In which I have an Opinion about theological education.

This week I have mostly been writing assessed essays, which of course means I’ve spent time catching up with Twitter friends, and giving the window a thorough looking out of.

One conversation revolved around the point and purpose of the academic theology I’m studying. I horrified a student here when I shared with him that I do not really mind the class of degree I obtain. Let’s face it, I already have three, including a doctorate, so I don’t need to prove I am an academic. For me, the theology I’m working on this year is about understanding the broad ideas, becoming familiar with the language and learning how to use it myself. It’s like a map. I want to understand the landscape at a relatively detailed scale. I’m learning a new set of symbols and a new terrain. So, when I draw a sketch map for someone else, I know what I am leaving out that is irrelevant for their journey. I’m not selling someone short or dumbing down – I’m just giving a relevant set of directions across a complicated landscape. This is, I believe, the idea that Alister McGrath is suggesting in his Church Times piece this week.

I understand for myself, and then I can pass that understanding on. I cannot draw an accurate map for someone else if I do not understand the landscape we’re on. I want to continue to learn – and I suspect I will want to take another Master’s at some point. But, I don’t see the need to retain the entire map in my head at all times. If I need to check a detail, I will. That’s why I have bookshelves, after all. The map is not the only thing I need. I also need the compass, walking boots, fitness, and ability to weather whatever weather appears. And so as long as I am confident I have got the idea, I’m not going to put all my energies into essay writing in order to raise my grades to the exclusion of other activities. I know, shocking. I might actually want to attend the practical theology or practical vicaring sessions which some seem to see as an optional nuisance. “But the theology is important, Sara,” they say, with shocked faces, as I look forward to a session on poetry, or an intensive course on art & worship. I want to feel this is an integrated path I follow. So I want to learn how to walk, or run, or hop and skip the paths we have set out before us, not just to concentrate on the map. I hope the analogy holds up.

I was asked by a college chaplain last term which theologians we discussed at Westcott. He said he worried for the future of the theological education in the Federation when I answered that I don’t spend my social time talking about academic theology. I also said that I was insulted by his insinuation that I wasn’t committed to learning. He was expecting me to be poring over the latest Landranger, whereas I was interested, in space outside my lectures, in other aspects. I’m not slacking or skiving off – I have 100% attendance at lectures and supervisions  so far, and I enjoy the academic work.

The formation criteria are varied, and many. The focus seems to be on applying the theology and history I am learning. They do not exclusively at any point suggest that academic achievement is, in itself, a criterion. It is easy to believe, particularly in this Cambridge-focused place, that academic achievement is the only thing that is prized. Yet the non-academic things will be teaching me as much – working with different age groups; with the vulnerable; the military (just back from a hugely challenging week on an RAF base) or the students in my attachment. If I’m thinking about ‘sustaining relationships,’ then going for a coffee and a chat instead of an extra hour of writing to again an extra 5%  is by far the better choice, as far as I can see. I recognise that study of theology can be a spiritual discipline and not always a deadline-driven chore…

I am immensely privileged being here. I will receive some of the best quality teaching possible, in a place dedicated to intellectual pursuit. They have an awesome map collection, if that isn’t stretching the analogy too far. In term time weekdays my meals are cooked for me and I have few domestic responsibilities. I am not juggling assignments and a family. I know how to read & take notes and how to structure an essay. I do find myself with ‘essay title envy’ as my colleagues following the Common Awards programme have assignments which make clear the need to reflect on the way their knowledge will impact their ministry, but equally, I feel my approach is the right one for me and for my formation.

I have been reading the correspondence in the Church Times with interest. The argument about the quality of theology taught is highly relevant. I don’t want my teaching dumbed-down. But I do want the leaders to understand that the academic pressure can be immense, and distracting. I choose to reject the peer pressure to aim only for high marks, because I believe I have an incredible opportunity here to learn in all sorts of places. Inhabiting the role of ‘trainee vicar’ (explorer) rather than ‘theology student’ (map reader) makes me see the world in a different way. I have felt ‘academically dishonest’ as the time I have available allows me only to dip into extracts or skim the book chapters I need. After sitting with my PhD topic for five years, writing two or three supervision essays in quick succession feels superficial. I am almost looking forward to revision as a time to re-interrogate some of that fast thinking and writing. I want my theology to inform my ministry – not for the academic study to push everything to the sidelines, and for the integration to be an afterthought. I never want to feel that the corporate daily offices are a ‘waste’ of time that could be spent in the library. It seems to me that that is the ultimate distortion of perspective that time spent praying with the community is sacrificed to individual academic achievement.

I wonder, too, what the effect of the emphasis on academic study is on the gender balance of full-time ordinands. At the risk of speaking in clichés, and huge over-generalisations, I wonder if the idea of a pathway with an intense workload puts people off. I’m not for one second suggesting a part-time course has a lesser academic standard. But as I am interested in seeking explanations as to why there are so few women in residential training, in a longer blog post I might perhaps have been able to explore the effect of a male academy on women’s understanding of training options.

However, as it is, this post is 33% of the number of words I needed to write for one of my assessed essays, and it’s taken a lot of thinking time today. So I have no more time to consider any of the gender- or age-related issues around this nor the RME report on which I have Opinions. But, I’m a third of the way through my two years here, and I wanted to think out loud about the debate. None of the foregoing should be taken as any criticism of the Federation, or my current lecturers (they’re all pretty awesome) and I don’t suppose any of this is new to anyone with more than my 6 months experience of residential training. But I think the Church Times piece is right to ask what exactly are the reasons I’m learning this stuff.