Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Tradition, teaching, cooking and serving for a nourishing Church

I reject the idea that the 'tradition' of the Christian Church is just a load of stuff from the past, which we receive unchanged from those who have gone before us, and pass along unchanged to those who will come after us. That, to me, is like saying that a recipe handed down through a family's generations must always be made with the same ingredients as used by the originators of the dish--and if even a pinch still remains from the larder of the multiply-great-grandmother who invented the dish, in the same packaging, all to the better. What foolishness! Ingredients go stale, go off the market; learning over the decades and centuries may tell us that something is not beneficial, and we should find an appropriate replacement (or leave it out altogether--does any educated woman still use 'belladonna' to make her eyes sparkle, or lead to give herself a fair, smooth complexion?). As well, methods of preparation change--few of us still make our morning toast by holding bread in a pair of tongs over the kitchen fire, and most of us will resort to melting chocolate in a microwave rather than in a double-boiler. Recipes are living things, often representative of a time gone by, and of people whom we love but see no more--but they are adapted and adjusted to new knowledge and circumstances.

How we use what has been left to us by Christians who have gone before us is, in my view very similar to family recipes. Tradition involves change and adaptation, as much as (and perhaps more than) it involves fidelity to the past. I admit here that I am deeply indebted to the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's view of tradition in After Virtue, where he explains that a 'living tradition':

is a historically embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations.(p.222)

In MacIntyre's view, tradition is not about 'stuff' (sayings, authoritative texts, ceremonial), although the 'stuff' is important. It is the constant questioning about whether the stuff is the right stuff for this group of people best to accomplish and embody what they intend. The endeavor of accomplishing and embodying, over time, for MacIntyre, is a practice. He uses the example of a hospital or a university as a practice, which is constantly engaged in a (sometimes quite heated) argument (the tradition) about how best to do the tasks, and be the community, which they are called to do and be. It is, I think, a more than adequate way of describing the Church--or at least, what the Church (on earth) is meant to be.

All Christians are part of the tradition--not merely the 'professional' theologians or the ordained. This, I think, is part of what Congar was trying to express when he spoke of the 'duty and corresponding right' of the lay person to be a fully mature Christian (see previous post). Those involved in the public ministries of the church have a primary responsibility to facilitate growth so that all Christians can take part in that ongoing argument, rather than allowing the 'professionals' to determine the tradition without challenge.

This, I believe, requires better preparation of the teaching office of public ministers. They need to know their 'stuff'--what has been said, done, believed, succeeded, failed, or just frankly botched--but the 'stuff' is only the beginning. Tradition, using MacIntyre's description, is more about method, although it relies on good content. The 'method' part is the real work. It involves selecting the appropriate elements of content, combining them in good order and proportion, questioning and testing to see what will help the faithful (corporately and personally)answer its calling in ways that are life-giving to them and to those among whom they live and move and have their being.

To go back to the cooking analogy, a pile of random ingredients don't constitute a finished dish--certainly not one that is nourishing and satisfying, while still creating the desire to return to it (whether to make it or partake of it) again and again, or to share it with others. The cook, if she or he is any good, chooses the vital ingredients without which the dish will not be what it is meant to be (it is silly to think of risotto without rice), what will add nourishment and flavor, reject what is harmful or detracts from the finished product, prepare the ingredients, combine them in the right order and under the right conditions, and serve the finished dish.

The 'cooking' is an important part of the task of the public minister, but the 'dish' (whether it is a sermon, an educational program, pastoral visit, etc.) is not an end in itself. The 'diners' have to be well-served by what is prepared. It needs to be appropriate to the needs of those who receive it; as Archbishop Temple once famously said, 'it is harmful to give the best beef to a man with dysentery.' Admittedly, this is not easy when there are members of a congregation at so many different stages of life and faith, but, just as one must supply the needs of all at the family table (the infant, the growing adolescent, the food-allergic, the elderly), it cannot be neglected without bad effect on the well-being of all who eat there. All need to be nourished, not so they can stay at the table--but so they can get up from it, and get on with what they need to do, contributing to the table fellowship, to the life of the family, and in the wider world.

Public ministers, in their teaching role especially, need to use the 'stuff' of the church to help strengthen and nourish the laity. They must know the content--scripture, history, theology, pastoral theory, liturgy--but it needs to be served well. Furthermore, they need to pass along good 'methods of faith' to those they serve, teaching them to use the content of the Church's tradition to grow into the adult Christians that Congar says it is our duty and right to be.

