Open Bible, engage brain

by
28 November 2007

Is the Church committing intellectual suicide if the study of theology is reserved only for those leading churches? And what are the options for study? Huw Spanner investigates

Students in class at Wycliffe, with the Revd Peter Walker, tutor in New Testament

Students in class at Wycliffe, with the Revd Peter Walker, tutor in New Testament

THEOLOGY is not strictly the study of God, whatever the literal meaning of the Greek, but rather the study of what people have thought, and how they have spoken, about God.

At a time when the influence of theological ideas is being felt — on the whole, balefully — in international affairs, some might say it is a subject best left to the experts, while the men and women in the pew, or on the prayer mat, should confine themselves to the more straightforward matters of regular worship.

Studying theology is no picnic, as Christians learn, for example, about the darker side of church history, or the sometimes questionable ways in which the canon of the Bible came to be decided, or about the multitude of conflicting interpretations of scripture. Mark Greene, the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, acknowledges that it can sometimes shake people’s faith. “Of course it can be risky; but we need to face the difficult questions some time. We all need to grow up.”

Brian Draper, now a creative director with MCA, a new business consultancy that “nurtures spiritual intelligence”, and an occasional Church Times contributor, graduated from London Bible College (since renamed London School of Theology) in 1994. He recalls that a lot of people in his year left LBC wondering whether they were Christians at all.

“The course hadn’t undermined their faith, but it had certainly challenged it if it was brittle or compartmentalised. The college was trying to give us an adult version of our faith, and some people couldn’t handle that.

“I remember when we walked out of the first session on Genesis 1, when we were told it might not be a literal account of how the world was made, a lot of people looked absolutely shell-shocked.”

One such was a former teenage evangelist, Ian Aspin, who found studying theology for three years “a painful experience”, but still a “fantastically helpful” one. “Much of my belief system was deconstructed at LBC. When I arrived there, I was very clear about what I believed. It was quite simple, very black-and-white, and had never been challenged intellectually in any way. At LBC, I began to see that there are more ways of looking at things than I’d been allowed to acknowledge before.”

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One such was a former teenage evangelist, Ian Aspin, who found studying theology for three years “a painful experience”, but still a “fantastically helpful” one. “Much of my belief system was deconstructed at LBC. When I arrived there, I was very clear about what I believed. It was quite simple, very black-and-white, and had never been challenged intellectually in any way. At LBC, I began to see that there are more ways of looking at things than I’d been allowed to acknowledge before.”

Does he regret doing the course? “Not at all. The college gave me some critical tools that have been very important for the work I do now as a TV journalist. The skills I learned there have enabled me to ask questions of other people’s certainties, whether in religion, or politics, or consumer culture.”

As for his own faith, Mr Aspin says: “I haven’t got everything sorted out, as I thought I had before I went to theological college. But at least I’m aware that I haven’t, and I’m more open to trying to work out day by day what it means to be a Christian.”

Hannah Kowszun, who today works as a communications co-ordinator for the London Community Recycling Network, chose to read theology at Cambridge University after discovering on a gap year teaching in South Africa how much she enjoyed planning lessons in biblical studies, and reading the conclusions different scholars had come to.

“I’m so glad I did it. It’s made me think more about what I do with my day-to-day life; how I can bring my faith to my work; whether I can use it to make a difference. To whose glory am I doing my job? Who is it benefiting? I think I would probably have been a bit of a do-gooder anyway, but my theological training informs it.”

“I’m so glad I did it. It’s made me think more about what I do with my day-to-day life; how I can bring my faith to my work; whether I can use it to make a difference. To whose glory am I doing my job? Who is it benefiting? I think I would probably have been a bit of a do-gooder anyway, but my theological training informs it.”

Someone else who has felt the impact of studying theology is Jonathan Bartley, the founder and co-director of the think tank Ekklesia. “I did a discipleship training course and by the end of it I was a free-marketer, rabidly capitalist, and pro-capital punishment. But then I did another theological course, called Workshop, which is run by the Anvil Trust; and it transformed not just my outlook on life, but the way I lived it.

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“Since then, I have bought a house with a friend, and we now have three houses knocked together, with ten adults and six children all living under the same roof to try to explore the New Testament idea of koinonia.

“It was that course, too, that led me to set up Ekklesia, to promote radical theological ideas in public life. And it has also influenced the way I bring up my disabled son, as I have reflected not only on Jesus’s identification with the vulnerable, but also on the way an omnipotent God in a sense disabled himself by becoming human. I’m still working all these ideas through.”

