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Sarah Coakley: Ministry is not easier than theology

A renowned theologian who also is an ordained priest argues that divinity schools should integrate practical and systematic theology to benefit both disciplines and better prepare students for ministry.

October 23, 2012

When Sarah Coakley underwent the ordination process after a successful career as an academic theologian, she experienced firsthand the divide between training for ministry and training in theology.

“Practical theology-based interests have become placed under the cloud of anti-intellectualism, very often -- even though that’s denied regularly,” she said. “And doctoral-level theology has itself been denuded by being disconnected from those practical interests.”

Coakley met prison inmates struggling with questions of justice and atonement, terminally ill patients questioning their faith, mental patients struggling to find community. But the training she’d received was thin -- and her place in the institutions in which she ministered was marginal.

As she worked in the world of ministry, the practical/systematic divide emerged as a very real problem.

Coakley, who is the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, proposes that divinity schools revamp their curricula to integrate ministerial formation with other disciplines in the university, thereby enriching both the intellectual and the professional training of divinity students.

Coakley spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke University to deliver the Franklin S. Hickman Lecture at the 2012 Convocation & Pastors’ School. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You have proposed better integration of pastoral and systematic theology in divinity schools. What prompted you to propose this, and what is your desired outcome?

I think simply to restate that duality -- systematic and pastoral theology -- is to state a problem. In many curricula of seminaries or divinity schools in this country, pastoral or practical theology is kind of glommed on the side, in contradistinction to systematic and historical theology, biblical studies and ethics.

This means that it has, unfortunately, accrued all the overtones of a slightly inferior stepsister, because it’s associated with the practical rather than the supposedly rational.

There are many deep historical reasons for this having happened, and one of them goes right back to the beginning of the 19th century, when [Friedrich] Schleiermacher in Berlin was rethinking the vision of how theology might fit in a modern research university.

He put theology, not at the heart of the university anymore, as a rational enterprise -- indeed, the queen of the sciences -- but, as it were, on the edge of the university, as professional training, alongside medicine and law.

Well, that gave it new status alongside medicine and law, to be sure, but it did suggest that theology qua profession was somehow practical rather than at the table of the highest philosophical, rational discussion in the university.

When that whole system was placed into the American scenario (and I’m missing out a lot of steps of history here), certain further maneuvers occurred whereby the university divinity schools in particular linked their theology departments to Ph.D. programs and made it quite clear that they weren’t giving up on the idea that they were intellectually [legitimate], along the lines of the philosophy faculty, for instance.

But as for the practical, pastoral theology, it took up this rather strange position as not really intellectual in the same way, not really associated with doctoral work; more connected with affectivity, pastoral response, love, rather than thought, etc.

And I think this has had very deleterious effects, both for the church and for the academy, because it siphoned off so-called pastoral or practical theology away from theology in its doctoral stream, thus creating a disjunction that would have been quite fantastic to the great pre-modern theologians such as Augustine or Aquinas.

And that’s meant that practical theology-based interests have become placed under the cloud of anti-intellectualism, very often -- even though that’s denied regularly.

And doctoral-level theology has itself been denuded by being disconnected from those practical interests.

So my view is that we need to, as it were, re-mend that wound. How to do this institutionally, now, is not easy, because to change any institution is a hard slog.

Q: Talk a little bit about your work in prisons, hospitals and mental institutions and how that came to crystalize your thought.

One of the impacts of de-intellectualizing pastoral theology is that you’re actually defanging it for critical theological thinking when you’re out in the field.

So you find yourself in a prison and you’re under this guise of non-demanding intellectual pastoral input, which is absolutely unchallenging to the prison system. The prison system doesn’t mind accommodating a few chaplains, as long as what they’re there to do is mop up distress without in any way questioning the system as it stands.

So you can see immediately that if you have demoted pastoral theology to this second-rate role, it can’t actually perform the prophetic function it needs to perform in situations like that.

So it was getting to understand that in the field that has produced this strong response in me -- that there’s an institutional challenge here of reform that has to occur … if we are to have a really prophetic voice in our culture in places like prisons and mental hospitals and general hospitals.

