I must admit to feeling ever so slightly nervous when I hear the word ‘teaching’ mentioned in, or by, the Church of England. With the panel being announced for the greatly anticipated Episcopal Teaching Document on Sexuality my nervousness has greatly increased.
Part of my anxiety derives from a feeling that teaching and instruction are used interchangeably in church circles. Of course I would say this as a progressive. But, I also strongly believe that churches, in particular conservative churches, are far happier instructing than they are teaching. So what might we mean when we discuss the notion of teaching, or at least good teaching? What virtues might underpin good teaching and what are some of the ‘intended learning outcomes’ that derive from good (theological) teaching? Here goes:
Good teaching should foster reflection and discourse. Good teaching introduces different ways of thinking about problems. Good teaching deliberately brokers significant disagreement. Good teaching isn’t necessarily a route to uniformity or even unity, at least not in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Good teaching doesn’t necessarily mean that students must assimilate the convictions of their teachers. Again at least not in the arts, humanities and social sciences. For some ‘teachers’ in the church this might be a hard pill to swallow. A good teacher, paradoxically, is one who fosters in learners the ability to develop strong and defensible counter arguments. Good teachers often accept that their own perspectives are of secondary importance.
Good teachers render themselves vulnerable and are open to the possibility of personal change (cf Matthew 15, 21-28), not just in perspective but also through new and revised forms of practice; even where such forms of practice may depart from their own sympathies. I hope that those who have been asked to chair various panels are ‘good teachers,’ rather than political appointees. For the sake of the church they need to be.
So, in producing a ‘teaching document,’ the Church of England should carefully articulate its desired ‘learning outcomes.’ Has it? Does the Church of England know what it is trying to achieve through the Teaching Document on Sexuality? Does it know which of its bishops are the best teachers?
If the desired result is a document which presents a settled outcome to which all are expected to (uncritically) accept then the document, I suggest, will have little integrity as a teaching document. If the document presents different ways of thinking and responding then maybe, just maybe, it really will be a ‘teaching document.’
The production of this document is a watershed moment for the church for what is at stake is not only our response to issues of human sexuality (aka homosexuality) but our very credibility as a teaching church. In fact I would go further and say that the credibility and mission of the Church of England is the thing that is really at stake.
Teaching or instruction that is the question.