Thursday, December 07, 2006

Personal Journey 10: Theological Teaching at Bedford

The Chaplain’s post did not necessarily carry any teaching responsibilities, but the Chaplain was a member of the academic staff of the College. This meant that the Chaplain could teach, if invited to do so, without there being any objections from other members of staff or any contractual complications. Early on, I was invited to teach religious studies as part of the four year degree students were taking to become primary school teachers. This teaching load grew until I was soon taking the equivalent of a half a timetable. It was not long before I was responsible for all the academic religious studies teaching for the degree. A mildly ridiculous position, but it was an arrangement that suited the College.

It suited me, too. I felt that, from a Chaplaincy point of view, it was a good way to get to know students. Not having a chapel to act as a base, getting to know students was not easy. Once you ‘get in’ with some students, it then becomes easier to get in with more, and word gets around about whether you are worth bothering with or not! I was clear, in my own mind at least, that my responsibility as the Chaplain was to those who did not have churches to go to. I saw my role there as what is described now as missional. I did not separate my role into academic and pastoral, but saw the two as different parts of the whole.

From a student point of view, they were getting someone who at least had an interest in them personally, as well as in the subject, and who was committed to teaching. From my personal point of view, I was doing what I most wanted to do: teaching theology as part of my ministry. Most of my students were not church-goers, and had very little previous contact with the Church. Many were older students returning to education, often because personal circumstances required it. A significant number, for example, were unmarried mothers looking for ways to support their family and who felt that a career in teaching might be it. It required great commitment for them to do it.

In the situation I inherited, religious studies was a part of the humanities department, which was made up of three subject areas: history, geography, and religious studies. The way the course was structured meant, in practice, that students only had to study two. This normally meant that they ignored religious studies, not seeing it as a subject worth bothering with unless they had to. I am not quite sure why the College had included it. They certainly were not taking it very seriously. I think the probable explanation was that it was leftover from the past and had been included in humanities for convenience until it eventually died off.

The challenge for me was to make it interesting so that the students would want to study it. They weren’t going to waste time on anything that seemed irrelevant. I also had to assume no prior knowledge, not even of what the Bible was. It meant avoiding the church language and the theological shorthand that you get used to using in church circles.

I was helped in that I was given a completely free hand to devise a syllabus on my own. Religious Studies in secular colleges in the UK is often truly awful. I was also aware that these were people who were going to be teaching children. I wanted to give them as good a knowledge of what Christianity was as possible in the hope that they would teach something reasonable in their schools.

Furthermore, I wanted to produce something that the students would enjoy doing. I wanted to devise a programme of study that they would find interesting and which would raise questions that they found important. I don’t believe that there is anything more interesting or more important than theology. What is more, I don’t think you have to be a Christian, or even religious, to see that the questions theology is dealing with are important ones. They are the most important questions of human existence to be precise. It a tragic indictment of us as theological teachers that even members of our churches think theology is, frankly, boring. How can it be?

Anyway, I devised a course that covered amongst other things the life and teaching of Jesus, ethics, the philosophy of religion, and the history of women in the church. This latter was very popular as feminism had a high profile in the College. I did not feel able to teach about other religions, but I included a major project on another religion for which I offered support. The idea was not to preach in classes and seminars, which would have been abusive of my position, but to get them thinking about the Christian faith and to see that Christianity was intellectually worth bothering with.

I was responsible not only for writing the course, but delivering and assessing it as well and that with very few resources. I used the Chaplaincy library, a modest affair, to get books to support the course. It seemed to go well and the students themselves seemed to take to it. This was much to the surprise of fellow members of staff who were used to students wanting nothing to do with religious studies. I have to say, though, most were generous in the support they gave me, and did not resent losing students from their own courses. This sort of generosity towards a colleague is not always the case in academic circles and it rarely is in churches! Courses at the College were all externally evaluated, and I think the external examiners too were a bit surprised at what we had managed to do and the popularity of the subject. As a result of all this, I found myself being invited to become more and more part of the life of the College.

I wanted to serve the wider church too, if I could, and undertook distance tutoring for a theological college as well as teaching evening classes for local Christians and helping with training for local Methodist lay preachers.

It wasn’t always easy, but I thought that I was doing was important in and of itself. I also hoped that the skills and experience I was obtaining were just the sort of skills and experience I could use in the future in a theological college. I think they were. I was writing courses, teaching and assessing them, and working with adults on a degree that was vocational in character to prepare them to be teachers. In addition to this I was exercising a pastoral ministry that had a significant counselling commitment. I thought I was heading in the right direction.

However, as I will explain next, I was in for not a little disappointment.

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