Introduction: Alastair Roberts

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I have been given the privilege of being the first to post here. Within this first round of posts, we intend to introduce ourselves, briefly to sketch our backgrounds, mention some of the concerns and interests that we bring to the conversation, and to share what we hope that it will achieve

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home in the Republic of Ireland, where my parents were missionaries and church planters, starting a Reformed Baptist congregation in the town of Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Although I am now an Anglican with high church sympathies and have moved away from my background in a number of other respects theologically, I retain many of the conservative evangelical instincts and convictions with which I grew up. Growing up in an evangelical home, but outside of a wider evangelical culture and as a Protestant English boy among Catholic Irish peers, I have never lost some sense of myself as an interloper and still relate to evangelicalism as one who can’t fully identify with it. Although I had been taught the Scripture from the earliest age (as were my three younger brothers), my theological passion first developed during a few years of prolonged illness during my later teens. Since that point, I have read and written voluminously.

I studied Theology at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales (now WEST), did a Master of Theology in the University of St Andrews in Scotland and have just successfully defended my doctoral thesis at Durham University, in the north of England. My more recent work has focused upon liturgy and biblical typology (for any who are interested, my thesis title is The Red Sea Crossing and Christian Baptism: A Study in Liturgy and Typology). I have been an active blogger since 2003 and currently blog of a wide range of subjects at Alastair’s Adversaria. My Twitter handle is @zugzwanged. I am also a regular participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.

There are a number of concerns that I bring to the current conversation. Here are some of them:

  1. I believe that in the debates about gender and the Church very little receptive communication is occurring between the sides. I would like to see more of this taking place, as I think that we have much to learn from engagement with each other.
  2. I believe that the extremes on each side tend to receive more attention than they merit: there are moderates of differing persuasions who could achieve significant rapprochement. I think that a lot of pointless polarization is also created by a focus on labels that distracts from substantial engagement with the underlying issues.
  3. I believe that our differences could be broken down to a much less threatening size, were we to work at mutual understanding. I also believe that there is much common ground to be identified and worked upon together.
  4. I believe that our thinking and positions are honed as we spar with intelligent people who differ from us and that our understanding will be enriched as we learn to be attentive and sensitive to concerns that we might not otherwise hear.
  5. I don’t believe that close enough attention has been given to the contingency of the current form of the debate, to the ways in which it is provoked and moulded by particular historical, economic, social, and political circumstances.
  6. I don’t believe that the role of prudence, imagination, and creativity have been given their due place on account of an evangelical focus upon universal systems and legalistic ideologies.
  7. I don’t believe that enough thought is given to identifying the factors that frame the debate and the effects that these can have. For instance, the question of women as priests and pastors is frequently tackled without any attention being given to the role that our ecclesiologies and broader theologies will play in shaping this.
  8. I don’t believe that either side has yet done justice to the biblical witness on these matters.
  9. I believe that conservative evangelical teaching on gender is frequently unbiblical, overly prescriptive, claustrophobic, and rests too heavily on gender stereotypes. While I don’t find most of the alternatives provided persuasive, I am convinced that we can do much better.
  10. I believe that we need a positive theology of men and women, one that neither focuses primarily on what women are supposedly not allowed to do nor downplays the significance of the fact that God created the human race male and female.
  11. I don’t believe that women and their gifts have been given their due place and honour in the life of the Church. I would like for this to be registered as a problem and to work together to provide a theological foundation upon which this situation can be addressed.
  12. I would love to see this conversation encourage and inform concrete change on the ground in various quarters, with the effect of recognizing and employing the gifts of women more fully in the Church’s life.

One of my favourite theologians, Oliver O’Donovan, writes:

When really serious issues are at stake and talk of doctrines ‘upon which the church stands or falls’ begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure.

But that is all a trick of the light…

None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape – a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think – and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject! – is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

My hope is that together we will create a place where this happens. I doubt that any unanimous position will ever be reached, but I hope that our differences would be broken down to size, situated within a loving and respectful context, and that we might all learn and grow through the engagement.

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