by The Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer | Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion
The term ‘theological education’ creates different reactions in different people. For some it conjures up memories of piles of books demanding to be read, essay writing, deadlines, and stress. For others it recalls moments of illumination, when the penny dropped and new insights about scripture and Christian tradition set them on the way in their Christian lives.
We live in an era when paradigms of Christian living and believing are shifting. Traditional patterns of church going based on a sense of obligation (‘I go to church because that is how I was brought up and is what I ought to do’) are giving way to patterns based on choice and desire (‘I go to church because I want to go – I have made a choice to do so’). This has big implications for every aspect of church life. Churches can no longer expect people to turn up but need to go out and invite them to church, offering something they are going to like and be enriched by.
This also has big implications for theological colleges, courses and programmes. They can no longer sell themselves on the basis of being gatekeepers to academic qualifications and reputation. Rather they need to offer their wonderful resources as support and encouragement for Christian discipleship, those life journeys in the company of the Lord that all Christians are on. Student centered learning, or rather ‘discipleship centered learning’ will need to become the way people are attracted to sign up and take their courses.
This means institutions and programmes will need to re-position themselves, from being ‘centres of learning’ that students need to go to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills for Christian believing and living, to being ‘learning support centres’, stopping-off points along the Way, wayside inns, as it were, to pause, take stock, look back and look forward in the company of others and with scripture and Christian tradition as deep wells of insight and encouragement, for study and reflection, as they continue their journey with Christ. Accessibility, hospitality, accompaniment, listening as much as speaking and writing, will need to become the key notes.
All of this does not have to mean a loss of academic standards and a ‘dumbing down’. There are already many areas of theology which approach their subject in this kind of way, such as contextual theology, liberation theologies, pastoral and practical theology, and so on. There are also educational methodologies available to theological educators, such as theories of flipping the classroom, which see learning taking place before and after time in the classroom, with the classroom as a place to reflect on and be equipped for that bigger journey. Theological education by extension (TEE) in many parts of the developing world provides examples of how theological study in local groups can inspire and equip disciples in their Christian journeys (see, for example, TEE in Asia: Empowering Churches, Equipping Disciples, Hannah-Ruth van Wingerden, Tim Green and Graham Aylett (editors), Increase Association 2018, available from www.lulu.com)
There is another reason for this shift of approach: the Anglican Communion is the child of mission, born as Anglicans and Episcopalians travelled to new places to invite others to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is the very essence of Anglicanism. With its roots in Celtic and Augustinian spirituality and shaped by the European Reformation, it has always been a lived-out faith (not a purely intellectual or spiritualized faith). It is about following and living the way of Jesus.
Discipleship is the way Anglicans witness to Jesus: holistic witness expressed in the Five Marks of Mission, it is about proclamation, nurture, service, worship, and prophetic witness as disciples of the Crucified One and citizens of the Kingdom in this world.
Discipleship reflects the Catholic-Protestant nature of the Anglican Communion. We discover the true meaning of the Catholic nature of the Church as we follow a Saviour who unites all people and all things in himself, and we discover the true vocation of Protestantism as our discipleship leads us into prophetic engagement with Scripture and the world.
Discipleship is the future of the Anglican Communion. It is only as we call each generation to a daily walk with God, a living discipleship, that Anglican churches can grow and flourish. Without new disciples our future will last no longer than one generation.
Discipleship is the hope of the Anglican Communion. It is only through calling all Anglicans, and those who will join as new Christians, to the daily following of Christ that we will avoid error, division and distraction and know the constant renewal of the Spirit that gives hope for eternity.
When theological education places itself within and at the service of this discipleship it therefore has the potential, at every level of the church, to light up and energise the faith and practice of Anglicans. Through mutual discussion, listening and learning, the Christian faith can become an exciting journey of discovery and empowerment, in the company of Christ, as the two disciples found on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). It is the means by which Christians find the words to give an account of the hope that is in them (1 Peter 3.15). It therefore needs to be made available at every level of the church, supported and encouraged by the many theological institutions with which the Anglican Communion is blessed.
Published in Messenger, October 2019