I suspect we can all readily articulate what it means to worship like an Anglican, to pray like an Anglican, and to read the Bible like an Anglican. But how much have we thought about what it might look like to teach like an Anglican?
Conversations about the teaching ministry of the church tend to focus on the content of what is being taught rather than how that content is taught. While traditional educators have long wrestled with questions of pedagogy, if your training for ministry was anything like mine, it probably largely overlooked matters related to the actual process of teaching and learning. In this brief article, I would like to share some reflections on what might constitute a distinctively Anglican pedagogy.
First, though, a note on my context: I am an ordained deacon whose field of ministry is the world of education. I currently teach high schoolers at a non-denominational PreK4-12 college-preparatory school outside of a major metropolitan area. While this article might be most directly relevant for those Anglicans whose vocations are similar to my own, I believe that any pastors whose ministries involve significant teaching responsibilities will benefit from considering the unique opportunities we have to teach not just about Anglicanism but as Anglicans.
Christian Education, Christian Teaching
Broadly speaking, a truly Christian view of education must proceed from a truly Christian view of anthropology—what it means to be human. As James K.A. Smith has made clear in his Desiring the Kingdom, our students are not mere “brains on a stick,” empty containers into which the expert teacher pours her knowledge. Rather, our students are embodied beings, who by means of their habits are formed into people who desire certain ultimate ends. As Smith puts it:
“An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 26)
What Smith helps us to see is that all of our pedagogical choices are significant because they implicitly communicate some vision of the good life. This means that the way in which we go about the process of teaching and learning has the potential to be just as formational for our students as the curriculum we teach or the relationships we form with our students.
Along these lines, a vision for a distinctively Christian pedagogy has been advanced most recently by David I. Smith in his book On Christian Teaching. Given (Jamie) Smith’s understanding of what constitutes an education, (David) Smith focuses on pedagogical implications for Christian teachers. As Smith suggests:
“But to teach is also to make choices about how time and space are used, what interactions will take place, what rules and rhythms will govern them, what will be offered as nourishment and used to build shared imagination, and what patterns will be laid out for students to move among.” (On Christian Teaching, p. 12)
Smith goes on to set out a basic approach to designing learning experiences that will form students into people of faith, hope, and love. As the above quotation indicates, Smith gives attention to how seemingly insignificant decisions—such as how to structure a class period or how to arrange the desks in a classroom—have formative ramifications, whether for good or for ill.
While I heartily commend David Smith’s book to readers interested in a broadly Christian pedagogy, the Anglican tradition is uniquely equipped to advance the conversation about Christian teaching and learning as exemplified by these two Smiths.
An Anglican Pedagogy
One of the core insights of Anglican spirituality is the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi (usually translated as “the law of prayer is the law of belief”). By this phrase, we mean that praying shapes believing. We Anglicans generally think about this in the context of how we learn theology through our worship. We readily recognize that the words of the liturgy, the recitation of the creed, and the posture of the prayer of confession are the kinds of embodied acts that form our spiritual imaginations. As Tish Harrison Warren states:
“Our Sunday liturgies teach us a particular idea of the good life, and we are sent out into our week as people who bear out that vision in our workaday world.” (Liturgy of the Ordinary, p. 31)
In her chapter “Making the Bed: Liturgy, Ritual, and What Forms a Life,” Harrison Warren explicitly draws upon the work of Jamie Smith to make this point about how worship works, with its practices and rituals communicating a view of how the Christian life is to be lived.
What is striking to me is that we Anglicans naturally think about worship and theology in the same way as Jamie Smith describes the process of education and David Smith describes the work of a teacher. In each instance, people are formed by embodied habits and practices that point us towards a particular vision of the good life.
What I am suggesting, therefore, is that Anglicans should be the first to offer a hearty “amen” to the pedagogical insights of the two Smiths, precisely because we already believe these ideas to be true with respect to how we think about spiritual formation.
The problem, as I see it, is that we too often think of the teaching task in traditional terms, as a lecturer standing in front of the room of students seated in rows of desks, and then wonder why we do not see lives transformed. Instead, a truly Anglican pedagogy seeks to engage learners through the kinds of embodied actions that are the riches of our spiritual tradition. After all, it is through these habits and practices that we simultaneously practice sound pedagogy as well as create space for encounters with the Holy Spirit.
