Learning: enlivening and enlarging?
Sarum College is now almost empty with our third-year students from our Ministry programme having returned back to their homes and families. I have to say a rather wonderful silence has fallen over the building! This has been a busy and demanding weekend for all of us – but I’m glad of some space to think and reflect on what has emerged as we have engaged with formation and learning.
MA students have had some research seminars and are beginning to explore the shape of their dissertation. Ethics, ethical thinking and practice as shaped by Christian doctrine has been the framework within which we have connected with each other and reflected on a very wide range of questions and challenges that living and loving present to us.
We began the weekend with Evensong in Salisbury Cathedral. After a busy week it was good to pause and immerse ourselves into the prayer of the church – I was struck as we sat in the choir of the Cathedral how our own individual lives are properly placed within a tradition and a life that stretches back centuries. Formation in ministry means, in part, to open up ourselves to the Christian tradition and be shaped and reshaped by it. The music, the glory of this particular building, the prayers and attention to scripture remind us of the importance of nurturing humility and openness to the divine.
After 2 1/2 years here this third-year group have a strong sense of friendship and collegiality. There is a great deal of catching up to do over supper before we move into some facilitated theological reflection. I have the privilege of leading this and ask the students to consider the nature of prayer across faith and cultural traditions; how we are present in situations of distress and trauma and to reflect upon how we put our theology to use. The students listen carefully. Together we unpick the elements of this particular experience and ask how we might be channels of God’s loving presence – how, quite simply, we might ensure that we do not get in the way of faithful, authentic and compassionate presence. In this session and in all that follows it’s good to see the energy that flows from asking how we might express and communicate our theology.
We are glad to relax a little as the session ends with a drink in the bar. It gives us all an opportunity to see how preparations continue for ordination this summer. The danger of too much activity, learning and teaching, is that we overlook the personal.
Saturday starts early for some of us with morning prayer in the Cathedral before moving into sessions on study skills, the nature of ethics, and we are joined by Nick Spencer, the director of research at Theos who reminds us quite properly of the context within which the church does its ethical thinking. In particular students are challenged by the thought that much of our theological language is alien and strange to the increasing number of people who have little or no contact with the Church. I am also conscious of the need for Sarum College always to look outwards and to resist the temptation of narrowing the lens through which we look and interpret and learn what it might mean to nourish the human spirit.
I am tasked to explore the nature of war and peace in the Christian tradition and together we look at the decision by the UK Parliament in December 2015 to support airstrikes on Syria. In the light of modern warfare how do we view the long and honourable just war tradition shaped as it is by Christian thinking and practice. After coffee we move into an ever increasing voice that demands we have more choice over how and when we die. The assisted suicide debate is a complicated one to grasp the students do so with versatility and reflectiveness. In the afternoon – if that wasn’t enough controversy and contestation – one of my colleagues Barnabas Palfrey looks at same-sex marriage and I listen carefully to the debates and respond theologically. Above all I am keen to make a passionate plea, whatever our position be it revisionist or conservative ( and the many shades of opinion and conviction in between) to think through how our disagreement and conflict shapes the kind of community we are. Above all how do we embody respect and a radical love for all – meaning everybody?
Worship, Bible study, and joining a local congregation here in Salisbury form the substantial part of Sunday morning before lunch and departure. I am guessing as I write we are all glad that the returned back into our places of rest and work give us some much needed space to ask ourselves what we have discovered – and indeed perhaps – to make some connections with where our resistances might be to learning and change.