Reflections of a Former Theological Educator

By Mark Clavier

This is the fourth column in this series. The first was “The Sea Change” (Sep. 18, 2017). The second was “‘Time makes Ancient Truths Uncouth’” (Nov. 2, 2017). The third was “Toward a New Vision for Formation” (Feb. 7, 2018).  

In his introduction to Sister Penelope Lawson’s translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis opined:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

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Lewis’s observation is apposite for theological formation. Except for the Bible, ordinands in the United Kingdom typically study very few theological works directly. When they are required to read theological works, almost always they encounter short pieces (e.g., Didache) or excerpts. By and large, there is insufficient space within their curriculum to devote time to studying more than one or two theologians at length. Instead, they are taught about them.

Lewis’s observation, however, doesn’t go quite far enough to describe much theological formation today. Many ordinands not only lack the self-confidence (the “humility” to which Lewis refers) to engage with the theologians, but they also find that a vast cultural divide separates them from the past. What I mean is that the arguments made by the great theologians (and even in Scripture) are difficult for many to grasp, and their modes of thought and priorities are altogether foreign. The combination of these two factors makes many of the great theologians inaccessible to many ordinands. It’s therefore difficult for ordinands to gain a purchase on the theologians’ thought, to relate to it in such a way that it deepens their understanding and how they construe their vocation.

The difficulty that confronts ordinands is often due less to intellectual rigour than to experience and the imagination. Thanks to the cultural changes of the past 50 years, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and even Luther and Calvin reside in an unfamiliar world. Very often their concerns and commitments are almost unintelligible, if not repugnant, to late modern people. Over and over again, I’ve heard ordinands complain that Aquinas or Hooker or Tertullian isn’t relevant to today’s ministry. None of this is to suggest that ordinands today are dim or ill-educated. Rather, it points to what’s fundamentally lacking in the preparation of a great many of them: the imaginary.

Many ordinands haven’t had their imagination informed deeply by Scripture or by the experience of life within a worshipping community for a long period of time. Even fewer have grown up in the Church. So, while they may have tremendous faith — and it takes a great deal of faith to put oneself forward for the ministry in the Church of England these days — they often aren’t native to the Church. Their way of understanding themselves and the world is typically formed within the same culture as everybody else: late modern consumerism. Through no fault of their own, they operate largely out of a secular social imaginary. In The Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor describes the social imaginary as

the ways in which [people] imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.[1]

This imaginary lies behind, and gives rise, to the beliefs, practices, commitments, perspectives, taboos, ideals, and identities that mark a society or community as distinctive. It is, if you will, the way societies collectively form images from the raw data that filter through our senses and experiences. It’s how we make sense of things.

In other words, the imaginary is a fundamental part of the experience of belonging not only to a community but also within an environment. James K.A. Smith argues further that the social imaginary not only gives rise to practices and beliefs but is also transmitted by them.

In short, there are meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely because they grab hold of our love—they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition …. what might appear to be a normal, everyday habit of going to the mall is actually a deeply formative ritual practice that subtly but powerfully shapes and aims our desire.[2]

Formation into a social imaginary is, therefore, formation into a particular way of understanding and engaging with the world, and it orients the heart towards particular ends. It’s also a formation into virtue through the encouragement of habits (Smith’s You Are What You Love is an excellent and accessible introduction to this).

This is where we must begin if we’re going to form men and women seriously as clergy, ministers, and disciples. Until the imaginary has been formed, there’s little point in teaching skills and techniques — it’s like teaching people how to build and sail ships before they’ve been enchanted by the sea. Without baptised imaginations and hearts, such skills and techniques will be rooted within different imaginations and different understandings of the world than that of the Church. And they’ll orient people towards ends other than God.

The only way that this initial formation can happen is by immersing ordinands in Scripture, modes of theological thinking and imagination, and through the immersive experience of corporate prayer and worship for an extended period of time. Before we even begin to discuss modes of delivery, therefore, I believe there needs to be a commitment to set aside almost everything else during the initial period of formation to focus on these three areas of formation. Have students study Scripture intensively, hear it liturgically, and explore it imaginatively. Engage them with the devotional writings of the Church Fathers, medieval theologians and mystics, and Anglican worthies before worrying about teaching them systematic theology. And have them pray, pray, and pray. Focus less on assessing their comprehension than simply on exposing them to the Christian narrative and inspiring them to love it. That narrative needs to be the portal through which they encounter God rather than a resource that aids their individual and separate encounter with him.

