Doctoral study ‘in the middle of things’

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Paul Bradbury, part of the first cohort of doctoral students in CMS’s partnership with the University of Roehampton, reflects on his experience so far.

I banned myself from any further formal study after finishing my theology degree for my training as a vicar. By then I had three degrees, more out of indecision than anything (!), so I figured it was time to stop being a student and get stuck into practice.

Of course, making learning and theology distinct from practice is a false dichotomy. As Rowan Williams says, “theology starts in the middle of things”. So as long as ministry finds us in the middle of things, there is theology, and there is learning, provided we reflect on our experience.

As my experience of pioneer ministry developed I realised more and more there were questions I wanted to explore that would never get explored unless I had some process that would hold me to account. Plus, being quite big questions, they also needed some resources and guidance. I had a six-month period where about half a dozen people asked if I might want to do a doctorate – eventually they wore me down and my self-imposed ban on formal study was broken!  I realised that theology and learning is ministry. That it is just as valid a part of my calling as other more visible and concrete expressions. So I applied to join the first CMS cohort of pioneers doing a DTh with the University of Roehampton which started last autumn.

The doctorate is designed for people in employed or full-time ministry who are researching questions related to their vocation. It is therefore intrinsically practical, rooted in experience, while drawing on the growing international field of practical theology. Its also flexible and, while demanding, designed to be achievable alongside other commitments. And as a course aimed at enabling people to engage in research possibly for the first time, begins with a two-year MA level phase focused on giving you a firm theological and philosophical foundation to your research and the skills to do some good empirical work.

As a cohort we are a diverse bunch from a variety of denominations with an eclectic mix of research questions. This diversity is a rich thing, giving the benefit of surprising connections between our different traditions, experience and research interests. As a pioneer it has also been good to have within the broader group a cohort of fellow pioneers, continuing that principle within CMS of learning in community with others exploring the evolving edges of mission and ecclesiology in our present context.

This first year has been stretching, exhilarating and ultimately enjoyable. It has taken me from a jumble of questions and interests toward a concise research question which I hope will yield some new insights. It felt like a luxury at first to spend time in books again – but if I’ve learnt anything this year it’s that study is not a luxury. Good practical theology, rooted in experience but thoroughly theological, is a ministry that serves and informs the best of practice.

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