Prepared for Reality? The slow-moving world of theological education

Alison Webster

 I had a rather startling conversation the other day with a friend of mine – an academic theologian who teaches ordinands as well as ‘ordinary students’. He said to me that the curriculum they teach has altered hardly at all in the last twenty years.

As a social justice adviser in the Church of England, I guess at some level I knew this. If I had a tenner for every conversation I’ve had about how to address important social issues in theological education that went as follows, I’d be a rich woman:

Me (to anyone in charge of any kind of theological education – ordination training, CMD/CME, IME): “It seems really important that those in training for ministry should have some grounding in (insert any social issue: domestic abuse, mental health, community development, gender, sexuality, physical disability, learning disability, rural contexts, urban contexts and poverty, social care, ageing, etc), so that they are equipped to deal with practical and pastoral issues that are likely to arise in the parishes in which they serve/will be serving.”

Theological educator: “Yes, I agree with you, but what you have to realise is that the curriculum is already very intense and overcrowded with essential things like Biblical studies, church history and homiletics. We simply don’t have the space for other things. And even if we did, we can’t simply open up the curriculum to a shopping list of enthusiasms that various individuals lobby us about”.

Me: “So how will your students learn about these issues that will certainly be real for them in ministry?”

Theological educator: “Well, the best we can do is to put on specialist and optional theme weeks that students can opt into. Or they learn ‘on the job’ once in active ministry.”

This is how it was when I worked for the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality (forerunner of CSCS) in the early to mid 1990s, and apparently it is the same now. Anglican colleagues of mine organise, or help to deliver, theme weeks on issues such as rural ministry, the spiritual care of older people; pastoral studies (which can include sessions on, for instance, domestic abuse and disability) and gender/sexuality. But as far as I know, there is as yet no curriculum which takes the simple yet revolutionary step of organising the curriculum around human reality, bringing the resources of scripture and church history into play to inform and stimulate appropriate responses to the challenges that face real people, with real needs and gifts, in real communities.

I well remember being asked to help resource a theme week at an ecumenical theological college back in the 90s. The briefing I had in advance was rather farcical – along the lines of, “If you tackle the issue of marriage, and sex outside marriage, please bear in mind the fact that our former Principal was dismissed because he left his wife for another woman…Oh, and if you really must address homosexuality, then please be aware that we had an infamous case here 10 years ago where two women declared they were in love with one another, and both of them left without being able to get a job with their respective denominations. Oh, and I nearly forgot, your co-presenter is a closet gay priest, so be sensitive to the fact that he will be studiously trying to avoid being asked difficult questions, or discussion of any issues that get too close to the bone”. And so it went on. Apparently any discussion of relationships and sexuality had to pussy-foot around any and every difficult internal issue, when each of these issues was only ‘difficult’ because the institution itself and the denominations it served, were totally unable to talk sensibly and openly and the vagaries of human sexuality. It was a bit like being asked to coach a sports team to perform well in a sport where the rules were secret, and changeable only by those in charge.

Needless to say, I ignored all the restrictions suggested to me. I took care to establish ground rules at the beginning that, as far as possible, made the learning environment a ‘safe space’ in which the students could really explore issues, and challenge one another, knowing that whatever they said in that environment would not be used against them in the future. I recall having some excellent and enlightening discussions with the students, who found it refreshing to discuss together their thoughts, feelings, anxieties, concerns and (surprise surprise) joys, about human relationships. And reflecting on themselves as sexual beings in ministry was a new departure for them. It was a pity that this learning environment was, for them, for a few days only, and exceptional. How much better would it have been if their whole curriculum had been founded on such honest and open exchanges?

When it comes to theological education about gender and sexuality, there are important theo-political issues at stake. Official church responses to the Equal Marriage Bill remind us, yet again, of how ‘complementarity’ is set forth as a veritable doctrine of the faith: men and women are created to be ‘different’, and it is in the formation of heterosexual couples that human beings become ‘whole’. This, in its entirety, IS the basis of official church responses to all issues pertaining to gender and sexuality. How can good education take place with such paucity of thought at the church’s theological heart?

The tragedy of the CoE’s approach to equal marriage is that it exposes how that institution has insulated itself from developments in other intellectual disciplines over the last thirty years or so. It’s getting on for 25 years since I wrote my book Found Wanting, in which, when reflecting on the lives of women who came into conflict with the church’s teachings on sexuality (either because they were single, divorced, sexually abused by men, or lesbian or bisexual), I coined the phrase, ‘the curse of complementarity’, as this idea seemed to be the foundation of all forms of oppression experienced by women.

The idea that women are ‘equal but different’ is given the lie in most strands of Christian thought, in that it is part of men’s role (conveniently for them) to be those who define the roles of men and women. Women’s role is to be submissive, and do what we’re told – an idea so deep rooted that it came back to the fore in some of the arguments about the role of women as Bishops.

If the church, or the theologians that are supposed to inform it, had not actively put their hands of their ears for the last three decades, and remained resistant to developments in gender studies, post-colonial studies, queer theory, etc, they may have developed tools to engage with the new philosophical world that now informs our social context. Apart from inventing ‘radical orthodoxy’ as a way of dealing with truth claims from different disciplines (the theological response which just says, ‘we have the primal form of revealed truth; all other forms of truth are subservient to it and derivative of it, therefore we don’t really need to listen to them), how different might the church’s response have been to the Equal Marriage Bill? How different might our theological education be, and how much better prepared for reality might generations of minsters in training have been?

Alison currently works as the Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford. She ran the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality from 1990 to 1994, and co-founded the international journal, Theology and Sexuality

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