In a recent post, I suggested that if we wanted more women bishops in the Anglican Communion, we needed to support theological education. That comment sparked some conversation on Twitter as people asked just what that might mean.
Here’s the first thing to say: South Sudanese Christians are eager/enthusiastic/desperate for further education. One reason so many South Sudanese converted to Christianity during the civil war was that they realized their lack of education was hampering their ability to assert themselves against northerners. Education and Christianity had always been linked so as they sought education, they sought baptism as well.
That enthusiasm continues today. Teaching and education is a huge part of what the church does. On a local level, that means, for instance, literacy lessons for women. On a broader level, it means that I am continually meeting people who want me to find them “sponsors” abroad who can pay their school fees for further study, whether at the Episcopal Church of the Sudan’s seminary, one of South Sudan’s overmatched universities, or at some place abroad.
There have been a variety of efforts to respond to this need. Thirty years ago, a Theological Education by Extension program was created in which courses were designed, published, and then circulated to be offered in small groups in various dioceses. In the time since, they have not been updated, revised, or augmented, and translation work into South Sudan’s many languages has been sporadic. But in a measure of how important education is—and how few the resources are—I still see these books in use in dioceses. When it’s all you have, you’re going to use it, even if it’s imperfect.
But the major message I get from South Sudanese is that they know they don’t have the resources to do a sufficient job of education; they can’t meet the need themselves. I remember meeting a bishop two years ago. Within—literally—seventeen seconds of meeting me, he said, “My clergy need better education. Can you come start a Bible college in my diocese?” On this recent visit to South Sudan, I spent time at Dhiaukuei, a village that became an important clergy training site during the civil war. The training has dwindled, but people are eager for it to start again. When I visited, I was repeatedly asked if I had come to be its principal and when I would be starting courses.
So how to move forward?
There is, of course, the need to finance scholarships for people to study at existing institutions in South Sudan and abroad. But the vast majority of Christians in South Sudan will never be able to do that. They’re too busy living a subsistence agriculture life that doesn’t allow for time off.
Instead, I have become convinced that there is an enormous unmet need for regional clergy training sessions. I did something like this on a very small scale two years ago. During the dry season when people aren’t busy cultivating, clergy, Mothers Union members, and youth leaders could come to a central point for a week or two for lectures, Bible study, group work, etc. on particular topics.
Lest you think that the teachers of these sessions have to be super-educated, extensively-published, multiple-degree-holders, remember how great the need for education is. I offered clergy trainings as a seminarian. When I did, the students eagerly welcomed everything I had to offer, no matter its imperfections. When I was finished, they asked for more—not only of what I had been teaching, but also of more practical issues, like parish administration, stewardship, etc. You don’t even have to be ordained to teach those topics! In fact, it probably helps if you are not.
I am convinced that trainings such as these would be eagerly welcomed in a place like South Sudan. What’s more, they would introduce Christians from the Euro-Atlantic world to day-to-day life in an inspiring and fascinating part of the Anglican Communion—but one that is also struggling under the burden of ministering in the world’s newest nation. When it comes to building relationships with fellow Christians, there is no substitute for gathering around the Bible together and trying to figure out what it means. The incarnational aspect of these trainings remains their most important aspect.
St. Paul writes, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19) Theological education is a route to that goal.
(I would be remiss if I did not note that many of these ideas are developed in much greater detail in my forthcoming book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.)