IT WAS Martin Luther who challenged the notion that a sacred vocation meant taking holy orders. Yet, the study of theology, even today, is often still equated with those training for ordination or a particular Christian ministry, rather than as something valuable for all Christians to engage in.
“There’s a sad myth that theology is just for academics, that it’s ivory-tower irrelevant stuff that doesn’t really impact the way we live,” Dr John Dennis, the lecturer in New Testament and Greek, and the programme leader for the MA in integrative theology at the London School of Theology, says.
“I would say the worship of God is multi-faceted. Theology is the pursuit of God, and that’s a spiritual thing. Christians, whether plumbers or politicians, if they’re serious about their faith, are doing theology all the time. It’s not just something for an elite few.”
Yet, in an era in which education can be focused on usefulness, it is hard to counter the idea that the study of theology is worth while only for those who will use it in a direct way, such as in ordained ministry; that theology can form and shape vocations of all kinds.
“A lot of universities promote the study of theology to those not training for ministry by emphasising the transferable skills you gain,” Dr Justin Stratis, the Tutor in Christian doctrine, and director of postgraduate research at Trinity College, Bristol, says. He believes that theological understanding is of value to everyone in all vocations.
“In studying theology, you can contextualise your calling in a way that’s authentically Christian, to understand your place as God’s creation, and to see how you can be an ambassador of reconciliation anywhere, not just in the pulpit or by framing your life in a particular way.”
Whereas some might come to theological study with an idea of it leading to a vocation in Christian ministry, often their notion of what they’re called to changes and expands to lead them in a different direction.
Over the years, Nigel Roberts, the tutor in practical theology at the Centre for Youth Ministries at St John’s College, Nottingham, has witnessed how people studying and training change tack on their understanding of vocation.
“People quite often come thinking God has called them to be either a minister or a youth worker. But, during the course of their studies, they realise, actually, they could be called to be a teacher, or a social worker, and still fulfil their vocational mission.”
Finding a renewed and clarified sense of calling was Charmain Roberts’s experience. She started teaching in 1997, and then took time out to study theology. “I really wasn’t sure I would go back into teaching, and thought about going into ministry. But God led me back into the classroom.” Nevertheless, the expression of her vocation as a teacher changed, and she found that her theological understanding gave her a framework to cope with this shift.
Studying theology gave Charmain Roberts a renewed and clarified sense of calling
“Ten years ago, I was living in rural Somerset, teaching in a lovely little village school, which was quite middle-class and monocultural. I got married and moved to the West Midlands, and am now teaching in a very diverse multicultural school.
“It was such a big change personally, and challenging to manage. I remembered what I’d learned about St Augustine — how he didn’t want to be a bishop, yet was made one, and in a place he didn’t choose. His acceptance of that calling meant God used him to change the face of Christianity forever.
“Now, I find myself in a very different place, teaching children from a multitude of backgrounds and many faiths; my theology of the sovereignty of God has allowed me to have a sense of God’s purpose in it.”
Sarah Williamson, a senior manager in the NHS in Northern Ireland, who studied theology at the University of Edinburgh, and then at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, says: “I might have had a vague idea about doing some kind of Christian ministry when I began studying.
“I found my studies radically transformative, and learning how to hold different perspectives and narratives with dignity is one of the ways theology still shapes and informs my work. After I finished, I was even more committed to making a difference in the world. My skills in leading people and services were already there, and I discovered my desire was not to sit at the edge, commentating, but to get my hands dirty on the frontline. I found my vocation in the NHS, in management.”
Sarah Williamson found that her theological studies transformed her sense of vocation
For Mr Roberts, the transformation of community is the main point of theology and the reason that it is vital that Christians don’t leave its study only to those who are ordained. “Whatever role we play, whether as a school dinner lady or a person heading up a big team in a management consultancy, we have to transform and bring our understanding of the Kingdom of God into those places.”
“Theology, no matter what job you’re doing, is a transformative thing,” Dr Dennis says, referring to St Anselm, who after St Augustine, said: “I believe, in order that I may understand.”
“I think that’s a nice way of putting the study of Christian theology,” he continues. “It’s people who have faith in God, and in what God has done and continues to do in Christ in the Church, and the world, but who are not satisfied to just stay at base level. Theology is a desire to continue to seek more understanding — not in terms of getting more facts, though, yes, it’s knowing more about scripture, about the great Christian traditions, and all kinds of other things — but more in the sense of transformation.”
Dr Stratis believes that it is important to resist the temptation to focus either on the cerebral academic side of theological study, or to offer theology as “a ministry tool”, and to remember that studying theology should be life-changing.
“We can’t possibly give you a tool that would fit every possible situation,” he says. “But we can teach you the grain of the gospel; so you can improvise in real life, in the moment, using your knowledge and listening to the Holy Spirit.”
The idea of improvisation resonates with jazz musician Dan Forshaw, who studied theology at London School of Theology. He finds,13 years on, that it still influences the way in which he approaches his musical practice.
“In playing jazz, you have to leave space, listen to others, and then respond with your own twist,” he explains. “Famously, the musician John Coltrane claimed all musicians are searching for truth. And that is theology: looking for the truth of God. For me, that’s trying to find God in every moment, and trying to understand what truth is as I play.”
“Life isn’t an equation to be resolved. It’s really messy,” Jonathan Angel says. After working for 25 years as a chartered surveyor, he changed career and now works at Parent Support Link, a Hampshire-based charity that works with families affected by addiction.
Jonathan Angel’s study has given him an understanding of being “a light within the mess” of life
“You need to have a broad way of thinking to be able to deal with some of what comes up. Studying theology didn’t give me answers, but it did show me that I’m called to be light within the mess. It’s okay for me to say: ‘I don’t understand.’ I’m called to help them on their journey to being transformed.”
“I remember,” Ms Williamson says, “on my first day as a student, being told that studying theology wouldn’t give us answers, but it would help us to ask better questions.
“As someone who cared enough about my faith to want to study it academically, I was looking for answers, and that statement bemused me. But studying hermeneutics, systematic theology, and so on opened me up to realise how mysterious God is, because God is beyond all of our culture. It was very humbling.”
A tutor at St John’s College, Nottingham, Dr Nigel Pimlott, gives lectures in practical theology relating to politics and culture to MA students
Dr Stratis says: “God is not really something to be studied. God is someone to be met again. Learning theology is not about mastering a body of knowledge, it’s about learning how to cast your glance in the right direction.”
“Theology is intellectual, no doubt,” Dr Dennis says. “But it’s also spiritual. It’s a pursuit of God, not just for the sake of knowledge, but, ultimately, to have the object of our study — God — change us.”
Perhaps for the Christian, whatever the vocation, there can be no nobler goal.