Some Guidelines for the Future Development of Christian Education
John M Hull
EEF-NET [Education and Ecumenical Formation: World Council of Churches], Vol 12, April 2003, pp.7-9
In considering the future characteristics of Christian education four points will be mentioned. First, the Christian education of children, young people and adults must be theological. Second, it must develop skills of critical thinking. Third, it must seek partnership with other faiths, and fourth, it must recognise the ambiguity of faith.
John Keast and I have agreed like Peter and Paul to divide the mission of Christian Education, the launch of which we celebrate today into two spheres. Just as Peter was to be Home Secretary and to deal with Jewish affairs, and Paul was the be the Foreign Secretary, dealing with Gentile affairs, so I am to speak about the mission of Christian education within the churches while John, who will address you in a few minutes, is to speak about the role of the new organisation in education and religious education in the school system. Thus it is my role, as the former President of the National Christian Education Council, the stream of church education which is incorporated today into the new organisation, to offer some reflections about educational work in the context of faith.
I will suggest four emphases which should be important in our future work. Much of our in-house education has lacked theological depth. The emphasis upon experiential Christian education, which was to be centred upon the actual lives of children, was very significant when it became popular forty years ago. It was a protest against the failure of the older Bible-centred approach to grasp the imaginations of young people, and in this sense it was a timely corrective, creating a much more relevant strategy. However, I fear that with the passage of time and with the rapid development of a post-modern culture in Britain, with its emphasis upon the multiplicity of lifestyles, the life-centred approach has too frequently lacked theological content. Too many of those responsible for the Christian education of children and young people in our churches have lacked theological knowledge and pedagogical skills and have not had the confidence to engage the minds of young people with the specific contents of the faith tradition. This continues to be a common situation in spite of the excellent work which has been done by the Christian education departments of the churches and not least by the professional staff of the former NCEC and their publications.
We need to have richer theological kinds of education in our churches, and this comment is not confined to the work done with children. I have studied the syllabuses of several diocesan training programmes for pastoral workers in the church and find that sometimes there is little, if any, attention given to pastoral theology, and too much attention given to the development of generic skills such as empathy. There are, of course, many exceptions to this and these excellent, more theological models should become more widely prevalent. The broad Christian tradition in which we stand affirms God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and confesses Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word, whose life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection have revealed the purposes of God for the cosmos and for our species on this planet. Our tradition is a broad one, incorporating both conservative and more liberal interpretations of this rule of faith, and embracing contributions as diverse as those coming from the Quakers and from Roman Catholics. There is room for the sacramental, the biblical and for the individual guidance of the Spirit but if the energies of our tradition are to be revitalised and communicated, then we must not forget that as teachers our responsibility is to communicate the teachings of the church.
However, this task cannot be conceived of as a matter of transmission only. Not only would this be implausible as a pedagogical strategy but it would misrepresent the character of the Christian faith as it is understood and lived today. This is partly because any internal homogeneity which the Christian faith may have possessed in past ages has given way to an incredible diversity. The variety of the New Testament documents bears witness to the authenticity of diversity as a mark of Christian faith. It is not a simple matter of reckoning with the ecclesiastical diversity represented by the divisions between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant or the variety of traditions within Protestantism, because for most practising Christians today distinctions of this kind are little more than the scars of former wounds, or (to change the metaphor), the fault lines of old upheavals long forgotten. The diversity to which I refer is not institutional but subjective. There is an enormous and increasing variety of subjectivities within the Christian faith. By subjectivities I mean the way that Christian identity is conceived, the way religious experience is mediated and the way that ecclesial affiliation functions. Thus there is a variety, perhaps a continuum, running right across denominational lines and indeed thinning the borders between the religious traditions themselves. We can no longer have dialogue between Christianity and Islam but only between Christians and Muslims.
