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Dear reader

February 22, 2021

This blog, after about 9 years of monthly posts is moving to a more relaxed rather than formal regular posting pattern.

It has been a great privilege to post so regularly for so long and hopefully help theological educators think about and enjoy their calling. In addition to the 290 or so regular subscribers, after the blog was established, it has been read by those in over a hundred different countries in the world each year. I am humbled by this and thank you all for your interest and encouragement so far.

I will continue to post at times and will keep all the previous posts available since many have found them useful to send to others or as discussion starters for their students.

God Bless,



Rationabile obsequium

January 2, 2021

 Rationabile obsequium

This phrase is the Latin Vulgate translation of the Greekλογικὴν λατρείαν” of Romans 12 verse 1 which is so hard to translate that our English versions have anything from “reasonable service” to “spiritual worship”. It is one of Paul’s ways of expressing how we offer ourselves to God, how we become living sacrifices.

However, down through the ages, it has developed a more specialist intent so, for instance, Bishop Henry Edward writing on Anselm, says that it best describes Anselm’s attitude to the relationship of faith to intellectual work, a “rendering to God the reasonable service of the intellect”.

I find that a lovely description of what we are trying to do as theological educators.

Academic work is quite rightly following a set of rules of good thinking, of right use of sources, of critical judgment checkable by our peers, of the search for what is true, sometimes understanding what people believed to be true, of creating a sustainable argument. Doing this, we produce material for articles, books, lectures and seminars, help students to understand processes and grow in intellectual skills.

And sometimes we forget why we are doing it. We forget that what we are about is rendering to God the service of the intellect.

As theological educators, we are a very mixed bunch, often we don’t have much to lay at the feet of our Lord. It is doubtful if we have much finance which could advance his cause, some of us do not have many other skills – with people, in leadership, by administration through preaching (although if we do have some of these skills, they also are for offering). We are reminded of the line from the carol “What can I give Him, poor as I am?”

But we can think. We can love the lord with our mind, we can render to God the reasonable service of the intellect. To do our job for Him, to do our job as a contribution to his intentions in this world, to do our job as a service to his Church.

But I think we can go one step deeper into the phrase and fairly translate λατρείαν or obsequium as worship. So, the use of our intellectual abilities to deliberately serve God is offering to Him an act of worship. Every time we do so.

Now that is a beautiful thought to put into perspective all the hard work we anticipate in the new year.

The new internationalism

December 1, 2020

The new internationalism  (of theological education)

Theological education has often possessed an international element in its practice.

Foreign missionaries, after founding churches, tended to found colleges to serve those churches. Students from other countries have studied in colleges and seminaries – usually in the west with the help of scholarships. Some teachers from richer regions have given one or two weeks of their year to travel and teach intensives elsewhere. International organisations, funded by churches in well to do nations, have reached out, visited and helped theological education in needier areas.

Two important things need to be said about these traditional expressions of internationalism in theological education. They did tend (sometimes necessarily) to perpetuate the old mission pattern of “from the West to the rest”. And they are now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, mostly not possible.

However, there is a growing, powerful new internationalism in theological education, delivered by technology, through Virtual Learning Environments, Zoom, Teams, or some other platform.

Students now gather from all over the world in cohorts, sometimes from every continent, to be taught by a teacher sitting at a desk in another place. Or a class of students in one place is taught by a team of teachers scattered across the world, (one recently occurred with a class in one continent taught for a module by scholars from three other continents). Seminaries are now, in the Covid-19 emergency, being accredited by teams electronically gathered from different countries “visiting” the school, virtually.

Theological education has benefited by this great gift of technologies coming just at the time when the pandemic demands that they are used. And you can be sure that, once the crisis is over, the new technological interactions will certainly not disappear from theological education but become a significant part of its future.

There is a sadness about all this. Few would argue against the assertion that, in community and formation, in shared enthusiasm for academic work; physical presence is the most effective situation, sharing real time and space, sharing lives together.

However, in these days when nation states across the world are emphasising their separate entities and putting themselves first, we need to demonstrate more than ever that the Kingdom of God is one singular, international entity, far more important than nations which, to God are simply “a drop in a bucket or dust on the scales”. Technology laughs at boarders and countries as much as does Covid-19.