IS THEOLOGY a suitable subject for everyone? The first entry that Google comes up with for “study theology” is Oxford Brookes University. Its website proclaims: “Theology is a fascinating and vital subject that challenges those who study it to think critically and personally about human existence, the world we live in, and the really big questions about God, religion and especially Christianity.”

The Revd Trevor Mapstone, Vicar of the “broadly Evangelical” Emmanuel Church, South Croydon, agrees that it can involve risk; but he says that he would be delighted if anyone in his congregation said that he or she wanted to study it.

The Revd Trevor Mapstone, Vicar of the “broadly Evangelical” Emmanuel Church, South Croydon, agrees that it can involve risk; but he says that he would be delighted if anyone in his congregation said that he or she wanted to study it.

“The world-view we have shapes the choices we make. If we want our laypeople to live authentically Christian lives, we want their lives to be shaped by theology. People need to learn how to reflect on life in the light of scripture and tradition.”

Simon Barrow, a co-director of Ekklesia who, in the past, has been heavily involved in lay training in the Church of England, puts it even more strongly. “I believe that everyone in the Church who wants to study it at a deeper level should do so — though there can be a false democracy that says that everybody is capable of thinking about things deeply, and that isn’t always the case.

“None the less, theology needs to belong to the people, and if you go to communities in Latin America and Asia and elsewhere, you will see it being studied by ordinary people. That is what the whole phenomenon of base communities was about.

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“A lot of the formal church institutions have been resistant to this sort of development, because if you really start to empower lay people to think theologically you will no longer be able to get away with running the Church as a top-down institution. So it is a threatening thing.”

THEOLOGICAL STUDY these days does not need to involve signing up for two or three years of full-time study. More and more people are studying theology at home, through distance-learning courses; on holiday, at conferences, at festivals such as Spring Harvest, New Wine, and Greenbelt; and at evening classes.

St Paul’s Theological Centre is “a space for Christian learning and growth” based in Holy Trinity, Brompton, London. It draws up to 200 people, mostly young, every week to study theology.

Typical, perhaps, is Suzie Wright, who says: “I’m a young mum at home with a toddler, and you’d probably think, ‘Why are you going to study theology? How can that help your life right now?’ But it’s relevant to how I bring up my son, what kind of a person I am, what kind of a wife I am. It’s impacting on everything.”

Among the more conventional centres of theological study, Trinity College, Bristol, has lately experienced “explosive growth” from being the smallest theological college in the Church of England to being the largest in the space of two years. Its principal, Canon George Kovoor, has a ready explanation: “What we have tried to pioneer is a training programme that integrates the classroom with practice.

The Western tradition revolves around the study of texts; but Jesus never sent his disciples to a library to read books. Instead, he developed the model of apprenticeship.

“Second, in the West learning is very individualised, whereas the Church is a community, and as such we need to learn to work together. Lay people make up the vast majority of the Church, and they must be equipped to play their part in its life.

“Third, there is the international perspective. The Church of England is part of a much larger thing called the Anglican Communion, and that, in turn, is part of the World Council of Churches. We train our students to be absolutely rooted in the local context, but with their horizons broadened to understand how they relate to what God is doing around the world.”

ARE THERE any signs that the Church is becoming more theologically literate? Mr Mapstone thinks not. And Mr Barrow believes that, if anything, the Church’s commitment to lay-focused and lay-centred education has diminished over the years. In part, he blames this on the “bizarre notion” that cultivating good habits of thinking about the meaning of the Christian faith and how it engages and communicates with society should be left to specialists.

“Here is a good example of the trouble this has got us into,” he says. “Look at the rise of the new atheism, with Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, and so on. Where is the response to this?

“By and large, professional theologians disdain such debates, perhaps understandably, because they are conducted in such simplistic terms. But, on the other hand, an awful lot of people in the pews simply don’t know enough to engage with these arguments, which are having a considerable influence in our culture.”

Mr Barrow, like Canon Kovoor, relates the study of theology unequivocally to the mission of the Church. “If lay people don’t study theology, it really is intellectual and spiritual suicide for the Church.”

Mr Barrow, like Canon Kovoor, relates the study of theology unequivocally to the mission of the Church. “If lay people don’t study theology, it really is intellectual and spiritual suicide for the Church.”

London Institute for Contemporary Christianity: www.licc.org.uk; London School of Theology: www.lst.ac.uk; Oxford Brookes University: www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/education/theologyfaq.html; St Paul’s Theological Centre: sptc.htb.org.uk; Trinity College Bristol: www.trinity-bris.ac.uk; Workshop: www.workshop.org.uk/welcome

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