Q: You’ve also spoken of the individuals you worked with as engaging with these deep questions. In what way would this restore respect to those individuals in those institutions?

Well, I think one should never underestimate the people one learns from in jail and hospital -- that is, the inmates and the patients. And primarily as ministers, we are there to listen, first and foremost.

So we underestimate their theological insights at our peril. And I think the notion of pastoral theology has actually tended also to undermine the significance of what it might be that they would contribute to rethinking.

They’re dealing with enormous questions, mostly of theodicy, of the meaning of life, what punishment and atonement are for, how they can be restored to community outside the jail, in some sense feeling forgiven.

These are huge theological questions.

Q: You were ordained at age 50 when you already had a successful career as a theologian, so you have experienced both worlds. What prompted you to seek ordination, and how did it inform the work that you do?

It was a very specific, locatable context in which this sense of call occurred. It surprised me.

Had I stayed in Oxford, where I taught before going to Harvard in 1993, I’m fairly certain I would not have proceeded to ordination.

Because in Oxford, I was surrounded by clerics at every turn, clerics who dominated the theological faculty. There seemed to be quite enough of them.

It seemed to me at the time -- women actually couldn’t be ordained then in the Church of England -- I had things to say as a lone woman’s voice, and especially a feminist voice, that was much more powerful if not, as it were, implicated in the clerical state.

When I came to Harvard, the whole situation was reversed. I hit a divinity school in which very few senior professors were willing to stand up and be counted as practitioners of Christianity, let alone actual clerics.

And the students who’d come to Harvard to prepare for training -- most of them were exceptionally bright and capable of doctoral work -- found this utterly bemusing.

There was a great longing to find an embodiment of someone who both practiced as a theologian and could integrate this with the life of a minister. And, of course, this is a very long-standing vocation in the Church of England, as it is in Calvinism -- the particular vocation of a priest-scholar.

So I found myself in about five years of extreme discomfort receiving this projection of need from my students, and eventually something was sowed in my soul such that it became more uncomfortable to resist offering myself for ordination than the opposite.

Q: Are you a practicing priest?

Yes, I am. When I was ordained during my time at Harvard, the whole idea was that I would model this combination by being placed in a parish as an associate priest whilst doing my normal theological and philosophical work in the university during the week.

So I did that for 10 years before leaving Harvard, and it was a very, very rich combination. I had a sort of schizophrenic life, with parishes of very different sorts. One, a parish in England of considerable deprivation, with a mental hospital housed within it. The other, a parish near Boston of considerable middle-class privilege, but with huge theological interests amongst the parishioners.

Q: What are your recommendations for this kind of institutional reform at divinity schools?

Well, I think, personally -- and I’m sticking my neck out here -- that we should stop having a department of pastoral theology or ministry that is somehow disjunct from or separable from the central pillars in the curriculum.

There, of course, is still a necessity to learn particular skills. But I don’t think they should be, as it were, dislocated from the hard, intellectual, interdisciplinary effort of making these points of connection.

In my view, the best way to learn those skills is actually alongside very demanding interdisciplinary courses which look at the institutions of, say, jails, and look at how they were themselves founded on theological principles in the early modern period but have lost their moorings and become secularized -- yet theological questions are still implicit in what they do.

So training people in an interdisciplinary way alongside students from law school or the public policy school strikes me as the way to change the future here out in the field.

Ministry is not easier and more dumb than doing theology. It’s actually more demanding, because you need all your systematic theological inputs plus all these other interdisciplinary connections.

So I think this involves ideally nothing less than, not just a redistribution of courses within the curriculum of the divinity school, but the set of whole forays out into other professional schools in the university to create points of connection between young professionals who are going to be leaders in the next generation.

As soon as you say, “We don’t want a devalued pastoral theology; we want to integrate it with doctoral-stream theology,” people will defensively hear that as, “Pastoral theology doesn’t matter.”

That’s not what I’m saying. It matters hugely, but it is properly only an implication of systematic theology itself, so our problem is with our systematic theologian friends who think that they’re high and mighty and don’t need this other dimension.

