Reflections of a Former Theological Educator
This is the second of four columns. Covenant published the first column on Sept. 18.
As far as we know, the movement away from the Roman system of education to the early medieval model occurred without a great deal of debate. The collapse of the Roman tax system meant that the old modes of education could no longer be sustained. Like it or not, new ways of preparing people for the priesthood had to be devised. People like Cassiodorus might devise dreamy ideas for preserving the old system and promoting sound learning, but this really wasn’t possible in a world amid collapse. Monarchs might be keen to promote learning within their kingdoms, but they lacked the means to support something like schools of grammar and rhetoric and often their reforms lasted little longer than their reigns. Not until the Carolingian Reforms of the ninth century was there a serious attempt to improve clerical education in a sustainable fashion.
In contrast, the movement today away from older forms of ministerial formation is the cause of a great deal of debate. Discussions about full time verses part time or residential verses non-residential training have been active for more than 40 years. In the Church of England at the moment, the future of ministerial formation is the subject of intense debate and a great deal of backroom politicking. The strategy being devised under the banner of Resourcing Ministerial Education seeks to present this decline as an opportunity for exciting and creative forms of training. It has caught the imagination of many senior officers of the Church, though my experience suggests that many of those actually training for the ministry are less convinced. These attempts to devise creative forms of training strike me as putting lipstick on a pig. How can the replacement of full-time formation by part-time formation ever be a good thing? Would we be as sanguine if the same schemes were proposed for medical students? I suspect not.
As in Sidonius’s day, finances are no longer available to sustain traditional approaches to training ordinands. Theological colleges are incredibly expensive to maintain. Even if the finances were available to support theological colleges, the will to do so diminishes by the day. A great many senior figures in the Church no longer value the work of full-time theological colleges and often see them as standing in the way of progress. I’ve regularly been told that the problem with theological colleges is that they stand apart from the wider life of the Church and tend to infantilise ordinands. How much better it is for ordinands to be immersed in the daily struggles of ministry while they train. Mixed-mode or context-based training is the better path because it confronts ordinands from the start with the reality of life even if it provides less scope for studying theology.
Moreover, the traditional curriculum is considered largely obsolete. The age-old approach to ministerial formation was to ground ordinands in Scripture (including biblical languages), history, doctrine, liturgy, and pastoralia. Typically, ordinands spent two or three years immersed in the Church’s tradition, paddling in the shallows in the first year (introductory classes and languages) before eventually plunging into deep theological waters in their final year (great theologians, biblical exegesis, Christian ethics, and the like). The skills of the trade were left largely to pastoral placements and curacy.
Since the 1960s, however, the number of subjects taught has continually increased. Spirituality, theological reflection, management theory, clinical approaches to pastoral care, mission, and similar subjects were added to the curriculum, even though the length of training was never expanded. To this list of new subjects, curricula now add a growing number of practical modules aimed at providing both direct experience and reflections on aspects of mission, ministry, and pastoral care. Although many of these subjects have enormous value, each one added could not but replace or shorten exposure to the traditional subjects. Today, few ordinands in the Church of England study Patristics, or undertake an extended biblical exegesis, or study Christian ethics at length. Church history has all but vanished, often now being covered in only one term if at all. Very few ordinands now study Hebrew or biblical Greek. I’ve had students more conversant with various models of reflective practice than with Luke’s Gospel or the development of the creeds (through no fault of their own, I must add).
To be fair, I’ve rarely met anyone who thinks that studying Scripture and theology is unimportant. In the United Kingdom, where clergy training is considered more vocational than professional, there’s a solid belief that ordinands should receive a good grounding in the old basics. But in my experience this conviction weakens when you propose their studying theology at a more advanced level. There are two reasons for this. First, U.K. churches have been, in my opinion, badly served by the widespread notion of academic theology. Until I came to the U.K., I’d never encountered the division between academic and practical theology. For me, it was always just theology, whether one was studying the works of Augustine, the ethics of Hauerwas, exegeting Romans, or learning about pastoral care. If asked to define academic theology, I would have said it had something to do with doctoral-level theology. Here, academic theology is often a way of referring to abstract theology — the study of ideas — as opposed to learning the craft of ministry or techniques for applying theology to experience. What I think it unintentionally reveals is how little theology occurs in churches.
I’ve found that this distinction invariably prizes function over knowledge and the imagination. As with so much of our schooling system today, a subject’s worth is determined by its apparent usefulness. Theological subjects must therefore be defended not on their own merits or even on their capacity to enlarge the theological imagination but on how directly applicable they are to the conduct of ministry (often narrowly conceived). An even greater problem with the popular notion of academic theology is that almost all the theology studied by ordinands today is not, in fact, academic — much of it hardly rises above the level of catechesis (indeed, in an introduction to doctrine module I once taught, I made much use of my old confirmation class notes). Learning how to exegete Scripture isn’t academic; learning the doctrines of the creed isn’t academic; learning how to think ethically from a theological perspective isn’t academic; learning about the historic church isn’t academic. If I were pressed to call these anything, I would use the word formative because in most cases they engage ordinands with their faith in ways they’ve never experienced.
The second reason why support for theology declines at more advanced levels is that it simply doesn’t excite people; it’s too old fashioned. During a meeting I once proposed strengthening the biblical portion of the curriculum so that ordinands would grapple intensively with at least one book of the Bible. In my education at Duke Divinity School, Moody Smith’s exegesis class on John’s Gospel had a profound influence on my future ministry. Hardly anyone in the room objected to my proposal, but neither did anyone make much effort to stifle yawns. The idea didn’t excite them. Then someone proposed a pathway (not just a module or two) that focused on pioneer ministry. Immediately, the room was energised as people eagerly discussed the kind of clergy this pathway would produce. That experience has been replicated regularly throughout my time as a theological educator as I’ve watched people thrill to the idea of teaching ordinands innovative subjects such as leadership, bridge building, and techniques for collaborative work. New techniques enthuse in ways that old ideas never can.
This trend is reflected within theology departments on both sides of the Atlantic. A significant number of academic jobs in theology are for teaching aspects of Christian leadership or practical theology rather than Scripture or systematic theology or Patristics. I know far more clergy undertaking continuing education in leadership or practical theology than in Scripture or church history, and there are far more continuing development days for clergy on various aspects of management than on Scripture or Christology or a great theologian.
During the past five years, no one has presented me with any evidence that this new learning is any more effective than the old. A great deal of material taught about management and leadership is drawn from the business world, where the ability to hire and fire alone makes it very different from parish ministry. Moreover, whatever virtues these new subjects have depends considerably on students already having a firm grounding in traditional subjects. What’s the point of learning how to reflect theologically if there’s hardly any serious theology to draw upon? What’s the point of teaching students how to communicate the Bible if they haven’t learned how to exegete it? Teaching ordinands managerial practices or models of leadership without their first learning ecclesiology and Christian ethics strikes me as unwise at best. In fact, my strong suspicion is that most of the time and effort put into these courses is wasted, not least because many ordinands respond to them sceptically. A great deal of educating goes on these days without anyone actually learning anything. It would be fascinating to survey clergy five years into their ministry about how useful they found these subjects.
I’m therefore not convinced that a great many ordinands are being properly prepared for their ministry. They are being trained in skills and techniques — to function as ministers — and are exposed to a wide array of information. But there is neither the time nor the emphasis on theology as traditionally understood to enable them to inhabit their vocation. In other words, the scatter-gun approach to teaching may provide a great deal of varied information and skills. What it doesn’t do is actually form clergy.