(Common inquiry by Eihpossophie, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Some initial thoughts (developed from a Twitter thread) on how the Church might rethink theological education and research, in response to this post from Peter Webster on The churches and the future of theological research. The occasion of Peter’s post is the debate about whether the C of E’s bishops are adequately educated theologically, and in particular, the lament that so few have doctoral degrees in theological disciplines. His starting point is that this isn’t the key question, and I think he’s right.
The task might better be conceived in terms of bringing together two agendas already at work in the Church: becoming a learning church (from the Formation for Ministry within a Learning Church, often known as the Hind Report, of 2003); and the cultural shifts needed to support lay people in living their whole lives as disciples, especially in in their roles and activities in society (from Setting God’s People Free (2017). Formation for Ministry included a section on lay theological education, but its focus is primarily clerical; adult education is an important theme in Setting God’s People Free, but its focus is primarily missional. In the background is the broad turn to theological reflection arising from practice that Graham, Walton and Ward describe in their Introduction to their Theological Reflection: Methods (2019, 2005), and both the recovery they note of the theological tradition as one rooted in and oriented practically toward the life of the church (and we might add no less theocentric for that) and the particular emphases of the roots of that turn in liberation theology and in the pedagogical vision of Paulo Friere on the empowerment of ordinary Christians and especially the oppressed.
I want to ask, what would a missional, learning church that empowered all its people, and was receptive to its context, look like in the context of the Church of England. I also hope that there are ideas here that are stimulating for folk in other churches and dominations that live quite happily without episcopacy, the threefold order, and establishment.
All that said, when it comes to the Church of England, bishops are not a bad place to start when it comes to reimagining what it might mean for the Church to be a learning, missional church, because the Church is led by bishops, and organised into dioceses under their leadership, and the most privileged form of authorised ministry within the Church is ascribed, under Christ, primarily to them. What follows may be extendable to other churches to the extent you can name analogous figures or structures.
Because of the power bishops wield, I do think we want theologically literate, theologically reflective bishops who can reflect on the situations within their dioceses, and nationally, in light of the rich truth who is God, especially as expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. I don’t think, however that bishops necessarily need a theology doctorate to do that well. Rather, bishops need time and space to think, and a wide range of people to think with (and who can recommend reading to them), some of whom should be research active and PhD qualified; some of whom should be practitioners active in the various kinds of ministry & contexts that bishops oversee; some of whom should be people from ethnic minorities and working class backgrounds, sexual minorities and people with disabilities (and I would expect some overlap between all these categories). Make it collegial, prayerful, pay at least expenses. The same goes for those around a diocesan bishop: their suffragans, their staff team: they too should be involved in that kind of culture.
But this vision shouldn’t stop with bishops and their staff, nor should it really privilege their learning and agency, important though that is. According to the Common Worship service for the Ordination and Consecration of a Bishop, being a bishop is one mode of service to of the Church conceived not as an institution but as a royal priesthood, the Body of Christ, the people of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, which has the baptismal calling to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of God’s kingdom. The CW ordinal expresses bishops’ mode of service to that priestly people in terms of pastoral oversight, guardianship of the apostolic faith, proclamation of the gospel, and leadership in mission, and the gathering of that people to celebrate the sacraments and so form a single communion in unity with the Church in every time and place. Amongst other things, this responsibility is to be exercised in baptising and confirming and nurturing God’s people in the way of holiness, and discerning and fostering the gifts of the Spirit in them, commissioning them for ministry, including by way of presiding over the ordination of presbyters who share their ministry of oversight.
Although bishops tend to be the subject of the verbs of this service, and although it is quite possible to take that emphasis forward so that the people are relatively passive objects of episcopal initiative, one can and should read it otherwise by emphasising the ordering of episcopal ministry to the ministry of the people to whom God’s Spirit has given gifts, and who have been called to witness to God’s love and to work for God’s kingdom. And so the learning of bishops should be ordered to, should serve, the learning of the whole Spirit-inhabited people of God in the midst of their witness and work: the learning of which they are the subjects. The primary question, therefore, is about what that learning involves and how it might best be supported by bishops and other bodies.
