Anthea Colledge is a PhD Researcher in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at Leeds University and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
It’s been a long and winding road! My first undergraduate degree was in Human Sciences at Oxford, studying a range of disciplines, (Anthropology to Zoology and all the letters in between), as they apply to individuals, communities, or whole populations. Students sometimes called Human Sciences the ‘Did you know…?’ degree, because of our tendency to come across quirky QI-type facts and assume everyone else would be just as interested in them. On reflection, ‘Did you know…?’ – and what it signifies about appreciating and understanding human diversity and experience – has been an important driver for my road into research. After graduation I worked for a few years for local authorities and the NHS, and then returned to study at Imperial College, completing a MSc in Medical Ethics and then an MPhil in Mental Health Literacy. While there I decided that academia wasn’t for me (or so I thought), and took a different path. I was accepted to train for ordination in the Church of England, and, after 2 years of full-time training at theological college in Durham, went to work first as a priest in a parish in Leeds and then as a university chaplain in Sheffield. At that point the desire to be able to say ‘Did you know…?’ returned, and I made contact with Theology and Religious Studies staff at Leeds to ask about returning to postgraduate study. I started a five-year part-time PhD at Leeds in 2015, with the support of a studentship from the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH).
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
My research area is practical and contextual theology, more specifically, disability theology. And even more specifically, theology of mental health. I’ve had an interest in disability theology and disability rights/activism throughout my adult life, particularly with respect to learning disabilities, neurodiversity, and mental health/illness, which have tended to be marginalised even within these disability movements. Probably the very first experience to spark my interest in disability happened while I was at school – I volunteered as a peer supporter at a holiday club for children and young people with significant learning disabilities. This laid the ground for my future work in learning disability and mental health projects: at a day centre, as an employment advisor, and in mental health promotion. Much of my previous experience has involved understanding people’s experiences from different perspectives; now I’m doing the same thing but theologically.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
My PhD research is interview-based and explores the interactions between the lived experience of Christianity and altered moods (i.e. being very high or very low, the kind of experience that might be diagnosed as depression or bipolar). The main areas I’m focusing on at the moment are the distinctive ways in which Christian communities interpret altered moods, how the suffering that’s sometimes associated with altered moods shapes people’s theology, and whether altered moods change the ways in which people think about God. A big ‘thank you’ is owed to the people who’ve generously shared their personal stories with me in interviews. I’m also just about to start a short-term project hosted by Leeds Church Institute, researching the growing phenomenon of Christian groups taking part in Pride events.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
Christian churches interact with public life in multiple ways, including political protest and activism, providing community facilities and front-line services (like foodbanks and toddler groups), and at moments of crisis or celebration. In that respect it’s helpful to understand the distinctive ways in which Christian groups and individuals may understand mental health, especially since, like many community groups, they may well be interacting with people experiencing acute mental distress. It’s also the case that some Christians who experience altered moods report being caught in a kind of translation-gap between religion and other public institutions such as health or social care services. They’re unable to talk to their religious community about mental health or to health services about their religion, because the different sectors use different language and interpret the same phenomenon in different ways. My PhD research explores ways to bridge that gap. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming short project on Christians at Pride, which explicitly examines the changing role of religion in a particular expression of public life.