A Shared Vision?

We recently published ‘A Vision for Theological Education in the Common Awards’ on the Durham website. It was the product of a year-long process of consultation around the Common Awards partnership and beyond, and in its final form it secured wide agreement around that partnership. Inevitably, however, the agreement wasn’t universal, and I thought it important to make sure that some of the questions that had been raised about the statement were also visible online. David Nixon, Dean of Studies at the South West Ministry Training Course, kindly agreed to discuss some of his questions about the statement with me by email, and then to have that discussion posted here on my blog. His questions focus on the opening sections of the statement, particularly §§4–7. Here’s that opening section:

Beginning with God.

  1. The Common Awards institutions have different approaches to theological education for Christian ministry, but these approaches are held together by our worship of one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; creator and sustainer of all things; victor over death and source of life, the One who is above all and through all and in all. The mortar that holds our vision for theological education in place is confidence, trust and delight in this God, and the horizon of our vision is the fullness of life and love that God has prepared for all things, towards which God is drawing all that God has made. Our vision for theological education begins and ends with delight in the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
  2. We therefore focus on God’s activity before considering our own. We focus upon the eternally active life of the triune God, and upon the activity by which God shares this life. We focus on God’s action in creating and lovingly sustaining the world, in reconciling creatures to Godself and to one another, and in healing, fulfilling, and perfecting what God has made, drawing all things into the knowledge and love of God. It is God who establishes the Kingdom, God who draws all God’s children into that Kingdom, God who ministers and educates.
  3. When the activity of God’s creatures serves God’s purposes, it is because God is active in them, drawing them into God’s mission in the world together, and making their action bear fruit. The first note in our vision of ministry, and of theological education for ministry, should therefore not be our own effort, determination, or commitment, but our confidence in God’s work in the world, our thankfulness as recipients of God’s grace, our trust in God’s bounty, our assurance of God’s enlivening presence, and our resting in God’s strength.
  4. The activity of God in which we are called to rest is a triune activity. It is the activity of the Spirit, conforming God’s creatures to Christ and to Christ’s ongoing action in the world, and so drawing them to share together in Christ’s relationship to his Father, who sends us out in the power of the Spirit as Christ’s witnesses in the world. It is a work that the triune God begins, continues, and will complete.

David:

I really like the flow of words, images, sentences here, and I do understand that you have to produce something of manageable length overall (not another article or book), but in terms of Beginning with God, I would ask two questions: Why do we begin with God? and Who says that we should begin with God?

You say that ‘We … focus on God’s activity before considering our own’, but I can’t readily find anywhere else in the statement where our own activity is given much weight, especially our own activity in relation to working out who/what/how God is to us.

It might be okay to begin with God, but the assumption then is of a dialogue, a Jacob-like wrestling with God and theology, as to just what this God is. The wider picture is of context, and the way that context informs our theology (not dictates) – this would certainly be the emphasis of various missional initiatives, linked to a liberation theology overview.

I wonder if too much weight is being placed on God’s story almost independently of our own existence, a criticism made of Barth at one point?

Mike:

Thanks for these questions; they’re important ones. Before attempting some answers, though, I should perhaps start by saying that I can’t, of course, answer for anyone but myself. The text was a collaborative production, and I can only speak about the way I understand what we produced together.

Beginning the piece with God is a decision made in a specific context, and by specific people – in this case, it was the initial working group, though it’s been affirmed by most (not all!) of the feedback received from then on. For me, that decision sprang from a feeling that theological educators in the churches today are often pushed towards performance anxiety, made to feel that the future of the church depends on our action, our leadership, our entrepreneurial success, and if we don’t measure up (and we’re subject to constant measurement) we’re failures. It was in that context that it seemed good to emphasise trust in God. I guess we could have begun with a description of this context, to make sense of the focus on God – but it’s difficult to do that without making that context itself the focus.

I hope that the focus on God’s action before our own is not a focus on God’s action instead of our own. It’s meant, I think, to be a way of framing our thinking about our own action, and there’s quite a bit later on about people being called and empowered in all sorts of different ways. For me, this is quite an affirming and supportive way for all of us involved in theological education to think about our action, the action of those we teach, and the actions of those amongst whom they minister. I’d want to say that even wrestling with God like Jacob or Job or the Psalmist is something that God draws us into and sustains. I don’t think there needs to be a competitive relationship between a focus on God’s story and a focus on our stories – and hope we haven’t fallen into that.

It would, however be all too easy to slip from saying ‘God’s action is the sustaining context for our action’ to saying ‘My authoritative account of God sets the limits upon your action’. This piece leaves open the question of how authority and discernment work – not least, I think, because they’re issues on which we (the theological education community) differ. I hope it does at least leave the question open, rather than close down the kind of approach you sketch. It does, after all, insist that this God is at work in the world beyond the church (§9), that we need to discern and respond to that work (§10) and to name and celebrate it (§18), and that all our learning takes place ‘in the whole course of our interaction with one another and our presence and engagement with the world’ (§25), and so on. Does that leave the door open to what you want to say?

David:

Thanks for the clarification in your first paragraph here. Perhaps parish ministry has insulated against this as I don’t particular feel it (and resist it when I do), but I would fully support this resistance.

This is of course the usual danger of some more ‘liberation’ methodologies, (a kind of pelagianism isn’t it?) that it’s all down to me/us. However it does seem a little bit of a paradox that the context has inspired a universal approach! I need to think that out a bit more.

I don’t think the way the statement relates our stories and God’s story is competitive, and your ‘drawing into and sustaining’ is again a useful clarification, but I am mindful of Gerard Loughlin’s comment that where you begin here deeply affects where you end up. As you know he favoured starting with God, but I always think it’s a useful experiment to see where you end up if you start at the other end (and I don’t think it’s ever quite as black and white as it appears). There’s so much bad history, and bad current practice, which illustrates the value of such an experiment in the ‘other direction’. So you haven’t slipped into anything too difficult, but you don’t seem to have excluded that either – i.e. it might still be possible (unfairly) to interpret this as constricting others’ actions based on my account of God. Am I being unfair here?

This also links with another concern which is the emphasis on ‘witness’. I wonder if it’s helpful to relate this to Rowan Williams’ lecture on ‘The Christian Priest Today’? If so, what has happened to the images of watchman and weaver? It strikes me again that ‘witness’ is rather a passive approach, non-participatory, or at least that it has that risk. The action happens, and at best I am at one remove. You can see why this, combined with my other concerns, still asks the question how do we really enter a very tight (closed?) circle about our relations with God, and who holds the keys to the door? So this might open up the whole question of authority – or is that unfair too?!

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