Introducing Theological Action Research: a Christian practical theology practice
For many people, including many Christians, the language of ‘theology’ conjours up things that are remote, abstract and distanced from real life, faith and spirituality. Worse than that, ‘theology’ can seem to be a threat to faithful people, making things more burdensome and complicated than they need to be.
Yet the way of doing theology described in this little introduction is not at all like this. It takes its character from the ancient understanding of theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ (St. Anselm), and works with diverse groups of people, and a variety of traditions and expertise, in order to come to better understanding of faith, its words, and its practices. Our conviction is that the practices and words of faith-full people are themselves significant expressions of theology, all be it often in more hidden or implicit ways.
Many Christian theologians will claim that their ‘talk about God’ is rooted not only in the authority of Scripture and Church traditions, but also in human reason and experience. For all that, it remains true that a good deal of what is written under the heading of theology remains at a distance from the faith and lives of ‘ordinary’ (often quite extraordinary!) Christian women and men. Theological Action Research is, at its heart, a way of bringing the ‘ordinary’ voices life and faith into conversation with other theological voices, so that a wider conversation can be entered into. It is in this conversation between biblical and church traditions, faith life and experience, and diverse expertise that we can, together, discern what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
So how are the voices from practice and ‘ordinary faith’ heard in theological action research? Learning from action research methods, theological action research uses a range of data gathering in order to hear voices ‘on the ground’. These may be questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, or observation exercises. This data is the ‘raw material’ of the voices of practice which need to be heard in our theologies. It is transcribed and made available to key reflectors, who come from variety of perspectives, some relating to the faith community taking on the research, and others rooted in a more academic position. Reflective conversations enable key themes and insights to be identified from practices. These themes can be then presented to the faith community for ‘checking out’ and further reflection, and can be brought into dialogue with the traditions of scripture and the churches involved.
Such a method is, in itself, a remarkable opportunity for different kinds of faith community to share and learn together. As well as this, the insights of lived and practical faith powerfully shape new theological ways of understanding, both for the academics and the practitioners in the community. We all learn from each other to see things differently, and more honestly. And this re-visioning leads to new thinking, new practice, and new energies for mission.
Dr. Clare Watkins, University of Roehampton
Theological Action Research – some key characteristics
Theological Action Research is:
- Participative – with all involved owning the research and contributing to it. It is not about academics researching church people, but rather about church and other faith communities researching and reflecting on their own questions with academics and others.
- Attentive – with all involved practising skills of careful and open listening to others, themselves, the faith tradition – the Holy Spirit! It is about careful learning conversations across differences of view, perspective and expertise.
- Action orientated – with the emphasis being on practices as ways of embodying faith. Practices both tell us about our implicit theology and belief, and then become the place where what we have learnt through reflection can be lived out in renewed ways.
- A spiritual practice – with methods and processes reflecting a long tradition of Christian discernment of the Spirit in the world and in the church.
- Iterative and cyclical – as each cycle of questioning and reflection comes to an end, new questions for reflection emerge. Communities have the potential to become communities of on-going discernment and reflection through repeated cycles of theological action research.
Theological Action Research – an outline of process
A typical theological action research cycle, of around 9-12 months, with a church or other faith group might look something like this:
- Academics and practice group leaders / representatives work to discern an appropriate question for research. At best this is done in consultation with church / community members.
- Two reflection teams of about 4-6 people are appointed and trained – one from academic, and other non-practice group people, and a second form within the community taking on the research.
- The research and data gathering is designed by both team leaders, with schedules of research being drawn up, as well as significant reading and scholarly resources being identified.
- Empirical data gathering undertaken, recorded and transcribed.
- Data transcriptions circulated to reflector team members. Reflection personally and in teams takes place, and insights and learnings are written up.
- Joint meeting of reflector teams held and reflections shared. Themes, learnings and action identified for sharing with the community and, as appropriate, the academic research networks.