I am on my way back from a conference on ecclesiology and ethnography that took place in the north of England, at the University of Durham. The theme of the conference was “Ordinary Ecclesiology,” and most of the papers—from presenters hailing from the UK, Western Europe, and the USA--centered on what qualitative research in theology had to contribute, directly or indirectly, to ecclesiology, or theological understandings of the church.
There were more than a dozen papers presented. Among them were research that focused on: how vegetarians motived by faith experience the acknowledgement (or lack thereof) of their ethical vegetarianism in their churches; how the difference between beginning and experienced pastors illustrates research from expertise studies on the difference between novice practice and expert practice in the move from “following rules” to “transcending rules” through learned intuition; and how a close study of the christology of lay Christians in one British context revealed that most of those Christians do not believe that Jesus is divine nor that his death is of significance for them, as they have developed other christologies and soteriologies that work better for them and influence their lives in helpful ways. These are all admittedly not directly operating like the kinds of ecclesiologies that “we” often read in academic theology, but they also contribute to a richer understanding of what the churches really are on the ground, and to what degree they will be susceptible to or interested in taking on or living out official ecclesiologies.
I also co-presented a paper, along with my Fordham colleague Prof. Patrick Hornbeck, on some of our theological explorations of, and research on, the widespread phenomenon of baptized Catholics’ changing their beliefs and practices away from “normative”/prescribed ways of being Catholic.
The turn to qualitative research, especially ethnography, has taken place in systematic theologies, as well as ethics, with increasing vigor and sophistication over the past decade. In practical theology, while there seems to be deepening interest as well in recent years, this sort of research has been happening since the 1980s in various forms. This is part of the larger turn to practice in theological and religious studies, in which various official claims about faith, often taken to be settled or fixed outside of history, are explored in the realm of everyday life and ministry, in the beliefs and practices of lay people and pastoral workers, and in the process a much richer and more complicated picture of what Christians practice and believe, and for this conference, what “the church” is and could be, is coming into view.
Why now? In a sense, this is well-trod territory. Theologies of the laity, of the sense of the faithful, of popular religion, and of everyday life have been in play for nearly four and five decades now. All of these approaches have informed ecclesiology “from below,” even though such ecclesiology has hardly won the day in academic theology, not to mention ecclesial governance. (Not that winning the day in these realms is irrefutable evidence of good theology.)
But what practical theology helped to introduce in the 1980s, and what religious studies has begun to valorize in recent decades, and what theologians in the main are starting to work out with more vigor, is the extraordinary significance of ordinary lived experience for the theological tradition—for those like pastoral workers and academic workers in theology—who are charged with living-acting-thinking in relationship to religious traditions. These different areas of theology and religion, today, study lived experience, lay and clerical, with many hopes, from having lived experience better contribute to living traditions, to having traditions better able to communicate their wisdom to lived experience. And they do so more than ever in active dialogue with social sciences, philosophy, and more.
Is this good for theology? My reply is a tentative yes. It is good insofar as it can, in the words of Durham theologian Jeff Astley’s book Ordinary Theology (Ashgate, 2003), “broaden normativity.” That is, inasmuch as it can contribute to greater room for people to stretch and experiment as they make their way within (and as it also happens, without, or at least as frequently, on the borders of) religious tradition. My reticence comes from wondering what the cultural-historical background is for these drives toward qualitative research (including my own), that presently seem so obvious and useful. I wonder whether they will reinstantiate desires for the kind of religious authority structures many have come to perceive as essential, by precensoring methods so that they accommodate, or over-accommodate, ways that religious truth is supposed to be handled today. In simpler terms, how will this research manage the complicated dance between what it discovers “on the ground” about faith, on the one hand, and what many who must manage religious truths for and with others in particular ways (pastoral workers, scholars) are trained to maintain, on the other?
No doubt—and perhaps most intriguing of all—as in all theological-political developments, unintended consequences will have their say as well! So, here is to critically appreciating not only what the churches are “supposed to be,” but how they are actually experienced: lived ecclesiologies. Perhaps this is an occasion to think about yourself as already a kind of “participant observer,” and what you have learned in your social circles about lived ecclesiology.