Ecumenical centre not for everyone

Published November 1, 2000

HOUSED IN A building named after the founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and using liberation theology as a jumping-off point, the principal of the Centre for Christian Studies agrees her theological school is not for everyone.

“You’re not forced to think any one way,” Caryn Douglas said. “But you know when you come here, there’s an atmosphere that’s going to encourage you to look at theology from the underside.”

Historically, the institution is an amalgam of Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican training centres for women. In 1969, the newly formed Centre for Christian Studies developed a program for lay and diaconal ministry. The United Church recognizes the centre’s diploma program as preparation for ordination to the diaconate. The centre is also a recognized college of the Anglican Church.

In the 1970s, the school embraced feminism. “Men are present in the institution but still in very small numbers,” Ms. Douglas said. “Now we’re in a period of evolution to push and broaden how we see things. We’re now coming at theology using a liberation perspective. The starting point in liberation theology is to examine our own oppression.”

Two years ago the centre moved to Winnipeg from Toronto, partly because of a financial crisis that was forcing it out of its run-down building. At the same time, it had decided to move entirely to a distance education format, so location was less important. By then, nine times as many students were signing up for distance education as for the more traditional on-site studies in Toronto.

The centre is now housed in J.S. Woodsworth House in Winnipeg, a replica (the original home burned down) of James Shaver Woodsworth’s home. He was a Methodist minister and founder of the socialist CCF.

All 37 students, who live as far apart as Victoria and Newfoundland, remain at home and commute to thrice-yearly, two-week gatherings. Two of the meetings are in Winnipeg and the third is in the region nearest their home. Travel costs are shared equally so the student driving a few kilometres from Winnipeg pays the same as the student flying in from Newfoundland.

The centre offers four-year diplomas, one-year certificate programs and continuing education courses. Diploma students are expected to perform about 12 hours of field education weekly near their homes and must complete eight courses through other theological schools or universities, either on site or by correspondence.

“The strength of the program is that it enables people to stay in their home communities,” Ms. Douglas said. “Good theological education should transform people. But it also has to help people to make the translation of what they’ve learned into the lives of the people they work with.”

By leaving their homes a few times a year, students escape the pressures of normal life and are exposed to the ideas of others, but then they’re expected to go home and test out their new ideas immediately, she said.

Ms. Douglas also stresses the Centre for Christian Studies’ approach to learning. “The centre really was a pioneer in theological schools in the 1970s in introducing adult education principles. Our learning is self-directed. We don’t just give information. We use methods like Bible study and role play and music and worship and drama and small group work. We’re modelling in the processes we use for teaching how people can be in the congregation or the parish where they’re working.”

She laughs. “You can’t hide. You’ve got to participate.”

Students communicate regularly through e-mail and on-line chat groups. They are assigned readings, reflection papers and journal-writing and all have learning partners and vocational mentors.

“We ask people to bring their whole selves to the learning process,” Ms. Douglas said. “We ask people to be prepared to integrate what they’ve learned so that it’s not just a cognitive exercise. For people looking for a more academic – not in the sense of rigour but in the sense of concentrating on theory – sense of education, we’re probably not the place to choose. But if you’re looking for an educational process that will engage your emotions and your intellect and your spirituality and your faith, that’s what we offer.”


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