Waiapu Diocesan Theologian

August 19, 2009

The Core Curriculum

Filed under: Starting Points,Theological Curriculum — howardpilgrim @ 5:39 pm

What are we talking about here? Just what is this fund of knowledge that is in danger of running dry in our common Anglican life? For those unfamiliar with the “good old ways” of theological education, this post is one attempt to bring you up to speed. Those who are there already might like leave their comments correcting my summary…

One way of tackling this query is by giving an outline of what are generally considered to be the six essential elements in the education of any Christian minister, lay or ordained. This is the stuff we should be passing on to each new generation of leaders in the church,  our accumulated wisdom of what it means to be a competent, educated community of faith. Each of these “elements” is actually a huge field inviting life-long study. None of them could be considered radical or new.

The first two fields in the following list are probably relatively well provided for at present, and as new people are recruited and trained for local ministries, ordained or lay, we have tended to put most of our resources into providing this sort of training. The last four are the traditional fields of theological study that have been most neglected. In an ideal world, all six should be developed side by side in an integrated and life-long manner. The practical problem here is that the four traditional fields are huge, and we often don’t know where to begin without embarking on an intensive course of study spread over several years, which was the traditional solution. Our challenge is to provide accessible (but not necessarily easy!) gateways into each field.

Spiritual Formation

This almost goes without saying: no-one can provide Christian ministry to others unless they have their own  living relationship with God and with the Christian community. Tending to  our own spirituality is our first Christian duty – not by becoming self-absorbed, but making sure our love of God and neighbour is real. The guidance of spiritual directors and a growing familiarity with the long tradition of Christian spirituality are important means of making sure we are spiritually healthy and fit to meet the demands of a life given to meeting the needs of others.

Ministry Skills

The “how to” aspects of ministry to others are not only learned by experience, but can also be taught. Most people in Christian leadership appreciate this and are ready to line up for practical courses in how to do their ministry tasks – liturgy, preaching, pastoral care, group  leadership, and so on. We expect those who lead us to show developing competence, whether or not they are paid for it: any licence involves a responsibility to become skillful. The church makes training opportunities available, and attendance is expected.  No problem there, by and large. Standards of competence and behaviour are expected, and licenses can be withdrawn if people don’t come up to the mark. That mark, however is actually rather low, compared to the large knowledge base available in each of these aspects of ministry. Once again, life-long learning is an appropriate goal.

New Testament Studies

The heart of all Christian ministry is the good news of Jesus Christ, and the wellspring of that gospel is contained within the New Testament. Yet at a recent national gathering, the Theological Hui held in Auckland, Feb 2008, there was a clear consensus that the most urgent need of our church is to learn how to interpret the holy scriptures. For most of our people, what we have learned so far is just not enough to get us by, given the challenges we face together.  Knowing how to work out what a passage may have meant in its original context – that is what we call exegesis. Interpreting its significance for us 2000 years later – that is exposition. Learning how others have done this before you – priceless! (apologies to foreigners who may not have seen the Mastercard advertisement) And yet how little of this knowledge is actually available to feed the people in our pews, or the spiritually hungry in the world around us? A few tidbits gleaned from bible studies of some TV evangelist, or from an internet sermon will not get us there. There is so much more needed, and available.

First Testament Studies

What we are used to calling the Old Testament is not old as in outdated, but old as in our deepest roots, our original source of knowledge about God. The holy scriptures of Israel are simply referred to in the New Testament as “the scriptures”, or by the formula “it is written”. Jesus and the first Christians understood all that happened to them in the light of what they read in those sacred writings, and we cannot begin to comprehend what they were on about without reading what they were reading.  The gap of time and culture we must cross to do so is not all that difficult to bridge – many have been there before us and left a vast heritage for us to explore.

Christian History

We are not the first people to follow Jesus – the Christian movement has been underway for 2000 years now, and there is so much to learn about where we are now by looking back over where we have come.  A warning -“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”. Enough said! More positively,  studying those who have gone before us can be a constant source of encouragement, as we learn to recognise God’s faithful guidance of the Church through the ages.  Those saints we celebrate throughout the year; knowing more about how to fit them into their historical context gives us a clearer idea of just who we are called to be, of our own potential for transforming our world as they did. And reflecting on how the Church engaged with its world in earlier times brings us new perspectives on how to conduct our own mission today.