If you want to see the best illustration of the oneness of the kingdom of God and how it transcends international boundaries, look no further that theological education today.

Library nostalgia

October 1, 2020

Library nostalgia

I promised myself I would never use the phrase “when I was a student” but I can resist no longer.

I know that some of my friends consider libraries to be boring but, for me, they have been some of the most exciting and satisfying places I have experienced. When I was a student (yes, you spotted it) evenings in the library with fellow students around me, reading, working, thinking, exploring are happy memories of college life. The atmosphere of peace, discovery, collegiality in the task, encouragement of others engaged in the same calling in the same room, a sense of history picking up the books used by generations of scholars before me, these are things I have continued to experience in many libraries, great and small, throughout a lifetime of study.

But now, our virtual libraries encourage instead the individualisation of scholarship. We sit alone in a room in front of a laptop, accessing e-books, journal search engines and useful websites. There are great advantages in this situation of electronic access, of course. Location is no longer necessary for study, books and periodicals are in front of you at the touch of a button, search engines save you walking the shelves. But we have also lost much.

Libraries should provide a sense of a community of learning in two main ways. Firstly, while we study, whether we are alone or in a library together, we are in community with the people of God who have written in the subject whether they are contemporaries the other side of the world or are scholars who have thought and lived hundreds of years ago. And this is precious. Secondly, however they provide an atmosphere of real-time joint endeavour for the Kingdom by the physical presence of other students. You can have this encouraging presence within library silence – and there is always the coffee break for more interaction.

At the moment, we are emphasising the first while quietly dissolving the second.

Make no mistake, this is a big change in academic work, not sufficiently recognised except by lonely students. I have been in the Merton College old library where the books are still chained to the shelves and I don’t think we want to go back to that; technology has set books free. But the freedom of the books has led all too often to the solitary confinement of the scholar.

So, what am I asking for? No changes can easily be made in the present difficult situation. However, I am asking for a remembrance of things lost. And a determination to do all we can to provide in future a community of learning which includes, wherever possible, the atmosphere and encouragement of physical presence as we seek to fulfil our calling as students and teachers in libraries.

Coronavirus and change

September 1, 2020

Coronavirus and change

Colleges, seminaries and university departments of theology are re-opening for a new academic year in many parts of the world. They, and others which are already open for business, face a new situation – significant change in the way things are done because of the coronavirus pandemic. Theological educators need to cope with that change, doing the same is not an option in most situations, and we need to cope not just with the new arrangements but with ourselves. Here are two central attitudes which will help us through successfully.

I will be flexible. There really is no option so we should make the best of it. Theological education institutions are not islands, immovable while the sea of society rages around them, they are little boats tossed on that sea, blown by the prevailing wind and sometimes need to run with the tide to get where they want to go. “Yesterday, today, forever, Jesus is the same” but just a cursory glance at history will tell you that theological education is no stranger to change. In fact, history shows that teachers become in-effective and colleges die if they do not change.

I will work from the core of my calling. Delivery systems change, what we are delivering needs to be preserved.

  1. I am a Christian with my faith and commitment belonging to Christ. I will serve Him as best I can in any circumstances including the present changing patterns.
  2. I am a teacher of the church, given to the church to uphold the faith, to help guide it through change, to challenge it to think hard and deep and to comfort and pastor His people, especially in the difficulties of the present times.
  3. I am part of this latest generation of theological educators, who stand in a tradition of two thousand years or more, expressing what is essential and wonderful about theological education.
  4. I understand that effective theological education is seeking the formation of students (and ourselves) academically, spiritually and personally, and for Christian service; and that this is best achieved in relationship and within a learning community.

My attitude will be to seek to be as flexible as necessary in the new situation while working hard and thinking hard as to how to continue to express my calling as fully as possible in these new and difficult circumstances.

Success in this task is is the big matter for prayer today in theological, education.

