Lecture To Clergy Research Seminar 8th October, 2013


The title of my address is ‘Boundaries not Barriers’ and I want to explore this in relation to research.  I will be concentrating on city walls from which I wish to draw two images.  One is going outside the city walls and the second is what happens to the walls when the gates are closed and what happens when they are open.  I will then briefly draw out some implications for boundaries and barriers in relation to research.  I develop this whole area of boundaries in barriers in a book published in 2004, Unofficial God? Voices from Beyond the Walls.

Beyond the City Walls

‘There is a green hill far away without a city wall.’ ‘Why should a green hill have a city wall?’ I asked myself as a child. I soon discovered that ‘without’ meant ‘beyond’ or ‘outside,’ but the fascination with the words remained.   Recently I have come to see that the imagery of these lines provides a rich metaphor for articulating the relationship between inside and outside, not only between inside the city and outside the city, but also between inside the Church and outside the Church, between inside the establishment and outside the establishment, whether that establishment be ecclesial or academic.  Even describing some as outside the Church or outside the establishment has a negative ring for those who are outside as it suggests that normality is defined in relation to those who are inside. Nevertheless, the hymn points out that the green hill outside (without) the city wall was ‘Where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all.’  In other words, the most significant event in Christian history took place beyond the city walls, a location often regarded as a place for outcasts and criminals, for the rejected and despised, for rubbish and death.  Other major events in Judeo-Christian history also took place outside the city walls, including the resurrection, ascension and birth of Jesus Christ, pointing out very powerfully that those inside are not self-sufficient.

One point I would mention but do not have the time to develop is that the city is viewed with both suspicion and ambivalence in the Bible.  Indeed, there is a strand in pre-exilic theology that regards the wanderings in the wilderness as a golden period in Israelite history, thereby contrasting it unfavourably with settled, urban living.  Note that the first city in the Bible is named Enoch (Gen.4.16-17) and was built by Cain after he had murdered his brother Abel.  Note, too, the negative way that the city of Babel is treated.  Contrast these with the way Jerusalem is viewed (though even Jerusalem goes through low and rocky times in both Old and New Testaments) and its sister the heavenly city in Revelation 21.

Outside the City Walls

Let’s look more carefully at the theological significance of ‘outside the city walls.’

2013_10_09_BThe New Testament makes it clear that the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, all pivotal events of the Christian faith, happened beyond the city walls and that this fact has theological significance.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews draws attention to this:

We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat.  For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.  Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.  Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.


The place of impurity and disgrace becomes the place of heavenly blessing.  Readers are being encouraged to share the shame of association with the crucified Christ.  In the crucifixion, God’s greatest act of love was being revealed, but those in the established city could not see it.  The Resurrection and Ascension happened in places associated with fear and rejection.  This is reminiscent of Moses pitching the tent of meeting and speaking with God outside the camp because of the impurity of the people inside.  South American theologian Orlando Costas interprets this pattern in stark terms when he argues, ‘Salvation lies outside the gates of cultural, ideological, political and socioeconomic walls that surround our religious compound and shape the structures of christendom.’ [i]

What conclusions can be drawn from this brief survey of the biblical evidence about the relationship between the city and those beyond (without) the walls?  Firstly, the city is regarded with ambivalence in the Bible and when corruption and impurity became an issue, God’s activity outside was highlighted.  Secondly, Jerusalem at its best is portrayed in Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21.  And this leads to the second metaphor I want to put before you.

Boundaries and Barriers

You will notice that I have used the terms boundaries and barriers whereas the title of the conference is ‘beyond borders and boundaries.’  I hope the reason will, in a few minutes, become clear why I would rather reflect around the theme of boundaries and barriers.  Let’s return to Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21: the city of Jerusalem at its best. Both Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21 share one fascinating fact about Jerusalem: the gates of the city are always open (Is.60.11 and Rev.21.25), thereby allowing coming and going.  When the gates are closed, there is no coming and going and the walls become barriers.

However, when the gates are always open, city walls take on a different function.  They no longer protect citizens from the outside and they no longer keep citizens inside as there is a freedom to come and go through the gates.  The walls do, however, provide boundaries rather than barriers.  Boundaries are, by their very nature, moveable; barriers are designed to prevent entry and exit.  Human beings need boundaries and flourish in a boundaried space: but they diminish in a barriered space.  Boundaries enable identity to be developed: open gates provide opportunities for women and men to draw on resources beyond those boundaries.

Barriers prevent communication and growth and while they may provide close fellowship to those within, barriers turn walls into prison walls rather than city walls.  Here, then, is another metaphor that I want to hold before us in this discussion: the open gates which emphasise the distinction between boundaries and barriers.

