Monday, May 26, 2008

Theological Education in the Global South

May 26, 2008

One of the obscure journals to which I subscribe is called Journal of Anglican Studies, an Australian publication that comes out twice a year. The most recent edition (Volume 6.1 June 2008) includes a number of papers from the National Anglican Identity Formation Project. The assumption of the project is that Anglicanism has “embedded itself in local society and culture” that leads to a great diversity of expression, style and practices” according to Stephen Pickard, a bishop in the diocese of Adelaide. He writes: “The present divisions in the Communion are in large part related to this inculturating habit.” (p.9) He is asking ‘what really shapes the identity of Anglicans in their national setting?’ and looking to theological educators, especially those from the two thirds world, to provide part of the answer.

Almost all the authors talk of an increased need for ‘contextualizing’ theological education and training for ministry. Victor Atta-Baffo is principal of St. Nicholas’ Seminary in Ghana and explicitly bemoans the ineffectiveness of the Western models of theological education he has inherited. (p.44) I am among those who believe that the strengthening of theological education in Africa in particular (whence four of the six essays originate) must be done in Africa. We are about to welcome back Emmanuel Bwatta from Tanzania for the summer and intensive language training at Georgia Tech before he begins seminary at Sewanee in the fall. Our financial support for him will be limited to the summer and one round trip airfare per year of education, but explicitly not for the cost of his seminary training while his bishop declines to be in relationship with All Saints’. We had offered to fund an Atlanta-based seminary education theologically compatible with his bishop while Emmanuel was ‘in residence’ at All Saints’ and assisting on Sundays. This was unacceptable to Bishop Mpango, so we have been attempting to help Emmanuel further his education at Sewanee with funding put together by the seminary and his Bishop. I do not really expect that Emmanuel’s education will serve to straighten theological education in Africa however as the patter appears to be (and has been for along time) that anyone who can get Western education is promptly elevated to the episcopate upon his return to Africa. We are going to do better encouraging and funding African education for Africans if we wish to assist in deepening local theological education. For this reason I am using discretionary funds to send Fred Kalibwame to Uganda Christian University, another complicated exercise as the Ugandan Church and this university do not want to be tainted by funding from dodgy Episcopal churches like us.

A couple of the essays are quite revealing of unexamined claims that function as ‘plain truth’ for the authors but which are questionable on their face. Michael O. Fape is Bishop of Remo in Nigeria (and has an STM from Yale), and has written a useful account of mission work among the Yoruba and the theological education that has been the result. He is content to say, for example “We are called to a life of obedience to the scripture, which is the cornerstone of Anglicanism.” (p.30) The experience and testimony of converts, for him, ‘shows the truth of the scripture’. (p.21) He wants contextualized ministerial training (which appears to be, for him, the same as theological education) “without jettisoning the authority of the Scripture.” (p.30) I would prefer to think as the cornerstone of Anglicanism in these terms being to do with fidelity to God, revealed in the Scripture and the life of the Church as the gospel is ‘enculturated’. I am suspicious of language that appears to refer to the ‘authority of scripture’ as a kind of talisman without discernible content.

Much more useful in this respect is the contribution by Joseph Galgalo and Esther Mombo, both distinguished leaders in theological education in Kenya. They explore why there appears to be sudden interest in forgoing the theological inheritance of the Western models that they have inherited. They find the cause in the Anglican debate about Lambeth 1998 resolution 1.10 regarding human sexuality. They see the work to articulate and defend the authority of scripture with the political realities of the Global South claiming and exercising more power within Anglicanism and the resultant practice of ‘boundary crossing’ being results. (p.34f.) They see Scripture, from the conservative perspective of being first based on ‘plain meaning’ and then tested against ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’. (p.36) They write (quoting James Dunn) “What this means is that ‘Plain meaning as it has operated in practice is already in some measure a product of the reader’s perspective, a negotiated outcome.’ Departure from this norm is interpreted as a departure from the historic faith and historic orthodoxy.” (p.36) The authors are clear that this renewed interest in theological education from a conservative perspective assumes that “a unity achieved or sustained on the basis of a false belief is a false unity”. (p.38) It is clear that for this perspective doctrine precedes relationship.

I think there may be a clue to understanding some of the intensity around these issues (with the resultant increased interest in indigenous contextualized theological education in Africa) in the contribution of Jenny Plane Te Paa, a seminary dean from Aotearoa New Zealand, who is celebrating moving from a mono-cultural form of theological education to a multi-cultural reality.(p.55) I find myself wondering if the ‘doctrine first’ movement (and not just any doctrine but ‘traditional, orthodox doctrine as it is claimed) is not really a movement for Christian mono-culturalism with lip service being paid to contextualization. As Bishop Fape makes clear this contextualizing movement is a good thing as long as it does not ‘jettison the authority of scripture’. Underlying some of these essays is the notion of an unchanging truth that gets contextualized but that there are limits to the expressions it can take Won’t this run up against the limits of Christian Platonism sooner rather than later?

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