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Vocations: A chance to know God more deeply

by
12 March 2021

How does studying theology equip people in the workplace? Students talk to Huw Spanner about the challenges and rewards of taking an MA course

Christopher Henley

Christopher Henley

The Revd Christopher Henley, aged 63, is almost one year into a three-year part-time MA in theology, ministry, and mission at St Augustine’s College of Theology, Kent

MY A-level grades weren’t good enough to get me into Cambridge, and my dad was the Royal Embalmer; so I thought: “I’ll go and work at the undertaker’s for three months.” To cut a long story short, those three months turned into just short of 40 years. In all that time, I’m not exaggerating, every week someone would say to me: “I’m surprised you’re not a priest.”

I specialised in disaster response, and, after the tsunami in 2004, I was embalming a child and I just looked up [heavenwards] and asked: “Why?”

Someone suggested I do a course in theology; so I went to North Thames Ministerial Training College for two years. Subsequently, I did a diploma in theology at St Mellitus. Eventually, in 2016, I graduated from Durham University and was ordained at St Paul’s Cathedral. I’m now the Associate Vicar of St Stephen’s, Hounslow, and I support myself working full-time as a chaplain on the railways.

I decided to do the MA at St Augustine’s because it covers the areas I wanted to study in more depth: principally theodicy, spiritual direction, and contemplative spirituality. We are going deep into academic stuff, looking at particular words, particular metaphors. It’s making me aware of how much I don’t know, to be honest. It’s a lot to take in.

I knew it was going to be tough, and it is. A tremendous amount of reading is expected, and I’m a slow reader. The most challenging bit for me is looking at things critically; but I think that’s why I’m enjoying it, because it’s stretching me and encouraging me to think outside the box.

I’ve had to manage my time an awful lot better than I used to, because my studies are as important to me as my ordained ministry and my railway chaplaincy. I cram a lot into my day. But I’m lucky in that I only need four or five hours’ sleep.

My studies are already enriching my ministry. It’s all coming together.

railwaymission.org

 

Dee Cunniffe, 65, is doing a two-year MA in Kingdom theology at Westminster Theological Centre

Dee Cunniffe

I WORK with the Mayor of London as policy lead at the London Joint Working Group on Substance Use and Hepatitis C. I also chair an organisation that runs retreats for people who are addicted.

I’m a recovered alcoholic myself. In the early 2000s, I did the 12 Steps, which was a very powerful experience that led me to become a Christian

I was interested in understanding the Bible more deeply. I suspected that some things that were being preached at my church didn’t have much of a biblical basis, and I wanted to find out what the truth was. I completed a two-year graduate diploma in Kingdom Theology there in 2019, and then I went straight on to the Master’s.

It’s very hard work for me. I ran away from home as a teenager, and I missed a lot of things at school that I still find quite hard. I have a degree from Teesside University, a PGCE, and a diploma in marketing, but I hadn’t studied since the 1980s, and I could hardly even write an essay when I began this course.

You have to be vulnerable, doing this course, and I have doubted myself so deeply at times that I’ve really wanted to give up. But I believe that God wants me to do it. Part of why I’m so dedicated to studying theology is so that I’ll be able to listen to what he’s saying at a deeper level.

It has been very beneficial to my spiritual life. And it helps me with the work I do with addicts. It helps me to introduce God to others, 100 per cent believing that he loves us and cares for us, and that they will be healed if they wish to be. I want to be sure that I’m passing on a message that has got depth and weight. I need to be firm in doctrine, and to know that there is evidence behind it.

 

The Revd John White, 44, is halfway through a four-year, part-time MA in theology, ministry, and mission, at Trinity College, Bristol

John White

I’M IN my last year as a pioneer curate attached to St Mary’s, Stoke Bishop, though I actually don’t go there that much. I’ve started something called “Hazelnut Community Farm”, where we are putting the fifth mark of mission — caring for creation — right at the centre of our church.

I try to make all my essays reflect on topics that are associated with this “fresh expression”. The idea is to be robust in my pioneering work, to reflect theologically alongside it. So, for example, in ecclesiology, the question I looked at was: where does church start and where does it end? It has really informed how I think about the sacraments, and how I see myself in relation to the Church of England, the wider Church, and society.

Right now, we’re doing a module called “Themes in Moral Theology”, which is asking really deep questions. I’m doing a lot around eco stuff, and a big part of that is Extinction Rebellion, so my paper’s going to consider the parameters for civil disobedience.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. Back in America, where I’m from, I did a part-time English-literature degree in Kansas City over six years. I’ve never really been the academic sort, and when I first came to Trinity to do my ordination training, I thought: “Let’s just see how this goes.” But I developed a love for study and found that it really informed my worship and my calling, and I felt like I just wasn’t done with it.

