Editorial by Karen O’Donnell
from Modern Believing Vol 60:1 - January 2019

The opportunity to edit a journal is a great responsibility. Not only are you responsible for gathering high quality research from your colleagues and fellow academics, putting their work through rigorous peer review processes, and presenting it to the world in an engaging and accessible way, but there is also a strong responsibility to the readership of the journal.

As I take on the role of Managing Editor for the journal Modern Believing, I feel a strong sense of both of these responsibilities as I work out how to balance high-quality liberal theological research with the wide-ranging readership of Modern Believing.

I am currently a research fellow at Durham University in CODEC which is a centre for digital theology. My own research is definitely in the constructive mode of theology—reflecting critically on what has gone before and recognising the profound changes that have taken place in society at large, as well as in theological research more specifically. It is the recognition of this change that provides the space for the construction of new theological discourses. For example, if we have never before had a digital space such as the one created by the internet, it is no wonder that our theology does not address questions that arise from engagement in digital spaces: What does it mean to be human online? Where is God in digital spaces? What does it mean to talk about God as creator when humans can create whole worlds in the digital space? Recognising change paves the way for constructive theology which is, more often than not, liberal in its scope. 

Liberal theology has always sought to take into theological account the changes that happen in society and culture. It has always been curious and creative, acknowledging that divine revelation—that is to say, new theological knowledge—has not ceased, nor will it ever. Theology must, therefore, always be in a state of development, never finished, never satisfied with its own completion. Such theology is open and enquiring, engaging with a wide range of positions and sources in order to construct theological discourse that is authentic, relevant, honest, and critical. A great strength of such liberal theology is its willingness to be flexible whilst holding firm to the goods of the Christian faith. As such, liberal theology does not shatter under new discoveries or dialogues, but rather has the ability to bend, to be remoulded, to be taken apart and built into something new, whilst still retaining its Christian theological character. Liberal theology does not, therefore, make for reading that is always comfortable. By its very nature it pushes the boundaries of theological discourse. Those who engage with such theology will find themselves challenged and pushed out of their comfort zones. Engagement with liberal theology should prompt critical self-reflection. What is it about this that makes me uncomfortable? Where am I being challenged? How will I react to such challenges? For those who are involved in the life and mission of the Church, such critical reflection is significant as it will impact on the way in which you choose to minister to the people of God. 

This is my vision for the journal of Modern Believing. With such a strong history of over a hundred years of publishing liberal theology, Modern Believing has both a legacy to theological discourse and a responsibility for moving such discourse forward. My goal as managing editor is to retain this strong commitment to publishing the best research in liberal theology, making readers uncomfortable at times, providing space for critical self-reflection, and shaping the impact of liberal theology on theological discourse more broadly. I am, therefore, interested in engaging with the critical questions of our time alongside contemporary developments in science, technology, and sociology in order to provide a liberal theological response that has a public character. Liberal theology has never been afraid to engage with questions and issues outside the church and it is imperative that Modern Believing does not confine itself to the pews but considers theology in its broadest sense. Forthcoming issues of Modern Believing engage with topics such as infertility and childlessness, ritual and culture, regret and repentance, and theology in the public square, to name just a few. 

As well as engaging with the significant theological questions of contemporary culture, I also retain, as managing editor, a commitment to the broad range of readers that Modern Believing attracts. Articles will continue to be accessible, readable, and relevant to this wide variety of readers. The scope of articles will also recognise that theology is ‘done’ in a disparate range of contexts. This is particularly true of liberal theology which might as easily find itself constructed in response to a challenge from the pews on a Sunday morning, as in the professional academic setting. Modern Believing has always attracted contributions from clergy, academics, and lay (in both the academic and clerical senses of the word!) authors. I will particularly seek to recognise the ‘ordinary’ theological contributions to the liberal theological discourse. 

And so to the issue you find before you now. I am very proud to have such a brilliant, radical, and necessary special issue as my first contribution to the editorship of this journal. This special issue takes Black Queer Theology as its theme and I offer a particular thanks to Amaryah Shaye Armstrong for her excellent editorial work as guest editor of this issue. I noted earlier that liberal theology is open to a wide-range of sources and perspectives in constructing theological discourse that is authentic, relevant, honest, and critical. Bringing together some of the finest voices in black theology, and particularly non-heteronormative voices, Shaye Armstrong has constructed a vision of theology that is profoundly liberal and powerful. 

Black queer theology is an area of theology that is in its relative infancy. In this respect, this issue makes a strong contribution to shaping this theological discourse. We live in a time when questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and sexuality profoundly impact on ways of being (and not being) in the world. This issue of Modern Believing seeks to bring these various questions together, not as discrete issues but rather in the construction of something new. What might be the impact of beginning theological dialogue and endeavour from this starting point? The articles in this issue engage with queering as a method in theology that seeks to hear from queer theological voices as well as destabilizing social and cultural ‘norms’ as it challenges and deconstructs boundaries in the doing of theology. These essays attest to the multiple ways of being Christian and being engaged in theological research. They also expose the Christian theological assumptions that are so often taken for granted in the way in which we do theology.

This special issue might make for some uncomfortable reading. I do not think they should, but I am aware that some might question the value of such a perspective on theology. To those readers that find themselves uncomfortable or dismissing this issue as irrelevant to them, I urge a moment of critical self-reflection. Why should a non-white, non-heteronormative perspective on theology be irrelevant to you? Is it because it does not play into a preconceived notion of what theology should look like? Black queer theology is not just for queer people of colour. Rather it offers a theological perspective that challenges traditional theological assumptions and method, as well as critiquing the white, straight normative approach to theology that has held sway for so many years.

In that challenge and critique, this special issue is an excellent example of liberal theology in practice and exactly the kind of theological discourse to which Modern Believing is committed.