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RADICAL ORTHODOXY AND PARISH MINISTRY TODAY.

G.K. Chesterton, writing in The Paradoxes of Christianity expressed the well-known phrase, ‘the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy’. In this passage he stated the following, ‘People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy’.

James Smith’s book Introducing Radical Orthodoxy gives an introduction to the bold movement that was founded on John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory and both authors invite a response that will re-narrate reality. Radical Orthodoxy is a movement that has sought to stand against some of the so called radical theology of, among others, Bishop Spong. It seeks to challenge the philosophy of liberalism and the premise of the so-called secular. Rather than accepting a dichotomy between sacred and secular, Radical Orthodoxy draws all into a realm of graced creation, as God runs through everything.

The movement seeks to critique modern secularism and return theology to its ancient title of ‘Queen of the Sciences’. The lens through which we engage with the world is seen to be theology, rather than ethics, politics, economics or other fields of study. Proponents would look back through history to the Church Fathers and to the great medieval thinkers, to the contributions of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart.

The movement doesn’t sit in isolation but stands along others such as Slavoj Žižek’s ideological critique and political philosophy, as we see in In Defense of Lost Causes. There he offers a critique of economic and cultural norms that draws on religious discourse as a source for political radicalism. What Radical Orthodoxy offers in contradistinction to atheist social commentary is to argue that Christian truth claims (as expressed in the philosophical school following Thomas Aquinas) can out-narrate secular truth claims: Christian truth can tell a better story about reality!

One of the strengths of Radical Orthodoxy is that it challenges us to avoid the pitfall of comfortable complacency that is so prevalent in the West, and invites us instead to engage with justice at a profound level. Far from Richard Robert’s accusation that Radical Orthodoxy is a ‘Pyrrhic victory involving a retreat from engaged worldliness’, it offers people a Kingdom-lens to interpret the reality of everyday experience and engage at a deep level with that reality.

Radical Orthodoxy invites people to be unapologetic in introducing God into the equation, sharing openly the claims of Christianity. Ann Morisy has written (‘Mapping the mixed economy’ in The Future of the Parish System ed. S. Croft) that an increasing number of theologians ‘…suggest that by enhancing commitment to the explicit domain the Christian community can become a subversive force which can model new ways of social policy and social relationship to bring greater congruence with God’s promises for his creation’. Morisy goes on to acknowledge the difficulty of obscurity and to recognize that the high symbolic nature of church bound symbols is at odds with those of secular society. Yet, as Graham Ward has pointed out in The Politics of Discipleship, we can congruently argue that we see a ‘new visibility of religion’ that reintroduces these very symbols. Ward invites the Christian community to engage with a rereading and rewriting of the Christian tradition back into contemporary society. This rereading and rewriting is a practice that isn’t the responsibility of the academy alone, but rather is one that concerns ‘all the micro-practices of Christian living and every public attestation to the truth in Christ’.

Within parochial ministry Radical Orthodoxy offers a prophetic voice of challenge. The premise demands that we, the Christian community, have courage to vocalise an expression of confidence in Christian truth and social engagement, which the Church can be said to have shied away from for some time. Of course, the position of those proponents of Radical Orthodoxy isn’t without criticism: Critics include Paul D Janz in Radical Orthodoxy and the New Culture of Obscurantism and Wayne J Hankey in Radical Orthodoxy’s Poesis. Hankey claims that Radical Orthodoxy is guilty of ‘falsification of the past’ and challenges the interpretation of the great historic figures of Plato, Aristotle and Kant.

However, the radical stance offered by this movement opens up a dialogue with Christianity’s patristic and medieval roots, which is both fertile and illuminating. In inviting the whole Christian community to see itself as in ‘participation’ with every other discipline of thought, it challenges some of the reticence that has been seen in the Church’s contribution to current social and philosophical debate. For it is, in Graham Ward’s words, ‘a movement beyond the narrative which binds Christian practice and formation through a deepening sense of the rich interpretative openness of that narrative. The Christian community always waits to receive its understanding, waits to discern its form.’ (in Cities of God)

More than this, Radical Orthodoxy offers a lens of seeing a relationship between narrative, everyday life and Christian practice. It gives a means of what Milbank has termed ‘sacralizing society’, rediscovering the transcendent and bringing a new rigour and engagement to parish life. Possibly perilous, and certainly exciting, Radical Orthodoxy is probably heavy, but it is far from humdrum and safe. f

 

 

Toby Wright is the Team Rector of Witney in the Diocese of Oxford.page 4 Toby Wright