The metaphors of ‘without a city wall’ and ‘open gates’ with the distinction between boundaries and barriers have lives of their own.  When, in a meeting with church leaders, these images were offered as metaphors for the church’s relationship with the world, some related them to various issues in their own churches such as the welcome people received when first entering the church whether the doors of the church were open or closed.  These metaphors highlight that in the Judeo-Christian tradition God is active outside the walls of convention and that the ‘Unofficial?’ God is active there. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, renewal and salvation have come not from inside the institution but from ‘outside’.

Research beyond boundaries and barriers

How do these metaphors – this hermeneutic – inform research?

1.  Research is a pioneering activity.  When a researcher enters on the research journey, she or he should not already have decided on the conclusions.  Taking research seriously means a willingness to be challenged and changed.    It needs to reach beyond the confines of its own discipline – beyond the city walls – in order to bring fresh perspective and fresh eyes on to the research topic.

2.  Research needs boundaries, but not barriers.  Remember, boundaries are, by their very nature, moveable; barriers are designed to prevent entry and exit.   Research does need its boundaries.  Clarity about direction, faithfulness to hermeneutic that is chosen are required.   But these are boundaries and not barriers.  The boundaries of research are there to enable the researcher to grow and flourish as he or she conducts their research.  But, I repeat, these are boundaries and not barriers.  There needs to be the possibility to change direction, to follow new leads, to pursue fresh avenues which had not been at all obvious originally.  Here a wise research supervisor will come into their own.  Many of us, start along one track and discover ourselves going along another and when one is working at masters or doctoral level especially, one needs to know which promptings and movements going on inside of ourselves should be heeded and acted upon.  We need to be able to trust and pursue our instincts because it is from there that the creativity in research comes into its own.

2014_06_14_B3.  Many academic institutions are good at encouraging researchers to go beyond the walls of their discipline but, from what I have seen, they are not so good at encouraging people to go beyond walls of their culture.  Research should be intercultural.   This is particularly important as UK culture is becoming more influenced by world-wide influences.  Of course, on one level one could argue that we are taking account of international influences in many ways, just see topics of research which engage with other faiths and cultures.  But how deep do we go in this?  Let me quote from  an essay by Desmond Tutu:

We are still too concerned to play the game according to the white man’s rules when he often is the referee as well.  Why should we feel embarrassed if our theology is not systematic?  Why should we feel that something is amiss if our theology is too dramatic for verbalisation but can be expressed only adequately in the joyous song and scintillating movement of Africa’s dance in the liturgy?  Let us develop our insights about the corporateness of human existence in the face of excessive western individualism, about the wholeness of the person when others are concerned for Hellenistic dichotomies of soul and body, about the reality of the spiritual when others are made desolate with the poverty of the material.  Let African theology enthuse about the awesomeness of the transcendent when others are embarrassed to speak about the King, high and lifted up, whose train fills the Temple.  It is only when African theology is true to itself that it will go on to speak relevantly to the contemporary African – surely its primary task – and also, incidentally, make its valuable contribution to the rich Christian heritage which belongs to all of us[ii]

Ghanaian theologian Kwesi Dickson makes the same point less dramatically but no less effectively:

….informal theologising is done in various ways, such as in song, prayer and preaching.  This is a point which cannot be made forcefully enough, for with the blossoming of theological exposition in recent years, particularly in the so-called Third World, there is the possibility – yea, a real danger – that Christians in Africa, and elsewhere, might come to associate theology solely with a systematic articulation of Christian belief[iii]

The question which this poses is: how far is the way that theology is formulated dictated by a particular social and intellectual grouping?  This challenge is seen clearly and starkly across the continents, but what about within our own society?  In the academy we articulate our theology in a particular way, but in churches as well as been expressed systematically, it is also articulated in singing, praying and dancing and everybody can join in this.  Now, there are many intelligent and bright people who have a huge amount of theology to impart in our congregations (twentieth century Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci would describe such people as ‘organic intellectuals’), but because their way of expressing theology may not be that of the academy’s, their insights are not taken into account and may even be considered inferior – and we are all the poorer for it.  We therefore need to be more radical in the ways that we stretch beyond the city walls.

Lecture given at Research Conference in the Diocese of Rochester, 8th October, 2013.  Aylesford Priory.

[i] Costas, O.E., Christ Outside the Gate, New York,Orbis, 1982, p.191.

[ii] D.Tutu, ‘Whither African Theology,’ in Fasholé-Luke, Hastings & Tasie (eds.), Christianity in Independent Africa, p.369.

[iii] K.Dickson,Theology in Africa, p.109.