What we might envisage here are local cultures of learning, in which people in parishes and groups of parishes are always engaged in two broad categories of learning, as disciples (‘learners’). On the one hand, there are the habits, virtues and conceptual skills that go into a life shaped by following the Lord in our world as part of the community in which the Spirit dwells, which is a shared, social participation in Christ as His body; of thus journeying into God together as we await and anticipate the coming of God and the reconciliation of all things. On the other, is learning about that learning, as Juan Luis Segundo puts it (more or less): reflecting on the tasks of living out their faith corporately and individually in particular situations, and on themselves, corporately and individually, as disciples in those situations. And doing so in order to respond more truly and faithfully to what is going on, and to what happens to them. Doing so also to work through communities’ chronic and everyday conflicts, to tend to their wounds and the structures of their sinning against others and so God, or by which they participate in larger forms of evil.
It is a culture which would support the nurture of the Spirit’s gifts, and the agency which they energise, which would, at its best, enable some to relinquish forms of domination and enter into deeper solidarity with their neighbours and with others in the body of Christ and empower others marginalised in that body and in the wider community to have a voice, to help shape action, and to assume greater responsibility, to lead, within a supportive context. It is the sort of culture the church needs more of, I suspect, if we are really to engage with the profound issues of, and corporate sins around, class, gender, race, sexuality and ableism from which we suffer.
Such cultures would be resourced by many kinds of learning, incorporating the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures in various settings, engaging in dialogue with resources from Christian traditions, listening to the experiences of their members and of their neighbours, being receptive to other agencies and communities, and to the insights of practitioners and researchers, and above all to the voices and agency of those marginalised within their number and in the wider community. Drawing on those forms of learning, we can imagine time given over to reflection in various settings and groups, and in households and networks.
To such activities of reflection, as to everything else that goes on in churches and the communities in which they are situated, the dynamics of God’s giving and the structures of participation in those dynamics crystallised in worship, and above all in the event of the Eucharist, offer a possibility in the Spirit of gathering, summation, renewal, configuration and dispersal. Within these dynamics, reflections and the meanings of things glimpsed in them may be brought into more fully intentional and explicit relationship with the truth of God in Christ. It is a culture which might permeate and embrace every sphere of activity and reflection in the churches concerned, every initiative, and inform the evaluations, discernment and decision-making of the groups which support or lead them, and so too those of the PCCs and their Standing Committees. Realistically it is probably already happening to some degree in many places (and I’d be interested to hear about this), but also being frustrated in these and others to some extent. It would be hard to realise, as a necessarily joint activity, probably overseen by the priest/presbyter but involving others in facilitating and supporting it, and everyone in its enactment. It would be hard to sustain, requiring lots of patient collaboration, conflict resolution and negotiation, but would, I think, be transformative.
How might the Church, as an institution, support this kind of endeavour? How, to begin with, might dioceses support people to create cultures (plural) of theological reflection in parishes and in deanaries, too, involving laity of all vocations (including the ordained)?
I suspect that in many dioceses that ambition would require a strategy of theological education that would be much broader & better funded than now. It would need to support priests/presbyters in an ongoing way, helping resource them to develop their skills and keep refreshing their theological resources in an accessible way, which I imagine is already the ambition. Other facilitators would need access to this support too, as to some extent they may already. But this support and training might need to be better oriented to the work of overseeing and facilitating theological reflection within the life and ministry of communities and congregations. And the scope would need to be widened to develop ways of equipping and empowering all people, including those presently on the margins, or supporting those in licensed ministries to do so.
