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Preaching to the converters

24 March 2016

Jane Williams relishes teaching theology to ordinands and unbelievers alike

Getting better and better: Jane Williams speaking to students at St Mellitus College

Getting better and better: Jane Williams speaking to students at St Mellitus College

TEACHING theology in university and theological college contexts is very different. In a university, it is obviously not appropriate to assume a student’s belief in God. Many of them are interested in theology because it is a multi-disciplinary subject, giving a chance to study languages, philosophy, history, ethics, and all the big ideas of life.

It does occasionally seem like trying to teach music in a world in which musical instruments and singing are never mentioned; and it also feels like a thin tribute to the great theologians, who not only wrote, but also practised.

On the other hand, a university context brings the great riches of thinking theologically in a multi-faith context. One of the most interesting class-based discussions I’ve had was when a Muslim student was explaining to a student from the conservative Evangelical Christian tradition about the place of scripture.

Most of the theological teaching I’ve done, however, has been in the context of Anglican theological colleges, where all students are training for Christian ministries of various kinds, lay and ordained, so classes can take for granted the ability to reflect on practice — “performing the faith”, as Stanley Hauerwas helpfully calls it.

I’ve been teaching in this context for longer than I like to remember, and my sense is that, on the whole, students are getting better and better.

THERE are all kinds of reasons for this. For example, no one in their right minds now offers for ordination without a very strong sense of vocation and commitment. It is no longer a “profession” that someone might slide into with a vague sense of doing good, and not knowing quite what else to do. It is now helpfully obvious that Christian ministry is a completely useless task unless there really is a God who calls and commissions the Church, even in all its brokenness.

It is also hugely helpful to the study of theology that most theological colleges and courses now have a good gender balance. Teaching about the new humanity in Christ is uphill work when half of it is not represented in the room.

Students probably do come with less theological knowledge to begin with than was common some decades ago. It’s tempting to be gloomy about this, and to put it down to declining levels of Christian literacy — and there is undoubtedly some of that. Teachers in other disciplines, however, will also say that “the basics” are lacking in, for example, maths, where few children grow up learning their times tables; or in English, where grammar and punctuation are often unknown quantities.

There is no point in lamenting that. My children spent their Sunday-school years largely making sheep out of cotton wool, where I spent mine learning Bible verses and liturgical colours. We were equally bored.

I remember sermons on theories of the atonement that you just can’t give in a ten-minute entertainment slot. But most of the students I now teach have had to defend their decision to believe in God against mockery and incredulity, so their faith has a hard-won depth that may have been lacking in previous generations.

And it’s a great discipline, for those of us who teach theology, to discover whether we have really understood the essentials sufficiently to be able to teach them to people who may be hearing some of them for the first time. If you can’t explain why a semi-colon is an aid to good writing, then it’s probably time to abandon it. Similarly, if you can’t explain why the God we believe in is not an object like others in the universe then it’s no wonder that God seems as plausible as the Easter bunny.

THE two things I find most challenging and rewarding to teach are the doctrine of the Trinity, and ecclesiology — the doctrine of the nature and purpose of the Church. Concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, it’s not so much that it is complicated — it isn’t: it’s the only way in which what Christians say about God makes any sense at all. It’s more that the past couple of decades of writing about the Trinity has so concentrated on the “three-ness” of God that it is harder for students imaginatively to grasp the “one-ness”.

That has significant knock-on consequences on, for example, the understanding of the cross. Many students are influenced by Moltmann’s powerful rhetoric of the way in which Father and Son “experience” the crucifixion differently. It also becomes harder for students to make the profound connections between the sacraments and the work of the Holy Spirit, because it is easy to assume that the Holy Spirit is the free-range, exciting third person, rather than the one who is known in the Son-centred lives of those who call “Abba, Father.”

Concerning ecclesiology, what is often apparent is that students come — thank God — with a deep, personal relationship with God, but with less sense of what the Church might be for. We have had generations of Christianity as a life-style choice, combined with an indifference to, or even mistrust of, institutions, so that the sense of the Church as the heart of God’s project is counter-intuitive. On the whole, students (like the rest of us?) need help in making connections between their own faith and the vocation of the people of God in relation to the whole of creation.

QUITE a lot of students are comparatively new to Christian faith, and that can make exposure to the rigorous academic discipline of theology a bit of a shock to the system. Learning about the history, and critical study, of the Bible, or the political motivation deeply bound up with the development of doctrine, or that all language about God, may be both metaphorical and true: all of this can seem a far cry from the life-changing encounter with God that drove students to study in the first place.

How do we get from “Jesus is Lord” to “of one substance with the Father” — and does it matter?

Again, my sense is that students are more willing to grapple with these questions now than they might have been in the past. Few people can now live their lives in a safe Christian bubble where assumptions are unquestioned, so it makes sense to start the questioning yourself, and to learn to be at ease with the places where we just have to say, “I don’t know.”

That is not always an admission of defeat. To live with an unexamined certainty is to be in constant danger of having to abandon the whole enterprise the first time you meet a question you can’t answer.

What’s more, at St Mellitus College, where I have been teaching for the past ten years, students come from the whole range of Christian traditions. The ordinands, however, are all Anglican, and for many of them this is a first exposure to the capacious breadth of the Anglican tradition, and also to its depths.

At its best, Anglican theology is fearless: strongly committed to robust academic discussion; to the notion that a Catholic faith is not a culturally monochrome one; to public accountability, and political responsibility; to the prayer of the desert, the quiet time, the monastic offices; to speaking in tongues, high mass, healing services, and choral evensong. . . The list is endless, and all are Anglican.

Many theological students have a post-denominational history of church-going, and so come to ordination training with an openness to different forms of worship and theological expression. They also come, however, with a realisation that “pick and mix” church can be shallow and market-driven. Theological study gives an opportunity to think about boundaries that set us free, and boundaries that imprison us.

In theological colleges, students often want to rush to application, and I do believe that theology must have application: it makes a difference to how we live, or it can’t be about God. But application must not become too narrow. The contemplation of God is in itself a glorious thing, and the first and best application of theology.

Jane Williams is Assistant Dean and Tutor in Theology at St Mellitus College.

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