Thinking prayer

July 1, 2020

Thinking prayer

I know so little about prayer but we can fairly say that, at its heart, it is simple, although its practice is wide and deep. It is attention to God, to be deliberately and consciously in the presence of God, whatever we do or say in that “place”. This post is about just one type of prayer that is of especial relevance to teachers – that of thinking prayer.

What do I mean by “thinking prayer”? I mean a state in which thinking carefully and well is done deliberately in the presence of God, sometimes mixed with words of prayer, as a disposition towards God, a consciousness of his presence, a desire to do this thinking for Him and a reliance on His wisdom. It is a natural state for the Christian in his or her study, office or classroom, with students or in front of a computer doing ministry work.

It is a useful disposition while planning the day’s or the week’s work, where the diary (OK I still use a Filofax) open in the private prayer time of the morning seems to make a mockery of the distinction between planning and praying. Few of us have not been in this disposition when writing a difficult letter or planning a difficult conversation to come via phone or in person. And it would be strange if we did not enter this disposition when struggling with decisions big or small about our calling or our personal life.

However, it is in the area of theological teaching that it becomes a central concept. Much has been written about how, in theological education, we can and must integrate our academics with our spirituality, our mind with our heart, and how we need to teach and model that integration for our students. The practice of thinking prayer in our calling is a useful help to working this out.

We need to be precise here. The practice of deliberate attention to God in our work must not be seen as simply being conscious of God’s presence while we do this or that. Of course, that is valuable, and we can wash the dishes while enjoying the presence of God. However, for the theological educator, thinking prayer is not just prayer while doing theology, it is prayer by doing theology.  In this case, the presence of God is a deliberate intention not just to enjoy his presence (and no doubt sprinkle the task with petition), but to do the task with God, for God and in a manner appropriate to his presence – as prayer.

It will involve the abandoning the pretence of objectivity and seeing theology as entering the realms of mission and ministry. And, because prayer is always a humble act of reliance on God, so our theology is infused with humility. It will demand the hard and careful use of the mind, as least as much as that of our secular counterparts in scholarship, because we are doing the thinking as a gift to God, but everything is transformed because it is also prayer.

As Paul said in Philippians 3, “Brethren [and sisters], I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of this…. but I press on toward the goal”.

The Helpless Gardener

June 1, 2020

The helpless gardener

It is a time for gardening in many parts of the world, although we are at different stages of the cycle. Some are preparing the ground, some working to keep out the weeds and some harvesting. For those still in lockdown, at least this activity is open to many of us and causes un-prepared strained backs and tired arms.

And the work of theological education?

We certainly have to pull up a few weeds in the preparation of the soil of our student’s brains and hearts. I think of some of the standard “evangelical myths”, of some of the crasser denominational prejudices, of silliness imbibed from some popular devotional books, of wrong attitudes to scripture.

In their place we set about planting key concepts and attitudes which we hope will grow and prosper, claiming the soil for usefulness. Good weather helps and the societal and educational “weather” has been a bit turbulent during the coronavirus.

And the harvest of our work, the summative assessments, do show that some seed fell on stony ground, some on the highways and byways where students trod underfoot elements of our careful teaching and some bore much fruit.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of gardening for theological educators is our relative helplessness. For all the work of the gardener, he or she does not make the plants grow. The soil helps, the weeding helps, the position and light helps. But the weather is not in our control and above all, the nature of the seed itself and the general principle of growth and life infused into this world by God, cause the growth.

It is vital we understand that, in theological education, we do not operate a factory where the raw materials come in at one end and the finished products go out at the other. We operate with the far more complicated and humbler paradigm of the garden.

We do our best with the weeding and the planting and the fertilising but we are not in the end responsible for growth. That is, whatever the “weather”, inside the students themselves and with God.

This leads to two fundamental truths which we need to impress upon ourselves and our students. First, they and only they are the ones who determine to grow and, in the end, determine the growth by their effort and their connection with God the source of life and growth. It will be their own success or their failure at the last if we have done all we can (blessed thought!). Secondly, prayer and reliance on God for the whole theological education enterprise is a fundamental building block for the understanding of our work and the fruitful life of a theological student.

