Pilgrimpace's Blog

theses on non-academic learning


Updated February 2016

I’m engaged in quite a bit of work at the moment that is around helping people – who may not come from suburban academic contexts – to learn and flourish as disciples.  The theses below are an attempt to set down some of the basis of all this.  This is very much a draft.  This will need at least another revision, not least in the order of the theses, but I would be really grateful for any comments and thoughts.  I hope this might help with conversations within the Church of England about how to raise up people from all backgrounds, especially those which the Church often overlooks.


This short paper is part of a forthcoming collection on ‘Learning theology while avoiding academic culture’, written by practitioners in England and Wales.

I am attempting to distil some of the importance, background and principles behind Non-Academic Theology and Learning.  The use of theses owes as much to Marx as to Luther – this is an urgent call for action as well as reforming our actions and assumptions.  This is not an attack against academia or academic learning, rather an attack on hegemonic practices and cultures.

These theses are inevitably incomplete and are a spur to conversation.  Please comment if you have any suggestions or questions.  I will keep the most up to date version of these here.



  1. Everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.


  1. The glory of God is a person fully alive, and a person fully alive is the glory of God.


  1. In Jesus we see God’s utter concern and love for people and especially those on the edge. In them we see Jesus.


  1. Christian discipleship is lived out in the community of the Church and of the parish in which we live; it is corporate; it is about being part of the Body of Christ.


  1. There can sometimes be (unexamined) assumptions that discipleship and theology have to be in a particular academic way. These can be dominant and enforce the power of particular groups.


  1. People who come from non-academic and non-middle class backgrounds should not be excluded from theology or anything else that is to do with the heart of God.


  1. Programmes and the like that are produced by and for dioceses and parishes should be written and delivered in a way which is appropriate to the particular cultures and experiences we find in our outer estates and inner cities.


  1. Great attention needs to be paid to the circumstances of the people who take part in learning, discipleship and theology.


  1. Questions which need to be at the fore include:


  1. How are people who cannot read or do not like to read, or for whom English is a second language going to access this?


  1. What does this mean for people who may have low self-esteem and confidence?


  1. How does this speak to and honour a person or parish’s culture, heritage and history?


  1. Learning must be in a way that liberates and builds up


  1. There must be recognition that people may have experienced education as a means of excluding, belittling or keeping them down.


  1. Different learning styles need to be spread throughout any course,


  1. There should be a predominance of those learning styles that fit the needs of folk from non-academic backgrounds


  1. While recognising that these will be varied, ways which are key in this context include putting things in a way which is practical, and using styles such as apprenticeship


  1. A great deal of attention needs to go into the group – forming a learning group and culture that is supportive


  1. There needs to be a great deal of attention paid to recruiting, forming and supporting those who are leading and teaching groups.


  1. Good practice should mean that there is always clarity on things like what people are supposed to learn in a session and how they are supposed to learn it.


  1. There should be clear relevance to the life of the Kingdom, of the Church and of the life of the disciple within this


  1. Discipleship is about much more than understanding and assenting to doctrine or expanding our knowledge base


  1. There needs to be continual and unrelenting clarity that discipleship is about following Jesus; about carrying on his mission with the help of the Spirit.


  1. Learning and discipleship should reflect different spiritual styles


  1. Everything should be rooted in prayer which must not be divided into into a separate sphere


  1. Christian life and learning involves our liturgies


  1. How can they be appropriate to and reflective of our contexts so that people may be drawn to worship and participate in the life of God?


  1. Eating together and sharing food is central to Christian – and human – life


  1. Courses, etc are about participation in the mission of the Church in the world and include attention to all the five Marks of Mission


  1. They should grow out of the local context and then go out into the world. Truth starts in the local and particular and then moves to the universal.


  1. Anything which is purely or predominantly about just increasing intellectual knowledge or inward piety should be avoided


  1. There should always be practical examples and questions which connect clearly to the life and experience of the participant


  1. We need to recognise that people are often under very great pressure due to structural and pastoral circumstances beyond their control


  1. There needs to be good pastoral care as part of all this


  1. And also a grappling with the time it is realistic to expect people to spend on something


  1. There is a difficult balance between something needing to be of length in order to get into the culture of a place, and the time it is realistic to expect people to devote to something


  1. Those running the courses need to understand and support the people taking part in them


  1. There needs to be realism about attendance and about how much people can do beyond coming and taking part


  1. People do not necessarily have access to computers or the internet.


  1. People may not be able to afford course fees, transport, or have access to bank accounts or chequebooks to pay for things


  1. People do not necessarily use diaries. Text messages can be a good reminder, but people may not have credit on their phones.


  1. People should not be excluded due to circumstances of local culture or economic circumstances.


  1. There needs to a consistent house style for most of a course so that people feel safe


  1. People should not be expected to travel far.


  1. There is great value in having a number of people from the same or neighbouring parishes learning together


  1. This helps with key issues around confidence and entitlement


  1. Working together as a parish or as a group from a parish reminds us of the essentially corporate nature of discipleship and the Church


  1. Attention needs to be paid to appropriate ways of assessing or catching what people have learned


  1. How can we assess the effect any piece of learning has had on an individual and a Church?


  1. What are people being equipped to do? Have they been able to do it?


  1. Discipleship is wider than roles within the Church. It includes service in the community, at work, and being empowered to get better work.


