Theology to suit you
From bitesize chunks to practical qualifications and degrees, there’s a theological
course out there for you, and you can do it wherever you are
What do a convict serving a 15-year sentence in Texas, the controller of BBC Parliament and a Somerset youthworker have in common? The answer is: They are all studying theology at UK institutions, from wherever they are.
The internet has revolutionised theological learning. The time is gone when studying theology necessarily meant spending three years at a college in order to qualify as a minister. Though that is still one way and one reason to do it, there are now many different ways of learning, different shapes that learning can take and different purposes it can be put to.
Peter Knowles is the controller of BBC Parliament, and he embarked on the United Reformed Church’s distance learning programme, Training for Learning and Serving (TLS) with his church worship group. The 10 of them wanted to understand better how to conduct worship, and signed up for the two-year TLS LITE course, but got on so well and benefited so much from it, that after six years, Peter and two of the others and went on to complete a degree in theology.
The various TLS courses they worked through together were a mix of individual home learning, group study, and residential weekends, all in their spare time.
The philosophy behind this mix is explained by its coordinator Stanley Jackson: “We call it ‘blended learning’,” he says. “It’s not just distance learning. The internet allows people to study at home, but we find that if they’re left on their own it doesn’t work, and people drop out. They need to be part of local study groups and meet with other students too.
“The main principle of it is to deepen our own spiritual lives and therefore become more effective disciples locally.”
Peter Knowles agrees that this mix is what made it work well for his group: “The flexibility of TLS was very helpful,” he says: “Being able to find our own path through it and pursue it in our own time. Doing it as a group was key – we became a cohort, not just individuals. We gained confidence in exploring our faith and it challenged what we thought we knew. It was rigorous and demanding, but a tremendous experience.”
From lifers to youth workers
London School of Theology (LST – mind those anagrammatic acronyms), has a more individual approach to distance learning, allowing people to pursue it in a wide range of circumstances. At present 1,000 people are enrolled on its courses, and they will soon be joined by two US prisoners, the first in a new programme to let offenders study theology and prepare them for ministry. This is the brainchild of Joe Koskie, who has a PhD from LST and works in US prisons. He believes giving them a Christian mission to the places where they first offended will stop them reoffending. “My hope,” he says: “Is that if our graduates do ever return to prison, it will not be because they are arrested, but because they are ministers looking to serve some of the least in our society.”
Another LST distance learning student, at a rather shorter distance, is Rachel Leach, who is youthwork team leader at Westfield and Cannington United Reformed churches. In the range of courses – from one-off modules for personal development to the nine-year BA degree – Rachel is doing the two-year certificate in theology.
“I wanted a theological grounding to ensure that I could give young people the very best,” she explains. “I chose distance learning as this is to enhance my work, not replace it, so it was the only practical solution. It can be really hard trying to carve out time to get your head into study space, but once you get there, it is very rewarding. I have felt more confident in allowing young people to explore, go off at tangents and question things.”
The Windermere Centre, one of the URC̕s resource centres for learning, is experimenting with new ways to bring people together to learn over the internet. Its short series and one-off sessions are all free, and designed to allow people to dip their toe in the water and explore whether online theology works for them.
Carole Jones, who is retired and lives in Dartford, took part in some of Between the Covers, a recent series of 12 sessions looking at themes from the Hebrew Bible. “It seemed like a good opportunity to explore these things with people from all over the country,” she says. “Lawrence Moore [director of the Windermere Centre] gave an absolutely brilliant illustrated presentation, then we discussed it. It opened up a new vision of the Old Testament for me.”
She adds: “People think you need to be techie to take part, but don’t be afraid, just be informed about how it works.”
Lawrence Moore describes the idea behind this venture as “demythologising learning”. “If you say: ‘We’re now about to engage in learning’,” he says: “It often comes over as negative or uninteresting. We want people to know this is a way they can have creative conversations about faith, develop discipleship, and experience growth and formation.
“We’ve long been a repository for resources, but we want to move away from that ‘bookshelf’ model, and explore the possibilities of real interactive learning through online conversations.”
This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Reform.