Teaching and teaching documents; some thoughts.

How should we respond to the Church of England’s proposed teaching document on sexuality? I don’t mean the report itself so much as the very notion of a ‘teaching document.’

Some, no doubt, will be delighted that the Archbishops have commissioned a report, regarding it as an opportunity to re-state the church’s historic position. Others will receive it with a spirit of resigned apathy, as yet another document which will slowly find its way to the bottom of the desk draw which contains all manner of documents that might otherwise have been thrown away save for a sense of church induced guilt. Yet others will be holding their hands up in horror at the sheer chutzpah of an institution whose track record on all things sexual they perceive to be pretty rank.

My worry, and concern, is what is meant by a teaching document. It also strikes me that the authors of the report are going to have to confront the very real possibility that in drawing on different sources, and disciplines, they are going to have to deal with competing sources of evidence. Scripture and tradition may well be found to offer different insights to reason (science)  and, experience. In taking insights from multiple data sets the authors will have to confront some stark epistemological choices: Do they assert the hegemony of scripture (and tradition)  over reason (and possibly experience), or do they look for some form of synthesis? In receiving data from a wide range of sources (scripture, tradition, ethical theories, science, experience etc) the authors will need to consider the thorny question of epistemology. They are going to have to ask themselves how truths are discovered, communicated and, validated.

My own view is that the authors of the report are going to need to hold carefully, but with courage, different forms of epistemology. The weight of factual scientific evidence, for instance, cannot simply be ignored or wished away. The sexual equivalent of climate change denial shouldn’t be given too much credence. If the weight of scientific evidence indicates that sexuality is a given then this should be accepted and, acknowledged. Facts must be treated as facts; even uncomfortable facts.

How the facts are then treated is of course a different issue. Facts don’t of course exist just in the scientific realm they also exist in history. It is a fact that the church has for the majority of its history regarded homosexuality as deeply sinful, it is also a fact that for the majority of church history to be anything other than ‘straight’ has meant be designated as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ It is a fact that these views have been largely validated through a particular view of ‘the fall.’ So, one of the urgent tasks of the group charged with writing the report may be to re-consider the traditional notion of the ‘fall.’

Tradition can, in some ways, be regarded as the way the church receives and, integrates into its ways of thinking, relating and, behaving historical facts. Healthy tradition, I would want to argue, is powered by two dynamics: the willingness to accept the ‘good’ things that have been passed down through the ages whilst, simultaneously critiquing the nature of (salvation) history.  Good teachers are in this sense traditionalists. Any appeal to tradition which precludes the right, or obligation, to critique is an unhealthy, reductive, static and, defensive interpretation of tradition. In fact it’s a distortion of tradition.

The proposed report isn’t just about sexuality. It is actually, at a more basic level, about how the Church of England does theology. 

Of course there will never be a universal buy in to one fixed method of doing theology but I do think that is important to acknowledge and recognise that real differences exist and, that the teaching document will in all probability expose these differences. At a recent diocesan synod I was aware that two distinct groups were highly critical of the report produced by the bishops for General Synod. I am of course talking of the (in) famous report that synod decided not to take note of. Both groups believed that the report failed theologically. One group sought to locate  theology as biblical studies (as defined in their own terms), the other group regarded theology as something far more holistic. The teaching document I suspect will be divisive in that it will lean either towards a holistic method, or towards prizing biblical studies above all else. If the biblical studies method wins through tradition will be co-opted in support; a more holistic approach will seek to balance out insights from the different spheres. The report, through the methods it employs, will I think promote disagreement and, may lead to dis-unity. Is this a bad thing? Possibly not in a ‘good’ teaching document.

The report is also about hierarchy and church order for the whole question of the bishop’s teaching role will also be placed under the spotlight. Bishops are charged with a specific teaching responsibility, but what does this mean?

Does it mean that what the bishop says goes? Does it mean that the bishops own view, perspectives and theology must always trump those of the clergy and laity in their diocese? Does it mean that a teaching document is an ecclesial version of a Haynes Manual, designed to instruct, members of the church how to proceed in a given situation? Or does it mean something richer, more nuanced and, designed to encourage deeper levels of reflective learning. 

The effectiveness of the report will be contingent, in part, on understanding what is meant by teaching, or good teaching. I would like to suggest that good teaching must include the following:

  • Accepting as factual that which is factual.
  • Encouraging a spirit of reflective learning fostered by providing ‘learners’ with a different perspectives, some of which will be complimentary and some of which may compete. It is vital that teaching is not reduced to instruction.
  • A level of acceptance by the teacher that whilst their own perspectives may be offered they should not necessarily hold sway. Good teachers (in the humanities and social sciences) offer to their students multiple perspectives. In marking assignments and exams they reward students who are capable of understanding, arguing and synthesizing multiple perspectives. The notion of twin, or multiple, integrities is normal in the humanities. Drawing out and permitting well-considered disagreement is integral to good teaching. A good teacher presents far more than their own exegesis.

All of this leads to a consideration of what is meant by (Church of England) theology in the twenty-first century; sexuality is the presenting issue but the real questions for the Church of England are how we do our theology and, how we hold authority.

Integral to doing authoritative-theology are the related activities of teaching and learning. Good teaching in the sciences always starts with a search for the factual. Good teaching in the humanities fosters the ability to interpret (often afresh) and, reflect. Good teaching in the social sciences encourages the ability to hypothesize and, theorize. Good, authoritative, teaching in theology does all of these things.

Good teaching presents (facts), encourages (dialogue) and, accepts (difference). The fruit of good teaching is validated through praxis.

The purpose of a good teaching document is to inspire, motivate  and challengemaybe even to disturbA good teaching document should never seek merely to instruct, still worse appease (or even reconcile). The effectiveness of a good teaching document is, of course, directly correlated to its ability to engage. 

The ‘target audiences’ for the teaching document should  not be  the ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ who have already come to a settled, and irreconcilable,  view on all things church and sexual – although the temptation will exist to regard these two groups as the primary categories of recipient  –   but instead the apathetic and, those who currently think that church is acting with astonishing chutzpah in producing a teaching document on sexuality. If the church and her leaders engage with and inspire these groups they really will have produced a good, and effective, teaching document. 

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