Christian Scholarship Beyond the Theological Guild: implications for law & religion?

Almost two years ago I posted what I described as “an entirely personal theological rant by a non-theologian” – Doctrine and law – servants or masters?  in which I mused about the seeming dissonances between what the Churches teach and what their adherents actually believe. On reflection, perhaps I was being slightly disingenuous: having trained as a reader in the C of E and written a thesis for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Diploma in Theology, while I could certainly not be described as any kind of theologian in a professional sense I am not a complete theological illiterate. But I was reminded of that post when I came across an interesting and thoughtful article by Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Cambridge-based Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, on the Fulcrum website [9 April]: “Christian Scholarship Beyond the Theological Guild”.

Dr Chaplin addresses the question: “how to form Christian scholars in disciplines other than theology” and his contention is that there is a need to train “theologically literate Christian scholars whose primary expertise lies in those other disciplines and who will occupy positions within them”. He suggests that such people, if they wish to be authentically Christian scholars and not merely scholars who happen to be Christian, face a challenge:

“to rethink from a theologically-informed standpoint the pervasively secularised foundations and paradigms of their own disciplines and to develop fresh perspectives capable of gaining a hearing in those disciplines and proceeding from or at least comporting well with that standpoint.”

So far as law is concerned, he notes with approval the work of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and the courses on biblical law taught at Bristol University Law School (though he fails to mention the Centre for Law & Religion at Cardiff Law School or the admirable International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young). His overall conclusion is that

“a major paradigm-shift in how the churches think about – and devote resources to – theological education is going to be needed. Such will be required if the churches are effectively to train up future generations of well-formed Christian scholars truly able to engage with the ‘pressing contemporary issues’ being wrestled with in the secular academy and not only those preoccupying the theological guild or the churches”.

So what might that mean for students of “law and religion”?

In my earlier post I suggested that if canon law was the servant of “The Church” (however defined) rather than its master, then doctrine had to stand in that same relationship to the Church because, ultimately, the core purpose of religion was not about inculcating belief but about inculcating love of God and love of one’s neighbour: Matt 22:37–40.

No LLM student of my generation at Cardiff will have forgotten two aphorisms of Dr Robert Ombres OP: “Behind every law is a picture of the Church” and “canon law is applied ecclesiology”. Bob was asserting – correctly in my view – that canon law cannot sensibly be studied without sensitivity to its theological context.

But I would suggest that his point is of much more general application. Looking at the way in which a particular Church makes its regulatory norms can tell you quite a lot about its self-understanding as a Church. But to write about a particular Church’s canon law as an outsider – and unless we stick rigidly to researching and writing only about our own individual denominations we are all outsiders at some time or other – demands that we do so with due sensitivity to the theological positions of the Church in question. I may not believe in transubstantiation or the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon (as a Quaker of the Unitarian/Universalist tendency, hardly surprising); but if I have the temerity to write about the Roman Catholic canons relating to the sacraments or the governance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I must be very careful indeed to respect the intellectual positions of those who do.

So how might a “Christian scholar”, broadly defined, engage with “pressing contemporary issues” of law? And what purpose might such engagement serve? There, I fear, the student of law and religion may begin, potentially at least, to have conflicting loyalties. Surely one’s first duty as an academic lawyer is to get the law right so far as one can. I can see little point in speculating as to how much better or more just or more “Christian” it would have been if Bloggs LJ had decided Galleyslaves plc & Anor v True Orthodox Church of Little Snoring differently: things are as they are, not as one might like them to be. It is often quite difficult enough merely to work out the precise ratio decidendi of a complex series of opinions in the Court of Appeal or the UKSC – without then trying to construct a more “just” or morally-acceptable alternative opinion of one’s own.

On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to write on the subject and, at the same time, to put completely on one side one’s own beliefs and theological prejudices. To take the most extreme example, there are devout Christians, mostly of a Conservative Evangelical tendency, who believe that capital punishment for murder is not only appropriate but biblically-mandated. As an academic lawyer I would rest my case against it on Article 1 of Protocol 6 to the European Convention of Human Rights (Abolition of the death penalty). But, as a Quaker who holds to the Society’s view that it is our duty to recognise “that of God in every person”, I would in any case regard capital punishment as incapable of justification on moral grounds alone, even if the ECHR were totally silent on the matter.

