The third seminar of the ‘Understanding and Christian Doctrine’ project took place on the 24th of March 2015, in St. Johns College, Durham. The Revd Dr Richard Sudworth and Dr Ashley Cocksworth, both lecturers at The Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham, gave a joint presentation on the teaching of Christian doctrine in their institution.
Their teaching context is one in which they must meet the needs of a very diverse student body. They teach students from range of Christian traditions, from Pentecostals to Methodists, with widely differing educational backgrounds and widely different expectations, studying for different purposes, in a range of modes from traditional residential courses to online courses and fast-track intensive courses.
Dr Cocksworth began by identifying one of the central difficulties in teaching doctrine. Many students approach this aspect of their programme with trepidation, because they believe that it is theoretical as opposed to practical, that it is a technical discourse pursued by specialists rather than something that they can own and use, and that the learning experience will therefore largely be a matter of acquiring difficult information from the doctrine teachers, and storing it in their minds as best they can. Such students do not see their doctrine classes as a part of the programme that will be richly formative for them and their ministry, even when they acknowledge that it may have some practical implications and lend itself to some practical uses from time to time. Christian doctrine has to do, one might say, with information rather than understanding.
In light of the challenges laid out by Dr Cocksworth, Dr Sudworth spoke about some of the ways in which they have gone about teaching doctrine at Queens, and in particular the techniques he has used over the course of a particular five weekend module on theological reflection. His first step, taken on the first weekend, was an attempt to challenge the students’ presuppositions as to what doctrine is, and so about what kind of learning might be appropriate to it. Paradoxically, although it was an attempt to disrupt their existing presuppositions, it was undertaken in order to invite the students to recognise the proximity of this form of study to their existing concerns and involvements.
In many ways, the vision that Dr Sudworth set out was congruent with that explored by Susannah Ticciati and Sarah Coakley in our first two seminars: Christian doctrines are closely tied to practices of worship and prayer, and with political, ethical, and ecclesial relationships. Doctrines don’t simply provide a set of theoretical answers, they provide a set of tools for articulating the shape of Christian practice and a curriculum of questions for interrogating it. There is much more continuity than many students might have expected between these processes of articulation and questioning and student’s existing ways of making sense and developing their understanding in the context of their discipleship and ministry.
In his presentation, Dr Sudworth used the example of a term like ‘metaphysics’ to illustrate how the students would often begin by assuming they were miles removed from anything of the sort, only to realize after a brief introduction to the idea that they were already involved in making metaphysical assumptions and maneuvers in their pastoral practice or prayer life, and that those living assumptions could and should be articulated and explored.
Much of the remainder of the course was designed to introduce students to different forms of exploration and questioning, not as artificial processes required only for academic purposes, but as processes that arise organically in the course of discipleship and ministry. In the second weekend of the course, for instance, they explored the pastoral cycle – an exercise designed to help practitioners reflect on their practice. Other weekends focused on exploring the challenges that arise when a Christian encounters those of other Christian traditions and persuasions (including many of the other students on the course!), or the challenges that arise in encounter with those from other religions, and how those challenges can drive all involved to explore and articulate the nature of their own faith more deeply.
The picture that emerges here is of students who have been, who are, and who will be engaged in the process of making sense of their faith, and of the world in the light of their faith. The practical challenges of ministry, and (above all) the challenges involved in their encounters with widely differing people, demand that such a process continues, but the task of teaching doctrine is part of the endeavor to help students ensure that the process continues well.
Dr Cocksworth finished the presentation by laying out his method for, as he phrased it, ‘winning students over to the dark arts of Christian doctrine’. For him, the most important thing for students to grasp is the idea that thinking doctrinally can be a kind of prayer. This follows the suggestions of thinkers like Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley who write of prayer and theology respectively as ‘dispossession’ of self and a ‘contemplative waiting on the divine’. Thinking doctrinally does not provide a blueprint for Christian thought practice, but a framework for paying attention to the Subject of that thought and practice, and so opening oneself to disruption and renewal.
Our earlier seminars had introduced us to a doctrinally informed account of understanding – not as a fixed possession, but as an ongoing process of purification and exploration. They had introduced the idea that appropriate attention to doctrinal statements might help guide these processes of purification and exploration and that this might be central to the nature of doctrine. In that context, Dr Cocksworth and Dr Sudworth helped us to begin exploring the pedagogical implications of this vision – and to identify some of the challenges that face this pedagogy. It involves both teaching students about the nature of doctrine (which may involve challenging existing visions of how doctrine works), and helping them learn to use doctrine as a resource in the wider processes of learning in which they are involved.
Summary by Mike Higton and Michael Raubach