I recently created a little video offering some general advice about writing, and about writing essays. It is intended to be a basic resource for students enrolled in my Beginning Theological Studies class. It may be that parts of it are of some help to other students also. You should feel free to use/share it if you think it is suitable for your mob too.
This afternoon, I had the joy of being at the wonderful Pilgrim Theological College and to share some words at the launch of Geoff Thompson’s fabulous new book, A Genuinely Theological Church. Below’s what I said, more or less.
Thank you to Geoff and to folk here at Pilgrim for the kind invitation and privilege to be here today to help launch Geoff’s latest book, A Genuinely Theological Church. I wish to acknowledge that we meet on Wurundjeri land, of the Kulin nation with whom there have yet been no treaties and whose sovereignty has never been ceded. I pay my respects to any elders past, present, and emerging who may be here among us.
Well, what a wonderful gift to the church Geoff Thompson is! He keeps summoning us to love God and neighbour with our minds, and does so without the levels of anxiety that tend to characterise a great many church discussions. As an expression of Geoff’s love for the Uniting Church, this very timely book is an invitation to develop an explicit rationale for the study of theology in ministerial education. It is also an invitation to the church to understand itself as a theological community, ever renewed by rediscovering its life rooted ‘within the history of Jesus Christ’ (72).
It is difficult to imagine anyone better placed to write such a book. It reflects the wisdom of one who has wrestled long with questions about ‘the highly contested nature of theological education in the Uniting Church’ (7) and beyond. Geoff maps the recent history of theological education against the background of ‘almost incalculable’ (23) cultural and intellectual change in the global church, and he calls upon the church to not retreat from but rather to engage with such realities with the full resources of the Gospel. To this end, Geoff argues that theological colleges ought to be located in ‘larger communities responsible for developing a culture of debate, research, resourcing, advocacy and public engagement’ (68).
He laments that while the demands, orientations, and contexts of ministry and of ministerial training have changed, there has been very little reflection on the role of theology in the church, and about why theology should assume the constant place it does. He surmises that this ‘suggests that we’re convinced that theology is important, but we’re not entirely sure why’, and that this absence of clarity means that ‘theology tends to become little more than a hoop that must be jumped [through] on the way to something else’ (24). He accepts that ‘theologians … have to take some of the blame for this situation’. ‘We have’, he says, ‘been either too defensive or … too confident that people will simply know what to do with a theological education and that the church … will know what to do with its theologically-educated leaders …. who are often appointed leaders for their expertise in other areas’ (25).
Geoff wants us to scrutinise what he and other theological educators have been doing, to ask if we have gotten the ‘questions about theological education right’, and to interrogate that question ‘with meaningful criteria’ (7–8). Drawing upon the extraordinary witness of the Basis of Union, he invites us to reflect on more basic questions, like: why does the church bother with theology at all? Indeed, why is there a church at all? What is this strangely ‘embodied way of life sustained and normed by the novel message of the gospel’ (9) of which Geoff speaks?
Of course, Geoff has been talking about this stuff for a long time. Some might say that he has a bit of ‘thing’ for it. Indeed, in an article in this month’s Crosslight he again advances the claim that ‘theological education is not about developing a theological “position”’ but is, rather, ‘about shaping a theological imagination. It involves learning to see and experience God [and] the world … through an ongoing critical but constructive engagement with the tension-filled biblical material, an immersion in the ebb and flow of the history of Christian doctrine, and a ruthlessly honest familiarity with Christianity’s history and its diverse practices’. This book too is a call to see in the ordinary work of theology that which cultivates the church’s ‘collective imagination’ (73). It therefore rejects as unhelpful the ‘sharp contrast between scholarship and practice’ (14) as, in Geoff’s words, ‘a furphy’ (27). He laments ‘the ease with which’ members of the Uniting Church have allowed ‘scholarship to define theology’, or to ‘reduce theology to scholarly theology …. Theology … is much larger and far more important to the church than its scholarly forms’ (15).
The reduction of theology to the purview of church ‘ministry’ – whether lay or ordained – is another part of the problem that Geoff is keen to diagnose. He does not follow the worn path of thinking that ‘everyone is a theologian’, however. Indeed, he judges this to be ‘one of the more unhelpful slogans at play in the Uniting Church’ (43). Instead, he argues that the theologian is one who ‘relates to particular features of the social imaginary by attending in an explicit way to what otherwise remains implicit’ (46), and who does so with attention to biblical texts, to analysing historical doctrinal developments, to debating contested interpretations, to generating constructive theological proposals, to writing and presenting papers and preaching sermons about such matters, and to critically articulating the faith in public fora (42–43).
Geoff’s reference to theologians clearly preferences those whose work is concerned almost exclusively with words. If I was to venture a small criticism of this terrific book, it would be that it might have donated more ink to the ways that words do not exhaust the making explicit what otherwise remains implicit; that engagement in the joyous burden of enquiry and witness to the hope born of a faith that Easters us is not done with words alone. Yes, theology does much of its critical work through ‘exegesis, analysis, construction, writing and debating’ (50) and so on, but unlike work on say dogma and doctrine, theology does these with more than words. What of cultural myths, ritual, image, architecture, time, music, hospitality? I wish that Geoff had also explored some such ways in this book.
For those, like Geoff and myself, committed to serving God through the atmosphere of the Reformed project, the dynamic and free character of the living Word is as uncompromising a priority as is the hope that faith communities are ever born through its hearing. But it is very easy to be blind-sighted by such a commitment. Edwin Muir’s criticism of King Calvin’s kirk comes readily to mind. Muir, a Scottish poet, spoke of how ‘the Word made flesh … is made word again’, exposing an enduring proclivity in Reformed Christianity to attempt to secure the truth of the Gospel through words alone.
Don’t get me wrong: I love words, and theology can’t do without them. But language has a tendency to pretend ‘to a precision, a finality that it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious’. Responsible theological education must constantly underscore this fact by undertaking its work in an abundance of performative modes. This is indeed to take seriously Geoff’s own claim that theological work ought to correspond to the modes by which divine revelation has come into the world. It is also to underscore the theological community’s ‘vocation’, in Geoff’s words, ‘to counter the myth that reason is the only legitimate mode of truth-telling’ (60). Or, to cite Luther: ‘It’s not reading books that makes a theologian, but living, dying, and being damned!’
A Genuinely Theological Church is a welcome challenge to those faith communities still breathing late-Christendom air to imagine that the church’s ‘validity is derived [solely] from its availability to Jesus Christ’ (29–30). It is this that assists the church to counter the ever-present temptations of abstraction and domestication. And it is this, primarily, that makes the Christian community to be stranger than we hardly ever dare imagine. How fitting, for its sole existence is to bear witness to the peculiarity of God’s own strangeness among us in Jesus Christ. This is part of the novel gift that the ‘decline of Christendom allows us in the West’ (34–35). And it is theology’s role, Geoff believes, ‘to help shape the church’s collective imagination around’ this strange and novel story of the crucified God ‘with which Christianity launched itself into the world’ (38). Geoff believes that this calls for ‘leadership which is embedded in a post-Christendom [or we might be better to say late-Christendom] theological imagination which can articulate and shape the Christian faith in the midst of the other social imaginaries that make up the cultural plurality of Australian society’ (82). Geoff’s book made me pause and ask myself the question: What would it take for the UCA to produce another kind of Davis McCaughey, but for today’s Australia?
A few years ago, the Church of England produced a consultation document called Resourcing Ministerial Education. Among other things, it argued that the Church needs a ‘significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders’ to meet its new challenges. One thing that it highlighted is that, as one commentator put it:
To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about) … is like being told to make bricks without straw …. We cannot evade discussion of issues of finance, resourcing, and patterns of ministerial education. Yet there is a risk that we may fail to ask the right questions – particularly if we allow the institutional needs of the Church to trump the spiritual and pastoral needs of congregations, or lose sight of the importance of a theological vision in inspiring and sustaining Christian ministry.Geoff’s book is concerned to articulate and to invite engagement with many of these ‘right questions’.
You know, many scholars write excellent fat books. Very few get read. Many, however, do a most admirable job at elevating computer monitors. Geoff’s book would make a useless computer monitor stand! A few years ago, when Julian Barnes’ short novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize, readers and critics were reminded that form matters as well as content. At 88 pages, A Genuinely Theological Church frees its readers – and its author – of the burden of being comprehensive. Like Walter Benjamin’s 38-page The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Geoff’s fabulously-hobbit-sized book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only material its reader has at hand. Of course, short books are only very rarely indeed a substitute for more complex works that advance challenging arguments. But they can certainly delight in piquing curiosity and in provoking further thought, and perhaps even action. Geoff’s book seeks such ends, and for that the church is again truly in his debt.
 Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018).
 While Geoff properly resists the temptation to commit on other parts of the church, the relevance of this book clearly extends beyond the bounds of the UCA.
 Geoff Thompson, ‘Forming Disciples – Theologically’, Crosslight, June 2018, 18.
 Edwin Muir, ‘The Incarnate One’, in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 228–29.
 Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 11.
 The judgement that we are living in a ‘post-Christendom’ context is debatable in my view and, as Geoff notes, a not-entirely-accurate description of the Australian scene.
 Geoff is right to argue that ‘a simplistically-formulated faith, and a faith reflected on only simplistically, will betray its own substance’ (39). Unremitting and unqualified silence is not a final option for those called to discipleship in the world because such would mark a retreat into pure subjectivity at the very point when those so called find themselves already committed to the world. But as Kierkegaard diagnosed in his own context, the most carefully parsed words offer no guarantee that the truth of Christianity might be rendered more or less meaningful.
 Alistair E. McGrath, ‘It’s the theology, stupid’, Church Times, 17 April (2015), https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/17-april/comment/opinion/it-s-the-theology-stupid.
Another little thought provoker from an old edition of Meanjin, this time from around 40 years ago (although most of it could have been written last week, or next week):
Unlike those in Britain, Europe or America, our universities have never taken the study of religious thought seriously (Melbourne in fact explicitly excluded Divinity in 1890), and there are no great theological colleges in Australia; until recently the churches imported rather than bred their theologians. The Anglicans and the Romans in particular have had a fractured system of small-time colleges, each with its own emphasis, which are only now being rationalised; all theological colleges are heavily oriented towards the vocational training of clergy, rather than the intellectual critique of the church’s language about God. The last few years have seen the beginnings of substantial theological scholarship and discussion, but each publication is overwhelmingly a contribution to a debate centred in Europe. It may be objected that Australian religion is vastly wider than what goes on in theological colleges, and so it is. But I submit that the failure so far to spawn a tradition of self-sustaining theological scholarship and debate tells us something significant about Australian religion.
There is a second point here as well. Religion in Australia has been, and to a large extent is still, very derivative. The Irish consciousness of the Catholics needs no elaboration, and has caused considerable difficulties to continental Catholics who have come here in the past 30 years; the Anglicans are still in the process of dropping the name ‘Church of England’; Scottish accents have always commanded especial respect in Presbyterian Assemblies. More recently, the ‘evangelical’ Protestants have turned to America to import business models and techniques.
From the early days of the colony, there were groups – the emancipists, the larrikins, the battlers – who thought of themselves as Australians and scorned the ‘new chums’. But these were precisely the groups who were little affected by religion, whether in the formal guise of the churches or through the missions of the evangelists. This striking disjunction is marvellously illustrated by the uncultivated youth in a magistrate’s court about 1840 who, when asked his religion, replied ‘I am a Native’. The foreignness of the Australian Churches, whatever their denominational allegiance, was indeed foreshadowed in the First Fleet; the Church arrived here ‘on the wrong side’, in the presence of an officially-appointed chaplain.
Nationalistic self-identity had, therefore, little effect on religious consciousness: Australia has not even produced its own analogues of the off-beat American sects. All the ‘way-out’ religious groups appearing here with significant impact have been imported. And, of course, in this very paper I have had to take ‘Australian religion’ with the implicit gloss ‘white’: the mythological structure of the Aboriginal ‘dreaming’ has contributed nothing to white religious thought here, however much it has intrigued anthropologists. There has been remarkably little indigenisation.
The picture I am painting may change. In the last year or so one can detect what might prove to be the first stirrings of a genuinely contextual articulation of an Australian religious outlook. (It will be interesting to see whether the new Uniting Church of Australia inaugurated in July can rise to the challenge.) More characteristic has been the short life of Charles Strong’s Australian Church, with its simple Unitarianism, which never really got off the ground.
For the moment, the essentially derivative nature of Australian religion remains more striking. The way post-war migrants have brought their own churches with them, be they Gereformeerdekerk or Serbian Orthodox, has only accentuated this fact. And if we add to that the manner in which the population from the beginning, even if mainly falling under the general classification ‘British’, owned different national and ecclesiastical allegiances with none predominant, then it follows that the Australian church scene is characteristically sectarian ….
The sectarianism of Australian religious life has, of course, had an enormous influence on social and political affairs. The centralised and bureaucratic shape of our education systems was the direct outcome of bitter religious rivalry and distrust last century; State aid for church schools remained the principal issue of religious-political interaction until the Whitlam government established the Schools Commission to defuse the issue.
More generally, the role of the churches in Australian political life has been to reinforce our pervasive conservatism. This role has been accomplished in two ways: precisely by emphasising their derivativeness, the churches have provided symbols of famililiar security in a strange, unsettling environment, and by underpinning a vague liberal-humanism the churches have provided a stable value-system within which personal and political questions can be discussed without serious clash between church and state …. Yet while Christianity has served this conservative role in these ways, it has made no clear doctrinal contribution to the sense of national identity of the kind we noted in America. Insofar as that identity has been articulated in terms of the Anzac tradition, its religious motifs are more reminiscent of a Mithraic blood sacrifice of immortal youth than of the Cross ….
This brings me to the next point: there are regional differences which talk about Australian religion should not obscure. South Australia … has a different denominational mix from the national average; Methodists, Congregationalists and Lutherans have been more numerous there. But denominations aside, there is a striking difference between Sydney and Melbourne right across the religious board. Let me remind you of some facts. It was in Melbourne that the Catholic National Civic Council had its base and Santamaria’s groupers were most influential. It is in Melbourne that the predominantly Anglican Brotherhood of St. Laurence operates. It was in N. S. W. that the Presbyterian Church split right down the middle over church Union. Melbourne Baptists tend to look to English Baptists for guidance [ed. – If anyone knows of such a gang, then do please introduce me]; Sydney Baptists to American Southern Baptists. Melbourne has its College of Divinity in which Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Anglicans and Jesuits now work closely together …. Religious life in Melbourne has always been more urbane, more ecumenical, more catholic in its social vision, more Tory in its conservatism, whereas Sydney has been more assertive, more sectarian-fundamentalist …, a tendency which becomes stronger the further north one goes ….
Insofar as Australian religion is derivative from Europe, it has inherited the theological problematic of Western Christianity. But our situation here is different; the very fact of migration has altered what comes as historically given. The problem of how to overcome nihilism, I want to suggest, likewise requires a different response here …. [We Australians] know ourselves to be thrown into a world in which we are not at home. (Indeed many generations of Australians referred to Britain as ‘home’, and we still cringe around the southern and eastern seaboard.) Hence also the conservative, derivative character of church life; caught up as Australians are in the rapidity of modern social change, before any deep cultural traditions could have become established, the churches can provide rare havens of familiar security. Seen in this perspective, it is no longer surprising that the churches which are, by secular measures, most ‘successful’, are precisely those which appear aggressively old-fashioned, and offer simple assurance.
Further, the tranquillised self-assurance which [Martin] Heidegger takes to characterise inauthentic Being-at-home is highly manifest in contemporary Australia. Unlike people in other countries, we know in our hearts that the rhetoric of public life is largely phoney, even as we continue to invoke it. Our overwhelmingly suburban life-style, it seems to me, has to be explained in terms of an obsession to gather material possessions into the supposed security of one’s own home as a compensating reaction to our corporate lack of natural community. Heidegger could be describing Patrick White’s Sarsaparilla ….
The relevance of all this for our character-sketch is that our cultural heritage is not rooted here. Our form of estrangement is not the European one of a culture which has collapsed in on itself to find nullity at the heart of its being. But neither are we at home; in their different ways, the banality and crudity of our everyday Ocker, the strident assertiveness of our churchly behaviour, the haunting elusiveness of the quest for wholeness which pervades our best literature, all testify to this ….
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves more deeply why it is that the Outback still figures so forcefully in our imagery, even though we flee from its untameable emptiness into the seeming security of suburbia. Our consciousness is shot through with that sort of ambiguity: ambiguity about authority, which is reviled and yet conformed to; ambiguity about the land, which is shamelessly exploited and yet cannot be domesticated; ambiguity about ourselves, as a people oriented towards the future yet clinging obsessively to old, familiar forms of thought and social action.
My suggestion, made with great tentativeness and temerity, is that we stand out into emptiness. There is none of Heidegger’s typically European rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) here, and that, I submit, is what unifies the traits of Australian religion I have noted into a single character.