More controversially, given the recent judgment of the Court of Appeal in Sharpe, is there a “Christian” view of the correct relationship between ministers of religion and the Churches that they serve? Grinding through the case-law has led me to conclude that the distinction between “employees” and “office-holders” for the purposes of employment rights no longer serves any useful purpose; worse, the process of analysing the distinction between the two on the facts has become so complex and uncertain that in Preston, for example, three judges in the Court of Appeal and Lady Hale in the Supreme Court took one view while the four-judge majority in the UKSC took the opposite one. But, in saying that, I am conscious that it looks very different indeed from the perspective of the Methodist Church, which sets great store – on theological grounds – by the claim that its relationship with its presbyters and deacons is one of covenant rather than of contract.

Perhaps if there is a distinctive and academically-respectable role for people of faith in engaging with questions of law, religion and belief it may be something like this: to examine the problems rationally, analytically and, so far as possible, without importing their own prejudices into the discussion – “without fear or favour, affection or ill-will” – and to be open about their own theological positions so that the reader can apply any correction-factor that might be appropriate, while at the same time being sensitive to the opinions of those with whom they disagree. And that (we hope) is what we do on this blog.

There are a lot of people out there who seem to believe that “religious” is a synonym for “unhinged”: I fear that the onus is on us to prove them wrong.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Christian Scholarship Beyond the Theological Guild: implications for law & religion?" in Law & Religion UK, 5 May 2015,

5 thoughts on “Christian Scholarship Beyond the Theological Guild: implications for law & religion?

  1. We struggle so hard to second guess what the Holy Spirit is calling each of us to do; is it to be a reader, theologian, Church Warden, ordained minister and so on? There is a sense that even when we take on these roles we have not made it to where we should be. So we try to adapt and turn in another direction to see if that is where God wants us; and so we turn and turn until we forget which way we were facing when we started. So the law, our canons, gives to us structure and guides our way and help us understand the churches teaching. But unlike the first ten ‘canons’ it isn’t written in stone and the law can grow and develop as humanity grows and develops with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I learnt so much in the classroom when studying canon law; however when studying theology in the classroom I learnt that I would never learn anything in the classroom except the arguments of distant academics which have never helped me in ministry. So long as the church treats theology as an academic ‘must have’ for its ministers the longer the distance between academia and theology in action, pastoral theology, will become.

    But of course we are all right in this argument. I concede I am not; and leave you dear sisters and brothers with the wonderful and gracious words of Abraham Lincoln …

    “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose”. (Abraham Lincoln 1862)

    Fr. Jeffrey Leach,CBV Disability Advisor

  2. Oh well, at least no-one who knows him would ever claim that Bob Ombres was unhinged. If i were RC, I’m sure I’d be wrestling with the question of whether I was called to be a Dominican.

  3. Frank, thank you for an excellent reflection on these important issues. Whether I succeed or not, I share your goals of being academically clear and rigorous while letting people know about my own beliefs so they can assess my views in that light. Your work here with David provides a good example for the rest of us!

  4. Haha – no a core purpose of (true) religion is of course to inculcate true belief, alongside and as part of love for God and neighbour. The only reason you know what the phrase “love God and neighbour” even really means is because you have been inculcated with true belief about it, plus true belief teaches you why these things are important and how they should be expressed. You can’t really separate love and true understanding, for we are rational intellectual beings as well as physical and spiritual. Indeed, your own theological and moral claims, concerning the true purpose of religion and the prohibition on capital punishment, are themselves doctrinal, whether you acknowledge it or not. This is why you are wrong that doctrine is the servant of the church rather than its master: the revelation is primary, and revelation defines what the church is and what it should believe. The church serves God by, among other things, seeking the best, most truest understanding of his revelation and submitting in obedience to it. Anything else is, however you dress it up, sub-Christian.

    • “Anything else is, however you dress it up, sub-Christian.” Inasmuch as I am not a Trinitarian Christian (which, presumably, you are), that’s probably fair comment. But if “revelation is primary, and revelation defines what the church is and what it should believe” how come different Churches appear to believe such different things? As to the prohibition on capital punishment, certainly for me it’s a moral claim and I said so: didn’t I?

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