by Lorraine Cavanagh
from Signs of the Times No. 29 - Apr 2008
Not long ago, a student whom I had never met asked me to countersign a photograph for his passport application, in order to verify the fact that he was who he said he was.
The kind of unquestioning trust which is given to ministers of religion in these matters is humbling as well as disquieting. It not only suggests that our honesty is above reproach but it also connects us with a longstanding tradition of learning, dating back to the days when the local parson was possibly the only literate person in the community. While today's clergy live in a very different intellectual climate, from time to time we are reminded that there is a vague assumption that we have a degree of insight, even expertise, about life in general. People look to us for an opinion about almost anything, which is not to suggest that clergy are either more intelligent or more knowledgeable than others but that the people we relate to have an expectation of us as people who have spent time in reflection.
It would seem that educators today, and by these I mean people who control the politics of education, appear to consider reflection to be a luxury, something superfluous to what is needed to acquire a 'qualification'. This is having a 'black hole' effect on almost every academic discipline which universities, colleges of higher education and even schools are able to offer. Ideas, lateral thinking and sheer creative imagination are being sucked into a kind of vortex of knowledge about seemingly unrelated areas of specialist interest which may at a later date be further honed down into skills equipping a person to do a job.
The clerical profession is one of the few remaining vocations which is not first and foremost a job - at least not yet. The reason for this is that until now clergy education has been concerned with things which cannot easily be commodified. This is partly due to the fact that it operates in a different sphere. The parameters within which it seeks to deepen and expand our thinking about God relate to tradition, understood as the Christian context within which God speaks to the world. Theological education, as is the case with history in general, aims to develop our ability to make connections with the past in order to better understand the present. It does this on the basis of the understanding that a merciful and just God has been at work, and continues to work, in and through the human condition even though this may at times be hard to believe. The various religious fundamentalisms which we are seeing at present witness to the dangers inherent in an over simplification of how God works in history and who God is for us today, a God whose purpose in working is to bring human beings into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with himself and with each other. Theological education 'educates' us into that relationship. For theologians, and all clergy are called to be theologians, God is the catalyst who re-connects our thinking to the source of knowledge itself and so empowers us to participate in his own ongoing work of making all things new, as we empower those we serve in releasing their own giftedness.
Broadly speaking, this is the prophetic witness required of all who minister in God's name. We are called to reflect on the meaning and purpose of what it is to be a human being in a material and fallen world and to help others to do the same. It brings with it an obligation to think ethically and this is where religious, as well as non-religious, people who do not do enough theology are becoming a dangerous nuisance, to say the least. They are trying to make sense of life in a spiritual vacuum. When religious and 'secular' people make ill considered judgments about truth and morality, both truth and morality become separated from the 'heart knowledge' which imparts the kind of meaning which is capable of shaping a person's life - something we only experience in a loving relationship with God. This creates a hiatus between virtue and love. Secular humanism looks to virtue as the guiding principle for making the world and human existence better, but virtue is highly theoretical and often too far removed from the painful realities of people's lives for it to make the slightest difference to the decisions they take. One cannot fall in love with virtue.
Both of these scenarios point to the need for more theological education in general, but especially in relation to those preparing for public ministry. Theological education necessarily involves knowing a certain amount about the past, especially with regard to scripture, but it is at its best when that knowledge is acquired alongside the ability to reflect deeply, and by implication prayerfully, on the meaning of our religion for the world of today. Those who, like myself, are privileged to work among students try to convey in our ministry to them what our own theological education has taught us, that we only begin to learn when the heart is fully engaged with the learning process. Doing theology teaches us that whatever academic discipline we are engaging with, we learn in order to live in the fullest sense. Theological training also equips us with knowledge about ourselves and of what we have to offer to God for his service and for the service of his people. Morally speaking, we learn through the discipline of academic study to hone our gifts into virtues which will make a difference to the lives of those we serve. This is a very different way of 'specialising' even though it may take us into 'specialist' areas in further research. We also learn to make connections and to ask the right questions without necessarily using words. Attending prayerfully to theology tells us that the word of God is love, that it is best heard in silence, and that we should witness to it by actions rather than with words. It was Saint Francis of Assisi who told his followers to 'Preach the gospel. Use words if you must.'
In understanding the past, whether as the history of the Church or in the theological history of salvation, we discern the various threads which make up the fabric of the human story and of human relations as these reflect the way we relate or fail to relate to God. Theological education teaches us to make our reflection concrete and meaningful in the world of today. It helps us to bring together all the bits and pieces of knowledge which have become disconnected, so as to reveal a bigger picture in which to make sense of human existence and to make moral decisions. This is not a simple process.
When theological education is allowed to become the foundation on which clergy skills are later built it equips them for a truly prophetic ministry, one in which others will recognise the love of God at work and so have the confidence to ask the question which has persisted through the centuries, "O God, why?" It is in asking this question that we make the connections we need to discern the purpose for our lives, and arrive at moral decisions which are right because they are compassionate.
Lorraine Cavanagh is an Anglican priest in the Church in Wales and education officer for the Awareness Foundation.