But emptiness is not nothing; it is the uncanny limit of our self-assertion, a beyond, an ‘outback’ which indwells our existence, curbing any pretensions to absolute knowledge or authority. This deep, inarticulate sense of a limit is the correlative of the recognition of the contingency of our being-in-the-world. Practically, it means that we are driven back into our situation, to grapple with the recalcitrant nature of what is given – our so-called materialism and pragmatism. Theologically, it means that the absence of God is not nothing; it is the particular mode of his presence. At one level, the conservative-assertive style of the churches can be explained as a curious refraction of that theological situation within a derivative culture. At a deeper level, a more positive articulation of how we know ourselves to be contingent beings ‘thrown’ into a reality which transcends us and defies our efforts at domestication, might yet provide a basis for an authentic religious consciousness in this country.
– Richard Campbell
A guest post from Anne Mallaby
Coming to the end of a formal pastoral leadership at Box Hill Baptist Church creates a moment to reflect upon ministry as it has been experienced in the local church context, and in my involvement in theological education within the formal educative process. Often this may have appeared to be a dance between separate spheres of academic theology and its practical outworking that could be at best considered a tension, and at worst placed as polarities. However, for me the concluding of formal pastoral leadership responsibilities does not mean that my love for the church as it strives to express the love of God in the world will stop. It continues, albeit in a different mode but contributing to both in ways that hopefully serve the realm of God expressed locally and more broadly.
For many years, I have lived out a model of ministry that sought to apply academic thought to practice by intentionally considering how academic thinking informs my practice, and, in turn, how my practice prompts more rigorous examination and understanding. The conversation between the two has provided a rich base for ministry, with experience informing theological thinking and the resources of the academy enriching my pastoral practice. I’ve delighted in that interesting dialogue that takes seriously the challenges of engaging with people, religious systems, and social phenomena, and that seeks to reflect theologically upon them. And, in truth, I’ve never been tempted to see this conversation as a one-sided one. We need the academy to distil the social data, the sources of our tradition, and the richness of our text. And the academy needs the practitioner to ask the questions, to prompt the exploration, to seek understanding. This has never been an either/or approach. The academy and the practice of ministry delight together in a dance that rises and falls, seeking to catch the rhythm of God with us.
Often when we turn our attention to intentional rigorous thought, searching to make sense of the many conundrums that come our way in ministry, we shy away from thinking of this as academic research. But to truly grapple with issues that lay before us, we need to understand deeply and fully as much as we can. If ministry on the run is our sole approach, we are likely to run full headlong into complex situations that have been over-simplified or run away from the opportunities for rich learning and engagement that will inform how we live.
I’ve needed the rigor of the academy to make sense of my practice, to stimulate my thinking, and to prompt me to extend my ideas and practice. But there is a compromise of resourcing and time. Trying to be abreast of the most current thinking, responding thoughtfully and intelligently to trends and contemporary questions, requires thinking through the implications and considering fresh paradigms of thought with as much energy as we can gather. We need the means of gathering that research and the skills to interpret it within our contexts, and we need people who have those skills and the time to support us in this endeavour.
Of course, we are all practitioners. We engage in community life with real people seeking to live well in God. We are practitioner-theologians in one sense. That said, we can’t all be on top of everything, and if we are to delight in new discoveries and to be open to new insights in our learning, then time and space need to be available for this. If I’m honest, even keeping up with the latest research is a challenge, let alone contributing to it!
As my formal ministry leadership role in a local church comes to an end, the question may be asked if I have sold out to the desire to live in books and ideas? This is not only a simplistic view of the Academy; it is flawed. Just as I’ve needed the rigor of academy to offer input and clarity along the way, so too I will need the community of God to raise up some of the questions that are important and that need to be explored. We all need people who have the capacity to discern clearly and to think deeply about important subjects that inform our living.
I am committed to informed and integrative learning as the way forward for our churches and our formational programs. And being informed requires thoughtful, intentional, attention to research and discovery. I’m excited to be a part of a team who are committed to doing this together.
‘So what the Dickens is going on? Where are theological schools headed? Do we still have options that will not undercut the quality of education we expect and need for those going into ministry?
This last question is the one that keeps me awake at night.
Dan Aleshire, executive director of ATS and the wisest analyst of theological schools in our time, in his address to participants in the annual Presidential Intensive Leadership Conference quoted something said many years ago by Dutch Leonard, a professor at Harvard Business School. Dr. Leonard famously said: “The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable.”
To which Dan said: “Maybe no longer is this true.”
Dan is so right about this. Mediocrity is dead, as Tom Friedman said in one of his New York Times columns a couple of years ago (in response to which I wrote an earlier blog). If you want your organization to survive, whatever it does must be excellent. Just “good enough” is no longer good enough.
That is exactly where the rub comes. A mediocre school is not long for this world. Even great schools have failed. And most of the schools that have failed were still delivering a traditionally strong education to their students.
I would hazard to guess that many, if not most, of the schools that have stumbled and fallen in the past several years didn’t fail because they lacked adequate analytics. Like most businesses that fail, they failed because they didn’t do what their analysis told them they needed to do. Some failed because they jumped on what appeared to be a bandwagon headed to success only to discover too late that the solution wasn’t the right one for them. Others have attempted to do “business as usual” in an exceptional era, and they simply ran out of operating capital. Others were unwilling for whatever reason to sacrifice their sacred cows for the sake of their mission.
The seminaries that have flourished have disciplined themselves to make tough choices based on their strategic vision. Furthermore, successful schools in the current environment do not think of adaptation as something they did, but something they do’.
You can read the rest of the post here.
In this insightful and encouraging interview, conducted with Terence Handley MacMath and first published in the Church Times, Rowan Williams ruminates on teaching, church leadership, theological education, funding, experiencing God, faith, the theological task, reporting on charities, his greatest influences, and reassuring and loved sounds. His comments – particularly those about the relationship between Christ and the world – are all the more pertinent given recently-published pieces in the mainstream media about what most of us, I suspect, have known for so long now, about Britain’s ‘disappearing Christianity’ and ‘Christian extinction’.
My work is teaching, writing, studying, plus lots of administration and raising funds for the college, and chairing Christian Aid. Probably most of my time goes on college, and a variety of teaching events for churches and schools.
I’m currently giving a series of lectures here on the history of the doctrine of Christ, trying to tease out how thinking about Christ clarifies the relation between God and creation overall.
As Archbishop, you’re constantly responding to things, and even if you do get some writing done — as I did, a bit — it tends to be issue-focused. I like having the chance of some longer breaths for thinking through questions.
When I was in post, the urgent questions were often serious theological ones, if rather heavily disguised at times; so I found myself reflecting hard about the nature of authority in the Church, and what it meant to speak about the interdependent life of the Body of Christ. That latter point continues to be absorbing for me, and I think that this term’s lectures will have reflected that a bit — thinking about the inseparable connection between what we say about Jesus Christ, and what we say about the community that lives in him.
A bishop has to be a teacher of the faith. That is, he or she has to be someone who is animated by theology and eager to share it — animated by theology in the sense of longing to inhabit the language and world of faith with greater and greater intelligence, insight, and joy. So, yes, bishops need that animation and desire to help others make sense of their commitment.
Arguments about priestly training go round and round, don’t they? Too theoretical, too pragmatic, not enough of this, not enough of that. . . My worry is, if we focus too much on curriculum — what should the modules be? — we may somehow fail to connect things up in a big picture in which pastoral care, sacramental life, prayer, scripture, social and political perspective, and doctrine all interweave. We need to have that interconnectedness in our minds constantly, as we seek to shape future ordained ministry, because that is what provides the deepest resource for arid and frustrating times. And that is what guarantees that we have something to offer our society that’s more than simply religious uplift, moral inspiration, or nice experiences.
A lot of debate in and out of the Church is shadow-boxing, because people don’t recognise what the questions are. Of course, recognising what the questions are does not remotely guarantee that you will agree, but it helps to know what you’re disagreeing about, and stops you resorting to tribal slogans, whether secular or religious. My old friend and colleague Oliver O’Donovan is particularly good at this excavation of basic questions, and has been a great help and inspiration.
In an ideal world, government and educational establishments would recognise that theology is as significant a study as other humanities. But, given that the study of the humanities in general is so badly supported these days, I’m not holding my breath. It’s anything but an ideal world.
This means that I would plead with the Church to take seriously the need for investing in theological education at all levels — to recognise that there is a huge appetite for theology among so many laypeople, and thus a need for clergy who can respond and engage intelligently. The middle-term future may need to be one where there are more independent centres of theological study outside universities, given the erosion of resources in higher education, and I think it’s time more people started thinking about what that might entail in terms of funding.
