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Listening: Pioneering Maori woman theologian Te Paa shares challenges, concerns

[Episcopal News Service]  Maori Anglican theologian Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa is the "ahorangi" or dean of Te Rau Kahikatea -- College of St. John the Evangelist in Auckland, New Zealand -- and the first indigenous lay woman to serve as a seminary dean in the Anglican Communion.

Te Paa is a member of the bishops sub group of Theological Education for the Anglican Communion (TEAC), a task force established by the Anglican Primates to make recommendations and practical proposals to strengthen theological education within the Anglican Communion.

In an interview with Episcopal News Service, Te Paa shares some of her concerns about Anglican theological education and highlights some of the challenges she has encountered as a pioneering Maori theologian.

The full text of the interview follows:

ENS: Through your involvement with TEAC, what would you say has inspired you the most, and what concerns you the most?

TE PAA: The most inspiring thing has been to see the way in which the centrality of getting Anglican studies right has been bought into by so many more in the group between our meetings. I was delighted at this last meeting in Johannesburg to see the way in which there was consensus building around the critical importance of the Anglican way for us all across the world.

The most concerning thing is the lack of attention being paid to the production of teachers. There has to be a specific focus on our responsibility to be nurturing Anglican theologians. It's there, but it needs to be highlighted and it needs to be given a very specific focus so that we are actually teaching people how to teach. We still, across our seminaries and colleges, make the mistake of assuming that people with higher academic qualifications know how to teach. That is not the case. And with the whole technological revolution, we really need to have people who are savvy on a lot of fronts, not the least of which is to just simply have a compassionate heart.

ENS: What are the main discussions in your bishops sub group?

TE PAA: The bishops sub group is well organized and it deals with all of the perfunctory roles of the bishop according to biblical teaching and most universal canonical requirements, but there has been a very strong emphasis placed on ensuring quality theological education. We dealt with the problems of theologically illiterate bishops and all of the political processes behind that reality. Why on earth are we as a church allowing that to happen? And it has a particular potency for lay people, because these are the people whom we trust for quality leadership, guidance and sound teaching. I think this is one of the best kept secrets in the Anglican Communion, because I encounter students coming into theological college who have no idea that there is a likelihood of them leaving with higher qualifications and experience in theological education than most of the bishops or archbishops with whom they would have had contact.

ENS: Is this something you were aware of before TEAC convened?

TE PAA: Oh yes, well aware. I've now been involved in theological education for fifteen years, so I have been aware of this for some time.

ENS: What was your reaction to the Archbishop of Canterbury's call to make theological education a priority?

TE PAA: Coming as it did, around the time of the issues that led to the formation of the Lambeth Commission -- and I could see that the theological nonsense masquerading as doctrinal truth coming from certain quarters of the church was simply evidence of this theological illiteracy -- I actually thought this would undercut the intensity of that. In fact, I thought that once it was known that these guys have no theological legitimacy, that will be the end of that, but it hasn't happened and so I think it makes the task even more difficult for those of us who are involved in theological education.

ENS: Why hasn't it happened?

TE PAA: Well, the other phenomenon that has arisen alongside the [human sexuality] issue has been the shift in race politics in the Church. Race politics has arisen as an oppositional ideological force, and part of it says that people of color have been oppressed and we've had all of this colonial history, so we're fighting back against something and those forces that we're fighting against are framed in all kinds of different ways, and education is framed as the white Western canon, and who introduced that, in many of those colonial situations: the missionaries. So inherent in that colonial imposition has been a backlash on the missionaries.

Interestingly, some contemporary bishops and archbishops have put a perverse spell on this rejection of the white Western canon because they say now that our cultural tradition and languages and all the things that arise out of cultural context are sufficient within themselves for exercising leadership within the church, and it's very difficult to find people who are willing to argue against that ideological assumption and imposition. That has been my field, and I have made it my field for that reason, because I can see its danger to our theological education project where now you get this picking and choosing where people will take certain bits of the curriculum that suit their interests but will not allow any critique whatsoever of the cultural claims they are making. So, it delimits what's possible in the most unacceptable kind of way. And there has been some of this in my own province, so once I started to move internationally and could see the same kind of phenomenon replicated throughout the Communion, I could see that it was ideologically based. It's not context specific at all.

ENS: How do you anticipate TEAC being able to break through those hierarchical barriers, which will no doubt be very firmly in place if there is any suspicion that church leaders' positions are been challenged or their theological ideology is being compromised?

TE PAA: It has to happen and it can happen through the theological colleges because it seems to me that in most provinces the colleges have been in some way removed from primatial control, and I know there has started to be a reversal of that in some parts of the Communion, but that's why I am really committed to the production of a small group of Anglican theologians who are capable and willing to take on these kinds of challenges for major reform and disruption of what has been such an uneven and incoherent delivery of Anglican theological education across the Communion. So, I loved it when Rowan [Williams] articulated the need for us to give the highest priority to theological education and also to explore more intentionally the possibilities of what it is we could hold in common across the Communion.

ENS: What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your fifteen or so years' involvement in theological education in your context?

TE PAA: Pioneering always has its cost, and I was the first and still am the only Maori person in the world with a Ph.D. in theology. Because there was no precedent among my own indigenous people for academic success or involvement in theological education, it is very difficult for them to know the patent behaviors. For example, there wasn't a deep understanding among many of the people why it was taking so long, why it would cost so much, why it seemed to take me away so much from the local community context, why I was involved in activities that they didn't expect, for example, insisting on a critique of the cultural context that seemed to me to be perpetuating injustice, especially amongst women. So, the struggle has been inevitable, part of the cost of being involved in theological education. Lately, there seems to be more of a shift towards acceptance and valuing, but it has come at a huge cost, and one of the projects that I feel I have failed at has been my determination right from the beginning of being responsible for creating a small cadre of up and coming indigenous theologians: people to follow in my footsteps and take over my role. For some reason I have not been able to establish that in my own context.

Just in November [2005] I had a meeting with a group of women studying theology, and frankly their response to my question about what is it that they've failed to do, or overlooked, or failed to understand -- the response at one level was profoundly sad and at another level inevitable. They said when we look at what you have been through, why would we want to do the same. There's a tremendous sadness in that. They said it with love and compassion, but it reflects back to me that they have witnessed my own journey as one of extraordinary struggle against all odds and here am I trying to minimize that by saying: I'm still alive and I'm still committed and there must be some hope.

And then I said that perhaps you need to examine your own level of commitment because the sacrifices have to be extraordinary if we are going to succeed. Interestingly, that hasn't only been me. As I talk to some of my other pioneering mates in others forms of academia, they are experiencing similar things.

ENS: Is there anything you would like to add?

TE PAA: The Ordinal requires priests, bishops and archbishops to have a teaching role. The least that we as a church can do is provide them with the assurance that the skills and knowledge and insight and confidence that they too deserve to have are being made available to them. Teaching is such a sacred art form and it deserves the highest level of preparation and training if we are going to do it well.