Can the University and the Church save each other?

Can the University and the Church save each other?

Is there any space in a non-confessional University for a confessional programme of study?

At least at present, the Church and the University need each other in order to regain their right minds. A Church which, in a phrase popular in the UK at the moment, is ‘mission-shaped’ (1) is drawn to an instrumental vision, in which all its learning–its learning of doctrine, of Scripture, of its own history–is filtered and processed until it becomes fuel for a practical purpose, and the disruptive strangeness of those sources is in danger of being hidden in the rush to use. The University, on the other hand, whilst pointing to this disruptive strangeness, has forgotten what is involved in living with it: it has forgotten (if it ever knew) that living with a fundamental openness to disruption is transformative, that it envelops and reshapes the whole person; it has forgotten that learning in the face of disruption is a spiritual discipline. Re-awoken to the disruptive strangeness of its sources (and of its Source), the Church in return can give what the University has rediscovered a name, and with the name a doorway into traditions of hard-won wisdom about the demands and possibilities of learning. If the University can save the Church, the Church might also save the University.

The University can, despite its own battles with the instrumentalizing of study, remind the Church of that disruptive strangeness: it can even, at its best, point to the vital uselessness of God

These are abstract claims, but they emerge for me from a concrete context. Every Wednesday evening, I spend two hours in an unkempt, barn-like room somewhere on the main campus of the University of Exeter, teaching Christian theology to a disparate group of mature students drawn from the English South West. Many of these students take the evening classes simply out of interest, their eyes caught by a poster or a plausible paragraph in a prospectus, but about half of the faces in front of me on any given evening belong to people studying theology as part of their training for accredited ministry in the church–normally Anglican and Methodist ordinands and Anglican Reader trainees, but sometimes others as well. Nevertheless, all of the students are, by the time they get into the room, students of the University, pursuing at least this part of their studies in a government-supported institution, their fees subsidised by public money, their teachers ‘public servants,’ and one of my tasks at the beginning of each academic year is to help them think through the anxieties which some of them have about this strangely mixed arrangement. Even in a British setting where both historically and currently borders between public universities and church-based colleges have been porous, blurred and weaving, some of my students worry that behind the facade of muddle and compromise, the University and the Church secretly stand on opposite sides of some fenced and ugly ditch. Some worry that their serious studies are about to be compromised by the need to humour ecclesial special interest; far more worry that their devout faith is about to be attacked and belittled by teachers waving a Godless academic banner. The more articulate of these students have no problem in finding vocabularies that enable them to name their worries: What has, they ask, a secular University to do with religious training? Isn’t academic freedom in conflict with Christian commitment? The battle lines are easily drawn, and Athens faces Jerusalem over an old and familiar border.

In order to win these students into a coherent class that can go forward in their studies together, I have had to think about this rather tired confrontation again–to look for new ways of articulating the relationship between Church and University so as to enable students to step out of an embattled mindset. And, as the years have gone by, I have grown more confident in my attempts; from offering well-rehearsed apologies and familiar ameliorations, I have graduated to ever bolder and balder claims as to the propriety–even the necessity–of the strange bipartisan turf on which the students find themselves.