Bishop and Mrs. S. K. Parmar Lecture-2014: Towards Relevant Theological Education in India

Filed in Articles by on March 18, 2014

Lecture III:   Towards Relevant Theological Education in India


In the last two lectures, I was trying to build up a case for the contextual studies in theological education as represented by the Serampore system.  I attempted to present the evolution of Serampore College through different stages in response to the context of plurality of religions in the first part of these lectures.  In the second, we tried to take a stock of the curriculum revision exercise which was taken in the context of widening understanding of context beyond religious pluralism.  In this last lecture, we will try to take a view of the situation of affiliated college and the challenges they now face as they become the part of Serampore system in the wider mission of the Church India.

Categories of theological institution

In the early days of evangelization, theological colleges, as missionary centers, built up structures that were to support the missionary concerns.  For long, theological colleges were considered as centers where pastors, evangelists, missionaries and church professionals were educated in order that they may preserve and propagate certain Christian truths and ethical norms.  In the process of time, following model/types/category of theological institutions emerged many of them later became affiliates of Serampore College (University):

 a.   Tradition model

In the traditional sense, theological colleges are considered to be ‘factories’ that produce pastors and workers for various ministries of the church, it is expected that they will produce them well versed in church liturgies, rituals and pastoral duties.  Most of our colleges do serve this purpose more sincerely than anything else. This model for theological institutions, and education, needs to be critically evaluated and analysed in the light of our experiences in order to make it helpful to the diversified ministries of the church of the present era.  Senate has been greatly distressed by the fact that church-administered seminaries and theological colleges are now more in difficulties than in the past, so much so that a few have disaffiliated themselves from the Senate.  Some of the churches complained that Senate is not supporting their role model, and it demands for contextualisation does not correspond to their expectations and needs; they, therefore, preferred to move out of the family.

 There are not many theological institutions in the Serampore family that can strictly be classed under this category.  Denominational and sectarian seminaries which used to be part of such a classification have moulded themselves in accordance with the time and pressures of new demands of the ministries in the present era.

 b.   Anti-traditional model 

It is normal that such a model evolves itself as a contrary to the traditional one.  This model is just the anti-thesis of what the traditional ones are.  In the seventies, for example, a few theological institutions emerged as strong centres for churches’ involvement in socio-political life of the people of God, a phase they coined to refer all people irrespective of the caste-class-creed identities.  It was the time of activation of NGOs and activists.  Some theological colleges and Christian institutions felt that churches are too slow to react to the ground realities of its adherents and society.  They, therefore, took lead in establishing themselves as leaven in the society with active participation in people’s movement and socio-economic programmes.  This led to some misunderstanding, and conflict, between churches and theological institutions, in some cases, leading to direct confrontations.  In some cases, a few theological colleges were black-listed, some ever proscribed by established churches.

 Positively speaking, the anti-traditional model helped theological colleges to move out of direct influence, sometime direct interference, of the churches’ ecclesiastical and administrative hold, and gave them freedom to act, reflect and defend their position.  It provided them an opportunity to engage in more dynamic exposure programmes for the students, produce vibrant theological reflections on problems faced the people at large in our country, especially, the poor, the exploited, the marginalized, Dalit, women and indigenous people. It is satisfying to note that during this period, much theological thinking came out and literatures on contextual theologies- Dalit, Women, Tribal, eco, developmental etc., – became one of the serious concern of theological educators.  The negative effect led to the withdrawal of support from the churches and forced them to develop themselves as ‘theological NGOs’.  Many individual sponsored seminaries and independent church institutions comes under this category.

 c.   Ecumenical model

Mission fields have always helped the ecumenical cooperation between individual missionaries, mission boards and churches.  India has many success stories in this model, especially in general and theological education.  We may have to consider this model with a critical and analytical eye, since this is what is needed and adopted, as per our requirements, in our context of theological education in India.  The main characteristic of this order is its willingness to be open to contradictories and contraries, and work for the good of the community.

