Book review: Trust in Theological Education

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Eve Parker, Trust in Theological Education: Deconstructing “Trustworthiness” for a Pedagogy of Liberation, (London: SCM Press, 2022)

reviewed by Sue Hart, Vicar Holy Trinity, Tidworth

I have rarely felt so ill-at-ease as I did when I found myself at theological college. I was reassured repeatedly (primarily by white men) that I would “adjust”, but it was only when I was able to articulate for myself the cause of my dis-ease that things started to fall into place. For me, it was the realisation that patriarchy was, as I expressed it, “mortared into the walls” of the august institution I attended; for Eve Parker, it is the colonisation of theological education that alienates, excludes and diminishes those who do not fit into the male, Western model of ministry that theological education promotes.

Parker’s book is a clarion call for systemic change in theological education, and therefore should be read by theological educators, decision makers in Ministry Division and those within dioceses contributing to the conversation around discernment, vocation and formation. But it would also be usefully read as a salve for those who have felt the discriminatory sting of ministerial formation located within an androcentric, Western, white norm.

Eve Parker’s forensic deconstruction of theological education arrives at a time of an overarching debate around trust in institutions. Following the damning conclusions of the IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) report into sexual abuse, and simmering polarisation around issues of sexuality and gender, the Christian church is no longer a place that necessarily engenders trust.

Parker suggests that this lack of trust reflects systemic failures in theological training, which are grounded in colonialism and patriarchy, and which ultimately fail to fully equip “students with the skills to bring about God’s kin-dom on earth.”[1] Her central question in the book is whether theological education has “the capacity to help the Church bring an end to racism, sexism and classism, abolish socio-economic inequality, gender violence and environmental degradation?”

This core question is why, for me, the book is so important. Parker’s thesis is not merely an identity polemic arguing for comfier spaces for women, LGBTI+, non-binary, Black and brown people, but a total unearthing and inspection of the foundations of theological education. She encourages the reader to engage with epistemological questions and suggests that our white, Western, androcentric ways of knowing have colonised theological education to the detriment of wider social justice.

Parker argues that theological education has an epistemological problem, which requires a paradigm shift. The existing paradigm is that white/Western (predominantly male) theologies are the “norm” and world theologies are contextual. Parker argues that, by shifting world theologies from the periphery of theological learning, we may begin to decolonise our thinking and practice. Furthermore, she suggests that the division between “systematic” and “contextual” theologies is an erroneous one: that, in reality, all theologies are contextual and should be acknowledged as such in theological institutions. “Segregating theological voices into contextual theologies enables the continuation of white supremacy theology because the norm remains unchallenged, whereas decolonising the curriculum challenges the dominant culture” (p.152).

Possibly I am projecting my frustrations onto her, but I hear Parker’s voice as one of righteous anger at the damage and limitations perpetuated by too narrow a vision of theological education, which marginalises the voices, experiences and theologies of those outside of the Westernised academy to the detriment of the church and society as a whole.

I suspect that Eve Parker’s book will be intensely polarising. Those of us who have experienced theological training as somewhat traumatising due to an inescapable feeling of “I don’t belong here” will celebrate Parker’s ground-breaking book, which dissects theological education with a decolonising eye. But those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo will likely regard Parker’s challenge as an existential threat to the orthodoxy that helps maintain their privileged positions.

[1] Parker, along with other feminist and liberation theologians including mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz, preferences “kin-dom” over “kingdom” stressing the egalitarian nature of the gospel preached by Jesus, as opposed to the more hierarchical structures of a patriarchal society.

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