A learning Church is healthy

17 December 2008

The C of E needs to foster a culture of study and research, argues Jeremy Morris

Pushing at the edge of intellectual activity: the Church needs research JUPITER IMAGES

Pushing at the edge of intellectual activity: the Church needs research JUPITER IMAGES

Anyone who has undergone theo­logical education in the Church of England in the past few years will be aware that contrasting models abound of what theological edu­cation is, or should be.

Is it mainly about formation, an entire shaping of mind, heart, and soul through immersion in a practice of learning informed by habits of devotion? Or is it mainly about the acquisition of specific skills, such as the critical study of texts, languages, and historical and philosophical disciplines, with a view to producing “professionals” or “experts”, who can then go out and practise their profession?

Or is it, instead, a dynamic, life-long enterprise, in which achieving a particular level of expertise is at best a secondary, not a primary, goal? Or is it perhaps a form of liberation and affirmation, a democratic, trans­formative practice in which the people of God are encouraged above all to value themselves and to recognise the freedom they possess in the gospel, and to go out and build the kingdom of peace and justice?

Of course, these models are not necessarily incompatible, but they often tend in different directions when they are embodied in par­ticular courses or pedagogic ap­proaches. All of them have their merits. All of them can also be found in various places delivering high-quality education, with a high level of student satisfaction, and a sure sense that they are equipping stu­dents well for whatever form of min­istry they will be called upon to exercise.

All of them have some weak­nesses, too. What is also true, however, is that the place of research in most of these models is far from clear. Perhaps only in the “skills” model can research obviously fea­ture, since most forms of research require the cultivation of specific skills, such as critical reading, the collection and evaluation of evi­dence, and facility in different lan­guages.

But even here the cynic might object that a skills-based approach to research could lose sight of the value of research in itself, since it does not necessarily value what is studied, but only how it is studied.

Yet open any church newspaper or journal, let alone the secular media, and research will appear all over the place. Of course, I am using the term “research” — quite deliberately — in a very vague way. “Research” can mean many different things.

It can mean a specific project, in which a particular set of practices or connections are tested and observed systematically. This is the “research” of the think tank as well as the scientific research institute, and it will usually claim to have some practical value.

It can also mean the individual academic’s pet project, pursued through years of hard reading and thinking, and, in this sense, it can appear as biography, history, critical theory, theology, or philosophy. The practical value of such projects may seem limited, although who knows what their long-term implications might be in many cases?

Yet it can also mean something much more small-scale — research as a modest means of dis­covery, pursued as part of a course or as a leisure pursuit. Family history, or the history of your house, club, or church, still involves research.

The Church of England needs research in all these senses. Of course, individuals need to do special projects from time to time to complete their courses. But, in a larger sense, the Church as a whole benefits from ongoing research. It certainly needs practical research. Some examples of this have such an obvious, direct application that the point probably does not need to be emphasised — such as research into reasons why people stop going to church, research into levels of clergy stress, and research into young people’s views of Christianity and spirituality.

Yet the Church also needs to engage with research that does not have an obvious utilitarian appeal.It needs to be alert to the changing frontiers of the disciplines of history, biblical studies, sociology, philoso­phy, theology, and so on. Even when the fruits of this research seem abstract and remote from the imme­diate concerns of local churches, when you press a little further, the relevance of the issues at stake to the work of the Church often becomes clearer.

One small example could be the work of the Australian biblical scho­lar John Collins on the scriptural concept of diakonia. Technical work it may be, with contentious con­clusions that are far from widely accepted among academics, but its implications — were they to be accepted — would encourage a very different view of the nature of ministry from the one that is all too often encountered in church circles today.

Nor do we necessarily have to look for specific application. If research involves pushing at the edges of intellectual activity, ques­tioning received interpretations, sifting evi­dence, and reassessing the past and its relation to the present, then it is integral to the practice of the Christian Church in its relationship with the many different cultures and contexts in which it is embedded.

Without a means of sponsoring the research it feels it needs, or a means of assessing changes in secular culture, the Church is likely to be cut adrift from its hinterland, unable to proclaim its message effectively through what it preaches or practices. If Anglicans do take seriously their claim to exercise reason, under the authority of scripture and in relation to tradition, then their view of the world around them must be one of ceaseless curiosity and atten­tion.

All this is very well, of course, but the Church of England generally does not have the resources to act as a sponsor of research activity, except in the admittedly important and gen­erous way in which, through the Ministry Division of the Arch­bishops’ Council, it can support research degrees for some ordinands as part of ministerial education.

But university departments, even when most co-operative, will not auto­matically accept a Ph.D. or Master’s proposal solely because it is supported by the Church: they will insist on academic autonomy, and on the need to match a proposal to a cand­idate’s abilities and skills, and to available areas of expertise and super­vision.

One modest but nevertheless sig­ni­ficant resource is the Archbishop’s Examination in Theology, or — to give the more familiar title — the “Lambeth” degrees. The Lambeth diplomas and MAs are in the process of being phased out, in favour of a new scheme to offer M.Phil.s and Ph.D.s.

These will require the preparation of a thesis of 60,000 or 100,000 words respectively, to a standard fully match­ing those of university theo­logy departments, and with super­vision by properly qualified acad­emics.

Fees are lower than those of uni­versity departments, but students will need to make special arrange­ments for library access, and of course there is a proper admissions process, with a comparable entry level to that required in universities. This will surely be an attractive scheme for in-service clergy who want to pursue a particular piece of research at an advanced level under supervision.

As things stand, the Church of England has no means of proposing and shaping a national strategy of research to cover its own needs, short of the limited projects that may be undertaken from time to time through the Archbishops’ Council.

As the pressure of shrinking re­sources increases, the need for care­fully considered research of the prac­tical variety (including management and organisational studies) — as well as for the more visionary, apologetic or philosophical task of responding to the challenges of our intellectual culture — will only increase. But this is just as there is less money available centrally to promote research.

The Hind report on theological education in its first version tried to tackle this question by proposing the creation of a central training institu­tion for the Church of England as a whole (News, 22 February 2002), but the demise of that idea has left a glaring strategic hole, for which there is no obvious remedy.

Apart from the Archbishop’s Ex­amination, other possibilities remain in the various excellent extension and distance-learning schemes run by some universities — Lampeter and King’s College, London, in particular spring to mind, but there are others. More so even than research that is part of initial ministerial education, postgraduate study in mid-career is student-led, and could never really be a substitute for a central research strategy for the Church.

Yet then again, we should wel­come the opportunities that the expansion of such schemes has created, not least because they pro­vide a useful coun­ter­balance to cen­tral­ising preoccupa­tions. People will study what interests them (and what interests them may well include challenging centralist orthodoxies).

A healthy research culture will reflect the diversity and disagreement to be found in almost every com­munity of Christians. We may not, as a Church, have many options when it comes to funding strategic research. But we can surely at least acknowl­edge the place of research in theo­logical education and in the Church’s life, and encourage its cultivation.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is Dean, Fellow, and Director of Studies in Theology of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and a member of the Academic Board of the Archbishop’s Examination in Theology (www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1027).

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