On “Practical Theology” and My Experience at Durham

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Durham Cathedral, built in 1093.

img_4127I can’t believe it’s over.

When I first began, I was as giddy as a schoolboy, albeit a 35-year old schoolboy, back in September of 2013. (Shout out to my friend Stephen Proctor, renown to his friends as a world-adventurer, who cashed in air miles just to accompany me on the trip. We even ate pizza late at night in the library!)

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A totally staged picture in the St. John’s College library, taken by Proctor.

Over the past four and a half years, I’ve been stretched, challenged, and encouraged. There were times I thought I’d never make it, and plenty of moments where I felt I didn’t belong. I’m not a real academic, I would think over and over again. But I kept going, kept reading, kept note-taking, kept researching and transcribing interviews and analyzing data and writing. Nearly every night, I’d spend an hour and half doing something to ‘move the ball down the field’.

I chose Durham because my wife, Holly, urged me to shoot for the moon, to chase a dream. I knew of its reputation, because my sister spent time there as a post-doctoral researcher, and Holly and I visited them there years ago. Durham’s unique approach to practical theology, and the DThM’s high research rigor paired and with low residency requirements caught my attention as I explored it online. At the time, I didn’t even know that Durham’s Department of Theology and Religion is actually ranked number three in the world, behind only Harvard and Oxford.

But what really made the past few years so rich and rewarding were the people. From the lecturers I met in my first week-long residency to the faculty at St. Johns and professors in the Department, these people are not only brilliant and leading voices in their field, they are kind and big-hearted. I honestly felt ‘pastor-ed’ through the process by my supervisors.

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Prof. David Wilkinson (top left), Dr. Mathew Guest (bottom right)– both of whom were my supervisors– and Prof. Pete Ward (bottom left), who ended was my internal examiner.

But it’s not just the faculty and staff; it’s the friendships along the way. The Doctorate of Theology and Ministry (DThM) is a collaboration between the Department of Theology and Religion and Cranmer Hall (which is where ordinands for the Church of England are trained). Because of this, there is a kind of cohort of scholars going through the program together. And on top of that, almost everyone in it is a practitioner-scholar, or even a pastor-theologian. The combination of a love for the church and a love for theology made forming friendships easy. The one-week residency periods were a great time to learn from a visiting scholar, hear other students present updates on their research, interact with others about our own research, pray together, and laugh it up over food and music. Their friendship has been one of the great unexpected gifts along this journey and a source of deep joy. I trust the Lord to bless their labors in the days ahead.

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A few of the folks remaining from the group that began in September, 2013.


Now…A Few Words about ‘Practical Theology’:

Practical theology, especially in American contexts, is often seen as applied theology. Practical theology is viewed as the branches that emerge from the trunk of historical theology and the root system of philosophical theology. As the discipline has developed, however, it can more broadly be understood as a way of relating faith or doctrine with practice. Besides the ‘applied’ approach, there is also a ‘critical correlation’ model, where theology is often paired with the social sciences, with social anthropology shedding light on human experience or behavior and theology reflecting on how this experience or behavior relates to God. There can also be a threefold engagement between ‘theological disciplines, the social sciences, and the actual situation’. There is also a ‘praxis’ model, which is primarily concerned with actions and outcomes that aim to be transformative. The praxis model begins with a concrete situation but assumes that no activity is value-free and thus critiques every aspect, including the researcher. This analysis is then filtered through a theological imperative in order to develop a new praxis. [See Paul Ballard and John Pritchard’s excellent Practical Theology in Action: Christian Thinking in the Service of Church and Society for more on all this, particularly pages 46-66.]

There’s an even deeper approach which wants practice to be taken seriously on its own. British theologian Elaine Graham argues that practical theology in a postmodern context means that theology should function less like disembodied concepts and more like a faith which is enfleshed in practices and community. Where practical theology once moved from theory to practice, Graham’s goal is to move from practice to theory. Now, we cannot go fully where Graham may want us to go, because this would mean no longer privileging formal theologies like those built from Biblical interpretation or sourced from historical tradition.

But the point in saying all this is to show how theological reflection has begun to take seriously the lived expressions of theology from ordinary Christians. Every choice, action, practice, habit, and more is a form of theology. And not only should those words and practices be evaluated by more formal modes of theology like Biblical theology and historical theology, but the embedded and embodied theology of daily lives should be allowed to interrogate the assumptions which we make how to apply formal or normative theologies. Taking each Christian’s life and experience with a kind of holy seriousness means allowing lived ordinary theology to spur fresh questions that may drive us back to the text and the tradition.

One small example of this from my own research is that if I only relied on formal theologies of hope, I would be convinced that worship songs which did not orient the worshipper toward the future and specifically toward a future of bodily resurrection and new creation would be no good at producing hope. Yet I discovered that the texts of songs which worshippers and worship leaders said brought them hope were about the present tense, the proximate space, and the personal perspective…AND I found through fieldwork with two different local churches that the experience of hope was consistent, resilient, and available through variant means. This caused me to look deeper into the nature of hope and other aspects of Biblical and historical theology. One of the resulting proposals was that if, based on a cognitive model of hope, hope is the result of agency and pathway– the sense that one can do it and knows how– then worship, which is the transfer of agency upward to God, produces hope simply by singing about who God is, and without singing about what God will do one day. That’s just one small example, but I think you get the picture of how ‘practical theology’– relating theory and practice– is not a matter of simply working out how to ‘apply’ abstract concepts to concrete situations.


Finally, a Few Common Questions about the Program:

  1. What is a DThM comparable to in the American system? It is most like a ThD. Having spent some time with ThD students at a U.S. school, the kind of integrated approach that is theologically oriented and practice driven is very much like the DThM. The folks at Durham want to be clear about how the DThM is different from an American DMin. I think this is mostly because of the research requirements of the DThM— it has to make an original contribution to the field, and be 70,000 words in length (though I know some U.S. DMin. programs have comparable requirements). Some British Universities call their version of the DThM a DPT, Doctorate of Practical Theology. The main reason Durham can’t call the DThM a PhD is that the first year involves a ‘taught component’, where you would learn the British approach— and specifically the Durham approach— to practical theology and inter-disciplinary research.
  2. How long does it take? They say it takes six years, part-time. But, I think, with a clear research focus, great supervisors, and a little bit of personal motivation, one could submit after four (I did, and I’m not a “real academic”).
  3. How much does it cost?The exchange rate between the British pound and US dollar fluctuates, but generally, it’s been about $12,000 a year.
  4. How many visits do you make to Durham? There are two one-week residency periods a year, one in January and one in September.

You can learn more HERE

2 thoughts on “On “Practical Theology” and My Experience at Durham

  1. Dear dr. G.! What a nice way to reflect back on your journey. It has been a privilege to journey together with you and the other cohort members. Loved the talks, laughs and the sparring of ideas, and of course the mutual encouragements. I pray the Lord will bless you in the years to come as you try to find ways to integrate your research. Looking forward to see you again somewhere in the (near) future!

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