Theological accompaniment – learning about learning in urban life | Anna Ruddick [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

Anna Ruddick

What does it mean to go on a “learning journey” together in mission?

How can the way we design learning processes actually embody the ethos and approach to mission and marginality we hope to advocate to participants?

Can “learning as life change” be a part of God’s mission to us, just as we seek to be a part of God’s mission in the worlds of our communities?

These questions among others have floated around Urban Life since its inception and have shaped the way that we have evolved over the last few years. We provide practical, local and accessible training to Christian groups, intentional communities and churches in urban areas and marginalised neighbourhoods. As a small and dispersed team of theological accompaniers we journey alongside individuals, groups, collectives, teams and churches to stimulate reflection on mission practice. This involves devising bespoke learning journeys that weave together the experiences of participants and current academic thinking in order to help practitioners continue to enrich their mission in marginalised communities. Our work ranges from informal gatherings to accredited training at graduate and postgraduate level delivered as part of the Common Awards framework, but each element shares a common approach: helping participants to reflect theologically on their practice.

Urban Life is itself a learning journey, exploring and experimenting with pedagogical styles and as a team encouraging one another to lean into the new, emergent and life-giving threads we discover along the way. While this risks sounding utopian, the reality is fragility, uncertainty, much grappling and a fair bit of discomfort and awkwardness. In fact, part of our discovery, in our team times and in the groups we facilitate, is that it is only when you get to discomfort that the real learning begins. Holding your nerve and staying in the awkwardness gives space for genuinely new insight to emerge; no one said it would be easy.

What has developed through our practice is a pedagogy of “theological accompaniment”. This is the language that has consistently resonated with us in our practising of and reflection on this task. It may be that this is a well-developed field of pedagogical thought and we are just unaware of it (if so we’d love to hear more so please get in touch!), but for us the language of accompaniment carries associations of spiritual direction, friendship and collaboration. It is “alongsider” language, akin to the New Testament idea of the Holy Spirit’s companionship with believers. We, all relating in different ways to missional practice in marginalised and urban neighbourhoods, are on the journey ourselves. But we have all also sought to take steps back, take a deep breath and allow ourselves to be submerged in our questions and ambiguities. It is from these slightly awkward standpoints of in-and-out that we seek to offer accompaniment that is profoundly theological – about the encounter with God in and through encounter with others and ourselves in mission.

As our theological accompaniment has developed it has taken on a specific character, with four interwoven commitments, which I want to explore in this article:

Practical theology – that theology is born of experiences that “matter”

Ethnography – a rigorous method and a posture to see human experiences afresh

Whole-person-in-community learning – learning is life change and life change involves our bodies, spirituality, emotions, relationships and intellect

Liberative participation – that all people are made in God’s image, requiring attentiveness to power and privilege in both learning and mission.

In the course of preparing a session on Miroslav Volf’s much-respected book Exclusion & Embrace for our Experiments in Mission programme, I found myself shaping a series of prayer stations using Volf’s four “acts” in the “drama of embrace”: opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms in the embrace itself, and opening them again in letting go. [1] This exercise combined intellectual engagement with a complex theological text, reflection on participants’ current missional experience and an encounter with God. Participants were invited to use 3D glasses to reflect on another’s perspective in the first station, to stand with their arms held open for a number of minutes in the second and to receive God’s comfort in the pain of letting go in the fourth. The stations sought to bring into synergy the cognitive mind, the spirit, the body and the emotions in the process of learning. I use the four acts of embrace in this article as a way to reflect on the four commitments named above, and the prayer stations described above offer an example of the learning approach we are developing: a pedagogy for theological accompaniment.

Practical theology – opening the arms to experiences that “matter”

Practical theology is described by Terry Veling as a verb rather than a noun: not so much a “thing” as a way of being in the world that acknowledges the theological nature of our daily lives. [2] It is also an academic discipline – two modes that are not often easily blended but which have provided a solid theoretical framework and methodology for my understanding of life, mission and learning.

As a committed and practising Christian, to me the natural blending of theology (my talk about God) with practice (my daily life in the world) simply makes sense. It is a true description of my existence. The acknowledgement that no systematic or theoretical theology is untouched by human experience, and that equally no human experience is unfiltered through our previously held concepts of God, self and other, is hugely helpful to me. Unnerving at times perhaps, but where it destabilises rarefied notions of received theology it calls us to a new self-awareness – to recognise the intertwining of experience and ideas in our own dearly held beliefs and to discern the push and pull of God’s Spirit and cultural ebbs and flows in our understandings.