We could respond to this differentiation by trying to emphasise a common core of belief but speaking as an educator myself I think it is much more useful to respond pedagogically. In other words, we should help learners in the churches to engage with the tradition not by privileging certain normative aspects but by dealing in a direct and forthright manner with the intellectual and emotional content of the Christian phenomenon. Whatever it is, whatever you feel or believe, or take for granted, or deny or reject, let us make it explicit through direct theological education. Let the unconscious faith become conscious. That does not mean that there are no norms of theological orthodoxy – I referred to the Trinity and the Incarnation in my opening remarks – but in our educational work we can no longer assume the authority of the theological core (as was the case in the period before about 1960), nor can we avoid theology (as was often the case during the experiential period), but we must help learners in the church to think, and present them with something worth thinking about.
To what extent are thinking skills, increasingly popular in professional education, being used in church education? Very little, I suspect, and this is partly because too many of our teachers lack the theological knowledge and the personal confidence, to say nothing about the specific skills in the promotion of thinking, to carry on this task. Meanwhile, the hungry sheep look on and are not fed, or more likely, they decide that it is all pretty boring and they go off to play elsewhere.
The third dimension which we should emphasise has to do with inter-faith dialogue. This is to recognise the plurality of the religious traditions in Britain, just as the second point I made emphasised the diversity within the church itself. At this point our educational programmes encounter what often look like theological obstacles. I say ‘look like’ because in my opinion the theological objections which are thought to inhibit inter-faith education are more apparent than real. They include an emphasis upon the exclusive character of Christian salvation and the unique nature of Jesus Christ. These views are apparently supported by elements within the scriptures, and certain key texts such as John 14:6 are quoted again and again. However, the perception of biblical exclusivity is very largely the product of five hundred years of ideological competition between Christianity and other religions, or the lingering after-shadow of the military relations which preceded and often accompanied the ideological conflict. In other words, we have tended to read the Bible from our point of view, from where we are located in the geography and history of Europe and the economy of the rich world.
The period of competition is now passing away. The crises of the world today are not created by religious differences but by economic differences. Certainly, the latter often conceal themselves behind apparent religious differences but if we wish to be faithful to the spirit of Jesus today, we must not be deceived by the pressure of these vested interests.
To put it bluntly, Christian education must no longer be self-assertive. The function of Christian education is not to promote Christian distinctiveness as such, but to fulfil the historical mission of Christian faith in relation to the destiny of the human species. We shall do this best not through wasting our energies on a pointless competition but through seeking to co-operate with other religions, forming common projects in partnership which will focus upon the actual forces of death in the world today.
The ambiguity of faith
Finally, our Christian education programmes need to reckon with the ambiguity of religion. This has never been perceived more keenly than it is by our contemporaries. Increasingly, thoughtful people are asking whether religion is not part of the problem rather than part of the answer. We cannot carry on in naïve indifference toward this complexity, nor in all honesty should we offer Christian faith as a haven from the storm and a refuge from life’s problems. The Christian calling is not to take refuge but to face difficulties. This is why when Jesus asked Peter if he had any love for him, his next comment was not ‘Go on loving me’, but ‘Follow me’ (John 21:15-19). We acknowledge ambiguity by facing it both in the tradition and in ourselves. Better religious education in the various religious traditions is one of the keys in the war against terror. Congregations more richly aware of the emphasis in their traditions upon ideals of peace, compassion and reconciliation will be less vulnerable to the wrong kind of extremism. There is a kind of extremism implicit in the Christian faith: it is the extremism of the one who forsook the divine status which was his by right and emptied himself, taking on humanity and facing death as a slave (Phil 2:1-8). This model of vulnerability, of power through the renunciation of power is the heart of Christian education.
This, then, is how I hope the new organisation will develop in its policy toward the churches. It will be richly theological but not dogmatic nor authoritarian. It will acknowledge diversity both inside and outside Christian faith and will seek through skilful methods to help Christians both young and old to think clearly and passionately about their commitments. It will contribute toward human reconciliation by strengthening Christians in the peaceful resources of faith. In ways such as these the new organisation will fulfil its mission. We launch it today with hearts full of hope, a hope which springs not from our human resources or our limited insight but a hope which is grounded in faith in the Holy Spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of Life, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.