Today marks the start of another semester and my 16th academic year as a lecturer here at Trinity College/University of Glasgow. It’s safe to say that in my time, no other year has started in this way and with this cloud of anxiety hanging over it. In response to the dangers of COVID-19, all teaching for this semester at least, has been taken online.
As we welcome continuing students and new students, I want to reflect on two things. The first is that folk have been training for ministry at Glasgow since 1451. If we take the long view, we can reflect on how often over these centuries students have arrived to study in Glasgow in circumstances which were daunting and stressful.
Staying with my 94 year old mum during lockdown (she has since moved in with us) I was feeling sorry for my kids (aged 17, 20 and 22) and all they were missing out on, when I realised that she was 13 in 1939. I am very aware that we need to be careful how we apply this kind of thinking – other people’s suffering or loss doesn’t make ours any the less real or painful – it’s not some kind of Monty Python ‘you were lucky!’ race to the bottom. But there is some moral wisdom and perhaps even some spiritual comfort in realising that generations of ministry students before us have come through trouble and struggle and many of them have maintained a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness. I say many because we always need to beware of a false triumphalism in the testimony we give; trouble and struggle also wounds and marks some of us in ways we never fully recover from. The gospel is also that there is mercy and sufficient grace for when that is true.
When I am tempted to worry about the church’s witness in testing times, I often think about these dry, wry words of G.K. Chesterton:
“At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.” G.K. Chesterton
The second thing I want to reflect on in this first blog post is what we do as a College in such a time as this. Our education and training for ministry is meant to be contextual, so we have to consider that this context is our gift and burden from God just as it was for those who came to Glasgow and Trinity in 1914-18 or to Glasgow/Trinity in 1939-45. We have no choice and should seek no other choice but to ‘lean in’ to this context. We will learn things about God and the gospel, about ourselves and the church in these strange times that we might not or could not learn in more ‘normal’ times. So we study and learn together in this context. We share experiences with one another and listen to one another, conscious that it is through encountering other people’s worlds that ours are expanded and deepened. We have a lot of reading to do and that can carry on through this. We have a lot of praying to do and that can carry on through this. We have a lot of thinking to do and that can carry on through this.
And there will still be laughter and new friendships made and there will still be joy and consolation. Above all, perhaps, we may learn new and invaluable things about what it means to hope in God.
This blog will be shared between a few of us who are teachers at Glasgow and friends of Trinity or Council members – I hope we will also hear some student candidate voices. We look forward to reading your comments. God bless you and God bless the College in this new academic year.
Doug Gay – Principal of Trinity College
Lecturer in Practical Theology, University of Glasgow