  1. What pathways are in place for people to go forward when they have finished a particular course?


  1. If there are no pathways or if they exclude particular groups of people, what does this mean for the Church?


  1. And what do we do?


  1. The Church of God has a great deal it can learn from people from non-academic backgrounds, and from parishes and other groups which can often be perceived as marginal


  1. Do we want to replicate things as they are, or do we want to be open to the possibility that non-academic theology might open new avenues of life for us?


  1. Attention needs to be paid to what is being learned and for what purpose


  1. How can people find out and decide what they need to know rather than having this placed upon them?


  1. Is the place to start here with and in Jesus insofar as we can?


  1. How can we ensure that we allow space for the Holy Spirit to act (perhaps in spite of us) and for grace to occur?


  1. Attention needs to be paid to some of the elements of discipleship the Church can find hard such as being and acting in prophetic and critical ways


  1. Non-academic learning is not about special pleading but is central to the life of God’s Church


  1. How can we cultivate big hearts that include and which enable us to learn from our mistakes?



© Andy Delmege, February 2016




7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

The most satisfying translation of ‘gloria dei homo vivens’ I’ve seen was ‘The glory of God is *us*, fully alive’.

(It was on a Christmas card from Jo Ind, I think.)

Comment by Chris Fewings

Thanks Chris. Yes, full of truth!

Comment by pilgrimpace

Thanks Andy.
Reminds me of some stuff I wrote for Unlock a few years ago . .

Unlock’s Mission Statement; –
Unlocking real life stories of urban people
Revealing Good News of the Down to Earth Christ
Releasing life changing skills and confidence

Unlock principles: –

No one should be excluded from growing in their Christian faith simply because the way that they take in information, think, or learn, is different to the ways in which the Christian establishment has always done these things.

No one should feel excluded by the church because they are ‘not the right kind of people’. No one should feel that they are beyond the reach of God’s Grace because they are ‘not posh enough’.

No one should feel excluded from church life because they do not have the right qualifications, or the right kind of job, or live in the right kind of house, or street, or read the right books, or have the right way of speaking.

The fact that no one ever meant to make people feel that way does not mean that it has not happened. The church needs to be prepared to listen attentively to those who have felt marginalized or excluded.

Those who the church has somehow kept at the edge are often those from whom we have most to learn.

Christians can, and do, learn about their faith simply by
1. sharing stories from their own everyday experience and
2. – relating them to the stories in the bible and
3. – deciding what to do about it
4. then taking action and
5. sharing stories of the actions they have taken and so on . .

This simple approach is easy to facilitate and is accessible to people who are alienated by traditional, text based methods of studying Christian faith. (It can also prove to be a refreshing approach for those who are quite comfortable with traditional methods!)

In traditional learning ‘students’ encounter a ‘text’. The text may then be learned, compared to other ‘texts’, critiqued, or applied. The student may acquire knowledge, skills or alter their point of view. The text is ‘stored’ by the student for future reference. The student moves on to consider another ‘text’.

Unlock’s approach takes the students’ own experience and/or context as the ‘text’. Everyone can speak with authority about their own experience or context. These texts are already ‘stored’ in the student’s, or the community’s memory. They do not have to be learned, they are already familiar. But they can be explored, compared to other ‘texts’ (including those in the bible), critiqued, and learning drawn from them, which can be applied.

What churches can do:-
1. Take concrete and regular action which clearly communicates that the day to day lives, work, and experiences of Everyday Christians is highly valued.
2. Find someone on the church fringe, or beyond, who isn’t into text, and ask them to give you some honest feedback on how comfortable they feel in your churches’ worship and learning, or working, groups then act to improve the situation. (Like asking someone in a wheelchair to do a disabled access survey of your building.)
3. Corporately and individually – put at least as much time, commitment and energy into doing community things in the community as you do into doing churchy things in church.

10 Things it is not helpful to assume: –
1. That just because people are able to read that they like to, or that it’s the best way for them to learn.
2. That the ‘text shy’ are not smart.
3. That what works for you works for everyone else.
4. That other people think in the same way that you do.
5. That people who are not engaged by courses are not interested in learning about their faith.
6. That those with no qualifications have nothing to teach.
7. That everyone who wants to learn will find a way.
8. That ‘it didn’t do us any harm, did it.’
9. That if church doesn’t do it, it isn’t holy.
10. That if it isn’t in a book it doesn’t have any authority

Comment by Dawn Lonsdale

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‘The use of theses owes as much to Marx as to Luther – this is an urgent call for action as well as reforming our actions and assumptions. This is not an attack against academia or academic learning, rather an attack on hegemonic practices and cultures.’

I love the attentive nature of the questioning here, Andy — back to basics, not assuming anything.

And Dawn Lonsdale’s comment equally challenging and inspiring — and common-sensical, actually.

Text is life to me; but text is only one kind of life, and sometimes academics forget this.

Speaking as a spiritual seeker, rather than a dyed-in-the-wool Christian, I felt included rather than excluded by all the above.

‘That if church doesn’t do it, it isn’t holy.’

Comment by The Solitary Walker

thank you Robert – I am really glad this makes sense and connection, Andy

Comment by pilgrimpace

Reblogged this on Pilgrimpace's Blog.

Comment by pilgrimpace

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