Example: Anglican Practices in the Classroom
At my school, I teach a course for tenth-graders that covers the New Testament and church history through the Reformation. The usual way to teach a class like this would be to simply lecture on the required topics, assign readings, and have tests. There is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, and yet there is an opportunity for so much more.
If learning truly happens through embodied practices that inscribe a particular view of the good life in the hearts of our students, then this traditional pedagogy does little to help students to see themselves as uniquely created in the image of God or as a part of the classroom community. Rather, truly teaching this course would require designing learning experiences that would offer nourishment to students anxious and burned-out on the quest for college admissions.
Below, I simply list some of the formative activities that I incorporate in this class. While I don’t imagine that all of these things “click” with every student, I like to think that every student will take away at least one habit or practice from that class that will continue to shape their imagination for their lives with God.
At the start of almost every class in the fall semester, a student leads a short 5-7 minute devotional on an assigned passage. I place quality resources on reserve at the library for them to use, training them to recognize good scholarship. I grade them on the quality of their interpretation of the passage, application, and communication skills. Extra credit is given to those students who practice their devotionals for their parents; in some cases, I know it might be the only “sermon” those parents hear all year! (See also this example of a teacher who has his students prepare and preach entire sermons.)
In the spring semester, with the shift to emphasizing church history, students instead take turns starting class by presenting the life of a saint or other famous figure from church history. To make this assignment more than just a summary of a Wikipedia page, students have to deliver their presentations from memory and in-character, which helps us get a sense of the saint’s personality and style. Costumes are welcome! I like to think that this helps these figures from church history, so distant in time and place, come alive as real people maybe not so different from ourselves.
On most days, students’ homework is to keep a devotional journal. Some days this is to respond to a portion of Scripture, describing what the passage tells them about God and about human beings and considering potential applications. At other times this is to reflect on a particular form of prayer, such as the prayer of examen. I am the only one who reads these journals, so they feel free to be as honest as they feel comfortable.
Ash Wednesday Service and Breakfast Discussion
Students are invited to attend a morning Ash Wednesday service with me at my parish (we have a late start on Wednesdays, so this works perfectly) and share breakfast together afterward to reflect on the words of the liturgy and process people staring at the marks on our foreheads.
During Lent, students are asked to choose one Lenten discipline they would like to engage during the season. Students sign up to meet with me one-on-one during Lent to discuss how their Lenten journey is going. This also allows me to get to know my students and their concerns better and pray for them individually.
Visiting a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church
In the unit on medieval church history, students are encouraged to attend a liturgical service at a Latin-rite Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church. Students take notes on how their various physical senses are engaged in the service and try to understand what the church believes on the basis of its worship (lex orandi, lex credendi).
Each unit involves some kind of memorization assignment that ties in with the content of the unit, whether it be a passage of Scripture, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Breastplate of St. Patrick. We usually recite this at the start of each class to aid memorization; it also functions as another part of our “liturgy of the classroom.”
Do all students really engage with these things at the heart level?
Of course not. Some kids will try and text while listening to the devotionals (but I will catch them!), and others will blow off the journaling until the night before (but I can tell!). And yet I have seen students, including some that I would have least expected, respond to these things, showing evidence of genuine learning as well as spiritual growth.
I teach at a school that is non-denominational. Most of my students, if they attend a church, go to one of the many seeker-friendly megachurches in town. The kind of spirituality and the quality of the Christian life envisioned by these practices is not anything that the vast majority of them are familiar with. And yet the nature of the course allows me to bring in elements of the Anglican tradition in a meaningful and yet non-threatening manner. Best of all, I am confident that they are really learning.
And what are they learning? The content of the class, of course. But I am also teaching them that their voices matter: to me, to their peers, and to God. That their spiritual lives matter, and that attending to the spiritual life requires slowing down and reflecting on Scripture and on life. That they don’t need to conjure up their own spirituality, but that the tradition of the church has time-tested things for them to hold onto in uncertain times. That the Christian life is so much more than they have ever imagined.
A Closing Challenge
While the examples I have described were drawn from my high school classroom, I believe that the basic insights can be extended to youth pastors, Sunday School teachers, and anyone else involved in the teaching ministry of the church.
The classroom is perhaps not so different from the sanctuary. In both, people learn through embodied actions that engage their senses and build habits and practices that become part of who they are.
How can you engage your parishioners with a truly Anglican pedagogy? I think you just might find that the Holy Spirit is just as active in the classroom as the sanctuary.