 As most of the institutions fall under this category, further apparent deviations can also be noted:

i.  Co-operative Ecumenical order: This model emerged out of the expressed need of the churches for the training of their mission workers and pastors, on the one hand, and limitation of resources on the other.   Paucity of financial and personnel resources is not a recent phenomena but has always been an endemic problem in every theological endeavour in this country.  Pooling on the resources made this model most successful one.

 This model allows churches, in the past, to take responsibility for the smooth running of the institution, but is now running into difficulties due to some administrative and financial problems.  Mundane problems concerning property, sharing of financial burden, administrative structure, and governing principles are creating tensions in institutions representing this model.

 ii. Apparent Ecumenical model: It is perhaps a gentler way of saying that this model represents pseudo-ecumenism.  It embodies those institutions that pay lip service to ecumenism in their structures, and covertly continue to be sectarian and denomination.  This may be the case in its narrower sense.  In the broader sense, some of the union institutions may be classed under this category.    In this model, there is no direct representation from the participating churches in terms of financial support, personnel are provided, more often, without much commitment, and the participation in administration and governance is meant to be just symbolic.

The greatest drawback of such an arrangement lies in the fact that it does not encourage ecumenicity at any level and draws churches away from any meaningful participation. Some of our theological institutions, unfortunately, are following such a model.  Mere staff comprising from different church bodies, and student belonging to different denominations does not constitute an ecumenical institution; to be so, one has to be a part of greater organism.

 iii. Organic Ecumenical model: This model came into existence with the arrival of uniting and united churches in this part of the world, of which CSI and CNI are the most important expressions; UELCI, BBU, PCI, CBCNEI etc, are examples as well.  With the inauguration of visible union, the denominational character of many of theological colleges/seminaries belonging to erstwhile sectarian churches drastically changed, so much so that some discarded their distinctive and traditional values and character.  At the same time, the new found openness to other ritualistic, liturgical and spiritual traditions helped the growth of new forms of synthesis in spiritual experience and expression.

 It is to be noted that in few instances, theological institutions remained attached to old denominational character, while a few, continue to try evolving new forms of administrative structure and witness.

 d.   Charismatic Ecumenical model 

This is a model introduced by some churches, lately individuals, with evangelical zeal and concern.  Many so called main-line churches supported, and participated in this new venture without losing their identities.  It may, perhaps, be difficult to distinguish between the Pentecostals and evangelicals, as their concerns are well united and expressed in the ethos of these theological institutions so supported.  It is often complained that the established church seminaries are not taking the evangelical fervour seriously, and intellectual pursuit is encouraged at the expense of spiritual discipline;  their efforts, therefore, is a correction to this developing tendency in theological education.  Evangelical commitment, Missiological fervour and strict Christian discipline are the hell-mark of such institutions.  Individualism is a serious drawback one can discern in this model.

 Contextual diversity within theological Education and associated difficulties

Diversity of models, church affiliations, regional location and linguistic variety present a unique opportunity o each of the affiliates within the Serampore System.  The issue has often been raised that context concerns, in addition to already taken care of within the new dispensation,  should be included in the theological curriculum of affiliated colleges.  Certainly each region, perhaps even each state, would have issues peculiar to their contexts which should find space in a theological curriculum offered by institutions in that area.  However, it should not be necessary for issues that are clearly confined to a region/state to be a part of an all-India curriculum.

 The institutions may have to deal with the following issues in their curriculum, and perhaps develop specific courses for understanding and interpreting the mission of the church, and for the proclamation of the Gospel:

a.   The rise of religious fundamentalism that has pervaded the ideologies of political parties, given rise to new political parties, and  often find a expression       in Freedom of /religion Bills either already in force or on the anvil.

b.   The rise of violence against Christians by groups claiming to have the backing of political parties or religious groups, the indifference of law and order and other authorities ton these incidents unless pressure is brought to bear on them from higher authorities, and the helplessness of the courts in curbing these incidents and bringing culprits to book.

c.   The socio-economic condition of the majority of Christians in the north who    come from the dalit, tribal and OBC backgrounds.  The issue if whether Christians are eligible for consideration under the reservation policies of the government for admission to  schools, colleges, institutions of higher learning,        job opportunities and other facilities such as loans, entrepreneurial help, allotment of land etc.

