Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Theology first.

Good morning God,
Today promises to be a good day. A day filled with deliberation and celebration over how the Church communicates and shares its theology. Such days are rare!

I know that our Ministerial students are still required to study theology - it's there on the curriculum somewhere, along with Church History, Liturgy, Hermeneutics, Evangelism, Missiology, World Church, Old Testament, New Testament, Greek, Hebrew, Science and Religion, Philosophy of Religion, Sociology of Religion, Inter-faith studies. Pastoral Theology, Ethics,Pedagogy, Adrogogy, Christian Anthropology, Black Theology, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Queer Theology, and of course Methodist Theology..

Sorry God, lost myself in a wish list there...

The sad truth is of course that some sections of the British Methodist Church have long since lost Wesley's love of theology and have managed (with Conference's consent) to reduce most of the Church's theological output to a compulsory second section in some Conference reports (and now for the theology...) oh yes.. and to a dreaded subject at seminary. (If the looks of some of our students when they come to their first theology lesson is anything to go by, theology is about as popular in our Church as a pickled onion is in an apple pie.)

I suspect that the root of the problem lies in our having lost the 'groundwork' of theology - the pew theology that fed and nurtured the love of theology, of searching the Scriptures and studying God's world in some of our members and local preachers. From Wesley's time on, the Methodist people were fed theologically by the works of popular theologians and - in particular - by the published books and reports of the Church. Wesley even rewrote and abridged a few works in order to make them more accessible. The Agenda's of earlier conferences up to the 1990's are an amazing collection of theological works. Embedded in the reports from each division of the Church is clear evidence of the Church as church, wrestling with scripture and faith, not just its necessary order.
It would be hard to say the same today. Although there are some good reports being produced, on the whole, the paucity of religious language in any of our Church's official paperwork is now well past scary.

Current council papers, for example, are now prefaced with neat little tick boxes and columns which summarize the report's expected impact on :-
  • Standing Orders
  • Faith and Order 
  • Financial 
  • Personnel 
  • Legal
  • Wider Connexional
  • External (e.g.ecumenical)
  • Risk

It's all very business like and official - and I guess it's important for us to be able to see at a glance what the impact of any piece of the Church's work will be on these areas.

And it's good to see that we have our priorities right - there's faith and order - way up there - next to rules and regulations!  But this faith and order tick box isn't quite the same as asking whether or not something is theologically sound or in keeping with our faith and order. It can't be - otherwise surely there would be some input from faith and order required on - say the report  MC1089 Selection Criteria for Candidates for presbyteral and diaconal ministry After all, I can't imagine Wesley thinking that selection criteria for ministers would have no impact on the faith and order of the Church!

Bottom line - it ALL impacts on our faith and order!

This is an old drum of mine - but it still beats to the same tune.

As a Church we should start with the theology - not with the business. Good business practice does not always mean good theology or good ministry. Church reports and papers are a part of our public proclamation as well as our internal business. I really believe we are drowning out our proclamation of God's grace with official, business management language instead of God language. We have good news to share which is lost amidst the jargon of impact and risk assessment!


Luckily - for people like me - theology is actually compulsory for a Church - no matter how business like and professional it wants to be (or thinks it has to be!). It can't be tidied up or pigeon holed or reduced to a column or section because You delight in turning us upside down and inside out - you want to know we are talking with to and about you, not just ordering your affairs!

The simple fact is that it's just not possible to be either a good and effective minister, or even a good Christian Disciple without doing theology. The hard part is discovering how we as a Church, learn how to do it so that it is profitable for the whole people of God.. not just so that we get another report adopted by Conference. Wesley insisted that Searching the Scriptures is a means of Grace, as is Christian Conferring (which doesn't just mean conferring with Christians but conferring as Christians).
Conferring and searching can be done in community - in a seminary or college or church or house group, or in private - with a book, or as part of a distance learning course. (See in particular the European Methodist eAcademy's brilliant courses on Methodist Theology)

And that's where the joy of today comes in for me.
Today I will be exploring with others in the Connexional team and in Circuit ministry how the Church can help to make the means of grace available, through the books that we publish. And then - I will travel to Durham to celebrate the Church's continuing investment in theological education as I attend the welcome service for the new Director of the Wesley Study Centre in Durham.
A good day to beat a drum for theology first..


