analysis and views. I share his concerns and he is not the first to raise them. But have yet to read Linda Woodhead’s response to them anywhere. I genuinely want to hear her response to the concerns here. If she has already done this and I have missed it could someone point me in the right direction.

  12. I’m perplexed by the whole discussion about Prof. Woodhead’s doctorate. She has an earned doctorate from the University of Cambridge entitled, if the Divinity Library is to be trusted, “Bhagavad Gita in the work of Simone Weil.”

  13. Ahh that’s wrong – she does have an earned doctorate from the University of Cambridge – but not quite as exotic as the above! The title I gave is from a list of undergraduate dissertations put online by the Divinity Library. I’m sure she’ll tell you the title of her doctorate if you ask – Something to do with reception of eastern religion in Edwardian Britain.I did notice that her doctorate isn’t listed on her CV.

    • Thanks Jacob…but that is all really odd. First, as you point out, this is not on her CV. Second, she has confirmed to me in private correspondence that she does not have an earned doctorate, which is why I put the note here to clarify. I have not accused her of anything unfair—simply pointed out that there is a mistake in the attribution in CT.

      But I am really a lot more interested in the 1,893 words in the above piece which address the main issue: is she correct that we need what others call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’—or, as many other reputable sociologists argue, would this be toxic to the church?

      Related to that, is ‘discipleship’ a rather nasty, managerialist Americanism? Or is it in fact at the heart of what it means to be an Anglican Christian? These are the important issues.

  14. It may be that I am mistaken. She would surely know better than me. I could have sworn I once came across the title. Perhaps she began and didn’t complete? Must admit to some confusion now.

    I agree, the doctoral stuff is a bit of a red herring. She is undoubtedly an expert in this area. Her possible future is interesting because it takes the data so seriously. The challenge for those who disagree – as I certainly do – is to offer alternatives that are also serious about the data. If not this, then what?

    Of course there’s a theological/ethical agenda – towards the end of the expressivist end of the spectrum. For those of us who disagree with such a theology – what sort of future church do we see?

  15. The concept of a Church without congregations reminds me of the “Yes Minister” episode where Sir Humphrey defends the existence (and cost) of a fully staffed hospital which has yet to admit a patient.


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