So, three days in Manchester when I was already tired and not exactly feeling as if my grey matter was awake. Probably not the best recipe for learning new stuff or meeting new people.
So, let's start with the mildly amusing aspects of the whole event. The staff had decided it would be good if we all made an A4 poster introducing ourselves and our research interests so that we could see who we all were. This was then to form the basis of a 'fun poster quiz' on the first evening. I think it was a good idea, but I'm not at all convinced it was successful. Someone arrived with an A0 professionally produced poster, some people had A2 or A3 with minute type, some people opted out. Just as significantly, there wasn't any time to look at the posters before the quiz time, so unless you knew someone or happened to have a question about yourself, the odds of getting any answers right were very slim. Guess work became the order of the day and one group decided that I had a photo of myself on a jet-ski on my poster and that I compared myself to a character in a Joanna Trollope novel. This is all pretty funny (if blatantly untrue) but should I ever happen to find myself sat on a jet-ski I will make sure I have an appropriate novel to hand (The only thing I have never read anything by said author is "The Rectors' Wife" which I clearly am not, so comparisons are tricky!)
The whole thing has grown enormously in the three years it's been running. At one level this is wonderful, at another it is worrying. It is great that so many people want to engage with theology - but scary that 50% of them have never done any theology and seem to think that the course should equip them with the basics. It is great to have people who are ministers and chaplains alongside people who are not professional Christians but it is scary trying to hold together the various needs and interests. The impact of having so many people on the dynamics of the events cannot be underestimated - it was impossible to speak to everyone in my own peer group, never mind those beyond it; the relative 'safety' of the dozen starters has long gone in a conference of around 50 and I don't envy the staff who have to think carefully how to shape future events to meet such diverse needs.
From my perspective, there was probably only one really valuable session, which was when the Year 3 cohort were asked to write in no more than 50 words what they thought their research question was. That I could have a stab at this was a definite plus, and little subtleties in wording could be teased out a little. The reality is that majority of sessions have to be geared to the majority of delegates, and since most people are doing pastoral rather than practical theology, centred on qualitative research with interviews, focus groups etc, I found it hard to stay interested when my own work is more theoretical - bridging the gap (or trying to!) between the academy and the congregation with some methodological work to support practical ends. Bunking off one session - because there were four options all of which I'd already done as compulsory sessions at past residentials - and working with some Baptist history writing at Association level was far more productive.
As far as the guest lecture was concerned there seem to be a number of options as to how I respond to it...
- It was interesting and intriguing, but not practical theology in any shape or form
- It was interesting and intriguing, but ultimately, 'so what?'
- It was an academic having fun playing with ideas without ever properly grounding them (a few interesting, practical questions were raised but never explored)
- It was odd
- I didn't get it
- It was a source of much amusement and bemusement among most students, though a few loved it
It was good to see my soon-to-escape-to-the-antipodes supervisor (I got the book for £1 by the way - thanks for the tip) and good to stay with some friends near Urmston. It was not so great to trip over another student's carelessly placed brief-case and re-sprain my not-yet-fully-recovered-from-last-time ankle and get a bruise worthy of Angela in the process. It was good to be back in the Manchester and with glorious autumn sunshine to boot. It was not so great to come away questioning how productive the event had been for me. It is good to have the opportunity and privilege to study theology, good to be free to grumble about it and I hope that despite the grumbles, mumbles and gripes, I am still managing to gain from the experience what there is to be gained, and growing as a person, a theologian and a disciple along the way.
Now I feel about fit to crash out in front of some dire TV rather than start reading all the lovely books I have brought down the motorway...