Sunday evening on the last day of the year 1882, in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, C.H. Spurgeon preached one of his best and worst sermons on the text John 20v15 “Supposing him to be the gardener”, the words about Mary when she mistook Jesus after the resurrection. His sermon was completely wrong as to exegesis (he supposed Jesus to be the gardener of our souls) but some found faith in Christ that night and others had their faith strengthened. Such is the grace of God for preachers and teachers alike.

Hopefully this little post, based on my poor analogy will find similar undeserved grace from its readers.

Theological education after Corona virus

April 22, 2020

Theological education after Corona virus

What will the theological education world look like when corona virus is finally conquered? The virus may well be around in some form for years, disrupting life in different ways. However, there will come a time when life returns to mostly normal but probably never quite the same. What will we see in our area of work after Covid 19? There are so many imponderables and future predictions are regularly wrong but we know a number of things will be different in society. We just don’t know how those differences in society will impact on theological education.

Firstly, the virus social distancing requirements have shown how effective it is to keep in touch and teach via the internet. Covid 19 came at just the right time to show this, when such powerful and effective programmes as Skype, Zoom and Team are available and most universities, colleges and seminaries already had up and running a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Already there is speculation that university students, having experienced home teaching will look more for cheaper and more convenient on line courses across subjects and disciplines. Theological education has been gearing up for more extensive on line working than much of the HE sector for some years, often because of financial and contextual pressures already in the system. Can we expect a radical change for colleges and seminaries towards this in order to survive?

Secondly, there will almost certainly be a world-wide recession and this will mean fewer jobs around and less money in the pockets of ordinary citizens. After going through a period of reasonable stability, colleges and seminaries were already suffering financially before corona virus and this will surely increase financial pressure on a number of colleges who are already hardly making ends meet. All rely on donations which will be harder for the ordinary Christian supporter to make, all rely on student numbers which may be difficult to keep up and some rely on endowments which will be worth less.

Thirdly, we can expect a growing divide between the developed world and the developing world. Many see this happening because, in much of the developing world, it is so hard to practice social distancing, very difficult for governments to pour money into their economies and inadequate health systems will find it especially hard to cope. All this when the western world is more pre-occupied with its own problems. This has the potential to increase the world divide in theological education as to where the power is, where the students come from, how it is funded, even as to ability of students in dis-advantaged areas to participate in internet-based schemes.

Fourthly, it is likely that we will face a mood change in society. Precisely what this will be is hard to predict. Will there be a desire for togetherness and caring for each other? A search for older values in face of the shock of our individual and collective vulnerability? A desire to value workers and people in general not by their riches but by their contribution to society and others? Or will there be a release in a greater hedonist, selfish lifestyle? And where will the churches be in this new mood? Will they be respected more or be seen as less relevant? Will they grow or decline? At the moment, most would say that the health workers rather than the Christians are the heroes.

So, what will all this mean for TE? Maybe this is not the most important question given the uncertainties. The best question is probably “What can we do to keep theological education on track and prospering in these new and difficult times?” Here are a few suggestions;

  1. We continue to embrace internet delivery but fight hard against it becoming the exclusive system or the norm in theological education. It is doubtless best in certain circumstances but, if the present isolation has taught us anything, it is that human beings need to literally and physically be together and, I would add, especially when they are learning.
  2. We brace ourselves for money problems in the middle future. Colleges and seminaries in difficulties now will face even more in the next year or two and the sector will probably go through one of its periodic lean times. The hardest thing of all (but the most necessary of all) in such times is to maintain our mission statement and full set of objectives, to serve church and world by developing students intellectually, spiritually/character-wise and in ability to serve God with their lives.
  3. We renew our vision of a theological education without borders, keeping and developing our inter-connectedness between nations and cultures. This may mean finding new ways to make those connections, new ways to serve, especially needy situations, new ways to even up an increasingly un-even world. For all its problems, the West will still be the rich that need to help the poor – especially in theological education.
  4. We see ourselves as serving the church, as always, but also, especially in these unusual times, we must see ourselves as working on the interface between the church and the world. Theological education colleges and seminaries should not view themselves as institutions separated from the world by the intermediary of the church they serve. Our students will have to be people who, in their task of mission by Word and deed, genuinely relate to the coming world mood, not shout old slogans from a distance.