Doing a Master’s is a lot of pressure. I have to plan my days really well. This last year has been on Zoom, and it has been hard writing essays at the kitchen table, with kids around, rather than in the library. Having said that, it’s been incredibly impactful. From the first minute I sat in class, it has affected my ministry and added real depth to my thinking and my action.

hazelnutcommunityfarm.com

 

Dr Claire Heppenstall, 46, is doing a three-year MA in Christian spirituality at Sarum College, Salisbury

Claire Heppenstall

FOR many years, I worked in New Zealand as a hospital doctor; I specialised in caring for older people approaching the end of their lives. In 2019, I decided to come back to the UK.

I have struggled for a long time with depression, to the point that I’ve thought about taking my own life, and finding God in those black times can be very hard. I started looking to see what spiritual resources there are for people with mental-health challenges, and one of the people I found who’d done a lot of work in this area is the Principal of Sarum College [Canon James Woodward]. It was through him that I decided to join the college’s MA programme.

I had been wondering for some years whether it might be time for a change in direction, and I thought that the course would allow me to explore my faith and my spirituality in more depth before making any decisions. Also, because it is in Christian spirituality rather than traditional theology, I felt that we would be looking a bit more at real, lived experience.

I spend 14 or 15 hours a week studying. I had an academic position in palliative-care medicine when I started the course, but I’ve now given that up to focus on this. In this first year, I’ve done a module on the links between body, mind, and spirit, and I’m currently really enjoying learning about Western mysticism.

Sarum has a really diverse student group and a very broad range of lecturers; so I’m encountering many different views and experiences of Christian life. I grew up in an Anglican church, and there is so much I just took for granted about my faith; this course really challenges all those assumptions, that everyone believes the same thing.

I think it will equip me when I come to think about what to do next in life. However, something that God is teaching me at the moment is that it’s OK not knowing what’s coming next, and just enjoying the experience of learning. For someone who’s been very goal-focused their whole life, that’s a really important lesson.

 

Paul Bosson, 59, is doing a one-year MA in integrative theology at the London School of Theology (LST)

Paul Bosson

MY WIFE and I were supposed to go out to Uganda last year as missionaries with Clarion Trust International. My wife will be doing medical work, and, initially, I’ll be attached to a Christian charity as business adviser. But, because of Covid, that has been postponed.

Three-and-a-half years ago, at Clarion’s recommendation, I enrolled at LST to do a one-year certificate in theology, which morphed into a two-year diploma. Now I’ve ended up doing a Master’s degree, which I’m halfway through. It’s full-time, and normally requires 40 hours a week.

The course teaches a rigorous theological method, which is a toolkit that can be applied to any real-world situation. I have a personal interest in how theology applies to business — in my career, I have been chief financial officer for several international software businesses — as well as to mission.

For me, the course is all about is being equipped in your mind to be effective in your thinking and your actions. You have to read some highfalutin’ academic material, which I struggle with. I’m not an academic; so I find the more abstract stuff less satisfying.

My faith has certainly grown through the greater understanding I’ve gained. My preaching in church, the way I lead house groups — what I’ve been taught at LST just takes it up a level. My confidence is much higher, my desire to evangelise or disciple much stronger.

I’ve been a Christian since university; so, nearly 40 years. Four years ago, I would have said that I didn’t see the need to go to theological college. Now, I can say: “There was so much I didn’t know, and didn’t know I didn’t know.” I’ve gained enormously.

 

Bekah Legg, 45, recently completed an MA in applied theology at Moorlands College, near Christchurch, Hampshire

Bekkah Legg

I MIGHT have done a BA in theology when I was 18, but it wasn’t the kind of thing girls did then. I did history instead. Then I became a teacher and got married, and time went on.

But I really love teaching the Bible, and the more I did it, the more I wished I had that depth of knowledge. My history studies taught me to be as true to the text as possible, and I guess I wanted the same to be the case when I was using the Bible.

I’d been umming and ahing about a Master’s degree for quite a long time. I had six children and a full-time job; so I was very busy, and we were pretty broke. And then everything came together: I was made aware of a grant I could apply for, and my boss said I could do the course as part of my job [at the time I worked for Compassion UK]. It felt very much that God was opening a door for me, and so I walked through.

I went to Moorlands because I know quite a few people who’ve been there, which made it a bit less daunting. I was very nervous about going back to study: had I forgotten how to do it? would I be able to keep up?

Actually, what I found hardest was finding the time to really study, and think and write. If you average it out, I wouldn’t have spent more than six hours a week on it, though what that really looked like was me doing an absolute blitz, for five days in a row once every six weeks, putting my head down and hammering it out.

I think my brain really enjoyed being lit up again, but it wasn’t just head knowledge I was acquiring: it was understanding and knowledge of God, and I can never get enough of that. It also brought me into a deeper relationship with God.

Forthcoming Events

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

21 October 2021
Transgressing Theology
From SCM Press: authors Natalie Wigg-Stevenson and Thia Cooper in conversation.

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