'Cooking', however assumes that the dish served will be digested and converted into energy, sometimes an energy that could not have been predicted when the meal is planned. Likewise, what is taught to faithful Christians does not enter the system without transformation. The Church's teaching is not simply content to be memorized and repeated unthinkingly; it does not, when it is done well, produce unthinkingly obedient Christians. An Irish Catholic bishop, during that country's raging debates over abortion, said that 'We don't dictate to people. We have no right to dictate but we have no option but to teach.' Mature Christian faith needs teaching, but what is learned may--no, sometimes must--take directions that the teacher did not anticipate.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Theology: the heart of ministry

Somehow, a lot of people (at least ones I worked with and/or taught) felt that 'theology' is academic, and 'real' training for ministry needs to focus on 'practical' skills. Skip all that theology junk--I even had one student tell me that it was 'arrogant' to think we could learn anything about God by studying theology.

Perhaps he was right. However, I don't think so. Even if we can't learn anything much about God, we can certainly learn to do theology--learn to speak of God. Not only to speak of God, but to speak wisely and well of God. Theology is, literally 'words about God'--theo and logos. But logos isn't any old words, at least not for the Christian, who believes the Logos, Christ himself, is the embodied wisdom and logic of God.

Theologians and pastors have a distinct responsibility to speak wisely and sensibly about God, at least as much as any learned person in any field of endeavor has a duty of care to speak thoughtfully about his or her chosen object of inquiry. If, for example, I go to my physician, complaining of feeling fatigued, forgetful or confused, she should not tell me that the hamster that runs my brain has fallen off its wheel. (Granted, I sometimes say this about myself--but I am not a physician.) She has the responsibility to take a history of my symptoms and recent activities, order any tests which might help in a diagnosis, and to prescribe treatments that have some basis in good medical science which are likely to help my condition. I expect her to have kept current in her knowledge, to confer with others if she does not have ready solutions to my problems, and to respect my needs and preferences concerning my treatment (in other words, to respect me as an intelligent adult capable of informed choices regarding my own care).

Pastors, and the theologians who help prepare them for ministry, have parallel responsibilities. As a theological educator, my work has not been to stuff people's heads full of data, that can be readily accessed to quote unthinkingly in sermons, sprinkled on as an afterthought like scattering croutons on a salad. My work is not about making people into 'academics' rather than practicing pastors, but that does not mean that I ignore my own responsibility to help them grow in diligent and energetic study of all things that strengthen the faith (theirs and those among whom they minister). My work is about helping future ministers speak wisely about God--to actually do theology--so that they can help those among whom they will be serving to do the same.

This means looking at what others have said about God, and deciding whether it is something we actually agree with, or something we wish to challenge as unwise speech. Take, for example, Rufinus' comments on Christ crucified, and how this effects our salvation. A reasonably good translation of the text can be found here:

This has become my favorite text on how not to speak of God, after a student was taken in by the vivid 'hook and bait' imagery. But is this what we really want to say? (By the way, I think that is the key question we should always ask of any piece of theology, ancient or modern, 'academic' or from the pulpit in our own churches.)

Do we really want to say that God owed Satan anything? Do we really want to say that God in Christ needed to resort to a deception (quite literally, a 'bait and switch') to affect our salvation? I don't think we do, if we actually believe that all that is, belongs to God, and that God is the source of all truth. Rufinus certainly speaks of God here--in vivid and memorable terms. But is it wise speech? I certainly wouldn't credit it as such, and I certainly would hope that any minister would think twice about asking his or her congregation to build a life of faith on the idea that God needs to resort to lies and deception on our behalf. I would consider it as irresponsible to do so as I would if my health care professionals spoke of the hamster in my brain, and expected me to take it seriously.

In Laity, Church and World, Yves Congar said that a lay person has the 'duty and corresponding right' to become an adult Christian. The US Catholic Bishops, furthermore, have said that 'adulthood implies knowledge, experience and awareness, freedom and responsibility, and mutuality in relationships', and that lay adults are 'called to exercise the same mature interdependence and practical self-direction which characterize them in other areas of life.' This statement about the lay person's vocation to exercise adult judgment in matters of faith is applicable to Christians of all denominations. And it is, in my view, the responsibility of ordained ministers to help this happen.

