As part of a project to reimagine theological education in the 21st century, theology professor Benjamin Wayman met with Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University. Over a cup of tea at the Master’s Lodge, Wayman and Williams discussed the nature of theological education, which Williams likened to a strange landscape requiring new patterns and preparations for inhabitation. For Williams, Christian education and formation are like learning to camp in a new land, a new creation.
What do you think are the purpose and nature of theological education?
Well, in the broadest possible sense, theological education is learning more about the world that faith creates, or the world that faith trains you to inhabit. That’s what I really want to come back to again and again when I talk about theology. It’s not about a set of issues or problems, it’s about a landscape you move into—the new creation, if you like. You inhabit this new set of relationships, this new set of perspectives. You see differently, you sense differently, you relate differently.
To do theology is, in some ways, to be taken back to that moment of bewilderment about the newness or the distinctiveness or the strangeness of being in this new Christian framework. So theological education is familiarizing yourself with how people have found their way around that landscape with the perspectives they’ve occupied and then learning to pitch your own tent, as one might say, in that territory.
Justo González argues in The History of Theological Education that theological education is the calling of all Christians—lay and clergy—and he envisions a kind of continuum that begins in the local church, continues in the training of pastors and lay leaders, and moves on to graduate education. He suggests a drip hose metaphor instead of the typical “pipeline.” A drip hose irrigates the garden throughout. What do you make of this idea, and do you like his thinking about theological education as a continuum?
I do, very much. It seems to me that any Christian beginning to reflect on herself or himself within the body of Christ is in that act doing theology: making Christian sense of their lives. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised if people in all parts of the body of Christ show an appetite for doing this and learning about it. And my experience is that there is more of an appetite than many people realize.
What have you found to be the most effective form or method for theological education for pastors? And what about for parishioners?
I might begin by talking about the college where I teach, usually about once a month, and where my wife is the academic dean—St. Mellitus College in London. It’s a new form of ministerial education, which assumes that every student is on a full-time pastoral assignment that will be paid for by them, or by the parish, or by some benefactor. They spend two days a week or thereabouts in seminars and lectures in an academic center. But once every two months, they have a residential weekend, and once every year, they have a residential week.
And what works there, I think, is that these are people who come very directly from the pastoral frontline, and quite often they are fairly new Christians too. The way in which they connect with theological themes is going to be quite edgy, quite challenging sometimes. I find it’s a very fruitful environment. It’s not that they get the theory and then do the practice or that they do the practice and then just reflect on it at a distance, but there’s a to and fro all the time. I think that works quite well, whether in that particular form or in the shape it has in some more conventional seminaries, of people spending a term away on a pastoral placement or something like that.
I see theological education as education not only about the nature of God but the nature of humanity. A good theological education will show you something of the kind of human being that you’re talking about when you’re talking theologically, which isn’t necessarily the kind of human being you’re talking about if you’re just talking sociologically, anthropologically, psychologically. You’re talking about a human being made in the divine image, tragically and catastrophically tangled and distorted by human history. And yet, in their entirety, seen and loved by God. So what you’re learning in pastoral contact with three-dimensional, complicated human beings like that is really relevant to your theology. You are learning what kind of human being God is interested in, which of course is every kind of human being.
So that is, in some respects, a kind of pushback on conventional seminary.
A bit. It’s not radical. The old chestnut that theological education is about giving you a set of perfect answers to questions nobody’s asking—you’ve got to avoid that. That human locatedness, that contextualizing, is important. And that’s not to say that contextual considerations trump every other consideration. It just reminds you that you’re learning about the human as well as about God.
As for lay education, what I’ve seen of it working well is very often the kind of group where people feel they have permission to ask the real questions, where there’s a degree of real trust and mutuality, where people don’t feel obliged to come up with shortcuts but are able to take time.
And, again, you don’t stint on the intellectual questioning there. The priority is to get back again and again to that big picture. I go on obsessively about this sometimes. The big picture of the landscape, the new creation, is where we’re headed and where we’re from. The mistake is to think you can just break it down into manageable bits. A theologically-educated layperson is somebody whose capacity for praise and wonder is filled out, not just the capacity to answer pub questions.
What do you think of the current trends that are finding white supremacy or colonialism in most of the dominant modes of theological discourse?
Yes. It’s very important that theology has a capacity for self-criticism, for honesty. And to be honest about where you're coming from, doing the theological equivalent of checking your privilege is, it seems to me, a deeply gospel-based thing. And that’s entirely right to the extent that it doesn’t become a search for some sort of abstract purity. If we’ve all been affected by the records of colonialism, racism, and white supremacy over the centuries, does that mean that it’s all rubbish? Well, no, because nobody is just defined by that. What becomes interesting is not the question, “What are the elements in a theologian of the past which come from a set of imperialist, or Eurocentric, or phallocentric assumptions?” but rather, “What are the other things that keep the discourse moving so that it doesn’t just settle down with that?”
In light of this, has your own theological approach shifted at all?
I suppose the first big challenge to me was in my 20s. I was coming to terms with early second-wave feminism in the 1970s. Yes, there was all the pressure to make me think again about patriarchal patterns, about patriarchal language, caution about pronouns, worrying about inclusive language. And through that, of course, you begin to see how power systems are at work in theologies. Again, I think the temptation is to say, “Well, we’re looking at a successful scheme, we’re looking at history written by the winners, and therefore the losers must be the people with the right ideas, whether it’s Arius or Pelagius or the Cathars in the Middle Ages.”
It’s not so simple, because everybody is interested in power. There are corruptions and distortions on both sides. Pelagius is, if anything, far more of a misogynist and a patriarchalist than Augustine. And don’t let’s start on St. Jerome! So, the point I’m making is, try to look comprehensively at these people. Try not to let looking at them be completely dictated by the inevitable shadows that are there. Try to see what in their writing makes them a little bit uncomfortable with themselves, and then you’ve got something which is worth sticking with and working with.
How can you tell if a Christian school or university is doing its job well?
A lot of our education, whether at school or college, is still dominated by a problem-solving rather than an understanding model. Problem-solving necessarily carves things up in the terms that we can address and parcel out. Understanding takes a bit longer.
Don’t think the importance of education is what it’s going to do for you tomorrow. To me, the question is, “What’s it doing for you today?” And when you have that perspective in mind, maybe you’re able to sideline some of the anxiety about compliance and those other things that beleaguer educational institutions these days.
When I visited church schools over the years—and I still do visit them and enjoy it very much—what I look for as a sign of the distinctive Christian ethos is not so much how many crucifixes there are on the wall. Though, you know, that’s nice. But: What’s the pace? What’s the rhythm? Is this a busy and fearful environment? “Let’s not be caught doing nothing.” Or is it one where there’s a kind of gentleness and generosity about people being allowed to grow at their own rate in a safe and nourishing environment? I’m not saying you don’t find that in non-church schools. Certainly not. I’ve seen plenty of examples of that too. But if I were looking for the real test of a Christian school doing its job, that’s one of the things I’d look for.
As you reflect on your life’s work, what brings you the most joy?
I suppose the privilege of doing what I’m doing next Sunday: celebrating the Eucharist and preaching to a little congregation. That is to me the most simply joyful thing that I ever get to do. I’d like to think that, if I’d done nothing else, pastoring would still have been worthwhile.
Benjamin Wayman is the James F. and Leona N. Andrews Chair in Christian Unity and associate professor of theology at Greenville University, as well as lead pastor of St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois.