Last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury—Justin Welby—gave a speech before the Trade Union Coalition (TUC) in England. In his speech, Welby spoke like a socialist, or at least a leftie! He argued that the introduction of Universal Credit (UC), a controversial change to social welfare in the UK, should cease. UC is a new system of paying social security to individuals that is designed to replace a wide range of individual benefits (such as disability benefits and housing allowance). However, the system has come under serious criticism for the way in which it has been implemented which has resulted in people having to take out expensive short-term loans to tide them over until the first UC payment and in some cases even losing their homes because of difficulties in setting up the payments. Welby went on to argue:
Not paying taxes speaks of the absence of commitment to our shared humanity, to solidarity and justice. If you earn money from a community, you should pay your share of tax to that community…I was in business, and I know that, within limits, it’s right and proper for people to arrange their tax affairs, and for companies to do so. But when vast companies like Amazon, and other online traders, the new industries, can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system. They don’t pay a real living wage, so the taxpayer must support their workers with benefits; and having leeched off the taxpayers once they don’t pay for our defence, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education.
This speech from Welby is notable for a number of reasons. In the first instance, it is distinctly left-wing and liberal in tone which might be surprising for those who still consider the Church of England to be the ‘Tory party at prayer’. Indeed, Welby himself is an Eton-educated former oil executive and one of a number of senior members of the Church of England that sit in the House of Lords (unelected of course). He is, to some extent, part of the establishment. But he has also consistently asked of political decisions made by the UK government what does this mean for those on the margins?
Predictably, Welby has been attacked in the aftermath of his speech for cathedrals offering jobs on zero-hours contracts, for speaking without authority (after all the number of Anglicans is dwindling in the UK), and for daring to bring God into politics (although interestingly, given his position in the Houses of Lords, one could argue that being Archbishop of Canterbury requires Welby to bring God into politics). He is charged of being a hypocrite who should keep his God to himself.
What is theological about what Welby said? Is it theological simply because he is an Archbishop speaking in public? I think that might be a tenuous definition of public theology! If you read the quote above, what is even specifically Christian about it? It reads like relatively generic liberal rhetoric. But just a week before this speech Welby gave another speech, this time at the launch of the IPPR Economic Justice Commission Report. You can read the full text of speech here but he prefaced his comments with this reference to the Gospel of Matthew:
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is recorded as giving one the greatest challenges possible to his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion when he describes the judgement of God at the end of time. In that passage he explicitly says that judgment is linked to justice, namely, in the way in which we treat those who are most vulnerable and weakest. Out of that extraordinary passage comes the Christian call to work for the common good and welfare of everyone in our society, not just the powerful or to sectional interests.
Is this what makes Welby’s public comments theological? That they stem from a commitment to justice and the common good that he considers to be the hallmarks of the gospel? Whilst it might be easy to accuse Welby of simply engaging in proof-texting here – i.e. holding up one convenient verse of Scripture that seems to support his overall argument—I think that does Welby a disservice. What other motivation could this former oil executive have to share a concern for the marginalized in society except for the call of Jesus to do so. What does it mean then to call someone a public theologian or to name a particular discourse as public theology? If theology is simply discourse about God, then perhaps public theology is simply engaging in such discourse outside of traditionally Christian spaces (i.e. the Church service).
In her 2008 American Academy of Religion Presidential Address, Emilie Townes notes that, as theologians, “the research we do is not a free-floating solitary quest. It is profoundly tethered to people’s lives—the fullness and the incompleteness of them.” She is drawing the connections between theological scholarship and activism and for Townes, theological research is (or at least should contribute to) a public discourse, by the very fact of its hard-wired relationship to people’s lives. She goes on to argue:
I believe that it is increasingly imperative that we engage religious discourses in the public realm—both in the United States and in international contexts, because we live in an increasingly polarized world in which religion matters as beliefs and practices and is a key element in identity formation and meaning making and sometimes nation-building for people.ii
Religion matters and it is often a key part of political discourse, whether public theologians engage in the discourse or not. In the UK, for example, alongside Welby’s comments there is also a debate raging about anti-semitism in the Labour Party, as well as the Catholic faith of right-wing Brexiteer and MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. It does not seem to matter whether theologians talk about theology in public, public theological conversations are taking place. The public theologian then has a responsibility to engage in these conversations as a corrective to some of the erroneous ways in which theological conversation is being steered publicly. This is subtler in the UK than in the US, but nonetheless prevalent.
Public theology raises the stakes and exposes the profundity of the discourses taking place in our publics. When we talk about social welfare, it is not just a discussion about how we support people in our society, but part of a broader conversation about what it means to be genuinely committed to the common good and flourishing of all members of society. Embedded in this discourse are not only policy goals and politics, but fundamental assumptions about what it means to be human, the possibilities and limits of cooperative and redemptive action, and the ends of human sociality. As such these are inevitably theological conversations and the public theologian has the
responsibility to point out the animating theologies that undergird these political conversations. The vocation of the public theologian is to testify to their faith and in doing so to further the good news of Jesus in all our publics. At the same time, the aim of this public theological discourse ought not be to colonize other publics for Christianity. After all, the good news of Jesus is for all people, whatever their religious persuasion; the flourishing of all humanity is God’s intent. This may be the only sense in which a public theologian can engage in public theological discourse without colonizing other publics; to proclaim the good news is to speak for the flourishing of all peoples. Whatever the critiques levelled at Welby, he has sought to speak for such flourishing and to challenge the denial of flourishing in political and economic discourses in the UK. Public theology might not need to make its theological persuasion explicit. After all, the Gospel of Matthew tells us to both pray, give, and fact in secret (Mt 6. 2-6, 16-18). To avoid colonizing other publics for Christianity, perhaps the public theologian must, in a sense, do this theological discourse in secret. Not anonymously, but humbly.
What, therefore, is theological about public theology? How does it distinguish itself from public humanities more generally or from evangelism more specifically? It stems, as we saw in the brief remarks by Welby, from a genuine commitment to the gospel of Jesus and a belief that God wants all to flourish. Though the public theologian may wish to enter into the discourse of public life as a city on a hill, as salt and light, working from a position of humility would seem to be more helpful, especially given the history of Christian intervention into the public sphere. Such public discourse holds to the instruction given in Micah’s prophecy, itself a form of public theology, to the kings of Judah that the Lord requires us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Is this, then, what makes public theology theological? It is focused on justice, it centres itself around kindness, it is humble (not seeking to promote the individual over the idea and thus distinguishing itself from the worst excesses of televangelists), and is undertaken alongside God.