Contextual theology 


A London life



I enjoyed my time studying theology at Bristol University but there was always something about the process which made me feel uneasy.  At the time I’m not sure if I could have exactly identified my problems but looking back I always find myself thinking about an article I read describing how a group of theology students from Cambridge University went to Manchester to do contextual theology.  The question I found myself asking myself was “why couldn’t they do contextual theology in Cambridge?” I now realise this is because the theology that is done in universities is not seen as being contextual but as being universal.  But, of course, it is not universal just the theology of the powerful elites who dominate international theological discourse.  Moving out of this elite world we can begin to engage in the true theological task of bringing the story of Jesus alive in the different contexts in which we might happen to find ourselves.  This is what contextual theology is really about: retelling the story in the situations which we know intimately and understand from the inside.  Certainly theology needs to be done within academic institutions – but it is just that a theology of academic institutions, not the gold standard through which all other theologies must be judged.


Liberation theology has been helpful for me in thinking through these issues.  It is often characterised as being about the preferential option for the poor or doing theology from the basis of a Marxist interpretation of society.  These characterisations are not altogether untrue but never seemed to me to be the heart of the issue – liberation theology was, for me, at least, about doing theology in a different way.  Rejecting the universal dominance of western elites and letting thought and theology emerge from the marginalised and suppressed.  I found a John Sobrino’s Christology at the Crossroads – a Latin American view particularly helpful in this regard.  I also enjoyed a James Cone’s God of the Oppressed which is a wonderfully vibrant account of theology from the perspective of black Americans.  Neither of these two writers were from my context but they were crucial in helping me see my context in a different light.  Also significant for me was Robert Schreiter’s Constructing Local Theologies which gives a more western perspective: tussling with our heritage of universalising theology alongside the insight that “the church becomes truly universal to the degree that it becomes a plural communion of local churches”.  The Urban Theology Unit was also important to me a workshop where I could begin to engage with the task of constructing contextual theologies.

Christian wisdom and research
. This is a reflection, from a Christian perspective, on the world of action research and its various cognates such as participative research and naturalistic research. It also seeks to relate this briefly to complexity theory. It focuses in on the biblical wisdom tradition before looking at that particular learning that is gained from deeply immersed in oneself in a particular context. I relate this to the Christian idea of incarnation.


Reflecting on Gentrification.  My first serious attempts at contextual theology arose out of my time at the Urban Theology Unit.  I wrote a long paper on gentrification and tried to reflect on the experience which was such a significant issue when I was living in Clapham and Battersea in southwest London.


I continued looking at contextual theology through my work with ECUM and particularly when I was tutor to the masters in urban mission at Spurgeon’s College.  I facilitated a theological reflection group and was struck by how difficult people found this, but, for me, it has always been the natural way of doing theology.


Living in a Gated Community.  This article was published in Crucible and was an attempt to do the kind of theological reflection which my Spurgeon’s students found so difficult!  When we moved to Homerton in Hackney we bought a shared ownership property in what was called a mews, but in fact was an old furniture factory.  Sometime later the residents decided to put gates on the mews, this is my reflection on that experience.  Gated Communities are often regarded as a symptom of a polarised city, but as I argue, things are more complicated than this.

The Gilded Cage. This is a paper I wrote in the early noughties reflecting on the theological implications of government policy on urban regeneration particularly focusing on biblical characters from the period of the exile and return to Israel. Although there is now a new government I don't think the issues have changed that much

Jesus and the learning organization. This is a reflection on Jesus in terms of the learning organization described by Peter Senge in his book the Fifth Discipline.

James Cone’s God of the Oppressed