d.   The shortage of north Indian theological teachers is cause of much concern.  The regional language institutions find difficult to appoint qualified teachers or recruit those who may be interested in a teaching ministry.  This may perhaps be one of the reasons why regional language institutions, and English medium instructions in the north, are not doing as well as their counterparts in other areas of the country.

e.   Churches in the north must be requested to give urgent priority to encouraging pastors and those already qualified, to consider a teaching ministry.  Further, a teaching ministry should not exclude a person from contesting for higher posts in the church.  This may then make an appointment to the teaching ministry more attractive.  In this regard, governing bodies should give serious consideration to teachers pay scales, allowances and other perks bringing it to        a comparable level with central/city church pastors.

f.    Teachers must have the freedom to add regional concerns to present courses and develop new courses, which would introduce contextual concerns and keep theological education relevant to the issues faced by the people.

h.   One of the most alarming and widespread problems in the higher structures and hierarchy, as one has pointed out during our consultation, is lack of personal and public morality among those who are entrusted with responsibilities.  Personal and spiritual formation needs special attention.

i.    With the introduction of multiple of degree programmes and courses, we often miss our priorities.  A trained Christian theologian is expected to be professionally competent person in his/her respective field of training.  We seem to produce ministers and theologians not competent enough in Christian discourses and spirituality.  This may be contributing towards alienation of major segment of our community.

 Challenges faced by theological institutions in the new context

Most of the colleges under Serampore were established prior to independence of India, and formation of uniting churches; they were denominational, sectarian and depended heavily upon oversea partners.  Gradually self-supporting, self-regulating and self-managing churches and institutions emerged, and Serampore affiliation was open to many more institutions.  This forced Serampore to be more ecumenical and open in all its aspects of theological education and management.  The process is still going on, but Serampore is more than willing to face them as and when they arise.  Many might have gone through this situation within our system, and may have pleasant/unpleasant experiences; yet many do vouch for the vibrancy of Serampore System.

 Independence of India had infused new life and sense responsibility within our system.  The respect for rule of law within democratic values has slowly permeated in every aspect of our day to day life, from which churches and its institutions could not remain isolated.  The change of Serampore within these parameters have been greatly appreciated and recognized.  Secular ideology with preference to the welfare of the minority: socially marginalized; economically deprived; discriminated because of gender/caste/differently-abled; despised due to sexual orientation and profession etc., are now taken seriously and have become a part of theological curricula, context and point of reference.

 Some of the specific challenges within the context of our situation in India can be discussed in brief.

 1.   Interfaith study in secular context 

      Interfaith endeavors are of immense relevance especially in the Indian scenario since such engagements, to a great extent, fabricate or promote peace and harmony amidst extreme religious intolerance and communal turbulence. There have been auspicious attempts to explore new ways of inter-faith relations, inter-religious and interdisciplinary education for insuring quality and relevant education in Asia for common good. It becomes interesting to look in to the subject since the pluralistic context of India confronts the Christian affirmations at various levels. It is also essential to re-examine the original intention of the Serampore education system in widening the scope of interfaith events.

       Serampore still needs to open itself for inter-faith study at higher level.  New course needs to be devised and offered to the people of other faith.  Some of the existing courses at post-graduate level can be offered to students without any distinction on the basis of religions/ideologies.  Research degree programme can also be made available to all without any distinction, especially in the fields that promote harmony, understanding and peace among various religious traditions.  Our context is pluralistic, multifarious and diversified.  It is rich in religious traditions, culture, languages, and social structures.  Critical engagement is the only way leading to understanding, overcoming fear of otherness and estrangement from each other.

 2.   Contextual concerns

      Relevant theological education should have to take the contextual concern seriously; Serampore tried to do so and have included few of them in its curricula under new BD programme.   One may, however, observe and say that our theological institutions are generally divorced from the context- context of religious fundamentalism, cultural nationalism, caste-class-gender divide, communalism, racial conflicts and neo-spiritualism.  The present structures, curricula, pedagogy, content and process employed in our institutions, if needed, be reconceived, reformulated and taken up on priority basis, so that ministers-to-be have a pedagogy to respond critically and creatively to the challenges faced by the church and society.  The complaints of some that our curriculum and admission procedures are urban-oriented, thus serving the interests of the dominant caste-class groups, should be taken seriously.  The rural and subaltern categories should have to be given accessibility in power structures and systems.