The first stage in Volf’s “embrace” is to open one’s arms. In this he encapsulates opening our minds and hearts along with our arms to someone or something that is new, unfamiliar, “other” to us. This willingness to be open to the new or unexpected is central to our approach in theological accompaniment. It is an expression of faith in the creativity, presence and otherness of God that we may still, and always, be surprised in our missional practice. Mary McClintock Fulkerson suggests that theology is born of experiences that “matter”; in fact she goes further to say that theology arises when we attend to our “wound”. [3] Focusing attention on the “wounds” of missional practitioners often means unpacking questions of success and failure, God’s action and seeming inaction, the deeply complex and difficult situations that people experiencing poverty and marginalisation struggle against on a daily basis, and the weariness of remaining in the midst of all this.

While this may appear a disheartening exercise, we find that for participants there is great relief and freedom in turning towards the things we so often try to hide from or deny. It requires courage to face the new, unexpected or unknown and to do the work of naming the tangled threads of inherited theologies, cultural conditioning and experiences of God and others that shape our beliefs and responses. But when we do this work, alongside others also doing their work, we find a sharpened sense of what is “us”, what is “not us” and what “might just be God”. Practical theology as a way of being in the world offers this as a path on which we walk; as an academic discipline it also offers some tools with which to practice our craft, which takes us to our second commitment: to ethnography as a method and a posture.

Ethnography – waiting in a posture of attentive openness

Having opened our arms to embrace what or who we have previously seen as “other”, Volf’s second stage in the process is to wait. In the moment of opening ourselves we make ourselves vulnerable to acceptance or rejection, and respecting the personhood of the one we seek to embrace requires that we simply extend the invitation, watch and wait.

Christian Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen define ethnography as “… a process of attentive study of, and learning from, people – their words, practices, traditions, experiences, memories, insights – in particular times and places in order to understand how they make meaning (cultural, religious, ethical) and what they can teach us about reality, truth, beauty, moral responsibility, relationships and the divine, etc”. [4] They offer a picture of ethnographic research that can in itself be mission, and is characterised by an attentive and unhurried presence with and among people.

For many in the academic and research world, ethnography is a technical and intricate process that generates a huge amount of data and requires extensive analysis and careful interpretation. This provides an excellent foundation for more accessible expressions of ethnography as a posture in mission, rather than as a research methodology and method within the academy. The rigour and values base of ethnography requires us to examine our own standpoint in relation to that which we give our attention to. It leads us into a discovery of missional reflexivity – acknowledging our own influencing world views and theologies, along with the impact they have on our attentiveness and our understanding of those we seek to embrace. Ethnography is attuned to injustice and committed to honouring the personhood of those whom it seeks to learn from. In this sense also it expresses Volf’s spirit of “waiting” with open arms; as he writes: “Waiting is a sign that, although embrace may have a one-sidedness in its origin… it can never reach its goal without reciprocity.” [5]

Incorporating an ethnographic posture into our learning processes usually involves developing participants’ observational skills in their missional work. We take noticing walks and encourage mini “experiments” in mission in which participants try out a different kind of activity, such as crossing a boundary they have never crossed before (one participant decided to go to the local bingo hall and discovered that unadvertised changes in opening times and membership requirements meant that accessing the bingo community could be as difficult as joining a new church!). We then reflect together on these new experiences, drawing out the questions and insights they might offer. We also work on developing our reflexivity – self-awareness in relation to our positions and roles in mission and in the theologies that shape our understanding of mission and expectations for its outcomes. Inevitably this requires a “whole-person” engagement with the learning process – we don’t leave our emotions at the door – and calls us into supportive community as we learn together.

Whole-person-in-community learning – embrace, coming together as individuals

Learning changes us. I often ask group participants how they learned the most formative lessons of their lives. Their answers rarely involve a classroom or a lecture. They talk about hard won perspectives on themselves or others that came about through significant experiences and gradually over time became consolidated as valued learnings. Sam Ewell quotes Trevor Hudson as saying, “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflection upon experience”; this distinction is helpful and in the big sweep of our life stories that reflection often happens in diffuse ways, over time, and with much repetition. [6] Our aspiration is that our learning processes facilitate that reflection on experience by inviting a whole-person engagement and by offering a relational and conversational space in which the “experiences that matter” can come to light; and, in the telling and retelling, we can learn the lessons they have to share with us.

This conversational space wherein whole persons meet each other finds resonance with Volf’s third act in the drama of embrace, that of closing the arms. For Volf this necessarily involves two participants, equally choosing to close their arms around the other, both active and both passive. Furthermore, this embrace must be gentle – not an oppressive “bear-hug” with one party seeking to dominate the other, nor acquiescent with one party allowing themselves to be absorbed into the other. [7] A true embrace requires that the full personhood of both parties is honoured and brought to the encounter.