I’m not looking for a new hegemony of the intellect. I’m looking for an integration of the highest intellectual endeavors with the truly transformative implications of this kind of work for all other parts of the self.

Q: Did you try something like this when you were at Harvard?

I had two experiments, which I’m sad I couldn’t continue, because I left shortly after these experiments and went back to Cambridge, and I’m now in a rather different sort of role, where I don’t actually have the power or the money to create new courses in the way that one can in American universities.

That’s why I think the reforms of this sort need to come from America, where the curriculum is more fluid.

I taught a course with a senior colleague at Harvard Law School on justice and mercy in Jewish and Christian tradition and the American penal system. I also taught a course twice with a colleague at the medical school on religion and medicine.

It introduced first-year medical school students and second-year M.Div. students, working together, to a whole range of topics which are of concern to each side, but using readings from each side to bring them into a fruitful conversation.

So that was my first experimentation of how that kind of undertaking might go, and I keep receiving emails from people who took those courses, who say, “You probably don’t remember me, but I took that course and it’s had profound implications for the way that I’m now practicing,” either as a minister or as a doctor.

Q: You say that you don’t want pastoral ministry to be reduced to heartwarming stories, yet you’ve suggested using case studies as teaching tools. What’s the difference?

What I am suggesting is that there’s a kind of dumbing-down move where people just use narratives out of their pastoral experience without actually subjecting those to theological analysis.

So case studies should involve the kind of analysis that is both intellectual and effective. Case studies, as indeed in law, provide the way that you teach the next generation of people how to push the envelope on developments that are crucially important for the world of politics in the church.

Were I to do something like this again, I think I would have the readings that we had of an interdisciplinary sort and then, at the end of the course, constellate all of the wisdom out of those readings by taking some really challenging case studies and seeing how both sides of the conversation responded to them. Because it’s that kind of underlying knowledge you need when you’re in the field as a minister.

You have to also learn how not to drop your theological insights in a crisis. Because the theological will actually inform the decisions that you’re making, and it’s part of the tragic disjunction that we tend to think, “Oh, systematic theology -- I did that in seminary. It’s not going to have any implications for whether I refer this person to the hospital [or] how this person’s background of abuse might be healed in some shape or form.”

We tend to assume that systematic theology doesn’t help us with those things. And that, I think, is a fundamental mistake.

Q: Let’s shift gears a little bit to ask you about gender and power in leadership and how you have engaged those issues, both in your personal experience and also in your intellectual project.

I think I’d like to focus here on one particular issue that’s absolutely prominent at the moment in the Church of England: Will the Church of England vote to have women bishops?

We don’t have women bishops at the moment, and as it happens, I was invited by the archbishop to address the House of Bishops just a few weeks ago on this thorny issue.

I don’t think I’ve ever before been in a room of 100 male bishops with no other woman present. At stake here is an extraordinary and almost unconscious capacity of my church to continue to, as it were, de-potentiate the inherent capacity of any priest to rise to the ranks of bishops.

So what’s been happening in the last 20 years in the Church of England, since we’ve had women priests, is that a new class of priests has been created -- women priests who can’t be bishops.

So it was my job to explode that notion, which has been normalized by its reality. And to use the most powerful, biblical, historic theological arguments just to remind these male bishops that this is an intrinsically self-defeating notion.

That they have created a caste of second-rate priests, and now they’re agonizing about whether these second-rate women priests could perhaps -- in some strange conditions which they’re cooking up, for protecting men who don’t want to come near them -- become second-rate women bishops.

And you see me here at my most radical and angry.

I think this is the most extraordinary and devious and incoherent theology the Church of England has come up with in its history, actually, and it needs not to be governed here by mere pragmatism and not offending people.

It needs to be governed by real theological insights. Again, it’s when we veer off the theological path into all kinds of accommodations and evasions that we lose our way.

Q: What do you think will happen?

I think we don’t know at the moment, because the hope is that in November -- now that it’s gone back to the synod, and accommodation to the conservatives having been chucked out, to my joy -- there still is an accommodation, but it’s not quite as theologically incoherent an accommodation as the previous round, and so we may or may not pass through this gate in November.