First I bring greetings to you from the Churches throughout our four nations. In the words of St Paul, ‘Grace and peace to you through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

It is a great honour to have been asked to say a few words to you about emerging themes concerning the content and style of theological education in Britain and Ireland. As you will understand, this is a big challenge, because there is much variety among us.

Our ecumenical council – which we call Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) [1] – covers four countries: Wales, Scotland, Ireland [2] and England.

Each of these countries has its own culture, its own history and its own ways of seeing and doing things. Within each country there are also different regions that have distinct traditions.

The variety of our Churches (national denominations), both Catholic and Protestant, is also very great. [3]

Though we have difficulties from time-to-time, we want to see these differences as essentially a gift from God, not as a problem.

Understood ecumenically, theological education refers to the training and teaching of clergy and lay people in university colleges, Church colleges or seminaries, and in many special schemes organised by the Churches at regional and local level.

When it is of the best quality, theological education makes creative use of the differences among our countries and our Churches by combining three things:

The discovery of our oneness in Christian faith
The celebration of variety in the expression of this faith through the Church
The implementation of faith through effective word and deed in the world

But first, like you, we need to build solid foundations. We do this through deepening our understanding of the Bible, Christian doctrine and tradition, philosophy, Church history and ethics.

However, because Britain and Ireland is a fast-changing society, our ways of teaching and learning need regularly to be reviewed and updated.

Most importantly, we must be able respectfully to connect the Christian message to the everyday lives of people outside the church, including those of other religions and of no religion. [4]

If we do not do this, people will not see or understand the good news for humankind given to us in Jesus Christ.

So as well as traditional classroom teaching, we have developed some other methods of working, especially in lay training [5]. I will give a few examples.

These days a lot of theological education happens in local churches, not just in seminaries or colleges. The teachers go to where the people are, instead of always expecting the people to go where the teachers are.

The location of theological education is a very important question. Jesus told parables about the kingdom of God in the streets, not about sitting in classrooms.

We find that it is useful to help people to study in their own homes and their own communities. We do this by sending materials to them through the post or by email. They are then invited to join a local study group.

With assistance from a tutor this home study is linked back to teaching in a college or seminary. So we are able to make the best of both styles of education.

Before he became the General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, Dr David Goodbourn, who is here today, was involved in this kind of theological training in Scotland.

We also try to help people to think about their faith more widely. For instance, we encourage them to learn new ideas and methods of theology, mission and pastoral work from Christians in other countries.

This includes seeing how evangelisation and social action is carried out by Churches in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, other parts of Europe – and, of course, China.

It is not always appropriate to copy what others have done in a different location, but it is always helpful to ask what new insight we can gain from them as we re-think our own approach.

So it is highly significant that we can now see ourselves as part of a global Christian community, as well as being involved in a local church and denomination. This was the theme of a recent important ecumenical report [6] on theological education in Britain and Ireland.

Of course many clergy and lay people continue to be taught through colleges run by their own denominations (Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and so on). But we also try to support each other and to exchange people and resources.

For example, although I am an Anglican, I have been on the staff of a Catholic university college in London,  England. [7]

These are just some of the ways we have been trying to respond to our changing times.

We in Britain and Ireland believe that good theological education means learning how to be a Church that shows God’s love to the whole world. It is about head (intellect), heart (belief) and hands (prayer and work) together.

In this way theological education is a work of mission, because it involves following Jesus Christ out of the Church into the world – in order to be able to offer the message and action of hope.

We know that we have much to learn from you and to share with you about our common faith and about the challenge of how to do theological training.

I hope these brief examples of our approach will be part of a continuing, fruitful conversation between Christian educators in China and in Britain and Ireland.

Above all, we wish you God’s blessing on all that you do in this fine seminary.

(c) Simon Barrow and CTBI, 2004. The author is the Mission Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and has been involved in several different styles of theological education over the past twenty years.


[1]  Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) is the new name for what was the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (CCBI). The name change took place in 1998. CTBI/CCBI is the successor to the British Council of Churches BCC), formed in 1948/9 and dissolved in 1990, with the additional membership of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Scotland and (as an associate) Ireland, together with some of the ethnically-derived churches that we call ‘Black Majority Churches’. There are also ecumenical instruments in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland that deal with ecumenical affairs specific to those nations, whereas CTBI handles issues hat need to be dealt with at a four-nations level or in relation to the governments in the UK and the Irish Republic.
[2]  The member and associate Churches of CTBI in Ireland operate across the whole of Ireland, that is both in the Republic (a unitary state) and in Northern Ireland, which with Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) forms what is called the United Kingdom. CTBI therefore comprises national denominations in four nations and two jurisdictions.
[3]  In China, Catholicism and Protestantism are defined by the government as two of the five recognised religions, alongside Confucianism, Buddhism and Islam. The term ‘Christian’ is often used to designate the post-denominational Protestant Church. What was the Anglican Church in China is understood as Protestant only, whereas we recognise it as a distinct tradition. The Orthodox Church exists in China, but is tiny. The Orthodox are also in membership of CTBI.
[4]  This issue was explored in the 1980s through a British Council of Churches report called Theology on Full Alert. There is still much to do.
[5]  See: Simon Barrow, Expanding Horizons: Learning to be the Church in the World (Diocese of Southwark Board for Church in Society, 1995). The points made in this paper will be remedial for those involved in theological education in the West. In China the tradition is more didactic.
[6]  The Mission Theological Advisory Group, Presence and Prophecy: A Heart for Mission in Theological Education (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland / Church House Publishing, 2002). See also the Study Guide written by the present author.
[7]  The Institute of Spirituality, Heythrop College, University of London, in 1990-91. This institution is a Jesuit foundation, but it operates as part of the state university education system.

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