 3.   Dialogue with technological-savvy generation

      The expansion of scientific knowledge, impact of information technology and technology-in-our-backyard phenomena is the characteristics of our era.  These are affecting the lives of the people to the core of their being, raising many questions that are supposed to be in the realm of religion and theology.  At a time when the Senate has revised theological curricula, colleges are expected to move ahead and address to the varied need of the people and society seriously and devise new curriculum and courses as per the demands of their context and situation.  We need to focus our attention upon the relation between the natural sciences including physics, cosmology, evolutionary and molecular biology, as well as technology and the environment, and Christian theology and ethics.  Moreover, scientific discoveries of last century, and the new outlooks they have produced, bring many scientists and theologians into new, sympathetic, and productive discussions.  We should not miss any opportunity in collaborating, and entering into a dialogue, with our fellow seekers for the truth of the Real.

 4.   Mission concerns 

      In the last thirty years, we can note, theological education has become missiological exercise.  Many theological graduates through our external study programmes are engaged in missionary endeavours.  Recently churches, especially north-eastern, have highlighted this aspect of theological education and demanded a new degree course for training in mission.  There is a wish to mobilize people towards their obligation for the mission.  Senate has tried to address this concern by way of penetrating and spreading the subjects dealing with mission over all branches of study in the basic and essential study of ministerial formation at BD level so that it may reach the congregation through the minister.  This aspect of theological education needs to extended to the congregation which should be made aware of their responsibility toward mission as a part of diversified ministry of the church/congregation/individual member. Theological colleges are meant to educate entire people of God so that authentic Christ-centered communities are formed. This dimension of theological education needs to be recognized and strengthened.  Moreover, the understanding of mission has become praxis oriented and contextual, demanding total commitment with changed life-style of whole people of God.   Theological institutions have to involve the whole church and have to become an instrument of the church in equipping the believer to be an active agent of the liberative mission of God through witness, service and teaching.

 5.   Equipping the catalysts 

      Church, from the very beginning of its existence, has been a movement of spirit among the people of God.  As such, it is not supposed to be static or just a monument; it must move on.  It must respond to the issues that emerge from social, economic, political, cultural and religious forces.  Church and its institutions, more often, maintain silence over these issues, vital to the lives of its people.  If the church is expected to respond to the prophetic call, its theological education must provide adequate skills to analyse the society and sills to apply hermeneutical principles to the ministers-in-making.  The role of theological education is to equip and sensitise the ministerial candidates for a Christian vocation in such a way that they can aptly respond to the challenges of life-situation.

 6.   Spiritual formation 

      One of the most alarming and widespread problems in the higher structures and hierarchy, as one has pointed out during our consultations on curriculum revision, is lack of personal and public morality among those who are entrusted with responsibilities.  Personal and spiritual formation, therefore, needs special attention within every structure of theological education.  With the introduction of multiple of degree/diploma programmes and courses, we often miss our priorities.  A trained Christian theologian is expected to be professionally competent person in his/her respective field of training.  We seem to produce ministers and theologians not competent enough in Christian discourses and spirituality.  This may be contributing towards alienation of major segment of our community.   We need to address this concern with all seriousness at our command.

 7.   Assessing the assessor  

      One may note that we have not been able to assess ourselves as a university/accrediting body, which can be an extension of the assessment of colleges affiliated to the Senate.  Serampore is assessed by NACC team which normally makes a point to visit Senate.  The team always had appreciation for us but they have not so far assessed as they have done with other universities in Bengal and India.  As a university in India we are under the UGC Act, and may be asked to be assessed by the NACC team any time in future; we need to be ready for such an eventuality.  Still, may I propose, we need an outside body to asses us under following: curricula; teaching-learning and evaluation; research, consultancy and evaluation; infra-structure and learning resources; student support and progression; governance and leadership; innovative practices.  This may amount to suggesting formation of an external body in each of the accrediting/affiliating systems in theological education that are functioning in the region/sub-region.  Common/combined evaluation team for affiliation/accreditation can also be helpful.  Some thought can be given to this.

