‘Why weren’t we told?’ became my question the moment I entered my first course of New Testament studies, when I discovered that the doubts I was not allowed to express from the pew had been discussed by long lines of theologians before me. Some of my classmates were ordinands training for ministry within my denomination and responsible for telling what they had learned once they graduated but, like many before them, they would not. I was incensed that faithful lay people in the pews were giving sacrificially so that these students could have free theological education, yet the same laity were being kept in ignorance by these same people with respect to their doubts.
My own wording of this refrain was (and is) “I can’t believe I had to go to grad school in order to find this out!”
Then later, she discusses how Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God was received in the wake of the 1959 Billy Graham crusade:
…[this little book] grabbed public attention, raising many of my questions — but it was condemned in most Australian churches now filled with Billy Graham converts. Thus Robinson’s message did not get through to laity and, for clergy who responded to Robinson’s ideas, the attitude of ”Let’s not pull the rug out from under the laity” prevailed — and this attitude continues to rule in many churches today, even though the rug under many laity is threadbare. Why is it there is often more pastoral concern about keeping one group of church members in their innocence than about feeding serious searchers who are quietly walking out the door?
THIS. So much this.
I am by no means the only person I know who gave up attending “adult ed” classes at church when they consistently turned out to be too superficial, too carefully guided away from any discussion that might raise serious questions or reveal that there were differences in what people felt, thought, or believed. Some, like me, end up in grad school or seminary or some other form of training for ministry, despite feeling no particular call; some read and study on their own, in isolation; some give up on ever getting spiritual food that’s fit for those who have outgrown milk.
There’s a real, serious disconnect between the academy, where theologians do their work; the seminary, where clergy are trained; and the pews, where the vast majority of the church practices the faith. This disconnect is why I can, for example, describe what I’ve learned about the Bible from a historical-critical perspective and now take thoroughly for granted, as do all the thoroughly mainstream theologians I’m studying, and have friends tell me “I never heard of that.”
This disconnect is a real, serious failure of our religious education system, which is one of the institutional expressions of the church’s ad intra task of formation. And I cannot help but think that it must be seriously contributing to both the polarized situation within many churches, and the difficulty in getting the fruit of ecumenical dialogues off the dusty shelves and into the living church.