British theology is more cosmopolitan than when I started studying it. In the Sixties, people writing about doctrine in the UK were not very enthusiastic about Continental writers (though it was different for New Testament scholars); and modern Roman Catholic theology was largely ignored. Now we read far more widely, I think, and we’re more ready to take time over the intricacies of historical arguments rather than dismiss them as tiresome and unnecessary complications.
There’s more critical interest in the history of spirituality, and more willingness to let it come into the territory of doctrine. All this is to the good. My sadness is the decline of institutional resources for theology in the UK: limited funds for research, and theology departments under threat.
It’s hard to pin down my first experience of God, but I suppose [it was] through shared worship in the Presbyterian chapel of my childhood, and a strong sense — when I was around eight, and my grandmother, who lived with us, was dying — of God’s care and providence, and the presence of the crucified Christ. Shared worship is still a major part of how I encounter God, but, from my teens, this has been balanced by a growing hunger for silence before God.
I’ve never felt any real disjunction between academic theology and faith. I’ve found that studying the development of Christian doctrine has excited me, and helped me see something of the veins and sinews of faith. My research has arisen out of my desire to understand better what we say as people of faith.
Apart from the obvious question about how we Anglicans manage the tension of living in a diverse global church — where we need a more robust theology of what interdependence does and doesn’t mean — I think my biggest concern is that we don’t have a rich enough Anglican theological consensus on the sacramental nature of the Church. That’s eucharistic ecclesiology, to put it in technical language.
Underrated theologians? John Bowker, Olivier Clément, Andrew Shanks.
Theology has a modest but vital part to play in the Church’s mission. We need to keep asking questions about how we’re using our language, so that we don’t get stuck with unexamined habits of speech, don’t assume that true formulations about God tell us everything about him, don’t forget the sheer scale of what we are daring to speak about. Theology helps with all this. And it helps clarify what we believe about human nature and destiny, which is of real importance for a world that is often deeply unsure or confused about the roots of human dignity.
Theologians don’t necessarily ask the same questions as others do, but there is a continuity, and theologians need the skill and patience to draw out those continuities. That’s why it is important that there are writers who try to work in the boundaries between academic theology and secular culture, and those who try to put the great governing themes of classical theology into plainer words. Mike Lloyd is a good example.
I was an only child. My father worked as an engineer, and my mother had lifelong health and mobility problems. They were both Christians, though reticent and sometimes uncertain about it. My wife, Jane, of course, is well-known in her own right as a teacher and writer. We have a daughter who teaches in an inner-city primary school, and a son studying drama at university. Both would still call themselves Christian, though they slip in and out of the institutional life of the Church.
The most reassuring, loved sound to me is the door opening when my wife or children come home.
Some irresponsible and hostile reporting about charities was the last thing that made me angry. Nationally and internationally, charities are expected to pick up the slack where statutory provision drops away — yet they’re subjected not just to proper demands for accountability, but often to what looks like wilfully negative and undermining reporting, focused on excessive salaries, inadequate monitoring of expenditure, intrusive fund-raising, and so on. These things all happen, and need to stop happening; but just how representative are the hostile headline stories, especially where international aid is concerned?
I’m happiest when I’m at the Pembrokeshire coast on family holidays.
Augustine has probably been the greatest theological influence above all, but also Vladimir Lossky, who was the focus of my doctoral research; Barth, Bonhoeffer, Austin Farrer, Donald MacKinnon, James Alison. I don’t know if Simone Weil is allowed to count as a theologian; I don’t always agree with her by any means, but she was a huge influence at several points. Among specific books, I remember Bonhoeffer’s prison letters; Charles Williams’s He Came Down From Heaven; Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations.
The greatest influences in my life have been the parish priest in my teenage years; the Benedictine monk who was my spiritual director; and Jane and the children.
I pray most for patience, freedom to forgive and let go of hurt — for myself and for the whole Church and human family — and for the rescue of the vulnerable: the abused, hungry, terrified, wherever they are.
If I had to choose a companion to be locked in a church with for a few hours, I’d toss up between St Augustine, T. S. Eliot, and Bonhoeffer, from the past. In the present — family apart — Salley Vickers, Michael Symmons Roberts, or Kathleen Norris.
What insights and gifts do various church traditions offer to each other, and to the world?
Well, the Orthodox remind us that this girl is old, much older than you think. In fact, she’s a real nanna. The Pentecostals remind us that this girl likes to experiment. The Seventh Day Adventists remind us that the graffiti on the back of the dunny door announcing that this girl likes Marcion, who also goes by the name of ‘Marci’, is just slander. The Anglicans remind us that this girl plays best when she’s playing with all sorts of different girls. (‘Anglicans’ who don’t get this might as well become Brethren.) Speaking of which, the Brethren remind us that this girl shows us that weirdness can be catholic too. The Baptists remind us that this girl is supposed to have a thing about unprotected sex with civil authorities, and that she has a mind of her own. The Presbyterians/Reformed remind us that this girl is a bit of a nerd. The Methodists remind us this girl can sing! The Lutherans remind us that this girl can drink! The Salvos remind us that this girl can go without drinking at all because her arms and legs alone keep her alive. And the Roman Catholics remind us that this girl is not a girl at all but actually a boy who likes playing dress ups.
Now the thing that I really want to reflect on here is the gift that each of these habits and idiosyncrasies are to each other, and how much poorer this girl would be were any of these features made to be unwelcome, or not given opportunity and space to flourish. I’ll take one – the Presbyterian/Reformed commitment to education.
In his little book The Church Transforming: What’s Next for the Reformed Project?, Michael Jinkins writes:
The Reformed project has always promoted theological education to support and strengthen the church in its mission. We live at a moment, however – an axial moment in the history of the church – when some question the rationale for the theological education of those called to lead the church. Today we must argue convincingly for a theologically well-educated ministry if we care about the quality of preaching and the worship of God, of pastoral care and counseling, of Christian teaching and nurture, of mission, service, and evangelism. We must make this argument powerfully if we care about the nurturing of a church that can grapple with the social and cultural challenges it faces. Theological education will not solve every problem: it will not heal our every disease or deliver us from every evil. But theological education can teach us that we don’t have to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus of Nazareth. And in our culture today, this is one of the most countercultural messages we can articulate.
Education, including theological education (a subject about which I’ve blogged a bit before), proved to be fundamentally important in the birthing of the Reformed movements in the sixteenth century, both through Grandpa Calvin’s emphasis on catechesis and the ‘sermon’, and through the establishment, in 1559, of the Genevan Academy, which became the training ground for an ‘educated clergy’ and the nursery of Reformed movements in France, the Netherlands, England, Poland, Scotland, and elsewhere.
In his masterful biography on Calvin, Bruce Gordon has observed that ‘Schools were, in Calvin’s mind, essential to the building of Christian society’. Calvin shared with the Genevans a commitment to the humanism of the great European centres. This commitment found expression in the creation of and widespread support for the Academy, which had two parts – the schola publica which trained ministers and the schola privata where Genevan children, each of whom was believed to be a gift from God, were schooled. The schola privata, in particular, received substantial support – a claim buoyed by the fact that it was provided with new buildings, and it received nearly 20% of the city’s annual budget in 1559–60, money gained largely from the dissolution of the monasteries. In addition, citizens of Geneva were required to bequeath legacies to the Academy in their wills, and were expected to pray for the Academy and its work.
Undergirding such a commitment is a deeper commitment to the world itself. The church has often faced the temptation to disengage from the world, to take a turn inwards and focus almost entirely on churchly matters, to become a mere sect. By and large, the Reformed have resisted this temptation.
Indeed, historically, one of the real gifts that the Reformed have bequeathed to the wider Church and to the discipline of theology has been the rigour with which it has applied the life of the mind in the service of God and of God’s work in the world. So Jinkins:
From the first, Reformed Christians have sought to advance the best thinking in the face of superficiality, superstition, bad religion, social reactivity, and anxiety. As expressions of confidence that Christian faith and the promotion of knowledge go hand-in-hand, the Reformed project established the first programs of universal education, founding universities, graduate schools, and teaching hospitals as it moved across the world. Today the world’s problems have become extraordinarily complex, and many religious people try to prove their religious devotion by refusing to test their convictions intellectually or by seeking to silence those with whom they disagree. Now more than ever, we as Reformed Christians must foster the curiosity and intellectual openness that have driven us to think deeply, for there is desperate need for faithful people who are bold and unflinching thinkers, people who will use their best knowledge and concerted intellect to engage and mend a broken world.