There are of course already several creative and rich resources for discipleship and mission action planning, but I wonder how far they are oriented to supporting the development of this kind of culture of reflection? Such a strategy would need to support communities and congregations to empower their members and their neighbours, to further their reflection and analysis. It would need to help them equip themselves to engage with and address together the ways in which structural inequalities and particular complex individual or local or group heritages of shared activity, privilege, discrimination, celebration, leisure, chronic flourishing and chronic exclusion or exploitation, illness, joys, love and trauma, shape their interactions and patterns of activity, and are reproduced or lost. It would need to be really accessible & flexible and capable of functioning in situations like the coronavirus pandemic. I’d be interested to know if something like this (or something better) is already happening in places.
Another thing dioceses could do is to find ways to invite and attend to feedback from those conversations, without directing or monitoring them, and create spaces for the cross fertilisation of such conversations, and make diocesan decision-making more responsive and accountable to them. A more theologically educated laity might make possible a more meaningfully democratic polity.
What place would doctoral and post-doctoral research have in such an economy? Well, you would still need people doing such research and trained to that standard to do so, to help inform conversations in all these spaces. These researchers might be ordained or not. There ought to be an ambition to train for and promote research at various depths in and between communities and to identify people, especially those whose perspectives and experiences are not well represented amongst the church’s theological educators, to be trained to take a lead in enabling this activity and doing more specialised tasks.
Peter Webster’s key questions are about resourcing their training and containing research: who would train them, where and who will pay for that training and for the research they conduct later? (I’m imagining lifelong research activity to inform the culture I’ve sketched).
I’m very cautiously optimistic , despite the current threats to universities in general, the Humanities in particular, and declining recruitment to TRS departments, that academics at universities may still be around to play a part for a while yet. I think probably more could be made of their expertise, which might help make them sustainable. And that’s worthwhile for the churches. Universities, despite all the pressures they face, still provide rich cultures of intellectual & practical inquiry which can foster dynamic, creative cultures of theological research in which people in churches can be trained for research, from which academics can contribute to churchy conversations, and to conversations between churches and other groups, which in some cases they may be well placed to mediate through or on account of their research or validating activities.
Theological Education Institutes also have a part to play, of course, through and beyond training ordinands (and many, perhaps most, are already doing more and offering training to a wider catchment of people). Here, too, the practise of (cooperative) inquiry should be integral to formation. So the development of deep, well resourced, rigorous reflectivity on practice, integrated fully with other theological disciplines.
That all requires that TEIs be places of inquiry in a range of disciplines, with a common orientation to formation and reflection on practice. To that end, they need research-active staff whose research is so oriented and which can inform their teaching, and which is explicitly and substantively valued in workload planning, the provision of research leave and funding to attend conferences, travel to do research, etc. It ought to be integrated with the training their offer, in an accessible, flexible and empowering way for all students.
This agenda also provides a further reason why TEIs benefit from links with universities: to support & foster their own research culture, which ought to be integrated with the training their offer, in an accessible, flexible and empowering way for all students, to make inquiry integral to formation. Durham’s Common Awards scheme’s Research Network does a lot here, but other links with other institutions might supplement its offerings.
Finally, the C of E might think more broadly about who it funds to do research degrees, to be trained in a more specialised way to contribute to the Church’s reflexivity. Peter also talks about funding graduate studies & part time study post ordination. The C of E does fund some ordinands, through the Research Degrees Panel, though my sense is that it can only fund relatively few & many have to complete in curacy, which is not easy to do. For part-time study in ministry there may be some diocesan financial support, plus grants from charities, but many are wholly or significantly self funded.
Again, greater scope and flexibility about central funding might be good. Some need to be able to complete doctorates pre-curacy. Others need to be enabled to do them later in ministry – and these are often just as valuable for the church if not more sometimes. Indeed, in keeping with the vision sketched here, the Church might even choose to invest in the research formation of lay members who aren’t preparing for ordained ministry! So you might need to overhaul the RDP with a new, better funded system open to ordained and not. And one which actively seeks out and champions people with potential as theological researchers and educators who are minoritised in various ways (e.g. gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, disability, neuro-diversity). As Peter Webster says, it’s a question of what the church values, what it’s prepared to pay to get a richer quality of reflection & participation in shaping action at all levels.