  1. Great stuff Angela. Beat that drum!

  2. I'm in total agreement.

    A bit of a lateral thought after looking at the eAcademy course offering. I got teased repeatedly when I started my Chaplaincy for saying that I was a "British Methodist minister".

    And then one day, my supervisor asked me why I kept saying that and what it meant to me to be a "British Methodist" instead of a plain old "Methodist". I said that we're not a conference that is part of the United Methodist Church and that we are "separate but in communion". To which those who understood Methodism said "Oh, you're a conference separate from the European Conference but you still go to General Conference, right?" To which I replied "No, we're not a separate conference, we're our own conference". It took people awhile to get their heads around that. And I have yet to meet a person here who doesn't think that British Methodism is a "a conference" in United Methodism.

  3. As Secretary to the Faith and Order Committee, much to agree with here. I am just a tad afraid that the tide has receded too far. I know that tides come back in but Andrew Davison's critique of contemporary CofE Church Reports in "For the Parish" could well mirror our own penchant for middle management style governance.

    At a recent joint meeting, I challenged a few people about the lack of faith and order input into the whole process and indeed its marginalisation in the life of the church. My point was heavily challenged. Throughout the church, I was told, the faith and order agenda is always being championed...but we need to get on with things.

    Keep beating the drum, Angela, because I'm sure some less sturdy souls feel they are beating their head against a brick wall.


  4. I agree with the importance of education in theology for all those interested in talking of God - ordained and non-ordained alike. But, the idea of:

    "the Church's continuing investment in theological education"

    seems to me to be a little pie-in-the-sky. As someone denied a third year of training by the Methodist Church (when most are screaming to get out as soon as possible) I cannot see that the church is investing wisely. Having been given the opportunity to study for a Cambridge Tripos degree, the church are now not granting my request of a third year to consolidate the academic training with vocational traing. If it continutes, this academic track will not be available to young ministers in the Methodist Church and as such, the Methodist Church will be denying its ministers the chance to learn in the Divinity Faculty of one of the top universities in the world.

    What kind of teaching and encouragement can the person in the pew start to expect in terms of theology when these great and important opportunities are not being granted?

  5. Hi Pam,
    It's even more frustrating to note how few British Methodists know anything at all about the world Parish that they are a part of!

    Pete - It can't be too late - it can't afford to be too late - we have to resist the relentless drive for managed business and insist on asking of every report and paper - where is GOD in this? What does this say about our FAITH as a people of God?, how does this enable us to speak of JESUS to all concerned? Why is this METHODIST?

    I feel deeply for your anger and frustration - the chance of a Cambridge degree is not something to be given up lightly. It is perhaps worth remembering however that ministerial training is about formation rather than academic qualifications. The Church must be content that you have achieved a level of theological knowledge commensurate with a probationer in the British Methodist Church (for my opinion on this please see earlier post
    It is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that every other Methodist Church world wide would have required you to have studied theology to Masters level AT YOUR OWN EXPENSE before even considering you as a candidate - I suspect we may well go that way ourselves.After all every other profession, solicitors, barristers,etc all have to obtain their qualifications FIRST before they begin their professional formation..

    Don't lose heart - your two years are of course transferable as CAT points - no, it won't get you a Cambridge degree, but it is possible to do the final year of the degree with another university either by distance learning or one evening a week for the next two years... so there is still a chance of obtaining a degree in theology before you are ordained.

  6. To Amy and Angela - Just a shame that those called to lay ministry aren't offered the same support as those called ordained ministry! Two years of fully funded theological education at Cambridge sounds wonderful to me.

  7. Angela - they gave me the two years for a Cambridge Degree. I will graduate and be academically qualified, but they won't give me an extra year for vocational formation!