On lessening divides

Miffy has raised an interesting question, following on from the post yesterday, about “how do we lessen the split”. I assume she is talking about the “split” I referred to between “professional clergy and academics” and “the layity”. Although she could also be referring to the split between “those in church” and “those out of church” or “the split” which is apparently related to the issue of sexuality in the church.

The short answer is I don’t know, and if I did I would probably be doing a totally different piece of research to that which I am. However, having engaged with this question in my own mind and to a lesser extent with others I do have some tentative ideas to share.

1) The role of “informal” networks.
We should not under-value the role of informal networks where people get to engage with each other. Thinking “virtually” The Ship of Fools provides a space where this informal interaction takes place. This means that whilst the professionals have to be sensible about what they post, as they are not posting in an official capacity but their comments are in the public domain a space does exist to debate issues in a serious and intellectual way. So discussion boards are one space.
A second “virtual” space is through the blogosphere. The comments sections of blogs provide useful spaces for the interaction, atleast theoretically. Examples I can think of where the professionals and non-professionals can debate and discuss relevent issues through blog posts and reaction to those blog posts include: Jonny Baker, Maggi Dawn, Steve Taylor (Emergent Kiwi) and Ian Mobsby amongst others. Again on their blogs the issue does exist about how what is appropriate to put into the public domain and what is appropriate to include and exclude from the topics blogged upon. Therefore in reality any professional topic that is discussed will have been heavily mediated in order to make it sutible for a totally open access context.
Facebook groups are / can be another way of engagement.

In terms of “the real world” informal opportunities for engagement occur in any space shared by the professional and the non-professional. As any Christian should recognise, from the gospels aswell as from contemporary practice, chatting over food and drink make excellent opportunities. I would want to put in a couple of points here though:
a) people need leisure space to just chill outside of their work situation. If you are in an informal setting with “the professional” it may be that what they need most is to just be without engaging in any work related talk. Therefore, think about the appropriateness of these opportunities and where everybody is at before engaging in that type of topic.
b) for effective sharing there needs to be trust and respect. Unless the conversation is between people who already know each other well there does need to be an understanding of the boundaries which may well need to be in place for the conversation. These might be boundaries of confidentiality, an understanding of the context and nature of informal conversation – where neither side is able to find themselves coming away with expectations which are unrealistic or will be unmet or issues to do with the nature and negotiation of power relations.

2) The role of academic and theological education
Practical Theology, at the moment, is largely a male-stream activity engaged in by professionals. A greater appreciation of what Jeff Astley calls “ordinary theology” and an attempt by those offering theological education to encourage more lay people to take their “ordinary theology” and turn it into research projects would mean (i) more people would be engaging in the discipline and (ii) more issues relating to women, particularly “ordinary bums on pews” women would be included. For this to work, in any meaningful way, a few things need to happen:
a) practical theology courses need to be marketed less as cpd qualifications. Rather they need to be advertised as a way for people to engage and reflect on their faith in an academic way. They also need to be marketed from level 3 qualifications onwards I would argue. This might mean that those who have been engaging in lay activities within the church are encouraged to develop their thinking and reflect on their practice by doing a practical theology course. I acknowledge that there atleast three problems with this:
(i) time commitments, many of these people will have families and full or part time jobs which they juggle along side voluntary activities in church and often community.
(ii) the demand for these courses may make it difficult for them to run. They would certainly need to be developed ecumenically and across a fairly wide geographical area. This may mean a large component of distance or virtual learning would be involved.
(iii)cost. If we are encouraging those who engage in practice to develop this into practical theology they need a motivation. For the professional the value of the qualification is clear. How do we encourage others to engage and invest in the activity? Is some kind of subsidy going to be needed and if so where would it come from?
In these courses professionals and layity could perhaps come together within the classroom situation.

b) Could some kind of practical theology component be more explicitly included within existing courses? If so could these courses be marketed to the professionals as refreshers and a way to (re)engage with the grass roots by studying issues of practice with them?

c) public / open lectures / seminars. If more academic lectures were open to the public and appropriately marketed perhaps this would lead to a higher level of engagement.

d) more oppotunities for professionals who are studying on the cpd type courses and people of faith on other courses to come together for conferences to discuss their work from a point of view which is both academic but also explicitly faith based. Having spent this week engaging, basically, in such an activity it has been brilliant.

3)The role of local church organisations
There could, perhaps, be one evening a quarter when professionals and layity from an area could perhaps be invited to come together to discuss the issues currently effecting both church and society/ culture. This would be eccumenical and people could come together to simply talk….on an equal basis contributing their own stories and experiences. Again clear boundaries would be needed, and if the group was large they would need to split down but it’s an idea.

People involved in working with specific groups in society could be encouraged to come together and share. For example you could, again quaterly, have a day or an evening where everybody in faith groups locally who works with the elderly could be invited to come together and discuss their experiences, regardless of role. This might mean you would have a care worker engaging with a social services director and a priest on this topic together. They would all have relevent skills. Whilst the care worker may or maynot have the same literacy and educational levels as the two “professionals” they would be able to share their experiences in the same way. Within this they could discuss what they see as the role of God, the church, faith in their work situation or provision for older people generally.
* This leads us onto the issue of language. Whilst not seeking to disempower through dumbing down there should be an aim to have inclusivity through the use of the language used. It should be as informal as possible.

4) The role of formal networking opportunities.
Small groups, similar to housegroups, might be formed. The role of these would not be traditional bible study, etc of the comprehension form. Rather they could be set up with the group using consensus to set up clear boundaries and understandings again, but operate in a totally non-hierarchal way. They could be places where a mix of people, both professional and lay could come together and over a glass of wine or whatever discuss the issues that they think are relevent in the church, wider culture or whatever and support each other. Again time is an issue here and so they should be just monthly or something with a very fluid approach of if you can make it great if you can’t hey…stuff happens.

None of these ideas will be new and I guess they are probably happening in lots of places…we just don’t get to hear. I don’t know who I have been influenced by in this thinking….beyond hanging out this week with John Drane and the DMin crowd…..I think that it’s just Miffy has asked the question and this is what my, slightly over active, mind came up with.

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Hi my name is Sally Rush: I'm a Christian, a mother, a community engagement officer, a listener, a dreamer, a partner, an experienced teacher, a friend, a daughter, a sister and so much more.

2 thoughts on “On lessening divides

  1. thanks for the link and fascinating discussion. for the record i’m only a “part-time” academic – 2 days/week i lecture while 3 days a week i pastor. that’s cos i’m a pract theologian and like messing with the divides.

    books that keep me reflecting on this recently include Reading otherwise – fascinating reflections on “academics” seeking to work in partnership with local readers, respecting the charism of both and a conversation that silences neither

    steve

  2. Thanks for that Steve. That adds an interesting element about the place of literature in lessening the divide. Also, messing about with the language and term “readers” a bit more it also adds into the mix the question of readers (in the Anglican Tradition), “lay preachers” (in the Methodist and Baptist traditions) and just about anybody in the Quaker tradition.

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