After this can come the “academic” work: how to exegete Scripture expertly and communicate it persuasively, how to engage with serious theological works, how to apply that theology to the world, and how to worship. This is also the point when they can learn the art of pastoral care and of engaging in mission to the world. The goal isn’t just to prepare them for active ministry but systematically to expand the horizons of their imaginations and to teach them how to reason and reflect theologically. Except for required techniques and procedures (such as safeguarding), I’d leave all the rest to curacies.

I’ve been involved in theological education long enough not to pretend that there’s the slightest chance of any of this happening in the near future. The wind is in the other direction, though I’ve rarely met ordinands who find modules on strategic leadership or reflective practice very inspiring. Nor do I pretend to know how we can overhaul residential training so that it’s situated squarely within the Church rather than in universities. But in the short term, I believe there is a largely untapped resource that can be of tremendous help: scholar-priests and lay theologians.

The paucity of academic jobs for theologians has resulted in a large number of clergy and laity with advanced degrees in Scripture and theology but with little or no opportunity to teach. Many of them have found their academic knowledge greatly enriched by the experience of ministry. To my mind, many of them are not unlike Romans after the fall of Rome: no better or more upstanding than others, but keepers of the memory of a vanishing culture. Their constant companions are Scripture and the great theologians, and even though they’ll probably never publish books or write scholarly essays, their passion keeps them engaged with theological discourse and the latest scholarship. Not a few of them inspire young men and women to explore Christianity intelligently and even to test their vocation to the ministry.

What would it take to encourage these men and women to work together to form a new generation of Christians within the social imaginary of the Church? Might the theological equivalent of language schools be founded at cathedrals and at large and active churches where people discerning their vocation could go and be immersed in that tradition amongst an active worshipping community? An encouraging example of exactly this kind of thing is happening at St. Mary Magdalen in Oxford.

New monastic communities, properly grounded theologically, are another possible venue for this to happen. These could be today’s equivalent of the medieval episcopal familia or monastic and cathedral schools: small communities of learning based within an active church community.

Might dioceses support internships or preparatory schools where those selected for ministry could be thoroughly exposed to the Scripture and prayer before attending formal theological college? Might the same be done after formation, so that clergy and lay ministers could regularly support each other in engaging seriously with theology? For example, what would it take to foster deanery reading groups or regular retreats that tackle the works of theologians or mystics or focus on a book of the Bible?

Again, the intention wouldn’t be so much to convey information as to capture and enrich the imagination. One might think of these as schools for the theological imagination, where Scripture, traditions, and practices can be encountered and allowed to inform and inspire. These could be, if you will, theological wardrobes, through which people can step to discover a different world that both unsettles and enriches how they understand themselves, creation, and — above all else — God. They could be corporate experiences that shift expectations and goals and recalibrate hearts. Above all else, they could be communities where people are formed through story, practices, and prayer to be the kind of ordained and lay ministers who can show others their true heavenly home.

All it would take is a little imagination.

Footnotes

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 171.

[2] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p. 84.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales, with primary responsibility for pastoral care, community engagement, and formation.

Mark has published three books: Rescuing the Church from Consumerism (SPCK), Eloquent Wisdom: Rhetoric, Cosmology and Delight in the Theology of Augustine of Hippo (Brepols), and Stewards of God’s Delight: Becoming Priests of the New Creation (Cascade).

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The lay person feels the direct effect of this move toward the “practical.” If all the clergy has is a “how-to guide” for running a parish, that is all they can give to their parishioners. “And have them pray, pray, and pray. Focus less on assessing their comprehension than simply on exposing them to the Christian narrative and inspiring them to love it.” How can they inspire their flock to love the Christian narrative (or more to the point, love Jesus) if they themselves have not been inspired? It is no surprise that all we sometimes get is a sermon… Read more »