 8.   Association of accrediting/affiliating institutions 

      Multiplicity of accrediting bodies has to be taken serious note of, and some where its implication to theological education should have to be discussed.  In this context, we should think of a National/International association of accrediting/affiliating institutions engaged in Theological education, as suggestion is worthy for consideration.  There has been a long-standing need for national and international exchange forum where different theological accrediting bodies/systems can have a time for interaction and exchange of concerns and ideas, such an association will be most helpful in Asian context.  It may meet once a while for sharing, common understanding, and planning for joint programme.  The difficulties associated with division along doctrinal/theological perspectives can be set aside with mutual trust and commitment.

 9.   Cross-over mechanism

      Serampore is operating under university system.  There are diverse accreditation systems (such as, ATA, IIM, NATA etc) in India to which many theological seminaries/institutions are associated.  This requires that we should not monopolize theological education, and move to work out some principles of recognition of their degrees/diplomas in the interest of theological education for the whole people of God in our context.  Serampore do have a structure for ATA at BTh level but that needs to be extended to others as well after due consideration and consultation.

 10. New ways of providing theological education

      Not much thinking has been done in this direction except that we introduced theological education by extension.  This is a form of distance education which seems to be not working according to serious thinking and plans.  Most of our centers are ill-equipped for such a program as they do not have proper structure in terms of trained personnel, library resources, and study materials.  These are to be strengthened.

       At the same time, new ways of imparting theological education, though used elsewhere has not yet introduced.  I am suggesting the concept of E-Theological Education which has evolved with the introduction of PCs and internet.  A number of users of such facilities may be offered theological education through this medium of imparting education.

 11. Pedagogy 

      Theological education has never taken this task seriously. Teaching element, pedagogical aspect, was never included in our structure of curriculum.  Courses in Christian Education do have a few segments on it but it is not sufficient to help our graduate to be skillful as a teacher.  Whether we have a course in pedagogy in curriculum or not, the college should evolve its own way in preparing its students to be an efficient teacher wherever they are. Time has come that we take some steps to train our teachers in theological seminaries and colleges.  Specialized institutes, offering degree/diploma courses, can be established; regular training programmes for teachers can be offered through regular fresher’ courses, seminars and consultations.  Context oriented teaching methodology has to be preferred than the content based.  It calls upon the seminaries to participate in the ministry of liberation of the oppressed and marginalized, exploited and the weaker section of the society and working towards its transformation into the reign of God.  There should have to be a paradigm shift from disciplines to issue-oriented learning.  So also another shift, from class–room to out-of-class learning, from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning is required.  Another shift that is required concerns with reducing the load of the students: from unwieldy to the manageable curriculum.

 12.  The new pattern of theological studies: 

      As pointed out earlier new changes are not so easily acceptable, there will always be some to resist the change. The seminaries which would not like to pose challenge to their established norms will surely not be too happy to bring about the change.  They will continue to prepare ‘pujaris’ and traditional ‘priests’, pastoral functionaries of the church.  This pattern, for the convenience of some churches, can be left intact; others may be win-over.  Our task is to equip the students with enough critical tools to be able to relate and integrate class-room theory, practical pastoral situations, and present day socio-religio-economic-political context including sensitivity to the needs and feelings of other people, gender, groups etc.

       The Theological colleges should strive for cultivating, in their ward, academic excellence, practical skills and personal formation.  They should not be mere degree-oriented institutions but disciple training centers.

      Personal formation should be extended beyond individual formation to community formation.

      Urban-rural bias needs to be bridged and courses with specialization in rural ministry should be introduced in our theological curricula.

 13. Secularization of theological education

      Theological education can be given to secular students, is another aspect we have to look into.  There are a few courses at MTh level, such as MTh in Communication, Social Analysis, Women’s Studies, Counseling, that can easily be offered to secular students.  In the context of institution in our union, theological girding of secular subjects may not be objected and secular students may be greatly benefited by their education with the theological students.  A kind of moral influence theory in practice!!!