Theology is not an 'academic' exercise for the aspiring minister, any more than anatomy and biochemistry are for the aspiring doctor, 'hoops to jump through' before the 'real', practical stuff of ministry (or medicine) can be exercised. Theology, learning to think and speak well and wisely of God, and helping--no, make that requiring--others to do so, in order that they may fulfill their vocation as Christians, is at the very heart of ministry.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Who is ministry training for?

This is not a question about who should train for ministry. It is a question about who training, and training institutions, are meant to serve. I only have a few years of experience teaching in (and at some level, running) institutions that train people for Christian, and particularly, Anglican, ministry, and some experience of being a degree earning student in another institution.

The truth is, I think there is a lot of navel-gazing as to the purpose of ministry training. Most institutions limit their vision to 'training men and women' for ministry. Well, that's fine, as far as it goes. Yes, that's what they are supposed to do, and they deserve to fail miserably if they don't do that. But the students aren't the 'end users', so to speak, of the work of seminaries, part-time training institutions (an important mode of preparation in the Church of England), or on-line degree programs.

Neither are the faculty. I think some seminary faculties mistake themselves for think-tanks, or for university departments of religion. Those are perfectly good things, and certainly the institutions that train ministers should prove themselves as communities of theological enquiry and innovation. Too often, however, they take on an almost 'tribal' outlook, where enquiry is actually limited by a stated (or more often, unstated) theological position which is held unquestioningly. And sometimes, that position (most often, it seems to me, currently having to do with some very boring aspect of human sexuality), occupies a more important role in the insitution's life than the much broader range of Christian theology. If it isn't a single-issue ideology, it is holding to a view of tradition (often denominational, or even sub-denominational) that is seen to be exempt from examination. What I find funny is that often the claim is made that the view of tradition, or the single-issue, claims to be about 'increasing inclusiveness/diversity'. But, if the party line is not held, a scholar or prospective student will be told that s/he is not going to be a good fit with the institution.

I propose that, although students and faculty are important factors in ministry training, the goal is not either to provide a great experience for the student, or a stable living from which faculty can pursue their research agendas.

The focus on ministry training needs to be the people in the congregations who will be served by those preparing for ordination, licensing, or other service to the Church. I heard, too many times when I was Director of Studies for a Church of England part-time ministry training program, how much our students were giving up to prepare for ministry, how we had to make things 'easier' for them to study, that because (mostly) they were training for non-stipendiary ministry we could not expect the same from them as from those preparing to be full time ministers who were paid and housed for their service. Ministry Division of the Church of England required the same things from both NSM and stipended ministers. However, we could not extend the training period to something that would make it possible to study part-time and non-residentially at a more leisurely pace. S0, the exigencies of the situation required producing sub-standard, inadequately trained people for ordination and licensing as Readers.

As a lay person, who spends most of her in-church time in the pews, I find this completely unacceptable. When a person walks into a new church, returns from a long absence, or comes for the first time in their lives, they do not care if the person leading the service is paid or not, part- or full-time. They care if the service is led reverently, the preaching is solid and thoughtful, and any pastoral contact is helpful. If these three basics aren't met, that person (certainly, if it's me) is going to walk out and not return.

The Church does not need more ministers. It needs a sufficiency of excellent ministers. Our training institutions need to produce people who preside, preach, and care well. Anything else they do is icing on the cake. But the cake has to be in place.

Been away a while

Yes, I know. I am an extremely sporadic, unreliable blogger. The truth is, I actually am not all that fond of blogging, and I don't really like most blogs. I read a couple, and most of them are self-aggrandizing nonsense. If you leave a comment on most, it's expected that you will fawn all over the blogger's exalted opinion of him/herself. If you dare to disagree, you are shunned and reprimanded (often with a particularly nasty personal email). Who needs that? And, my original intent was to write my angle on Anglican theology, which I'm not sure I can do any more. Why? The Anglican Communion seems hell-bent on self-destruction. It's not the 'nasty conservatives' who want to drag the church into the dark ages. It's not the 'heretical liberals' who want to eradicate every trace of Christian tradition. It's everyone who doesn't see a possibility for any viewpoint other than their own. And sometimes the 'progressives' are the worst about this--there isn't enough room for those who don't strictly adhere to their particular sort of progressivism. Talk about 'inclusiveness' really only means that each group wants to include those who agree with them. So, if I continue to use this space, it may be for a whole bunch of other stuff than the original intent. It may include some theology. It may just be about knitting, or other stuff I read. But right now, theology is pretty damn depressing, and I may need to use this space to heal from the injuries that working for the church has inflicted.