So we are thinking here about the habit of the Reformed to love God – and so God’s world – with our mind, as well as with our heart, soul, and strength. The Reformed are typically among those in the body of Christ who worry most about what will become of Christian faith – and, indeed, of the world – if Christians fail to love God and God’s world with a love schooled and tenacious enough to ask – and to keep asking – the tough, deep, critical and sometimes intractable questions about life. They are among those who are ‘concerned about what it will mean for our faith if we choose to ignore life’s most profound mysteries and insoluble riddles’, who are ‘concerned about the integrity of the church if we abandon the curiosity that is unafraid to swim at the deep end of the pool, if we jettison a passion for ideas, for knowledge, and for wisdom for their own sake’ and who are equally ‘disturbed about what will become of society if persons of faith retreat from the public sphere, where ideas must fight for their lives among competing interests, where justice is served by vigorous argumentation and intelligent action as much as by high ideals’. They are certainly among those who believe that the greatest heresy the church faces today is not atheism but superficiality, and its attendant ‘cult’.
To cite Jinkins, again:
Occasionally I hear editors of church publications or church growth consultants arguing that Christian laypeople just aren’t interested in theology, or that laypeople aren’t interested in the history of their faith or, worse still, that laypeople simply can’t understand complicated ideas. Yet, when I speak in congregations around the country, I regularly encounter crowds of lively, intelligent laypeople hungry to know more about their faith. These are laypeople, incidentally, who in their daily lives run businesses and shape economies, teach, read or even write important books on a variety of serious subjects, argue legal cases before judges and juries, write laws that shape our common life, and cure our diseases of the mind and body. These laypeople are tired of being infantilized at church. They want to understand their faith more deeply. The comments of the laypeople I meet, people who want to learn more about their faith, are often along the lines of what an elderly woman said … one Sunday after [Tom Long] had preached in one of the many congregations in which he speaks around the country. As he was making his way from the pulpit to the sanctuary exit, the woman stepped forward to greet him. Earlier in the evening, Tom had invited members of the congregation to share with him any messages they’d like him to take back to the future ministers he teaches in seminary. As this woman stepped forward, Tom greeted her with the question, “Is there a message you’d like me to take back to the seminary, something you’d like me to tell our students?” “Yes, there is,” she said. “Tell them to take us seriously.” Now, I know that not every person in our churches, or indeed in our society, craves to understand God (or anything else) more deeply. But I would also maintain that at the core of the gospel there is a sacred mandate – we call it “the Great Commission – to go into all the world to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The word disciple translates a Greek word that means “pupil” or “willing learner.” As church leaders, then, we have this duty, this mission, this commission: to teach, to kindle curiosity, to expand knowledge, to renew minds, to make our people wiser. And there are many, many people only too eager to learn.
The Reformed emphasis on the importance of education needs to be tempered, however, with the kind of humility that the Reformed emphasise concerning human personhood in general, and about the noetic effects of what its Augustinian forebears named ‘the Fall’. Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. But self-criticism is among the first casualties of insecurity, especially those brands of insecurity that transform thinking people into an unthinking herd.
Christian faith, on the other hand, thrives on a spirit that resists taking itself too seriously. Healthy girls know how to party, and they do. As G. K. Chesterton once suggested, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Devils, on the other hand, fall under the weight of their own self-regard. But God help us all when Presbyterians and Uniting Church folk start parking their brains in the shopping cart, as some of their own members and not a few of their ecclesial cousins are want to do.
So, three cheers for serious theological education, wherever it’s happening.
I’ve been teaching at Whitley College for just over a year now. During that time, I’ve formed a heap of impressions about the place. Here’s ten of ’em:
- It is a community soaked in the rhythms and practices of prayer and of Bible reading. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, staff and students gather together to read Holy Scripture and to pray for the world, the church, the denomination and congregations we serve, and for students and residents of the College. There’s something almost monastic about the place.
- It is a community – and this is not unrelated to the rhythms of prayer and of Bible reading – marked by friendship, food, and a sense of belonging. As a modern commuter college with a large number of part time students, and a significant number of more-recent arrivals to Australia, and a timetable that spreads over the whole week, this is no easy feat, but I feel that Whitley makes a really good fist of being a community marked by God’s hospitality.
- It is a community of learning and of formation. It celebrates the truth that there is no incongruity between loving God with our hearts, with our hands, and with our brains. It is, in other words, a community which encourages the integration of worship, service, and academic scholarship, each existing only in a tandem of formation with the other two in a delightful expression of the gospel’s great freedom. Whitley is sometimes charged (most often by those with little or no direct experience of the place) with being ‘liberal’. If by that is a suggestion that its faculty have abandoned commitment to the one great apostolic, catholic, and trinitarian faith of the church, then I’m yet to see any evidence that would support such a charge.
- It is a community of wonderful cohorts of students – people who are engaged with their studies, engaged with the world, and engaged in communities of faith and of Gospel service in the world. This includes an impressive and growing postgraduate community pursuing higher-level study and research.
- It is a community marked by an incredibly-rich texture of cultural and theological and other diversities. It is, in fact, a microcosm of the transposable nature of the Body of Christ. Insofar as it is this, it is also a community in which people really are served to better live in and with an increasingly diverse Australia.
- It is a community that seems to carry a unique sense of vocation – and the burdens that attend such – to serving Christians in theological education in those many under-resourced parts of our region.
- It is a community which, like God, loves the world. The world, which is on God’s heart too, matters here. Put otherwise, Whitley is characterised by a spirit of deliberate refusal to exist in some kind of religious bubble, or to let the world go to the dogs, as it were.
- It is a community that loves the church, that is always trying to ask questions of the church about how it can better serve the church’s work and witness to Jesus in the world. Being a denominational college serving in a diverse university context is never an easy space to straddle, but it seems to me that Whitley really does seek to walk that space with genuine integrity and with an attitude of service.
- It is a community which usually meets in gorgeous and conveniently-located Parkville, with great access by public transport. I take the train to Royal Park, from which it’s less than a 10-minute walk through what often feels and sounds like an avairy of parrots, and usually has me arriving at work in a good mood.
- It is a community where people testify to feeling safe and to feeling stretched – safe to explore questions that faith asks, and stretched to know that faith’s destination is as mysterious as is the journey. This is important to me.
There are, of course, other things to be said, including things about which I’m less sanguine, and these may be said in due time, but these 10 will do for now.
Whitley College is pleased to announce the appointment of Rev Dr Ian Dicks, BA, Dip Theol, PhD as Lecturer in InterCultural Studies.
Ian Dicks is an Australian who has lived and served in Malawi for the last 20 years. Ian was ordained within the Baptist Union of South Australia and, together with his wife Wendy, has served with Global Interaction amongst the Yawo people. His current role is as ‘Cross-Cultural Worker, Anthropological and Missiological Consultant’ with Global Interaction.
Ian Dicks is an expert in the field of intercultural communications: people relating to people who are different in language, customs and beliefs. For him, this is the essence of Christian mission: in the New Testament, in other countries, but also in our own streets and neighbourhood.
Ian has undertaken ground-breaking research in the language of the Yawo people and is currently working on a dictionary of that language. He has a passion for enabling people to learn how to relate to those whose language, traditions and experience are different from our own. He has been helping the staff of Global Interaction to engage with these challenges, and upon his return to Australia will be sharing these skills with people studying at Whitley. He has been an adjunct teacher at the University of Malawi. He has also worked in local community development projects and leadership training.
This is a shared appointment with Global Interaction: Ian will continue assisting the work in Malawi for some months each year, for the next two years at least. The balance of the year will be spent teaching at Whitley College. Ian will teach from his expertise in understanding and relating to Muslim people, Contextual Mission, and in InterCultural Communication. He would love also to lead a study trip to Malawi!
The Council and Faculty of Whitley College are delighted to be working with Global Interaction in our common commitment to training in intercultural competence and mission. We look forward with real excitement to Ian Dicks’ contribution to our life as a College and all he has to offer the Christian community.
Together with his family, Ian will be returning to Australia to take up this new position in January 2016. Please pray for him, for Wendy, Simeon and Benjamin as they prepare for this very significant change in their lives.
[This announcement originally appeared here]
Alister McGrath’s very good and timely comment on the Church of England’s Resourcing Ministerial Education document echoes observations made by many others. John de Gruchy, for example, in his excellent little book, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, writes:
In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’
- 31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’
- 22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’
- 17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’
- 8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’
- 7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’
- 4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’
- 2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’
- 1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’
- 0.9% said, ‘Yes.’
Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:
How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one!
This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.
Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.
In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …
The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world.
