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Colin Morris: the Methodist who led me to Orthodoxy

8 June 2018

This morning I read an obituary for Colin Morris, a Methodist minister who had a profound influence on my life.

It’s almost exactly 50 years ago that someone else lent me a book by Colin Morris. I was writing my final exams for a postgrad Diploma in Theology at Durham University. I’d just finished an Old Testament exam, and had a Doctrine exam the following morning. I should have been studying for it, but found Morris’s book too absorbing to put down. His book called into question the whole activity of academic theology.

Include Me Out!: Confessions of an Ecclesiastical CowardInclude Me Out!: Confessions of an Ecclesiastical Coward by Colin M. Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colin Morris was a Methodist minister in Zambia in the 1950s and 1960s. This book starts with a description of how a young Zambian dropped dead of starvation outside his front door on the same morning as he received a copy of the Methodist Recorder, dealing with a report on Anglican-Methodist unity talks. and the theological issues that still separated them.

He was struck by the contrast between armchair theologians in Europe engaging in theoretical theological debates and their failure to take seriously the plight of people like the man who dropped dead at his door. “Your theology, fancy or plain, is what you are when the talking stops and the action starts.”

The book is filled with similar instances.

He castigates the academic theologians for tinkering with theological propositions in order to make them more “relevant”, and urges them rather to put into practice the theology that they already have.

(Karl Barth writes) “‘Jesus is immanent in the Church only because He transcends it’. In everyday speech this is like saying that something is wet only because it is dry, near only because it is far away, and relevant only because it is irrelevant…

… Ah, breathes the theologian. That is paradox and, therefore, profound.

… Ah, says the man in the pew, it’s beyond me but I’ll take the parson’s word that it means something.

… So what? says the man in the street, it has nothing to do with the price of fish! — a remark calculated to touch a theologian on the raw; say that he’s unintelligible and he will take it as a compliment, but suggest that he is also irrelevant and he will sue you!

And fifty years after Colin Morris wrote these words, little has changed.

View all my reviews

A couple of months earlier, in April 1968, I had attended a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students — 10 days of lectures at a World Council of Churches Study Center in Bossey, Switzerland, followed by Holy Week and Pascha at St Sergius in Paris. A couple of months later I spent a term at St Paul’s college, Grahamstown, where, all exams behind me, I could browse the library and read what I liked, and read The world as sacrament by Fr Alexander Schmemann.

I’ve described how all these led me to Orthodoxy  in another blog post here, so I won’t repeat all that now. But what struck me most about what Colin Morris had written was how it echoed what G.K. Chesterton had written sixty years previously in his book Orthodoxy — that as long as we keep changing our theology, we will never change the world.

Theological liberalism — taking liberties with theology — usually leads to political conservatism. If we are always adapting our theology to fit the status quo of the world, then, as Chesterton put it, as long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will always remain exactly the same.

As Morris puts it, “The judgement upon us is not that we have failed to bring our theology into line with the best modern thought, though that may be true, but that we do not act to the limit of the theology we already have.”

I never met Colin Morris, but I did read a book he wrote at a critical point in my life, which changed my approach to theology. And fifty years after reading that book, I read his obituary here. .

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