Systematic Theology

How can we integrate all that we learn above with everything else we know about Life, the Universe and Everything? Attempting to do so was what once led to theology being called “The Queen of the Sciences”. Medieval theologians used to try to formulate a grand theory of everything, but nowadays we leave that to the physicists, who make it simpler by not trying to bring God into the picture. Nevertheless, we cannot get far in Christian ministry without trying this, at least on a personal level: that is to say, trying to bring what we know together into a coherent whole, especially the things that are most important to us. We need to gain some sort of “simple vision” that places our identity as believers within  the biggest picture we can see. This, of course is a life-long task, no matter how we go about it. It is a very personal task, a necessary part of our spiritual development (bringing us back to our starting point above), but it is more than personal if we are to guide others along the way, and studying how some of the great Christian thinkers have done it before us can be both enlightening and inspiring.

So …. if that is the curriculum, where is the  school? Don’t miss the next exciting episode. More to the point, send me some feedback in the Comments box so that we can work on it together!



  1. Howard
    Firstly, I want to commend you on your blogging-beginnings, well done! Secondly, it is my hope that your blog will invite and generate considerable conversation around issues of training and formation for clergy and laity in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. And thirdly, I will be interested to read comments concerning views of present “models-of-ministry” and again, issues of training and formation connected to those models.

    Lastly, Howard, as your Bishop, I wish you well in your “blogging-endeavours.”
    Bishop of Waiapu

    Comment by Bishop David Rice — August 28, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  2. Thanks for your backing, +David. Like you, I hope that this blog can be part of a wider discussion about ministry formation and training within our diocese and beyond. But first, we have to get our people online, and commenting …

    Comment by howardpilgrim — September 1, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  3. I tried this once, and forgot to include my name. Your site kindly pointed out my error, but unkindly wiped what I had written, so I’ll start again.

    As my scholarship at St John’s College is jointly sponsored by +David and +John Paterson, please allow me to comment as an “insider”.

    I think your 6 categories are great, and a helpful way to spell out the normally accepted coverage of a good theological education. I have two almost unrelated comments.

    1. When I did my Theology Degree at Nottingham in the early ’80’s, the emphasis there was to sit lightly with those categories and to draw out the links among them. So a course in “the history of Christian Thought in the Western World” combined Church History and Systematic Theology, and one called “Unity and diversity in the New Testament” combined Systematics with biblical studies and so on. My thought is that for people who are needing to do theological reflection at the same time as they engage in ministry, treating the 6 categories of study as discrete entities may not be the most helpful approach.

    2. What I am involved in with my PhD studies is different again. Maybe it is category 7, Practical Theology, where we apply the learning from biblical studies, history and the rest to our living/working/ministering contexts. Or maybe it is in the gap that results from the fact that no one any more regards Theology as the Mother of the Sciences. What do we, students of the faith have to say to other “secular” disciplines, and what can we learn from those other approaches?
    In my case I am working from a management/organisational studies discipline. There are at least three different ways in which that discipline intersects with theology:
    a/ use of management theory to look at churches and other religious institutions – is that valid or not?
    b/ the study of spirituality in organizations, workplaces and the like. is it morally or ethically appropriate to investigate the effect of spirituality of employees on the performance of a company?
    c how do spiritual principles affect how we look at organizations, or how we go about managing them?

    So what am I trying to say here? I think I am saying that your 6 categories of theological study are a great place to begin, but I hope we don’t stop there.

    Great blog, Howard

    Edward Prebble
    Waikato Management School and St John’s College.

    Comment by Edward Prebble — September 2, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  4. Thanks for your comment, Edward, and sorry about what happened to the first version. This blog is hosted by WordPress.com and I don’t yet know all its quirks so as to help others avoid such experiences. One rule is obviously “Give your name” – this blog is not set to accept anonymous comments, but I may have to change this. Another tip is to write your comment somewhere else, such as in Word then cut ant paste it into the blog – I have lost a few comments in other blogs when their site suddenly didn’t like my computer.

    I agree with you that these six categories are not hard and fast, and that none of them can be considered in isolation from one another or from other disciplines.

    Noho ora mai, e hoa.

    Comment by howardpilgrim — September 2, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

  5. Hi Howard, this is a great blog! I agree with Edward re the the Practical Theology – there is an excellent journal of that name from Australia – maybe a good journal to include for reading at the Library in the Cathedral.
    Like the core curriculum outlines you have above.

    Comment by Erice — October 2, 2009 @ 11:13 am

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