The matter is also taken up directly by Karl Barth. In his Evangelical Theology, written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ and clearly with an eye on encouraging budding preachers, Barth raises issues that remain relevant to our own time, and aims his challenge not at the feet of pastors alone but also at the feet of the entire Christian community, and of those who consider themselves to be ‘Christian’:
Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen [and churchwomen] (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned …
A little later on Barth says that all theology ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God; neither of which, by the way, are served particularly well by the high levels of egotistical testosterone that characterise much academia:
Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service.
(One of the things highlighted (some 17 times!) in the C of E report is the focus on so-called ‘lay’ ministry (still an ugly, clumsy, and theologically-preposterous concept. Can’t Anglicans, who might still, even in these darkened years, be the champions of theo-speak in the Anglophone world, find a better word?). Interpreted kindly, it’s a nod to the fact that the church in toto is a theological community, and an expression of the fact that theological education is on the way to being liberated from its clergy-centric shackles, even if many of the pressures for such a move have principally not been theological in nature.)
Whenever I think about the strange place of a pastor as a member and resident theologian of a theo-hermeneutical community, I remember one of my favourite passages in Jürgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place:
With my doctorate, I at first felt a fool standing in the pulpit in front of this farming congregation. But earlier I had lived with workers and farmers in ‘the hard school of life’, and it was out of these experiences that I preached, not from my Göttingen lecture notes. This congregation taught me ‘the shared theology of all believers’, the theology of the people. Unless academic theology continually turns back to this theology of the people, it becomes abstract and irrelevant. For the fact is that theology is not just something for theological specialists; it is a task laid on the whole people of God, all congregations and every believer. I only got into difficulties when I used the same sermon for the student congregation in Bremen and the farmers in Wasserhorst. The farmers were not interested in questions about the meaning of life and were not going through any adolescent orientation crises. They trusted in God and loved the Ten Commandments. When my elders rolled their eyes, I knew that I had lost them. So they guided me and preached to me.
My own personal theology developed as I went from house to house and visited the sick. If things went well, on Monday I learnt the text for the following Sunday’s sermon, took it with me as I visited the congregation, and then knew what I had to say in my sermon. Here a ‘hermeneutical circle’ developed, not the one between textual interpretation and one’s own private interpretation, as in Bultmann, but the one between textual interpretation and the experience of a community of people, in their families, among their neighbours, and in their work. In conversations, in teaching, and in preaching I came to believe that this was a shared theology of believers and doubters, the downcast and the consoled.
So McGrath: ‘It’s the theology, stupid’.
I am pleased to be teaching four units at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this year.
In Semester 1:
- Beginning Theological Studies (level 1 and level 8), and
- Suffering, Faith, and Theodicy (levels 2/3 and level 9)
And in Semester 2:
- John Calvin: Thought and Legacy (levels 2/3 and level 9), and
- Church: The Quest for Christian Community (levels 2/3 and level 9)
If you are within cooee of Melbourne, and these subjects interest you, then I’d love to chat with you.* I’m equally happy to chat with prospective postgrad students about possible research projects in theology. Contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.
* Note: They tell me that I’m really not as serious or as intense as I sound, or as bald as I look, in the videos (filming on a 40° day didn’t help). They also tell me that I respond very well to loose leaf tea and that I am way too enamoured with subcontinental cuisine. They’re wrong about (at least) one of these things.
Donn Morgan, Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-8192-2768-3; 96pp.
A guest-review by Kevin Ward.
This is a very brief little book that at first glance does not have much relevance for the church in New Zealand. It comes out of the crisis facing theological education in the US brought about by having far too many theological schools faced with rising costs, declining student numbers and reduced financial commitment from churches. That is a challenge for theological schools in New Zealand also, as I am aware both through teaching in one and being involved at executive level with both the New Zealand and Australia New Zealand Associations of such schools. However, as I read it I realised much of what was being discussed, both in terms of challenges and suggested ways ahead, was generally true for the church in New Zealand as well as theological education.
The core argument is that the mission of the church has three basic elements: worship, service and learning. He argues that while worship and service are regularly prioritised, learning is no longer regarded as ‘an important part of the church’s identity and mission’. ‘Service and worship without education and formation risks separating mission and ministry from fundamental parts of our identity, and creating a kind of amnesia concerning our Christian faith and its particular expressions’ (p. 38). This is a concern I also share and is identified in many recent studies, particularly among young people and young adults. Morgan takes a holistic view of this, not just concern about theological schools, and argues that the most important level of education is what happens at a congregational level. Here, in my observation, it is sadly neglected in many churches. The consequence of this lack of concern is, of course, a lack of commitment of resources to it, both at a congregational level and also in supporting theological education. Giving our scarce resources, service ministries or providing exciting worship is what counts.
The book is helpful in summarising some of the changes that have occurred over the past 50 years which have impacted on churches and theological schools in similar ways in New Zealand. ‘There continues to be debate about both the causes of and the solutions to the mainline churches’ decline. Because some churches continue to thrive, some say this is just a wake-up call for those in decline. But the overall numbers in many denominations reflect devastating change that would appear to require radical rethinking of the church’s mission, of “how to do and be church”’ (p. 17). Rather than thinking about these issues and the wider challenges of the state of the church as a whole, most focus has been on the survival of our particular community and its sustainability. This fosters a foxhole mentality. I would suggest this is true of both theological schools and local churches.
When it comes to looking at implementing the changes needed, Morgan suggests that it is like being in the middle of a three ring circus. The first ring represents the perennial issue of resources, especially financial, and the lack thereof. The second represents changes in church and society, which are, of course, related to the first. But while we spend much time discussing and obsessing about these, there is a third ring where ‘we try to put financial realities together with the changes in church and society as we reconsider mission and ministry’ (p. 61). This is the place where we need to not merely talk about structural change, but get through to doing it. This is the ring that is all-too-rarely entered. From my perspective it is a problem many theological schools have not addressed; namely, why a number in New Zealand have closed over recent years, and others are at crisis point (although I would add that it is one thing the Presbyterian Church has done well). But it is an even bigger issue for mainline churches, none more so than the PCANZ, and although we have been aware of the need for it for over a decade, have done precious little to address it.
The final chapter looks at some of the problems faced along the way of change, such as ‘inertia and investment in the status quo’, ‘particularity and diversity’, and ‘competition’, which are equally shared by churches and education schools. So while this book, at one level, is about challenges facing theological schools in the US, reading it provides many helpful insights and suggestions not only for similar institutions in New Zealand but also for the church in the very challenging context we find ourselves in, where time is no longer our friend.
Will Willimon’s latest piece, a version of an article previously-published in The Christian Century, is well worth the read. It’s entitled ‘Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be’, and I thought it worth reproducing here. Willimon’s words speak powerfully to pastors, to theological educators, to church committees set up to discern/assess calls about future pastors, and more:
“See our big buildings?” asked the Medical School Dean as he swept his hand across the panorama of the Duke Medical Center. “Their purpose is production of a handful of doctors who can be trusted to be alone with a naked patient. Takes us four years.”
I repositioned the Dean so that he faced the less impressive neogothic Divinity School. “That’s where we teach our seminarians to be in awkward situations with naked, vulnerable parishioners. It only takes us three years.”
After two quadrennia as a church bureaucrat, slogging in the muck and mire of ecclesiastical trenches — sending pastors to remote, unappealing locations where Jesus insists on working — I’m again teaching in that amazing countercultural phenomenon called a seminary.
I was honored to serve with eight hundred fellow clergy who risked United Methodism in Alabama, though I leave behind a subpoena and three law suits; don’t tell Governor Bentley that I’ve now fled the state.
Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined. Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic. My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them. Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.
Consumer Corrupted Clergy
From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent. One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation. Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”
I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God. By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.
Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership. Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.
North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving. Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books. Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.
A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness. Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result. I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop. Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.
The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off. If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy. I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.
Seminaries, Wake Up
Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary. Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves. Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.
As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism. We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce. Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require. Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation. The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith. As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”
In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting. After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches. Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.
My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.” “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.” Seminaries produce clergy rich in ideas but impoverished in agency, well-intentioned in care giving but deficient in leadership.
After interviewing a dozen seminarians at one of our prestigious seminaries, I asked my District Superintendents, “How many interviewees could be helpful in the work that we believe God has assigned us in Alabama?”
They identified two of the twelve. “Seminaries are run by professors whose life goal is acquisition of academic tenure,” said one DS. “Why ask the seminary to give us innovators who take risks and hold people accountable for their discipleship?”
