Theological Education in ‘From Lament to Action’

Last Thursday, the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce published its report, From Lament to Action. Given my role in the Common Awards partnership, I have a particular interest in the recommended actions that concern the Church of England’s Theological Education Institutions (TEIs).

This post offers some extended theological reflections on these actions, and some discussion of their practicality. Before reading my ramblings, however, you might like to read the more incisive reflections offered by Nick AdamsAl Barrett, and Jonathan Jong. (I am sure there are others; these are the ones that have come to my attention so far.)

The diagnosis

From Lament to Action moves swiftly. Previous reports have offered long diagnoses of the problem of racism in the church, and detailed rationales for change. From Lament to Action does not try to reproduce all that work. Instead, with a sense of urgency and determination that does not often characterise Church reports, it sets out step after practical step that the Church needs to take.

To produce this agenda, the Taskforce worked through ‘25 previous reports relating to racial justice which had been presented to the General Synod of the Church of England in the past 36 years’. They identified ‘161 formal recommendations made to the Church related to racial justice, and many more informal ones besides’ – most of them left unimplemented. They arranged, combined, updated and prioritised, and then set out the results as an invitation and a challenge (9).

Though expressed only briefly, the report’s theological approach is clear.

It is a call to the Church of England to repent, in a situation of serious sin – the sin of racism. ‘We must’, say the authors, ‘repent of racial sin, turn away from racism and be reconciled, so that we may all experience the love of God’ (7).

Racism is a sin, the report explains, because it represents a failure to be the Body of Christ together. The dedication to the report begins with 1 Corinthians 12:24–26: ‘But God has put the body together…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.’ In the Body of Christ, we are all given to each other as gifts. We constitute that Body together, in mutuality and responsibility for one another. And this life of mutuality and responsibility is not an imposition upon us. It is the life for which we were made. It is a realisation of our dignity as creatures made in the image of God.

Racism is a turning of the shoulder against both creation and salvation.

Actions related to theological education

I am going to run through the main actions in the report that relate to theological education, providing some running reflections.

Given its diagnosis of the problem, it was inevitable that theological education would be one key arena for the report’s recommendation. Theological education is one site in the Church’s life in which the mutual accountability of the Body of Christ is worked out. This mutual accountability is not simply one topic that theological education might cover; it is intrinsic to the whole project.

In theological education, students who are already, in their local context, disciples, readers of scripture, participants in fellowship, and involved in ministry and mission, are drawn into engagement with the wider Body of Christ. That is not so that they will repeat in their own location what has been said and done elsewhere, but so that they can be drawn deeper into the mutual accountability, the mutual giving and receiving, that should unite the whole Body across time and space.

That means, however, that the problems of exclusion tackled by this report stab right at theological education’s heart. They have to do with the breadth of the community of accountability into which theological education draws its students.

If theological education is taking place in a room in which some of the doors out to this richly diverse body of Christ are blocked, then just to that extent it fails in its core task. Just to that extent, it fails to be theological education. Racism detaches theological education from the Body that is its proper matrix.

Making the Body visible

TEIs … to mark Black History Month, celebrating diverse saints and models (modern Anglican Saints/Martyrs).

Education Action 3

Request the TEIs to use resources in training liturgies, prayers and other worship which reflect the breadth and diversity of the Anglican Communion.

Education Action 10

These may seem like the most trivial of the actions related to theological education. In one sense, however, they get to the heart of the matter. In worship, in prayers, in the images on their walls, in the stories they tell – in all sorts of ways TEIs hold up members of Christ’s Body as exemplars of people filled with the light of Christ, for emulation and thanksgiving. These practices and forms of material culture help make the Body of Christ visible to their students.

How much of the variety of Christ’s Body becomes visible in the TEI’s life in this way? How well does it reflect the diversity of their own students? How well does it reflect the diversity of the churches that their students will serve? How well does it reflect the wider diversity of the Body to which they and their students are united in mutual accountability? These are not peripheral questions for TEIs to be asking.

Diversifying the curriculum

For TEIs and other Church based training institutions to diversify the curriculum (including church history, Global Theologies) and to diversify their bibliographies (include authors of UKME/GMH background).

Education Action 10

Renegotiation of the lists of texts, people, and contexts that feature in our curricula is not a new thing. It has always been a part of theological education. You can, for instance, tell the story of the Oxford Movement through the nineteenth century in part as a story of a radical reworking of the canon of texts used in Anglican theological education – and of no less radical reworkings by the Movement’s opponents. Fighting over our bibliographies, and over the visions of the church embodied by them, is just what theological educators do.

Of course, as theological educators, we want to introduce students to the best resources out there. But ‘best’ can never be defined in the abstract. It is always defined in relation to some vision of our purpose. I have said that theological education is, fundamentally, meant to draw students into deeper engagement with the breadth of Christ’s Body. It is meant to draw them deeper into the mutual accountability that should unite the whole Body across time and space. How can monochrome curricula and bibliographies do that?

