Teaching people how to live
The London Institute of Contemporary Christianity celebrates 25 years this year. Catherine Larner talks to course leaders Helen Parry and Margaret Killingray about their continued vision to serve the Christian community
When Helen Parry and Margaret Killingray first enrolled on a summer course in 1985, they could never have dreamed that they would still be there 20 years later.
But just like so many others since, the course, which teaches how to apply your faith to everyday living, had a profound, life-changing effect. And for Helen and Margaret the response to what they learned was for them to become teachers of future students.
Both women had reached a turning point in their lives. Helen had been a Christian for 35 years and, after university, marriage and children, was returning to Britain from 23 years teaching in Africa. Margaret had been through university, marriage, children, and various jobs but realised she needed to integrate her academic training, work experience and life into her faith.
“I needed to bring together the word and the world in ‘double-listening’,” she says, using the terms taught on the course, “to integrate the sacred and secular, to work out what it might mean to be salt and light, to be a ‘Christian in the modern world’, a whole-life, counter-cultural disciple.”
Both women had heard of the course because it was the brainchild of John Stott, possibly the most influential evangelical for the past two generations. He had formed the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) three years earlier, in 1982, prompted by what he had seen elsewhere in the world. Largely based on the topics discussed in his book, Issues Facing Christians Today’, the aim of the LICC course was to provide encouragement, inspiration and education on whole life discipleship for lay people.
Called Christians in the Modern World, the course spanned 10 weeks and involved approaching everything in the world with a Christian perspective. It investigated what the Christian mind would say about medical ethics, for example, or economics, or contemporary politics, or gender.
“I won’t say it was a refresher course because it was all new stuff to me,” says Helen. “It started with some fantastic teaching on how to interpret the Bible into all these contemporary contexts. This was something that John Stott himself taught for many years on the course. For me it was fantastic because I am an English teacher and I love words. To feel that I could handle the Bible in the same kind of way as you do when you are getting people excited about literature, that was a terrific discovery for me. It was obvious in a way, and I am sure I was doing a lot of it instinctively, but to have it affirmed and made more systematic was great.
“When I was at university, Laurence Olivier’s film Richard III came out while I was studying the play for my final exams. I was on the Christian Union committee and I didn’t dare see the film because it wasn’t the done thing for CU members to go to the cinema.
“For me to find an atmosphere where Christians can think and talk about these things, and realise that you can engage with, and appreciate, what is good about contemporary culture was wonderful, it was liberating. It meant that faith no longer seemed something you did on Sundays, but permeated, shaped, motivated and informed your life.
“I remember thinking very clearly that this is what I should have done 25 years previously, and that every young Christian professional should do something like this. It had a profound effect and I was very, very enthusiastic about it.”
Margaret, too, felt that the course had given her a new perspective, and helped her integrate her abilities and gifts in a Christian framework. “I can now bring my Christian faith to every aspect of our world - God is in everything and involved in everything. So when my son-in-law challenges me with Dawkins, I know I can handle anything he says, lovingly. I feel totally confident at giving a Christian way of thinking to anything and to challenge and encourage others in any area,” she says.
Both women were keen to share what they had gained from the course with future students and took on a number of roles as needed, becoming LICC librarians, bookshop managers, pastoral workers, tutors, and more recently key members of the teaching staff.
They both acknowledge that they have gained a great deal from being members of the team here, and from the students themselves, many of whom came from different parts of the world.
“Often these people hadn’t been out of their own countries before,” says Margaret. “Here they were confronted by very different cultures, but we were all trying to live as Christians.
“I think something we all realised was how you lived with things and didn’t really think about them until you had a contrast. Then you saw the different kinds of battles and how perhaps you weren’t fighting the right battles yourself. That was very challenging. Many westerners on the course, for example, were horrified at their own comfortable acceptance of the consumerist, materialist culture; they weren’t even bothering to think about their lifestyle and whether it should be different.
“When the rich meet the poor, the persecuted meet the comfortable, the passionate meet western urbanity, then we learn what Christian counter-culture means,” says Margaret.
Different directors over the years at LICC have applied the fundamental ethos of the organisation in different ways, depending on their expertise. John Stott has now retired and, indeed, gradually took less of an active role in the Institute, but other key personnel have added their own insight to the richness offered in the teaching programme and resources.
Elaine Storkey, for example, was director of the LICC from 1991 to 1998 and contributed a great deal on gender issues and the sociology of religion. More recently Brian Draper, familiar to listeners of Radio Four’s Thought for the Day, has written widely on searching for faith among modern culture.
The current executive director, Mark Greene, has presented extensively on work and media topics and is lending his dynamism and vision to drive the LICC into a new direction for the future. One of the decisions he made was to end the Christians in the Modern World course and focus LICC resources elsewhere.
“We realised that it was important to work with people were they are,” says Helen, “rather than encourage people to leave their lives for 10 weeks. Our week-long intensive Toolbox course is easier for people to fit into their lives.”
With this step, there has been a continuing move from issues-based teaching to focusing on the underlying foundational principle that we are living out God’s law, God’s kingdom, in the world, in every part of it, says Margaret.
“We have moved away from being Christians in our fellowships jumping out to save people and bring them in. There’s an emphasis now on getting Christians to learn how to live; how do we vote, how do we earn money, how do we shop? We don’t have to make decisions about the arms trade and abortion every day. We have to make decisions about how we do ordinary things.”
Both women have been hugely encouraged by hearing from past students and how they have returned home to act on what they had learned - the Ugandan lawyers who sought to rid the legal system of corruption and bribery, a couple in Mexico who set up initiatives to empower the poor, even a headmaster from India who had never set foot in his wife’s kitchen but who got involved in the washing up rota while at LICC when he was challenged about serving others!
However, students often return to their homes, workplaces and churches with little if any support. “It was hard for them to convey what they had learned to enough people to change the context of the church,” says Margaret. And Helen remembers one Ghanaian student saying on the final day of the course: “I feel as if I have been let out of a box – I am simply afraid that when I get home they will try to push me back into it again.”
The current focus for LICC, then, is to work with churches, through its Imagine Project.
“We need churches to be affirming and encouraging to those who are in ordinary secular jobs,” says Margaret. “That’s their calling and that’s where God has put them. Yet churches still focus on those people who are in full-time Christian work.”
“Churches seem to feel more confident in preparing people for heaven than for the hurly-burly of the workplace or the classroom, or the political or business arena,” says Helen, “but LICC means people find themselves liberated to ask questions, to engage with culture, and to explore new ways of being church, with the aim of becoming ‘more human in the church and more Christian in the world’.”
For Helen and Margaret this means there is still plenty of work to do, with many more people to reach, but it is a prospect that excites them both.
“I am 71 and refuse to retire,” says Helen. “I simply love it here. I absolutely thrive on it. We have a really lovely faculty, mostly of younger people so there is a terrific amount of talking about ideas, thrashing out goals or vision, and different means of reaching that vision.”
Margaret agrees: “Over these years I have come to recognise the crucial importance of doing things together – bringing ideas to a forum, writing being checked over by a colleague, teaching sessions heard by others teaching the course. And in that process at its best we are modelling the way in which Christians together should be interacting in order to understand their faith, the world and the culture in which they live. We should be helping each other to mature into whole life disciples, being transformed into the likeness of Christ.”
For more information about courses at LICC visit www.licc.org.uk