We found that too many of our pastors want to be John on Patmos, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, when what we badly need is Paul in Corinth, doing the tough, persistent, measureable work required to initiate new communities of faith. If that much touted moniker “servant leader” means anything, it means someone who is willing to submit to what the institution now needs doing for the common good in this time and place. Mainline churches who want to be part of God’s future need leadership by impatient instigators rather than patient caretakers for the ecclesial status quo.
Our Board of Ordained ministry habitually asked candidates unrevealing questions like, “What are your gifts and graces for ministry?”
Surprise, the would-be pastors were incredibly gifted.
I got the Board to ask behavioral questions like, “When is the last time you started a ministry?” “Tell us about your most recent failure in the church. What did you learn?” No ventures, no leadership; no failures, no initiatives.
Don’t dismiss my criticism of seminaries as due to anxiety about a dying institution. Though anxiety is an appropriate response to death, my impetus for concern is Christological. Scripture renders a living agent on the move. “God never rests!” thunders Barth. The Lord of the church means to reign over a far more expansive realm than the church. Nothing in the message or work of Christ justifies a settled, parochial, sedate, care-giving style of ministry that comforts one generation (the average Methodist is 59), cares for aging real estate, and ceases all efforts to get the news to a violent, despairing world that, in Jesus Christ, God is decisively doing something about what’s wrong with the world.
So in this semester’s The Local Church in Mission class rather than have students write a paper on their theology of mission, I’m having them attempt to start up some mission in a church context. Then they are to tell me what they have learned about the leadership skills they need to obtain if they are to be a pastor in a North American church that finds itself in a missionary situation.
One of my pastors succeeded in planting a congregation in a marginalized, primarily Spanish-speaking community (where we have closed three churches in the past ten years). I spent a day with her, primarily to urge her to go back to school and finish her seminary education. During the course of the day she told me that in her previous life she had started three restaurants. Two failed, one finally succeeded. I not only understood why God had used her so effectively in this church start but also why I ought to put her in charge of our new church development rather than send her to seminary.
Seminaries have got to find ways to listen to the church’s cry for bold, transformative clergy leaders to serve the church in the present hour or seminaries face a bleak prospectus.
Seminaries must remember that the most interesting thing about clergy is not that we have acquired savvy management skills or have been given esoteric knowledge that is unavailable to the lowly baptized. The One who calls and makes clergy, the One who is in ministry and mission rocking the world (whether we are or not) is ultimately the only good reason to be a pastor. Leadership in the name of Jesus is inherently energetic, transformative leadership that challenges and enables Christians to participate in the ever-expanding Realm of God. Pastors have the privilege of expending our lives for someone more important than ourselves or our congregations. We get to serve a people on the move because they are in the grip of a God who refuses to be God alone and leave us to our own devices.
After my prattling about how the sixth century prophets inform our work as pastors, a surly seminarian piped up, “So Jesus explains how you got to be pastor of a large church and a bishop?” Being a seminary professor is more difficult than it looks.
As I look out upon the students in my Intro to Christian Ministry class, I hear Jesus say, “Hey, I’m doing my part to give your church a future. I’m giving you all the resources you need to be faithful.”
Then I hear Jesus sneer, “Would you people at Duke try not to bore to death those whom I’ve summoned to give your church a future?”
I agonized with a pastor about what he could do to stop his congregation from self-destruction. Had he tried a consultant? Yes. Had he secured a crisis counselor? Yes.
“I keep thinking that maybe our disintegration is not something I did or didn’t do,” the pastor said, “or even due to our bad history. I wonder if our demise is caused by Jesus.”
“Maybe Jesus has used our way of being church as much as he intends. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving somewhere else? Only Jesus can birth a church; maybe he’s the only one who’s got a right to kill it.”
How willing are we clergy to risk service to such a demanding Savior?
Seminary’s grand goal? Theological education makes ministry in the name of Jesus Christ as difficult as it ought to be. In sending each new wave of pastors, seminaries have the opportunity to theologically regenerate the church, giving the church and its pastoral leaders some canon of measurement greater than institutional health or cultural relevance. Seminarians come to us more adept at construal of their world through a-theistic categories, most of them purloined from the reigning social sciences, than theological canons. Our job is to train the church’s leaders in a rigorously theological refurbishment of the church.
Training people to minister in the name of Jesus is a huge challenge — because of Jesus. His vision of a new, reborn humanity, the extravagant reach of his realm, the constant outward, Trinitarian momentum, the command not only to belief the faith but also to enact and embody the faith, Christ’s revelation of the God whom we did not expect, Christ’s determination to save sinners, only sinners, all make leadership in Jesus’ name a daunting task.
I received a heated email from a long-time member of one of my churches complaining that during the Sunday service the pastor had prayed for the salvation of Osama bin Laden. “We don’t pay a preacher to pull a stunt like that,” whined the lay leader.
I called the pastor, explaining to him that his behavior was difficult for the laity to handle, asking him if he had used good judgment to pray such a thing during our national crisis.
With distinct annoyance the pastor replied, “Just for your information bishop, I happen to believe that the Jew who said, ‘Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you,’ is the Son of God.”
In my courses I face a two-fold challenge: responsibility to hand over what we’ve learned in two thousand years of leading in the name of Jesus, indoctrinating a new generation of pastors into the God-given wisdom of the church and taunting would-be pastoral leaders to step up and help the church think, pray, and act our way out of our present malaise.
“Here kid, watch me now,” I say in my classes, “here’s the way my generation tried to serve the church and its mission. Now, here’s my list of failures and disappointments. God has sent you to overcome my generation’s limitations in doing church. Go for it!”
In spite of my best intentions, my classes in ministry sometimes degenerate into techniques for success, managerial tips and tricks, and irresistible, knock down arguments for effective ministry; atheism that ministers as if God doesn’t matter.
Still, my students keep calling me back to the theological wonders that convene us, another benefit of working almost exclusively among those who outrageously believe that they have been summoned, commandeered, called by God to leadership in the Body of Christ. Whatever God wants to do with the world, God has decided to do it with them.
The paradigmatic story of their enlistment is Exodus 3, the call of Moses. (We made our entering students read Gregory’s Life of Moses to prepare them for Duke Divinity.) When summoned to leadership, Moses asks, “Who are you that you should send me?”
Moses cannot represent a deity without knowing the peculiar identity of the God who sends him against the empire. Nor can we. The best work we do in the seminary classroom is investigation and reiteration of the identity of the Triune God who, in every time and place, summons the people required to help the church to be faithful, giving them the grace needed to keep ministry as difficult as God needs it to be.
I begin my class by asking students to describe, in less than five pages, how they got to seminary, “My Call to Christian Leadership.” Reading those papers is a faith-engendering experience. People jerked out of secure positions in perfectly good professions, bright young things commandeered and shoved into a very different life trajectory, a nurse to whom Jesus personally appeared on a patio. All I could say, when I finished reading those papers was, “Wow. Jesus is more interesting (and dangerous) than even I knew.”
As the Dean of Studies for my teaching institution, part of my responsibility is to advise and educate my denomination (and others) about the academic requirements that our church has set for its own ministers – for those about to begin their training, for those who are obligated by their ordination to engage in ongoing learning, for those ministers who are seeking to join our church from outwith, etc., etc. Unfortunately, there’s hardly a working day that goes by when I don’t feel ‘the squeeze’, when I am not having to resist the calls (and those not only, and occasionally not at all, from students) of dumbing down that John Stackhouse describes in this recent piece published in Faith Today:
Isn’t it great pastoring has become so much easier nowadays, so much less challenging than before? Now, if only theological education would clue in and change accordingly!
Andrew Walls, the great Scottish historian of world missions at the University of Edinburgh, notes how academic requirements for British missionary candidates rose during the 19th century. Missionaries who were to move to China or India – and learn those languages, understand those cultures, and connect the Christian faith properly with those complex religious and philosophical traditions – needed a broad and rigorous education. At least a university degree in the humanities was demanded plus specific missionary training.
Into the 20th century, major Canadian denominations continued to expect a university degree in the humanities or social sciences plus a degree in theology for their clergy here at home as well. “BA, BD” (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Divinity) became the standard for Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and later United Church pastors, with similar training required of Catholic priests. And as educational levels increased among the Canadian population at large, especially after 1960, smaller evangelical denominations raised their expectations accordingly. Bible schools turned into Bible colleges, and increasingly a seminary qualification – the Bachelor of Divinity, now relabelled a master’s degree (MDiv), although otherwise largely unchanged – was expected on top of a university diploma in something, if not always in a relevant discipline.