Predictions of the future are usually wrong, but determinations to do what we can in a difficult situation are always right.

Dear blog reader, apologies for the un-usual timing and length of this month’s post – Graham C.

The crowded study

April 1, 2020

The crowded study

These days of difficulty, we may well be spending more time alone in the study, at least when Skype, Zoom, Hangouts or Team are not working and the children are not needing our attention. For all of us, studying and preparing alone in the study is a blessing whenever we can get it and some of us are blessed with more than usual nowadays because of social distancing.

So, we go in, close the door and are alone? Not really, our study is a crowded place;

The first thing we probably do is bow our head and seek God’s presence, so that is one more person deliberately in the room, and the most important. He is there in person and in his Word on the desk. If we say we teach about God in the presence of God then we also prepare to teach and write about God in His presence; an encouraging and challenging presence.

Then we cast our eyes over the full bookshelves and acknowledge the presence of our academic friends, the scholars we have lived with and worked with for many years, some of whom died hundreds of years ago but we like to take down their works and enjoy a conversation with them now and then. As is normal, friends are also a distraction and sometimes we pick up a book and start a conversation that takes us away from the task in hand!

Our students are also there, or they should be. Preparing teaching is preparing to teach them so we are very conscious of their presence, hopefully, how we can meet their needs, how we can bless them and lead them on academically, spiritually and in their ministries by what we prepare and teach. I have heard of some who even stick a picture of an actual typical person for whom they are writing on the top of their computer screen to keep focus on the receivers not only the content.

And, of course, the elephant in the room is our self – or our many selves. There is the studious self, the self who gets bored easily and needs a coffee and chocolate biscuit regularly, the self who loves the big picture and the self who needs to get the detail right. The fun self is there, which reminds me of C.H. Spurgeon who, when he was criticised for putting too much humour in his sermons, said “my dear you would not criticise me if you knew how much I keep out.” And those selfs (and others) can, indeed should, not be entirely “kept out” in the preparation, writing and teaching.

That’s a lot of people in a small study. And even when we go out for a walk to get away, they tend to come running after us and asking if they can come too.

Study-life for many of us consists of three main skills; dealing with administration efficiently; fashioning good and useful material while listening to the many voices; and tuning the ear to hear the still small voice.

It is not done alone.

Journaling for theological educators

March 1, 2020

Journaling for theological educators

I have kept a journal, on and off but mostly on, for many years. Why? Here are a few good reasons;

It becomes a reflection on our calling as a theological educator and how it is being fulfilled. There is nothing more important for us than to see our work as a calling to a particular ministry, a developing understanding of this and a noting its fulfilment in our life.

It can be an affirmation of important parts of our life that are nothing to do with theological education. Hopefully our journal will be full of those pleasures (and sometimes struggles) in our life which have nothing to do with our calling, a rejoicing in family, a recording of beauty and awe, a thoughtful walk.

It will facilitate the creation of happy memories to turn back to such as reading back over the last year and enjoying the happy times again. A short while ago, I even re-read what I wrote 49 years ago, the evening a young lady who was to be my wife indicated her beginning love for me. The ink was still luminous with joy.

It can become a way of talking things over with God, especially for those who sometimes find it easier to write than speak. We all pray in our own way and some often do it in written words. A journal is especially useful for a time of reflection, such as at the end of a year, looking back and forward in the presence of God.

It creates a record of the ways of God in your life. When I was recently writing a short memoir, I had thirty-six journals to guide me dating back to when I was a young man. It was enlightening about myself, but even more about how God had worked in my life, usually through other people, their decisions and encouragements.

And are they to be kept private? Yes, because if you write for others to see you do not write entirely honestly. At the end of his life, lying in bed, the puritan John Howe told his wife to bring all his journals and burn them in front of him before he died. We can all work out any exceptions to this rule, such as a loving spouse who probably knows more about us than we do ourselves.

If you do not yet do so, then let me encourage you to consider keeping a regular journal – or revive the habit that may have fallen by the wayside. It slows you down and makes you more reflective in a busy life, adds richness to that life and helps you live it well.

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