There can be a tendency in some discussions of this point to suppose that there is a tension here between two tasks of theological education. On the one hand, there is the pursuit of a deeper rootedness in the faith that is already known and loved within the Church of England. On the other, there is engagement with the challenges, questions and gifts that can come from voices from unfamiliar within that tradition.

It is, however, a mistake to frame the question in this oppositional way. Think of the experience of reading a familiar biblical text with someone whose experience and assumptions are very different from your own. Imagine that moment when, with their help, you suddenly see the text in a new way – realising that there is something more, or something different to it than you had previously grasped. In an experience like that, openness to the challenge from the other person can be precisely what opens up more fully for you the text you already know – or what opens you up more fully to that text. Yes, it might pull you away from your own existing grasp on that text, but it is your grip on yourself that is being loosened, not your rootedness in the text.

This is a characteristic work of the Spirit: to draw us deeper into Christ by drawing us into encounter with people beyond our existing circles of familiarity, through whose eyes and ears we might learn to see and hear differently.

By its very nature, therefore, theological education needs to take place in communities of learners which are themselves diverse. And by its very nature it needs to involve forms of learning – and curricula and bibliographies –  that connect students with the even richer diversity of the whole church and of the world. And although there are always tussles over space in our timetables, and decisions to make about what we can and can’t cover, there is no inherent competition between the need to be more deeply rooted in the scriptures or in the traditions that we have inherited and the need to engage with the variety of Christ’s Body. It is the same God who gives us both.

Black Theology

Participation in an introductory Black Theology module (e.g. TMM1657 of Common Awards) or module on Theologies in Global Perspective (TMM42620) to be a requirement for all ordinands

Education Action 4

In part, this action is simply another way of diversifying the curriculum, and is covered by the comments I have already made. Especially in the mention of Black theology, however, it begins to push beyond that. There is a suggestion here not just of that existing curricula might be enriched, but that they might be critiqued. That is, there is a suggestion here that we might go beyond diversification the curriculum to decolonising it.

That seems to me to be entirely right. Deeper engagement with the diversity of the Body of Christ, and with the diversity of God’s world in which that Body lives, can yield many gifts. Amongst those, it can lead us to look again at practices, habits of speech, and ideas that we have taken simply to be the way that Christianity universally is – and to discover that they are in fact local expressions. It can involve us in discovering that some of what we have taken to be faithful discipleship is in fact doing harm to our sisters and brothers.

Such scrutiny has to involve more than scrutiny of our individual motivations, decisions, and actions. It has to involve attention to the systems, institutions, and traditions that we inhabit. Those systems, institutions and traditions are shaped by human hands, and so are inevitably marked by sin. And that includes our theological traditions.

Article XXI of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion says that even General Councils of the church ‘may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God’. All our traditions, all our interpretations, all our theological claims and explanations, stand under the judgment of God.

There are all kinds of ways in which we can hear this judgment pronounced. Some of our hallowed ways of thinking and talking about creation, for instance, have turned out to be broken as we have looked at them again in the light of the climate crisis. Some of our hallowed ways of thinking and talking about the church, and about salvation history, and about the relationship between the testaments, have turned out to be broken, as we have looked at them again the light of the Church’s horrific record of anti-Semitism.

One of the main forms, however, in which we can listen for this judgment upon our theological traditions is in what one can very broadly call liberationist approaches. The heart of those approaches is a re-reading of those traditions in the company of those whose voices have tended to be ignored or downplayed where those traditions are produced and passed on.

Latin-American liberationist approaches, feminist approaches, disability theology, Black theology, queer theology, and many others, are examples of such re-reading. Not one of these labels names a monolithic reality. Anyone who has been paying attention, for instance, knows that ‘feminist theology’ is not the name of a single position or approach, or of a unified bloc.

Just the same is true of ‘Black Theology’. It is a name for a wide, varied, and complex movement, with many different voices. Some of those voices are more doctrinally conservative, some more radical; some are committed to approaches to scripture that sit well within the evangelical fold, others are not. Anyone who presents it as a monolithic reality is probably trying to sell you something. (And anyone who presents it as a monolithic reality that can somehow be described as ‘Marxist’ is probably trying to sell you fear.)

What unites the many different strands of Black Theology is not any single conclusion or proposal, nor the employment of any single intellectual method or tool. It is simply the commitment to re-read the Bible, and re-read our theological traditions, in community with those who have suffered from racism, and in the belief that such re-reading can be transformative. And in a context marred by pervasive racism, the duty of theological educators to engage with this work is obvious.

Having said all that, I must admit that I am not convinced by the form of the action set out here. One way of ensuring that ordinands are led into deep engagement with a wide range of UKME/GMH voices is certainly to insist upon them taking a distinct module with that focus. But there is a risk that such an approach creates a segregated space within the curriculum where Black Theological and Global Majority voices can be contained. This could end up being yet another form of inclusion that in practice serves to mute the voices that are included.

