Reflections of a Former Theological Educator
Editor’s note: This is the first of four columns.
Not long before the fall of Rome, Sidonius Apollinaris, one of the church’s lesser known episcopal windbags, wrote a reference letter for a candidate to become Bishop of Bourges in Gaul. It wasn’t a propitious time to be a bishop since the old Roman province of Gallia was by then in a state of collapse, thanks to the increasingly successful Gothic invasions. Episcopal electors had settled on two possible candidates: Sidonius’s friend who benefited from a fine Roman education and noble lineage and a monk who lacked either a good education or respectability. In the letter, Sidonius launched into the full flair of Roman rhetoric to extol the virtues of his friend and to remind the electors that nothing could surpass the formidable preparation for public office that the old educational system provided. Yet he also recognized that the times were changing and that one couldn’t assume an appreciation for the old Roman virtues:
If we choose one distinguished for his humility, he will be called an abject; if, on the other hand, we propose a man of self-respect, he will be set down as arrogant; if our choice be one of small learning, his ignorance will make him fair game; if he is erudite, he will be declared conceited. If he is austere, all will shrink from an inhumane creature; if indulgent, they will blame his lenience. If he is simple, he will be an oaf; if clever, a sly fellow.
Although Sidonius proved persuasive and his friend was elected bishop, they were a dying breed. Soon, the complete collapse of the empire in the West would take with it both the desire and the capacity to prepare people within the long tradition of the liberal arts and Roman statesmanship. Both the culture and schools that had underpinned that tradition were vanishing; new methods and modes of preparing people for the priesthood would take their place as old Roman schools gave way to monasteries and episcopal familiae, both of which retained aspects of the old while presenting something entirely new. By then, what people valued was less theological wisdom than effective authority: the temporal power needed to protect cities from further collapse but even more the spiritual power to protect them from demonic forces.
While the change was inevitable, much was lost in the process. Few would look to the 5th to 8th centuries as a golden era of theology or of any kind of learning. At best, it’s considered an important period of preservation, with monks scribbling away in scriptoria to ensure that the wisdom of the early Church could be handed down to future generations. But much secular learning was lost, some of it forever, and few people read the texts so lovingly copied. There were, of course, many exceptions to the rule, as well as pockets of learning that defied the general trends. One has only to think of the role of the Irish Church (though this is much romanticized) or of the Church in Northumbria in the time of Bede to see that. Be that as it may, in general the move to reform and strengthen the education of clergy would have to wait for the rise of humanism and then the Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. Before then, a recurring theme of the Middle Ages was a lament about uneducated clergy: the “hedge priests” or “Mass priests” who haunted later Protestant imagination.
In late June, I left St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, having by then accepted the appointment to become residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral. The time between the announcement of my departure from the college and my new appointment involved quite a bit of job searching, applications, and interviews as I quickly discovered that my initial optimism about finding parochial work had been misplaced. I had thought that my involvement in theological education would be an asset, especially as I had been a parish priest for more than 15 years, and that most search committees would thrill to the idea of someone with a foot in each world serving as the new rector.
But I was wrong. Repeatedly, I was advised that I was “too academic” and would need to play down my experience as a theological educator. And while some of my problems were of my own making, I’ve now spoken with enough scholar-priests on both sides of the Atlantic to know that my experience is a common one. Whatever benefits a solid theological formation provides, they increasingly do not excite search committees. Like the recipients of Sidonius’s letter, search committees are interested in qualities different from the old virtues.
I was reminded in all this of a conversation I once had with a bishop. We were discussing of which kind of learning ministerial formation should consist. I was advocating more engagement with Scripture and doctrine before introducing students to ministerial skills, especially the great obsession of the church today: reflective practice.
“I disagree,” he replied. “What I don’t want from my parish clergy is for them to be little theologians.” He then encouraged me to stress more the practice of ministry in my teaching.
Coming as I do from America, to an extent I can understand his concern. The world is too full of clergy loudly expressing and promoting their theological perspectives. A little bit of theology can be a dangerous thing, as social media continually demonstrate. On the other hand, I’ve rarely met anyone who wears a collar who can resist being a “little theologian,” regardless of theological training. As I’ve regularly said to my ordinands, “The one person you’ll never meet is someone who admits to not being an expert on God.” This is even truer of clergy since people foolishly treat them as experts.
The questions I had to answer in my interviews fell broadly into two categories: management and kids. The bulk of the questions were about various kinds of managerial practices: collaboration, change management, dealing with conflict, and the like. In one interview, almost every question could have been put to someone applying to become manager of a local McDonald’s. The second set of questions focused on how I might engage with and attract youth, particularly children. This is obviously an important part of parish ministry, but the assumption that seemed to lie behind these questions was that there is a type of person who is good at this sort of thing: someone with the same skill set as a youth director or a primary-school teacher. Thus, probably in an unintentional way, I soon learned that to get a parish job in the Church of England today, you should present yourself as a capable manager who excels at Messy Church.
My experience put me in mind of Sidonius’s letter. A sea change has occurred during the past decade or more that has transformed the ministry. The old virtues are no longer valued or, at the very least, are appreciated less than new virtues that resonate with the expectations of our age. Someone with a background in management or working with children will probably excite search committees and even many ministry officers more than someone who has been a New Testament scholar or a theologian. If a priest seeks career advancement, better to take leadership courses than those in Scripture or theology. Poor Church historians like me suffer from the double curse of being both academic and well-versed in a subject considered almost completely obsolete (Church history is quickly vanishing, like biblical languages, from most ministerial programs).
Much like in Sidonius’s age, the ministry is being reshaped and much that was once taken for granted is now being forgotten. If current trends continue, the Anglican ministry will be fundamentally transformed during the next generation. Clergy are becoming “practitioners”: people with expertise in particular kinds of activities (worship, pastoral care, church planting, chaplaincy, etc.) who have been trained to employ practical and organizational techniques efficiently. Like in Sidonius’s age, this change is being driven less by theology than by cultural changes and perceived necessity. Indeed, one might say that in both instances, desperation is the driving force: the first to survive societal collapse and the second to avoid ecclesial collapse. And in both instances, where the change manifests itself the most is in the way clergy are formed.
 Sidonius Apollinaris, ep. 7.9.10.