The churches and the future of theological research

Much discussion on Church of England Twitter recently about the theological qualifications of the current bench of bishops in the Church of England, following on from this post by Peter Anthony.

Others (in the comments to that post) have dealt with the specific question of whether the current bench really is less qualified than in previous years, and indeed whether the possession of higher degrees is either a stable or a reliable measure by which to judge. For my part, I have no insight into whether being ‘academic’ is a help or a hindrance in a ministerial career, and the deliberations of those who decide are not open to scrutiny.

Thinking that this might be the wrong question to ask, I responded to the discussion on Twitter, and I reproduce my thread here, slightly amended and expanded.

I’m less concerned about the demand for academically-trained theologians among people who appoint bishops, but more with the supply. The question is: who (that is, which organisations) should support the training of people to do theological research?

Two names are often mentioned as examples of the kind of academic bishop required: Rowan Williams & N. T. Wright. But both were the product of the largely unique Oxbridge world of interlocking chaplaincy and teaching, of endowed chairs and close links with bodies such as Christ Church (in the Oxford case) and of the late 1970s. [The third name that Peter Anthony mentioned, Geoffrey Rowell, emerged from the same milieu a few years earlier.] What about now?

Broadly, there are two kinds of theology. One is that which directly nourishes the life of the churches, that speaks of truth claims about the Christian God: doctrine, liturgy, pastoral practice, biblical exegesis. The other is the broader study of religion: of the way in which religious people think and behave, the business of being religious in a wider society. (This maps to an extent onto the division between Theology & Religious Studies in some academic departments). The two are not perfectly distinct, but the distinction is meaningful. Both are necessary.

We might still expect a secular state in what remains a religious world (if it understands its own needs correctly) to want to support – that is, to fund – research and doctoral training in the study of religion.

However, the question that needs to be faced is: why should the state fund the former kind of work that only Christians would recognise as being of any value? How is it any different to research into the inner workings of any organisation, of a limited and private usefulness, which should be funded by that organisation?

It seems to me that the answer to this particular question is likely to become more and more firmly negative as time goes on. One straw in the wind is the recent British Academy report on the discipline, which showed a calamitous decline in undergraduate numbers in the last decade.

So: if any of the bishops appointed in 2040 or 2050 are to be trained theologians (that is, with a record of original research), who will support their training if the funding councils, or the universities (from their own funds) will not?

It seems likely that the churches will need to do some or all of three things. The first is to begin providing bursaries for full-time graduate study in universities, both fees and maintenance; a significant undertaking, of tens of thousands of pounds for each student.

Alternatively, they could do more to support able scholars – lay and ordained – later in life, with time and money, to study part-time. A good many clergy already take this route, but much depends on the understanding, goodwill and capacity of their churches, and their own ability to meet the cost of tuition fees. We know little about who currently follows this route, but without centralised provision, the current situation must necessarily favour those in more affluent churches.

The third option is to massively increase research support for academic staff in theological colleges. In time, it may also require the appointment of a greater proportion of research-active staff to teaching posts as they become vacant, or even the creation of new posts.

But before all this, the churches (by which I mean all Christian people together, rather than just administrative bodies) need to decide how much value they place on the theological enterprise, and whether they will support it.

Perhaps the churches can get along well enough with the work of those who carve out time in evenings and weekends, or have access to private means. (Surely no theologian since perhaps John Stott could survive on book royalties alone.) Perhaps not. But it is a question that will need to be faced.

To discuss the present bench of bishops is to hear the echoes, as if from deep space, of the educational situation of thirty years ago. The need is to look forward.

[My thanks to Andrew Connell, Stuart Jones and Gareth Atkins for their responses to the original thread, the influence of which they will be able to detect.]

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