The Director for Theological Education at the Anglican Communion Office, the Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer, reflects on the importance of Theological Education.
The first letter of Peter will be at the centre of next year’s Lambeth Conference and for the Anglican Communion at large. But at the heart of this epistle, in the third chapter, is the bracing instruction to ‘always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you’. Are we ready to give an account in this way? Are we ready to face someone from outside the church who has suddenly put us on the spot and demanded we explain ourselves in a world where religion is often associated with violence and prejudice? Could we do it clearly and convincingly?
This needs inner conviction about the saving heart of our faith as we have received and owned it; also an understanding and sensitivity to the culture and outlook of the person who has put us on the spot, so that we can connect with them; finally an ability to find the right words, to be articulate in a way which is true to our faith while also making a connection with the person in front of us.
This is where theological education comes into the frame, because this is how someone is equipped with these three things. Through engaging in a journey of learning, with others, being informed well about the tradition and practice of the Christian faith, with opportunities to question, discuss and put into words what they believe, it forms and empowers the mind and the heart. It is a journey for every disciple, whether newly baptised or preparing for ministry or in senior leadership. The word ‘disciple’, after all, literally means ‘learner’.
But unfortunately theological education is being marginalised in many parts of the Anglican Communion. Colleges and seminaries are often not adequately supported by dioceses: bishops sometimes send students but not the fees to pay for them; support for lay education is often minimal; many dioceses prefer to set up their own low-cost courses rather than work with others in a strategic and properly resourced way. So colleges and seminaries struggle and sometimes have to close. Synods and church meetings rarely give attention to theological education.
A church serious about witnessing to the world will learn from Luke’s account of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus. At a moment of confusion and perplexity, a decisive turning-point, it is striking that Jesus engaged them in a process of learning. We see this in how he opened the encounter with questions and dialogue; then he taught them in a thorough way from the scriptures; then he let them take matters into their own hands, which they did by rushing back to Jerusalem.
It is well known that the best kind of theological education is not about learning by rote but is about giving students the tools, the confidence and the freedom to give their own account of the hope that is in them. It requires investment of time and resources: it is all about forming people in their hearts and souls as well as their minds. It cannot be done on the cheap or in haste. If the Anglican Communion is serious about being ‘God’s church for God’s world’ (the theme of the Lambeth Conference) it must put theological education at the centre of its attention and invest heavily in its extension at every level.