 14. Paradigm shift 

      Not to repeat but to emphasize that the shift in paradigm in the learning process from disciplines to issue-oriented learning needs to pace up a little in our institutions.  Integrated and interdisciplinary approach in learning exercise and team-teaching within cluster subject is yet to see the light in the class rooms of our institutions; so also a shift from class-room to out-of-class learning and teacher-centered to student-centered learning.  The courses and teaching method applied needs to be radically changed in order to establish new form of understanding and relationship between the teacher and pupil.

      Theological education needs to be inclusive in nature and exclusive. Prejudice against certain segments and strands of Christianity (conservatives, fundamentalists, evangelical, charismatic. Pentecostal etc.,) within our family should not be tolerated; we are called upon to be inclusive and ecumenical enough within us.

 15, Specific challenging situation in the north-east

Northeastern situation is different than rest of India. We have greater percentage of Christian populace than any other state in India.  The church and theological colleges in this part, therefore, has greater responsibility to provide Christian knowledge to its laity and seekers of knowledge, including the people of other faiths and no faith.  This is not possible as not many can break the wall created by denominational and religious affiliations enter into theological colleges and churches, to learn about basics of Christian faith.  Serampore College through its Act passed by the West Bengal Assembly in 1918, has limited itself in providing theological education for pastoral formation and granting degrees in theology through affiliated colleges and seminaries.  Except Nagaland, other states do not entertain the suggestion to treat theological degrees as par with secular degrees for jobs in secular field.  Churches need to be persuaded to rethink their objection for the betterment of their people.  Churches in this region, however, may take up a new endeavor, in seeking collaboration with the Universities there, by establishing a Chair/Department of Christian Studies along the lines of such chairs in different Indian universities.  Cooperation of all churches may be desirable to strengthen ecumenicity in this venture.  This will enable us to widen the scope of theological education, more meaningful to all people of God in their professional and vocational setting.

 There are certain concerns that can only be met by the colleges in the northeastern region.  The missionary zeal of the churches in this region is moving towards main land and the land beyond India in the neighboring countries, establishing mission fields.  As Senate has already taken a decision for the introduction of a degree programme; the region may now take initiative to establish more institutions, fully dedicate for missionary training.

The Churches in the eastern part has a unique institution of elders which works on tradition and conventions.   A course on the lines of our theological degree can be suggested.  Theological institutions can formalize a course in consultation with the church and theological boards of the church.  This can strengthen the church if the elders, deacons and church workers are also provided theological education different than the ministerial education Serampore provides to the pastors.

 Christian education programme has now become every weak everywhere in Indian subcontinent.  My observation is that it is well run in the northeast.  If this is offered as a degree or diploma course, many may be attracted to pursue the course, and our theological colleges will be able to admit student well informed of their faith and theological education.  The colleges here can develop suitable courses and curriculum out of the experiences of those involved in this adventure of the church.

 Drug addiction and the cases of HIV are higher in this part of our land along with others elsewhere.  Serampore has introduced a course in the new theological curricula to make our pastors-in-making, and society, aware of the problem; an advanced course and programme, run by the institution in the region will be more helpful.  The ethico-theological-moral issues involved needs to be dealt with sympathetic understanding and Christian concern, for which our theological colleges and church should take a leading role.

 There is a dire need for the development of an authentic, genuine and acceptable tribal theology in India.  For this, the regional and individual tribal theology has to emerge. My humble observation is that we are still groping in dark in search of that theology.   Theological colleges in the region should take up the challenge and encourage every effort towards indigenization of Christian expressions in art, architecture, poetry, prose and theology.  It can be done through a department of studies in tribal culture.

 Closing remarks

At the marked end of these lectures, I sincerely express my appreciation and gratitude to all of you for careful listening, and genuine interest shown in the subject.  I am thankful to the respondent and the enquirers who have helped me clarify the issues and learn from the wise interaction, suggestions for improvement and clarity.

I am in the process of writing a book as a tribute to the contribution of Serampore College at the time of its bi-centenary year in 2018, and your contributions, in fact, are valuable and helpful in making may task easier.

Thank you once again.

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