To articulate faith contextually

“The ability to articulate faith contextually within our multifaith, in our multifaith, multicultural society, in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.”

I’m at a national gathering of theological educators who teach at the accredited Uniting Church colleges across the country. We are exploring, together, how we go about educating people within the church for discipleship and leadership, and forming people for ministry in the various ministries that we recognise in the Uniting Church (pastor, lay preacher, deacon, and minister of the word).

These words have been ringing in my ears for much of my time here. It’s one of the things that we say we want to achieve in forming people for ministry. What does it mean, though, “to articulate faith contextually”, in the kind of society that we are living in today?

It is pleasing that (of those who are currently at this gathering), the gender balance is (almost) 50–50. And amongst those not present, my sense (from the apologies given) is that there is almost a similar balance.

It has been a long road for the church. It is vitally important that female role models and female ways of working are offered to students (in theological colleges, but also in regular schools, to be sure), alongside of male role models and patterns. And it is a hopeful sign that, collectively, the church is addressing this need in our educational institutions. We need to hold fast to this commitment to mutual ministry, evidenced in our educational leadership.

That is not to say that we have “made it”. For from it. There are still many ways in which mutuality and equality is not demonstrated within our church (to say nothing of the wider society …), and therefore, many ways by which we need to keep focusing on the need to have balance in gender in our teaching institutions, and decision-making forums, within the church.

But a curly question was posed by one of the participants, noting the all-white, all-Anglo origins of those present: “I have never, in all of my life, been in a class with this cultural representation. How do we work to provide educational experiences that equip the students we have, from a wide range of cultures?”

So, a key challenge was thrown out into the middle of the room. How does a bunch of middle-aged white people provide a range of lively, relevant, effective educational experiences for the people whose origins lie in the regions of Oceania, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere? To say nothing of people from the range of Indigenous nations found right across our continent and in the surrounding islands. Are we really competent to do this? Are we actually developing and delivering these kinds of offerings in our theological colleges?

Another participant articulated the challenges that are critical for theological education within the church, in terms of these three areas:

1. engaging with the blossoming range of multicultural communities which are active within the church;

2. valuing and working constructively with our First Peoples and the Congress within the UCA; and

3. responding helpfully to the various interfaith opportunities and challenges that are being encountered.

The National Standards for Ordination, adopted late 2016, identify a set of attributes to be discerned and developed amongst people who are candidating for ministry within the UCA. These attributes include personal faith, the practice of spiritual disciplines, a reflective understanding of their identity as minister, and “the ability to engage the tasks of Ministry with critical imagination, courage, emotional maturity, theological judgment and self-reflection”.

The Standards also require candidates for ministry to demonstrate “the ability to articulate faith contextually within our multifaith, multicultural society, in covenant relationship with the First Peoples”. These are precisely the three areas of challenge—and opportunity—that our discussion had identified. We are all required to be focussing on these three areas in the educational experiences that we design and deliver.

Underlying all of these matters, for me, is the clear sense that the way I do theology is shaped and informed by my own ethnicity (white, Anglo), gender (male) and sexuality (straight), and social privilege (with abundant access to educational opportunities). How I meet the experiences and needs of the people who are engaged in educational opportunities with me, who have different experiences and cultures, is a large and pressing challenge.

Seeking a wider diversity in the people who are charged with training and educating is one area in which response needs to be made. Attuning myself, as an educator, to the experiences and understandings of the people I am working with, is a critical dimension of the task. It is an ongoing challenge. And it is one that can not readily be sidestepped.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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