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New academy facilitates theological studies – south Asian style

Posted on: November 18, 2016 4:32 PM
Students from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Pakistan at the Asian Theological Academy’s Asian-wide Refresher Course for Clergy and Laity
Photo Credit: USPG

[ACNS] Clergy and lay leaders from Anglican churches in south Asia are taking part in a pioneering programme designed to increase culturally sensitive theological training. Modelled on the Ecumenical Institute at the Château de Bossey near Geneva, in Switzerland, the Asian Theological Academy (ATA) was created to help Asian Christians think together about theological issues in a local context. “This is a chance to explore different ways of thinking,” Dr Rienzie Perera, the founder and director of the ATA said. “It is about interaction. Yes, we live in Asia, but there is [currently] no cross-fertilisation between us.”

Much published theology, and many international theological conferences and discussions, are prepared with a western understanding. The ATA, now in its third year, is helping to create fresh theological thinking by south Asian Christians. Dr Perera explained that many Christians throughout Asia – in places like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka – live in a minority alongside Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, an experience that few theologians in the west have experienced.

Now, 18 young church leaders from across south Asia have gathered in Sri Lanka for a three-week Asian-wide Refresher Course for Clergy and Laity – the second such event organised by the ATA. The course is to help men and women to explore new thinking in theology “in a language and idiom that is meaningful for the Asian context,” Dr Perera said.

“We are aware that, for an average presbyter, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the seminary is the end of his or her theological studies or learning process. . . As a result, many presbyters are not equipped to respond to the contextual issues that churches and people are confronted with in their respective regions. This contributes to theological stagnation or infertility, which denies the birth of new theologies that Asian churches can be proud of.”

He said that “after five years of theological college, a student can feel brain dead. This is a chance to explore different ways of thinking. . . It is about tickling the mind.

“God is a God of surprises [and] he is present where we have not realised. So we expose the students to realities. These are often not new (to them) but when they have been seeing the realities for so long, you don’t see them anymore.”

The students learn incarnational theology – studying not only in class rooms but also during visits to fishing communities or slums as they discuss issues such as class, caste, mixed marriage “and other thing that take the shalom away,” Dr Perera said.

“We want people to go back home thinking of God in a new way.”

The ATA “has been designed to provide participants with the tools to analyse their political and cultural situation, then develop theologies and forms of worship and spirituality that are relevant and part of the local context – rather than accepting western-focused theology without question,” the Anglican mission agency USPG, which provides funding for the ATA, said.

“This is the first time I have attended any sort of theological training, and I’m learning so many things,” Razia William, from the Church of Pakistan’s Diocese of Sialkot, told USPG. “It is amazing to hear about the different kinds of problems that people face in different countries. My own focus in life at the moment is on accounting, but the course is helping me to understand this in both a local and global context.”

Another participant in the three week refresher course, Stalin Pallab Sakar, from the Church of Bangladesh, is looking to develop his work with street-connected children and children with disabilities. “I was not getting any answers, so I felt a disappointed,” he told USPG. “These children need many things – shelter, food, education. But during this course I have come to learn about how my peers in other countries are dealing with this issues, and it is so insightful and inspiring.

“Now I am getting answers.”

And the Revd Mark Edwards, from the Church of Ceylon, commented that “the course is challenging the way we think and helping us to look at the Bible and at Jesus in a different way. Indeed, different people in their own situations see Jesus in different ways.

“As servants building God’s kingdom on earth, we should be able to balance these different viewpoints rather looking at Jesus and the scriptures from only one point of view. But the main thing we should not forget is that Jesus always stood with the people and stood for people in need. That is what drew people to Jesus.”

USPG’s director for global relations, Rachel Parry, said that the agency was “thrilled” to be partnering what she described as “such a dynamic and significant movement, sharing in the richness of the cultures and peoples of South Asia.”

She added: “This is a living example of the evolving nature of mission – a demonstration of how local and global understanding of our faith is being redefined in every generation.”