HAMBURG, Germany

The relevance of theological scholarship for the future of world Christianity was the theme of  a conference organized by the Ecumenical Theological Education program of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in partnership with the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and the Academy of Mission, University of Hamburg.

The conference addressed the theme “Ecumenical partnership in theological education and theological scholarship programs: Needs and future priorities for world Christianity” and was held from April 24-26 here.

Representatives of some 40 organizations for theological scholarship programs, mission agencies, world confessional families and regional ecumenical organizations from around the world participated in the event.

In context of the Birmingham process ― which called for comprehensive Christian leadership development in a WCC consultation in England last year ― participants discussed needs for theological faculty development. They also reflected on innovative models of ecumenical partnership, joint theological doctoral programs and common challenges for future collaboration.

The issue of disparity in resources for theological education between the North and South was raised. It was also pointed out that in several regions there has been a tremendous rise in the number of higher education students in the South, as well as in the number of applications for theological programs.

Participants discussed the growing interest of Pentecostal and independent churches in theological education. They stressed the urgent need to empower women in both theological education and church leadership. The need to raise awareness about the relevance of theological education for social and political developments in society, and in the mission of the church was recognized.

In discussions, participants underlined the importance of engagement in the development of theological leadership. They spoke about the unique role that the WCC can play to facilitate sharing of information and international collaboration.

Several innovative models were discussed, including joint or trilateral doctoral programs, new modes of delivery of higher theological education such as hybrid theological courses that combine shorter residential periods with distance learning and e-resources. This also included such ideas as the Methodist e-academy, virtual visiting professors as well as split degree programs and improved sharing of such theological resources as GlobeTheoLib.

Participants recommended that a common international web-portal for theological scholarship programs be established, involvement of European churches and the WCC in the Bologna: European Higher Education Area process be made visible and efforts be undertaken to define the essential elements for quality theological education. They also emphasized the need for increased collaboration between ecumenical, evangelical and Pentecostal programs.

It was recommended that the collaboration process should continue between theological scholarship programs through a mandated committee. Participants encouraged a continuing emphasis on theological education programs in the WCC, following the council’s 10th Assembly in Busan, Korea in 2013. It was felt that exchange programs between South and North should be given more prominence.

Participants called attention to the negative impact of tightened visa regulations for international students on ecumenical exchange programs in certain European countries, which weakened the engagement of ecumenical theological scholarship work in international organizations and inter-denominational theological education.

The conference also highlighted threats of a potential weakening of the historical alliance between Christian faith and higher education in churches within the ecumenical movement, which could have drastic consequences for world Christianity.