I was once asked why it was that I loved the study of theology so much. To this I replied that studying theology was like walking into one of Europe’s great cathedrals and having the benefit of being able to read the structure and to understand what it was saying. Countless people visit cathedrals every day, look around, wonder at their beauty, then walk out again. These people are likely fed by the aesthetic, but no wiser as to the magnificence of their creation, the splendour of their intricate composition. And while surely not everyone needs to be aware of such things to appreciate the visual experience, it could only be a good thing if more people were equipped to understand the space, to hear what it has to say to head and heart alike. For a person to study theology, then, is for that person to have the opportunity to know something more about the Christian Faith than the exposure of their childhood might have allowed; it is to have the chance to revel in the history, the ideas, and the holy examples that gave shape to what Christians believe and understand today.
One of the things that distressed me most when first moving to Britain was the apparent lack of theology courses available to laity that were both challenging and sound. Such was the case for both Catholics and Anglicans, but it was particularly distressing with respect to Catholics as one of the problems they often suffer is an over-dependence on authority, and a genuinely informed Church – including clergy and laity alike – is the only remedy to this. In any case, right or wrong on that front, whatever the problems facing the Church, an increase in theological awareness rooted in the sources of the Faith, whereby people encounter first-hand the wisdom of the Fathers, the debates that ultimately led to greater theological elucidation, and the deep roots of the Church’s traditions, must only ever benefit everyone.
When one of the regional universities withdrew its support for an extension theology programme running in Cardiff some years ago, it was clear that something had to be done. It had always been my experience that lay people and clergy both thrived when engaged in theological study, yet here was a situation wherein nobody now had the formal opportunity. Indeed, when it comes to clergy, although they may have spent years studying philosophy and theology, there is no way that even a good seminary experience can expose them to the fullness of the riches to be discovered among the Church Fathers, let alone equip them to deal adequately with the contemporary challenges posed by a society adrift from its intellectual and spiritual heritage. At the same time, lay people may have never had the chance to think theologically beyond the catechism classes they had as young people, yet when presented with an opportunity to explore in detail such ideas as those promulgated in the Nicene Creed, they often leap at it. This being the case, I went to the then-Archbishop of Cardiff (under whose jurisdiction I was), and asked for his blessing in setting up an institute dedicated to the provision of such.
Since then, things have moved slowly but surely forward, and with due ecclesiastical approval in both the Roman and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Churches, we are at a stage where individual courses are currently available, and two Masters programmes are shortly to be unveiled. In this enterprise, called the Theotokos Institute for Catholic Studies, our provision is meant to be theologically sound and academically rigorous, rooted in the theological tradition of the first millennium of the Church, yet applicable to the contemporary world. In light of this, we rolled out our new website just a few weeks ago, inviting not only those in Britain, but people worldwide to check us out and to support us.
Importantly, the Theotokos Institute is expressly meant to accord with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s call for a new evangelisation. Taking an ad fontes approach to questions, we have little interest in polemics, but every interest in what can be established as true by means of historical precedent. This, it seems to me, is a concept understood instinctively by many of the American undergraduate liberal arts colleges, but not so much within the British world of higher education. Yet it is something that is sorely needed if members of society generally, and the Church more specifically, are to contend with the manifold challenges thrown up at them by a post-Christian, post-traditional world.
In the end, the study of theology, besides proffering immense potential for intellectual and spiritual stimulation to those who pursue it, is also the antidote to unhealthy authoritarianism, and remedy for the current amnesia with regard to the Church’s traditions and society’s heritage. It is incumbent on all Christians, but especially those of the ancient apostolic Churches, to listen to the voices of those who have gone before, to engage with the ideas upon which the Faith has been built, and to understand that in the face of the present, we do not stand alone, but rather have thousands of years of wisdom – intimately linked to eternal Wisdom – to call upon. Should the people of Cardiff, Wales, Britain, Europe, and beyond, hear this as an invitation, society, the Church, indeed the whole world, will be immeasurably better off for it. Come, see, and support.