In a few weeks I have to attend a Summer School as part of my University course. Just in case getting the essays tidy and submitted on time wasn't enough, we've now been sent two additional tasks, for the summer school, with the same deadline. One is to write a reflection on professional experience - not a good thing to say to a recently ex-NAM who has just spent three years doing this every week... mutter, mutter, mutter. The other is: -
Try to identify the three or four factors which have most shaped your theological understanding. These may be people met , books read, life events, courses attended etc. etc
If didn't have 'the' and 'most' it would be an easy task, but then maybe that's the point, they want me to be discerning. So, with my virtual paper before me, I'll have a think, because it is a good question to address.
The first book that comes to mind is David Bosch Transfroming Mission which was the first 'real' theology book (as distinct from Kingsway or IVP type stuff) I recall. It was a slog, but well worth it, did transform my thinking about mission and has undoubtedly infleunce the shape of my ministry.
Paul Fiddes Participating in God gave me an understanding of the Trinity, with perichoresis as 'dance' which I have devloped in my own slightly nutty way so that it combines a divine 'reel of three' with a 'missional grand chain.'
Miroslav's Volf's Exclusion and Embrace and L Gregory Jones Embodying Forgiveness made me think. Adele Rienhartz Befriending the Beloved Disciple affirmed me in my struggles with anti-Semitism and the fourth gospel, especially part of John 8 and all of John 19, but offered me a constructive way forward. More recently, Brian McLaren's New Kind of Christian trilogy has been significant, not in shaping but in affirming, my understanding. I love Barth, but only in English and in small chunks. Kung's The Church was significant as was Brian Wren's What Language Shall I Borrow - in fact I could go on for ages listing books.
Events and Experiences
I think the most significant experience in shaping my theology was a year spent working with an RC church. It caused me to think very hard about communion, and in particular who is permitted to receive it. The upshot is that I cannot refuse to give communion to anyone who responds to the invitation (and my wording of invitation is pretty inclusive!) no matter who they are or what is going on in their lives. The experience affirmed my strong ordinance theology and I wince when people say to me 'so that's the only reason you don't see it as a sacrament' - I want to yell (it makes me cross!) 'you try a year of being excluded from communion three times a Sunday and see how it feels!' I have studied theologies of 'sacrament' in depth and fully understand the metaphorical 'body of Christ' 'blood of Christ' language, but the experience has been so significant that it has affected my practice ever since.
Funerals offer ministers the equivalent of fishermen's tales - we all have horror stories to tell, and yes, we probably do embelish them. Even so, funerals make me think about theological issues - from doctrines of what the RC call 'the four last things' (death, judgement, heaven and hell) to the purpose of the funeral (who is it for, what does it do). As a minister who will 'bury anybody because everybody deserves a decent funeral' (which is a theolgocial statement in its own right) I have to trust in a God of mercy and compassion, and often find myself hoping that God's a universalist even if I can't quite get there!
Obviously (I assume it is obvious?) a degree in theology has shaped my thinking. I have had to challenge many of my ideas and to rediscover others I had long ago forgotten. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to think so hard and to take risks knowing that I was blessed with tutors who would catch me if I fell (thank you all). I suspect I mostly stayed well clear of the 'edge' cos I'm not a natural risk taker but once or twice it felt perilously close to it all falling apart.
One course which was signifcant was with the Industrial Mission of South Yorkshire, where I honed my understanding of the pastoral cycle and began to develop it myself. As we reflected on questions of short term projects, two things struck me and have stayed with me. Firstly, the historical Jesus had a public ministry estimated at around 3 years. That's not very long - but look at the impact it had, and continues to have, even on people who don't recognise his divinity. Secondly, Moses and the Israelite entered the wilderness not knowing they'd be there for '40years' (literal or figurative) but it turned out to be the length of time they needed to be ready for the next phase in the story. We don't always have a fixed end date for things and we can't see the future, but our wilderness experiences take the time they need for us to do/become what we need.
Who should I pick? Those who taught me - in Sunday School or in College? Those who supported me in my questions, struggles, successes and moments of understanding? Well, yes, but who has stood out?
I think 'Auntie Biddy' as we all knew her, someone who was always 'old' but who incarnated faith and showed me how to value everyone. Auntie Biddy was always 'ready to meet my maker' and quietly supported many of us practically and prayerfully. She once said to my little sister 'I hope Catriona doesn't end up an old maid like me.' Auntie Bid was no old maid, she was a star: if I can be half the woman she was, I'll be happy.
Then Jean, a loyal friend who lives hospitality. A few people who read this know her. She can conjure up a feast for 5000 from leftovers and her door is always open. I'd like to be half the hostess she is. She also understands my explanations of my research which makes me feel good!!
'My girls' - that's GB leader speak for the many girls I've worked with in more than quarter of a century. We get a bit possessive of them because we love them. But they have a wonderful capacity to challenge and surprise me. I remember one (aged 5) in 1981 who said to me one day 'God's everywhere isn't he.' I recall only months ago the response of our girls here to praying for people in tricky situations that we should ask God to 'help them cope and stay strong.' I love teaching my girls to 'fly' - nothing pleases me more than seeing a five year old skip for the first time, or the times we've been roller skating and a hesitant little girl takes my hand before suddenly discovering she can skate and whizzing off leaving me to plod round! Some of my girls have achieved things I'll never achieve, and in which I take delight, but above all they have taught me much and shaped my theology on the way.
The Most Significant?
That is tricky.
Probably Bosch on mission. Undoubtedly the RC experience. And maybe GB (which includes Auntie Biddy) as people, if only because this was really what drew me into the church long term and without which the rest might not have happened...