Nowadays, however, leaders of certain popular churches in the United States and Canada mock the “semitaries” that supposedly neutralize rather than “release” the holy entrepreneurship characteristic of their kind of religion. Seminaries themselves are cutting degree requirements, paring back on biblical languages, church history, doctrine, and other apparently optional courses so students can finish more quickly and cheaply.
In fact more and more institutions are trumpeting the virtues of online learning in which you don’t have to leave home at all but can read books, listen to lectures and write assignments (when you can make time), with episodes of Skyping or Tweeting or Facebooking to compensate for the loss of sustained and reinforcing contact and conversation offered by traditional (= “old-fashioned”) schools.
It is interesting to compare the rise and decline of pastoral education with the continued rise of medical education. There wasn’t all that much physicians could do to help before the age of antiseptics, anaesthesias and antibiotics. But as the 20th century dawned, medical training increased apace, until by mid-century a physician was expected to undertake half a dozen years of university level training plus at least a year of interning before practising independently, while specialists studied for years more. Medical challenges have always been huge, and as medical knowledge grew, we expected our physicians to grow with it.
Happily, however, pastoring apparently isn’t like that. No, pastoral challenges in Canada today have greatly diminished. You’ve noticed that, haven’t you? Canada is becoming a more and more ethnically uniform country, so pastors need no longer know how to understand different cultures – say, those of India or China.
Canadians are attending post-secondary education less and less, so we don’t need a similarly educated person to help us co-ordinate the gospel with our lives. Just give us a charismatic speaker with great storytelling ability and a big heart.
Biomedical issues, political challenges, cultural currents, financial questions, technological innovations – everything is much, much simpler to understand today, so our pastors can be simpler people too.
Yes, let’s expect less of our clergy and theological schools. Let’s demand, in fact, that seminaries reduce degree requirements, lower standards for their professors, drop their tuition charges accordingly and give our next generation of pastors what they need – an education that is cut-rate, compromised and convenient. (Read between the lines of some of those seminary ads. That’s what they’re offering.)
Sure, those who care for our bodies need the best education we can possibly afford to give them. Can you imagine entrusting yourself or your child to a physician who learned medicine online? The idea is scandalous.
But what about those who teach us the Word of Life in the era of the Internet, the global village, multiculturalism and secularization? Do pastors need intellectually rigorous education anymore?
As I see it, this is not a fight born of the triumph of modernity’s confidences. It is a fight born of the best of pastoral, theological and missiological instincts and is undergirded by a conviction that what old-time Presbyterians used to refer to as ‘an educated clergy’ is still one of the best gifts that the church can give to itself, and so to the world. And as I have noted earlier on this blog:
And as for ‘educated clergy’, Carnegie Samuel Calian (who is President Emeritus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) put it well when he reminded us that ‘Everything we learn at seminary is for someone else … The aim of seminary education is not simply to produce an educated clergy, but even more so to build up the people of God to become an educated congregation in Christ. The practice of learning is for the purpose of giving hope to others’.
It is precisely for this end that pastors must be readers. So if pastors don’t want to read for themselves (which is a completely ridiculous position to hold, but is evidently possible), then they ought to read, read and read for those they have been called to love and serve.
Call me theologically naïve, or ignorant, or not well enough read, but I simply do not understand some of the criticisms directed at Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams is a person of deep faith and prayer, of contagious love for Christ, for the Scriptures and tradition which bear witness to him, and for Christ’s church, and who for decade after decade has been among the church’s finest public theologians (and poets!), producing first-rate scholarship with exemplary integrity and gospel-spirited passion, and helping a new generation of Christians to find the words and posture to understand and bear witness to the deepest realties of their faith in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Moreover, his literary and spoken output alone – books, radio interviews, lectures (his 2011 Holy Week Lectures on Lewis’ Narnia are outstanding), reviews, articles, etc. – not to mention his gracious and steady leadership of the Anglican communion, leads me often to wonder if there are not two equally-brilliant and identical twins that Mr & Mrs Williams named ‘Rowan’ sometime last century.
Put differently, I keep an eye open to read and digest everything he writes. And why not, when it is so edifying and educative, and models a way of doing theology so worthy of emulation, if not entirely uncritically so. But there’s one lecture that I’ve missed, until now – his CEFACS lecture, given some years ago at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies in Birmingham. So thanks Jim for pointing me to it, not least because the lecture attends to a subject in which I have some serious investment, namely theological education.
In that lecture, Williams invites us to think about theological education by way of the analogy of a musical education: ‘Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship … That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship’.
Then, drawing upon the work of Thomas Aquinas and the example of God’s revelation to Moses, Williams proceeds to argue that ‘theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God’s impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual … From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation’.
And later on: ‘Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in “in the business” of being reformed, reshaped’.
And here is the point – the challenge, if you like – for those engaged in theological education: ‘Theological education is bound … to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas’. One thinks here of James Wm. McClendon Jr’s fine book, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can remake Today’s Theology, or of the work of Ray Anderson whose entire project is an outworking of the conviction that ministry precedes theology.
And that is why, Williams reminds us, contra Nietzsche, ‘theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment’, and good theology is concerned not to ‘set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one’. And that is why, Williams notes, ‘theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise … An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health’.
These introductory points made, Williams then turns to some of the particularities of theological education in light of the definitions he has introduced. And here he wishes to speak about bible study, doctrine and church history.
Regarding the first of these, bible study, Williams is adamant that theological education ‘is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible’. Why? Because ‘the Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John’s Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world’s history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God’s people of God’s justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative’.
Williams then encourages us to adopt a particular posture when we turn to Christian scripture:
‘Be patient, don’t assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God’s reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul’s epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God’s spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul’s God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying “I don’t know where this is going but …” as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9–11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, “O the depth and mystery of God”. And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don’t know where to go but God does. Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is … The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection … That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts’.
Williams turns next to the matter of Christian doctrine, rejecting the kind of doctrine-as-finished-product approach so often associated with theological education, and proposing instead a notion of doctrine as ‘the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy’. ‘We can’t tell all the truth’, he says, ‘we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again … come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work’. A ‘doctrinally educated person therefore is … somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn’t a way of passing the long winter evenings’. Williams cites Barth and Bonhoeffer as examples of what it looks like to do theology in this way, i.e., in a way that takes the contemporary location seriously, in a way that seeks to profess Christ in a new and different space.
Williams then comes to the matter of education in church history, a subject with he has written very helpfully on before (see, for example, his wonderful book Why Study The Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church), and a subject which, he observes, ‘has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education’. He continues:
‘When it has been done people don’t always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don’t think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive … Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren’t. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren’t! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you’.
He argues that the difficulty with teaching church history is that the subject frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles: ‘There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method’. And so part of the challenge, he goes on to say, ‘is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process’. Not only is the position that nothing important happened between the NT and now (or between the first and the fifteenth centuries) ‘intellectually shabby and indefensible’ but such a view is also ‘spiritually impoverished’, for whether we like it or not, God has graced us with ‘a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it’. And here Williams returns to the question of reading the Bible, noting that ‘an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages’, in the company of the Christian community ‘and to find education and discipleship in that process’.
Finally, Williams makes the point that as alarming, pre-modern and unattractive as it sounds, one indispensable, if not largely forgotten, theological virtue is obedience. Naming Barth as ‘the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century’, Williams defines obedience in theology as ‘that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth’.
‘What obedience means for us’, he continues, ‘is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet’, he says, ‘a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term’. Williams then provides some examples of what he is talking about, examples which underscore his claim that obedience is far from what we often associate with terms like passivity or docility: ‘Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say “I don’t know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of” – that’s obedience. It’s St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, ‘all I’ve written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me’. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how ‘I’ ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that’s obedience’.
Linking this back to the subject of theological education, Williams concludes by noting that obedience properly belongs in the very DNA of any theological education worthy of its subject, for such education is about ‘passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity’. And he then offers some specific words to his own Anglican Communion, words which I venture to say are pertinent to the entire body of Christ: ‘We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ’s body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name’.
‘The congregation and I were insignificant figures in a larger and older pattern. The church has always identified its potential leaders, indoctrinated them, and then rudely inserted them in some setting or other where they almost never belong. At seminary we brooded over the mysteries of God for four years only to turn up later as chaplains to covered-dish suppers and car washes with the youth. One part of the church goes to great expense in order to prepare a theologian for another part of the church that wants a guitar player. Like misshelved books, we are there waiting to be used, but will anyone ever find us? As partners in an arranged marriage, my congregation and I might fall madly in love, which, in this creaky old church already seemed unlikely to me, or we could accommodate ourselves to what, if we were honest, each of us knew to be a mismatch’. (pp. 48–9)