We give you thanks that at the beginning of creation your Holy Spirit moved upon the waters to bring forth light and life. With water you cleanse and replenish the earth; you nourish and sustain all living things.........
And now we give you thanks that you have called Eliza to new birth in your Church through the waters of Baptism. Pour out your Holy Spirit in blessing and sanctify this water........
The growing edge of the St John’s Cathedral congregation is made up of young adults. As far as I can see these people are being drawn to our community first and foremost because of the quality of the welcome and secondly through the genuine commitment of the community to the practice of inclusion. The reason they stay, however, is that we are a community shaped by narrative theology.
Narrative theology arose during the twentieth century as a refreshing third way; an alternative to the expressions of the Christian faith offered by literalism (often called fundamentalism) and liberalism. Liberalism in many ways bought into the Newtonian model of the universe and the deistic view of God it houses at its edge; the God of the gaps. Narrative theologians look for the story that unfolds within the Bible rather than seeing the Bible as a source for developing systematic theology. They honour, for example, the diversity of expression we find in the New Testament regarding the resurrection appearances rather than seeking to harmonise them into a tidy doctrine. The post-Easter experiences at one level are puzzling, but less so if they are understood to record in story form encounters that shaped the lives of the early disciples. The Easter story altered and shaped their story and became pivotal to their self-understanding. They told the story to others and invited them into that story. The variation in detail shows that the early writers were not interested in the nature of Jesus’ Easter body but in the quality of the encounter. The story of experience over systematics.
The strength of narrative theology is that it can speak to those who have grown up in a post-modern world with its glorious, life-giving pluralism. Pluralism sets us free from tyranny in many of its various forms. Narrative theology is based on the sociological insights of people like Jack Niles who suggest that humans find and make meaning through the telling of stories. Niles wants us to be called Homo Narrans. We are story-telling humans. Our very nature drives our love of soapies and keeps us flocking to the cinemas and buying history books and biographies.
Those who are drawn to St John’s are often intelligent and so want a faith that is intellectually honest and robust. But they tend to be seeking meaning rather than doctrine. They value the fact that the community and its leadership take their questions seriously and honour the journey of discovery. The journey of discovery allows them to find out what the narrative of the faith means for them and how their life-story fits into the greater story. It honours who they are and their life experience. And they are given opportunity to explore how the story speaks to them. This process allows them to discover who they are called to be. It accepts that over time our understanding of the faith will change. I know for myself that the understanding of the key questions and answers we engage with at Baptism has shifted over the years. For example, one question asks if we renounce Satan. Years ago I thought this question to be ridiculous and superstitious. Over time, as I have engaged with the faith story and its intersection with the story of human history and my life story, I have found myself moving to understanding Satan as the mob-generated and mob-inspiring presence so eloquently described by the French Catholic sociologist Rene Girard. A journey that took place through the engagement with story rather than a debate over doctrine.
The thanksgiving prayer over the water (italicised text above) in the modern baptism rite used in many Anglican Churches rehearses the faith story and celebrates that the candidates are called to find how their story intersects with that greater story, the metanarrative of faith.
Narrative theology understands that the current generation is called to write the next chapter in an evolving expression of faith. This approach to faith not only accommodates the new, such as the ordination of women, but celebrates and welcomes it. Narrative theology will enable us to deal well with the current debates over the nature of marriage.
Narrative theology invites people beyond the doctrinal conundrums generated by conflicting biblical texts and the even more debilitating imposition of historical cultural expressions of being human. It allows people to discover how they might live lives that are influenced by love and allows them to be champions of human flourishing in this post-modern age. It speaks to the wise and the foolish alike, to the intelligent and those who are compromised. It allows the homeless and the barrister, doctors and cleaners to find themselves. It allows them to discover that they are unique and uniquely loved; and uniquely called to embody the faith in and through the unfolding story of their lives.
Peter Catt is the President of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia). He is also Dean of St John's Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane.
From 1997 to 2007 Peter was the Dean of Grafton. He helped establish and run the International Philosophy, Science and Theology Festival, which was held at Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton. He holds a PhD in evolutionary microbiology from the University of NSW and a BD from the Melbourne College of Divinity.
Peter's interests include Christian Formation, liturgical innovation, the interaction between science and religion, and Narrative Theology. He is a member of a number of environmental and Human Rights organisations and serves on Anglican Social Justice Committees at both Diocesan and National level.