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Debate about modes of theological training: further responses

by
10 April 2015

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From Professor Elaine Graham

Sir, - I fear that the Revd Dr Heywood ( Letters, 2 April) is allowing his experience of one university's attitudes to theological training for ministry to affect his reading of the situation overall.

Many of us who have been teaching practical and contextual theology in higher education do not recognise ourselves as propagating "decontextualised technical rationality" as the benchmark of theological excellence, either in our own practice or that of our stu-dents.

Admittedly, the theological curriculum often suffers from lack of integration between its sub-disciplines or specialisms, but to suggest, as he does, that all "academic" theology is an arid "decontextualised body of theory" is to disregard the work of many of us who insist that theology begins and ends in practical engagement, in both Church and society.

As a Director of Pastoral Studies, Dr Heywood must surely be well aware of the significant body of literature to have emerged in this area over the past generation, much of it originating from British departments of theology and religious studies, and which often forms the basis of many ministerial students' core reading.

Similarly, in representing the interests of those training for ministry and those in academic positions as seemingly irreconcilable, he overlooks the significant body of higher-education institutions - not least the cathedral universities - who would talk of their validation relationships with theological colleges and courses as one of "partnership", and are committed to sharing best practice across the boundary of Church and Academy.

Furthermore, many of us, especially those in the post-1992 universities, have found great support at the highest level of our institutions for exactly the kind of integ-ration of academic excellence and professional or vocational formation which Dr Heywood commends - perhaps best exemplified by the emergence in recent years of several highly innovative professional doctorate programmes in ministry and practical theology.

Such initiatives are often characterised by fruitful interdisciplinary exchange between theology and other professional disciplines such as education, health care, law, psychotherapy, and social work, something that would be impossible in a single-discipline institution such as a theological college.

I might also comment that it is not the universities which are promoting the centralisation of the theological curriculum. Rather, our independence from centralised control and our links with wider communities enable us to reflect our local contexts and respond to the diverse needs of students across a broad ecumenical spectrum.

Elaine Graham

Grosvenor Research Professor of Practical Theology and Canon Theologian, Chester Cathedral Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Chester CH1 4BJ

 

From the Principal of the South West Ministry Training Course

Sir, - It is an interesting feature of the current work on Resourcing Ministerial Education that, as far as I can judge, all practitioners in theological education seem to feel the recent report is in some way bad news ( Letters, 27 March). I, therefore, fell to wondering to whom the report would be good news.

Certainly to the 23-year-old ex- plorer of vocation, who will clearly receive much support and encouragement. After six years in university chaplaincy, I can only welcome this, though also recognising the challenge it can be to foster and discern young vocations appropriately.

Perhaps to the 46-year-old who realises that by delaying his or her exploration by a year he or she could escape the rigour of national selection. Having been a Bishop's Adviser in the BAP process for 20 years, I can only regret the Church's proposal to pull back from this very important and necessary part of the process of discernment, especially for candidates who may have more than 20 years' active ordained ministry ahead of them.

Perhaps to those relatively few who (like me) find themselves "lay professionals" within church structures. I only hope that the desire to use para-clerical processes for their training and recognition will not distort the distinctively lay character of such vocations.

I was fascinated both by Dr Morris's letter, signed by a very distinguished group concerned about the future of full-time theological education, and by the resignation of Dr Coakley from the RME Working Party. As a member of the highly ranked theology department at Exeter, I share their concern at the damage already being done to relationships between the Church and academic departments.

But I am puzzled by readings of the report which suggest that the main threat in its proposals is to full-time college training. The remarkable thing to me in the report is that, although the background research found that part-time training and full-time training were equally effective, Proposal 8 places in jeopardy the viability of any programme of traditional part-time course training.

Candidates aged over 50 at ordination constitute 70 per cent of the intake of a course such as ours. If that training falls within diocesan budgets, as is proposed, it will inevitably tend to be shortened to save money. That will compromise both the financial and the formational integrity of part-time courses. So the training mode that is most under threat is the one that the research behind the RME report found to be the most cost-effective, namely Course training.

Christopher Southgate

South West Ministry Training Course

Amory Building, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive, Exeter EX4 4RJ

 

From the Rt Revd Dr Laurie Green

Sir, - As a life-long champion of contextual theology, I am appalled to see how the arguments over the Resourcing Ministerial Education report are leading some to play off academic theology against contextual theology - as if we should resource only one or the other.

Surely, the job of any good theologian is to delve into our experience of God in the world so that we can better understand it and respond to it - and, to help us all to do that, we need theologians who are expert in analysing our experi-ence in context and reflecting upon it through the lens of the great traditions of our Christian faith - traditions that will include biblical and doctrinal theology, church history, and so on.

Locked away in the library, academic theology can become no more than a self-gratifying word-game, just as contextual theologians who have not been steeped in Bible and theology will be unable to appreciate the value of what they mine from their situation. But, if the two disciplines are brought together into a dynamic whole, then we strike gold.

Some are backing the universities on the specious grounds that our teachers of tomorrow must all be academics, while others maintain that we thrive as a Church if we invest only in missional activity, forgetting that all Christian action should be informed by reflection. But "doing theology" requires, surely, a spirited interplay of quality academic theology and committed contextual engagement.

The outcome is often extremely challenging; for it confronts us with new perceptions. But it also thereby energises us for the excitement of Kingdom living.

LAURIE GREEN

86 Belle Hill, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex TN40 2AP

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