There is also a danger that some of the real energy that there might be behind bringing more Black Theological and Global Majority voices in to shape the curriculum will get dissipated in the very tedious game of module juggling. TEIs already have a frustrating time trying to work out what arrangement of modules will allow them to teach all their cohorts in ways that will address all the Common Awards requirements and all the Church of England’s Formation Framework requirements. (If you want to know a bit more about what I am talking about here, you can see my recent Twitter thread.) It’s sometimes like trying to play Tetris with starfish.

I’d far rather see some clear learning outcomes identified by Ministry Council and the National Ministry Team, and TEIs asked to think creatively about exactly how they are going to enable ordinands and other students to meet those learning outcomes. TEI plans, and their implementation of those plans, could be monitored by the Quality and Formation panel, or by the National Ministry Team and the Common Awards Team, or in some other way. Compared to the Taskforce’s proposal, an approach like this is likely to be more workable, to be less frustrating for some TEIs, and to create more potential for the transformation of the whole curriculum.

Placements

TEIs … to promote intercultural (including international) placements

Education Action 3

The report raises one important question about placements: How well does the variety of placements on offer reflect the diversity of Christ’s Body? There are other questions for us to ask, however. Has the arrangement of placements become an arena for subtle (or not so subtle) forms of segregation? How well placed are TEIs to support and protect UKME/GMH students who experience racism on placements? How ready are they to recognise such racism and respond to it, even when it comes in subtle forms?

Anti-racism training

Facilitate national standards of training for TEIs staff on mandatory anti-racism learning programme, equivalent to the national standards set for Safeguarding Training

Education Action 4

Develop guidance on good practice and a template for use by TEIs setting out the NMTs outcomes and expectations of anti-racism practice

Training and Mentoring Action 6

Develop and implement a system for TEIs to make an annual return to the NMT of all anti-racism learning programmes provided for staff and students.

Training and Mentoring Action 7

I don’t have much to say about all of these actions, other than ‘Yes’. In particular, it is vital that we all (TEI staff, students, staff on the National Ministry Team and Common Awards team, and others) learn to recognise the subtler forms that racism can take – the microaggressions and quieter forms of othering (and if you hear those terms as meaningless buzzwords, you might like to undertake some training that can help you see how they name pervasive and important elements of some of your brothers’ and sisters’ experience). We need to learn to read more attentively the body language at play in TEIs and in the church contexts they serve. We need to learn how better to respond when problems arise.

The resources already available for this learning are already immense. As the Taskforce’s report notes, huge amounts of work has been going on in this area, for decades. There is no need to invent new wheels here, or to discover whole new approaches. What is needed is implementation.

Staff diversity

All TEIs to carry out a demographic audit of tutors, lecturers and governing board members and to produce a workable plan for increasing racial diversity and inclusion of UKME/GMH members. To be submitted to National Ministry Team, alongside their annual returns

Education Action 8

Again, I don’t have much to say about this action, beyond welcoming it warmly. There are many reasons for pursuing this action, including some already noted above. One important reason, however, comes from the phenomenon of recognition.

We know that it can make a big difference to many students from any minority background if, amongst those who teach them and who help shape their learning, they can say that ‘there is someone like me’ (and can see that that person’s work is valued, and not sidelined). It can help the student to imagine that someone like them belongs in this space, and can do well in it. It can help them to imagine that they, too, might progress – even that they, too, could become a theological educator. It therefore makes a difference to how well theological education can draw in, and draw on, students from minority backgrounds. And that means it can make a big difference to how well theological education can educate.

It’s obviously something we need to work on.

Complaints handling

There’s one last topic I want to touch on before finishing. In the list of workstreams for the proposed Racial Justice Commission, the Taskforce mention ‘Complaints handling’. They want the Commission ‘to make sure that incidents of overt racism within the Church are handled fairly, and in a way that enables reconciliation.’ The Commission, that say ‘will want to build confidence in both formal and informal processes’.

There is no mention of TEIs at this point, but I hope that TEIs will be part of this picture. It is vital to ensure that students at TEIs can complain, in the confidence that their complaints won’t be held against them in the reports that are written about them to their bishops, and in confidence that their complaining won’t lead to their being identified as troublemakers.

That will require more than good will and careful assurances from TEI staff. It needs some carefully built structures, some very careful scrutiny of institutional cultures, and some honest communication.

Conclusion

I welcome From Lament to Action, and I welcome the actions it sets before us. Whatever questions I have about the practical details, I am eager to work with others on implementing the agenda it sets out. God has made us part of this wonderfully diverse Body, and it is about time we stopped refusing the gift.

3 Thoughts on “Theological Education in ‘From Lament to Action’

  1. Rhona Knight on April 29, 2021 at 9:14 am said:

    Thanks for this thoughtful analysis and consideration of what needs to be done and how we can move from lament to action working together to implement the agenda.

  2. Pingback: Reactions to the CofE anti-racism task force report | Thinking Anglicans

  3. Pingback: How should the Church respond to race? | Psephizo | Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

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