18.4.15

If the Lord doesn't build this house? Give me good bricks. Hold onto that baby!



The Revd Dr Alister McGrath, Professor at Oxford University, and an Associate Priest, offers a reflection this weekend on the proposed changes to theological training and formation for ministry. 

I chaired the Fulcrum Pivot^Point Thursday just gone (April 16th 2015), (recording available soon here) looking into this with Presbyter Revd Dr Ian Paul and Bishop Rt Revd Pete Broadbent. 

I find myself somehow stuck. 

I am impressed by visions for simplification, a necessary pragmatism, a being able to see the wood for the trees. 

I have to simply trust that this is what simplification, in terms of theological training for clergy, is all about. It is a right clearing of the pathway so that eyes can focus on the death and resurrection of Christ and all the implications that brings.  

I have to trust that we will not be throwing any babies out with the water that might seem to be filling the sinking ship.  

I also need to bring wisdom, holding dear the academic and spiritual training that I was given as a full time, residential student in those formative years, that were my own, towards becoming a Parish Priest at St John's College, Nottt'm. 

I sat under Presbyter Revd Dr Ian Paul with his high regard for this pathway and so I was rightly able to take a more academic approach. I did this consciously because I was also told that curacy would train me for pragmatics. 

I was told that the first 18 months of incumbency instil in you further everything that you need to do and be, to fulfil the tasks ahead. It is in incumbency that one grapples with Church Representation Rules, The Churchwardens Measure, Ecclesiastical Law, how to run Annual Parochial Church meetings, how to recruit paid and voluntary people under Diocesan Safer Recruitment processes etc. 

I did not cover these aspects as part of my initial residential training for ministry. At St John's, I learnt about prayer, liturgy, Anglican Communion history and exegetical and hermeneutical approaches to the scriptures. I learnt about preaching and spiritual discipline, I looked at some Greek and Hebrew. I took a module on the Patristic Fathers, learnt how the church over time has articulated the events that are the saving and reconciling acts of Jesus Christ: Atonement theology and the liberation theology born of his resurrection and more. 

I was theologically informed, I was sometimes painfully discipled. I was nurtured, my character was formed and chipped away at. It was formation, I learnt to become rightly accountable. I learnt about prophetic edge. I made mistakes, I picked myself back up again, as we all continue to do but I gained a love for the scriptures and came to know them as my life-blood, I became rightly reliant on God. 

I am now an incumbent under the lead of Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, he is my Bishop. I am sure that none of this is just random coincidence. 

I want to learn to combine the theological rigour, which I believe the diocese to which I am new, is also committed, with the simplification process that Pete is championing. I have to believe that each complements and informs the other. Together they provide a very hope-filled and appropriate pathway forward through the journey that is Parish ministry with all its knowns and unknowns. 

The Revd Dr Alister McGrath writes about how the Church of England needs a "significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders" to meet this challenging situation. We have to believe that quality and number can be created. 

With individual dioceses being given greater autonomy over the training pathways for their ordinands, we have to pray that dioceses secure gifted theological educators. We have to hope that any investment into those who are 'gifted' both the educators and the educated, really does recognise 'gift' from God and worldly talent 'pool'. I don't want to force a split here but it was interesting to begin to explore this with Presbyter Revd Dr Ian on Thursday with his 'leaders are born not made.' How much will the church be able to retain that emphasis, clearly there in the scriptures, that this seems to be the case. The church has to hold tight to its development of 'character' (together with its approach to the accumulation of technique and approach which can be taught and nurtured.) The great "nurture or nature" debate, that is at the heart of any analysis into leadership, can not be dispensed with.

The Revd Dr Alister McGrath is right to speak prophetically with his warnings that we are to guard against a purely 'corporate, management-driven institutional approach to ministerial training.'

I want to know where we really are going to advocate an 'explicitly theological engagement with ministry' because indeed this is not something 'peripheral' or luxurious. I remember saying to a former colleague 'By Jove, if God isn't in it, I ain't doing it' because you know what? It's darn hard at times and sometimes you are only able to keep going because of God's accompanying presence and equipping. There is no leadership course on this planet that can guarantee me God himself. 

The Revd Dr Alister McGrath puts it like this: 

"To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about), however, is like being told to make bricks without straw.  

Give me straw!

Indeed I need to be energised 'through engagement with the realities of the Christian gospel.' In fact, more than that, this is my life-blood for the task ahead.

I wouldn't go as far as Alister McGrath with conclusions that 'the promotion of the well-being of an institution, and compliance with its culture seem to take priority over the gospel itself.' I am far more hope-filled than that and from what I have seen of the church's structures to this point in my ministry, I am convinced that this is not going to happen: there is being modelled to me that vital engagement with the gospel that is surely our mission here on earth.  

Alister McGrath insists, rightly, that, as ministers we need to 'have a personal knowledge of the Christian gospel, to have assimilated its themes, and to appreciate how this informs and stimulates pastoral care, mission, preaching, and spirituality.'

Alister McGrath believes in the local congregation and that their desire, like his, involves their wanting 'help in reading the Bible and understanding its message. They want help in deepening their faith and their life of prayer (they might not always use the word "spirituality", but that's what they're getting at)... perhaps the people I talk to are not representative. But this gathering of the felt needs of congregations needs to be done, and done properly, before we take new directions in ministerial education which could cause us to lose something vital and irreplaceable.'

I look forward to working with the Church on approaches to how we best gather and assimilate and analyse the desires of our congregations.

I look forward to working with the Church in my own formation of the priest and will share with the Church my desires for what that might look like. I am sometimes also one of those who wonders .... Alistair McGrath captures my internal dialogue with his: 'To its critics, the study of theology distracts from real life.' However, I also know that in my own strength and without a thought-through, prayerful, biblically-grounded approach to the tasks ahead, my own personal boat will simply row around in circles, as I had a habit of doing accidentally in the River Wear, as I holidayed in Durham over Easter. 

I will watch the training pathways of my future colleagues with interest and continue to pray that my own future and continual development is nourished through that combination of simplification and theological equipping. 

Ever hopeful!

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