The past twenty-five years have seen a widespread turn to the concrete in theology, and an increased awareness of the importance of practices, believing communities and material culture for both Christian faith itself, and theological engagement with it. In ecclesiology, this turn to the concrete has manifested itself in the rise of concrete approaches to ecclesiology. These have developed over the past fifteen years or so, as ecclesiologists have integrated theological and social-scientific perspectives on the church, to create both general methodological studies, and smaller scale ‘ecclesiological ethnographies’ of particular church communities.
This article critically explores some of the key methodological moves of the emerging discipline of concrete ecclesiology. In the first part of the article, I argue that concrete ecclesiologies display two characteristic methodological tendencies. First, they exhibit a tendency to define their approach as concrete and realistic in contrast to twentieth-century doctrinal approaches to ecclesiology, which they perceive as unhelpfully idealising and abstract. Second, they tend to express the task of ecclesiological ethnography as one of balancing the claims of two descriptive languages, theology and social science, with regard to a single object, the church. The underlying metaphor here is borrowed from christology: just as theological language about Christ's divine and human nature must be kept in balance, so doctrinal and social perspectives on the church must be kept in balance to avoid ‘ecclesiological Nestorianism’.
In the second part of the article, I argue that these two methodological tendencies result in caricatured understandings of theology and ethnography as functional opposites. Theology tends to be regarded as an inherently abstracting and idealising influence in ecclesiology, while ethnography tends to be regarded as a means of straightforwardly accessing the ‘real’ church. This in turn creates a problematically thermostatic understanding of the relationship between theological and ethnographic insights in ecclesiology, casting them as mutually regulating and opposite influences. The article closes by proposing a potentially more fruitful alternative model for integrating theology and ethnography, by exploring the similarities between the ways in which the two disciplines understand and relate to their respective objects of study.