Christian ministry (whether informal or formal lay ministry, or ordained ministry) is called to be both responsive and responsible
The University is, in other words, an institution that has de facto had delegated to it the holding of a significant portion of the Church’s memory
That is, it is called to be responsive to the particular situation in which it is carried out, responsive to the particular gifts of the one ministering, responsive to the resources available in the immediate community. But it is also called to be responsible: answerable not just to that minister and that situation, but also to God, to the Bible, to the wider Church–and to earlier generations of the Church. Both by responsiveness and by responsibility, the Church’s mission is called to account–the practitioners of that mission slowed down and called to wait, and to pay attention.
Theological education feeds both responsiveness and responsibility, providing resources which enable attention to the specific difficulties of a particular location, but also constantly making connections with the wider Christian tradition: allowing what happens here to be called into question by a community which stretches in time and space far beyond the local.
Now, training in responsiveness, in detailed attention to the local, is still often valued by Churches whose view of theological education is instrumentalized. It is a form of training that appears to feed effectiveness directly, by showing how the practice of mission needs to be reshaped in order to work well here. What I have been calling responsibility is less clearly valued. Imagine a program of study that included both a module in the sociological analysis of a local community, and a module in the Christological debates of the fourth Century. If both responsiveness and responsibility appropriately hold ministry to account, it will not be the case that the former module has to do with ministry whereas the latter does not.
And yet it is vital to the Church’s present health that the Church be reminded of forgotten aspects of its past identity
Much could be said about the resources that the University might have to offer to the learning of responsiveness, of appropriate and open-eyed analysis of the current situation. There is patient attention needed there, and very much so–and it is patient attention which might well be honed and deepened by disciplines nurtured in Universities. In my context, however, it is the help that the University might give in the learning of responsibility that needs arguing for. The University, precisely because it is the sort of institution that has a large library, precisely because it has experts in strange places and times, precisely because it fosters the study of dead languages–precisely because of those features that have so much of the smell of the ivory tower about them–can nurture rich, multi-hued attention to the Church of distant times and places better than can the Church itself. It is in the University, for instance, that the complexity–the deep horrors and occasional joys–of Christians’ historical relationship with Judaism can be uncovered; it is in the University that the strange but powerful struggles of the early Church to affirm the goodness of creation can be explored; it is in the University that the detailed historical context of the division between denominations can be examined. By attending diligently to these memories, the University can illuminate the responsibilities, the difficulties and the possibilities which the Church today faces, whether it be in overcoming anti-Semitism, in pursuing environmentalism, in advancing ecumenism, or in almost any aspect of the Church’s ministry that has a history. The University can, by bringing the Church’s past to bear in these and other ways, help to sensitize and complexify the Church’s present, calling it to an acknowledgement and understanding of what it has been in such a way as to open up possibilities for what it can become.