The Atelier Oecumenique De Theologie: 25 Years of Successful Lay Adult Teaching in Theology

By Herren, Andre; von Kirchbach, Godela et al. | The Ecumenical Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Atelier Oecumenique De Theologie: 25 Years of Successful Lay Adult Teaching in Theology


Herren, Andre, von Kirchbach, Godela, Raiser, Elisabeth, The Ecumenical Review


The 25th anniversary this year of a theological study course for lay people in Geneva is a good opportunity to introduce this model -- its beginnings, the changes undergone over the years and the results -- to an international public.(1)

The Atelier oecumenique de theologie (AOT) -- "Ecumenical Workshop of Theology" -- was founded in the wake of the general ecumenical enthusiasm of the early 1970s by a group of Reformed and Catholic Christians, theologians and lay people alike. Twelve courses have been finished and the thirteenth is underway. The organization of the course has remained essentially the same over 25 years, with some modifications where experience showed them to be necessary. Each course takes place on the basis of two hours a week over a period of two years or six trimesters. The number of participants has always been around 100, so that now about 1200 people have taken part.

The course is presently taught by a team of nine: three Catholic priests, three Protestant pastors and one woman deacon, as well as two lay women theologians, one Catholic and one Protestant. This team elaborates a curriculum focusing on one broad underlying theme to be followed through for the two years. An association of former participants meets each year for the general assembly. In addition, they are regularly invited for afternoons of theological reflection in connection with the current course and its theme. Between assemblies, a committee has responsibility for the whole enterprise. The Protestant and Catholic churches of Geneva support the AOT through a financial contribution and by putting salaried theologians at its disposal; this is supplemented by participants' fees, the amount of which is determined individually.

For entry, no diploma is required, but a strong motivation and commitment to maintain the engagement for two years -- roughly 60 two-hour courses and six Saturday afternoons -- are indispensable. Participation in the AOT requires not only time, but also perseverance and willingness to take part actively in the theological work and to share the results with others. Therefore, regular attendance is strongly recommended and some personal work is required during the two years.

The themes are always dealt with under a biblical, a theological, an ethical and an ecclesiological aspect. This allows for making a connection to current events and to participants' personal lives. The AOT's aims and objectives, as summarized in its brochure for prospective participants, underscore this:

-- An incarnate theology: When we ask about God's presence in our personal lives, in our time and in our world which is secularized and religious at once, we try not to separate daily life from spirituality and we try to confront honestly the obstacles to faith. Moreover, we aim at developing the criteria necessary for ethical judgment and confronting such urgent contemporary problems as joblessness, migration, environmental protection, the right to humanitarian intervention, civic resistance, gender relations, genetic engineering, euthanasia, with the Bible.

-- A pluralistic theology: To face today's challenges we need some space for thorough reflection with access to modern theological research. We try also to create a place where we can share and debate our views while respecting everyone's roots and convictions. We do not propose any ready-made theology. Instead, everyone is invited to take part in our common quest and to share his or her questions and findings. Thus we learn to elaborate together our theology, a theology that takes into consideration the diversity of viewpoints.

-- A theology rooted in the Bible: Our course proposes an attentive and innovative look at the scriptures. We provide tools for improving our understanding of these old texts which may then begin to speak in a surprisingly fresh manner. The Bible constitutes our first and foremost source of an instruction which has not had its final say.

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