Both aspects of this understanding of embrace help us to shape learning processes that enable life change. Firstly we seek to invite and offer space for the full personhood of participants to be brought into the learning experience. This happens by engaging with body, mind, spirituality and emotions in a mix of activities that blend visual and kinaesthetic craft and creativity, grappling with academic texts, self-reflection, group support and various forms of prayerful practice. Taking this approach means that we echo some of the research about learning styles but are doing so with a more holistic perspective. We are not simply aiming to engage different types of learners, although that is important; we are aiming to help all types of learners to explore a subject with their whole being and to do so in community so that their learning is not simply either “head” or “hands” but is integrated into their world view and muscle memory and therefore, we hope, into their missional practice.

Liberative participation – letting go

The final act in Volf’s drama of embrace is simply the opening of the arms again, a letting go. In this he expresses the importance of difference and the fallacy of seeking entirely to eradicate it. For Volf, embrace is the mutually chosen coming together of two distinct persons, who both share a common humanity while remaining distinct persons within it. They come together, embrace and then, crucially, part again to go “about their own business for a while” with a standing invitation to embrace again, thereby creating a circular movement. [8]

Another way of framing this tension of difference and togetherness is to recognise that all people are made in God’s image and therefore have revelation to share. In the foundational theological idea of imago Dei we find a respect for the distinct personhood of every human and an invitation to come together to learn of God from one another. For a pedagogy of theological accompaniment, as for mission, this letting go and acknowledging the imago Dei in one another is a challenging but vital commitment: challenging because it flies in the face of much of our teaching and learning culture within the UK (read western, developed, twenty-first century) context, and vital because much of this education system is exclusive.

For most people education is equated to school, college and university; the classroom, not daily life. And it is imparted by teachers and lecturers, experts in their fields who pass on their knowledge, largely, although increasingly this is changing, through audiovisual means focused on the cognitive mind. It is by its very nature hierarchical and primarily cerebral. This overwhelmingly favours white, western, middle-class people with strong cognitive skills. In doing so it misses out on the richness of the “whole-person-in- community” kind of learning that I have outlined above, and it systematically mitigates against a mutual embrace with those we have previously seen as “other”.

For us as an Urban Life core team, our entry point to the questions of power and privilege has been mission in urban and marginalised communities: building relationships of mutuality with people who struggle against poverty and prejudice in many forms, and in the process developing our self-awareness of the dynamics of privilege and marginality in our own lives. As a result addressing such injustices has become foundational to our understanding of mission and this has naturally led us to be attentive to power and privilege in shaping our learning contexts.

We aim to be “participative”, which means acknowledging that in every room we each have a share of the wisdom. We facilitate sessions, enabling the participation of all, and ourselves participating along with the group in the learning journey we are on together. We may all start in different places and have different areas of insight to bring but we are all equally valuable and share in responsibility for our own and the group’s learning process. We also aim to be “liberative”, acknowledging the voices and faces who are not present in the room and asking how we can hear their perspectives in order to more fully encounter God together. We are a work-in-progress in this; swimming against the tide culturally, pedagogically and missionally can be hard and uncomfortable work, and awakening our self-awareness is always the first step towards change.


Contained in the commitments described above is an attempt to illustrate, articulate and model an approach to mission, not just an approach to learning. In the current world of theological education, context-based training is ubiquitous but often simply means training while working for a church as opposed to the deeply integrated engagement with missional experiences that practical theology and ethnography invite. Among those feeling a call to situations of marginalisation, to community-based mission and ministry, to pioneering, to forms of experimental and incarnational presence in the world, there is a hunger for more holistic learning spaces and for room to bring the ambiguities of power, injustice, and the surprising presence of God that their missional practice has brought to the fore. This is the hunger that we have felt ourselves and that we are gradually, and sometimes falteringly, learning how to nourish in theological accompaniment.

Taking a pedagogical approach defined by practical theology, ethnography, whole-person-in-community learning and liberative participation, we are being stretched and drawn into new encounters with God and others. In addition, finding that this pedagogy can bear fruit in both accredited and non-accredited settings, for informal journeying with missional teams and for master’s-level study, points to its potential for a genuinely inclusive and accessible theological educational environment. We have so much more to learn, and the gift is in the learning process – that through it we are all being changed.

Anna Ruddick is a community theologian and researcher who facilitates theological reflection and learning for leaders, congregations and Christian organisations seeking to deepen and strengthen their relationships with their local community. She holds a doctorate in practical theology and works freelance in a variety of church and charity settings, including as a core team member for Urban Life. She is also a research fellow at Bristol Baptist College, and a trustee of the William Temple Foundation.

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[1] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, Revised and Updated: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 2019), 142–48.
[2] Terry A. Veling, Practical Theology: “On Earth as it is in Heaven” (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 4.
[3] Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 13.
[4] Christian Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen, eds., Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics (London: Continuum, 2011), 16.
[5] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 145.
[6] Samuel E. Ewell, III, Faith Seeking Conviviality: Reflections on Ivan Illich, Christian Mission, and the Promise of Life Together (Eugene, OR: Cascade
Books, 2019).
[7] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 146.
[8] Ibid., 147–48.

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