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Artillery Row

In defence of British theological education

Critics should be more optimistic about the new generation of ordinands

I admire The Critic for its commitment to forego needlessly perverse provocations in favour of honest and rigorous criticism. We need this interrogation of all manner of ideas, developments and pathologies in this dizzying complex cultural context in which we find ourselves. I was, therefore, somewhat surprised to find in your pages my Anglican colleague Revd Marcus Walker’s strident critique of new forms of theological education in this country. Walker’s polemic was “thoughtless” in an Arendtian sense — taking an intellectual approach which trades on careless assumption rather than vigilant attention. 

Marcus Walker is, of course, right to highlight our need for well-trained and rigorously educated priests in the Church of England. What’s more, I too lament the falling numbers we are seeing across the sector.  But when Walker claims that “old school residential colleges demand 40 credits in biblical studies, the new breed of theological institutions do not”, specifically naming St Mellitus College as an offender, he is completely mistaken. The truth is that every Theological Education Institution (TEI) within the Church of England is held to the same standards. At St Mellitus College, students engage in at least forty credits of biblical studies. Many of our students will do more. 

In early March we celebrated our graduation class of 2023. This included 138 ordinands serving in 26 Dioceses across the country. I was deeply moved to hear the testimony of those ordinands who had secured a range of academic awards. As I listened, I felt excitement about what was in store for these intelligent and now equipped men and women, and what was in store for the parishes they’re headed to. Fortunate as I have been to be part of their training, I felt as if I’d been captivated by the first couple episodes of a compelling Netflix drama. Now, as I watched them graduate, I realised just how keen I am to see the rest of the series. How will they face the hardships to come? How will they triumph in the denouement ahead?

And for some of our ordinands it should also be said that graduation is no automatic rite of passage, no mean feat. For example, one such person that comes to mind is Jamie.  A “not normal Priest” was how he introduced himself. But Jamie had thrown himself into his studies here and prayerfully persisted to achieve a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Theology, Ministry and Mission (which included 40 credits of biblical studies).  As Jamie himself observed, between his graduation and Jesus’s walking on water, his family might well struggle to identify the greater miracle. Yet, as Jamie also noted, never has our need for ‘not normal priests’ been more pressing. My question, then: does Jamie constitute the dumbing-down of theological education in our national church? Would we prefer Jamie sought alternative employment? Or, rather, does Jamie’s achievement not signal the emergence of a generation audaciously redefining what ministry and training should look like? 

No, the biggest challenge facing the sector lies elsewhere: in the increasingly short duration of an ordinand’s training (a trend I only wish I had the authority to reverse).  We need more time. More time to teach intellectually uncompromising and compelling theology. More time to help ordinands prepare for the often gritty reality of ministry. It is this combination of time and focus which will save the parish.

it remains the case that every student is offered a choice as to where he or she wants to train

“Nobody should be pushed into a cheaper model of training” is a point Walker also insists on. Quite right, Marcus. But nobody is! While we do indeed require greater investment in the sector, it remains the case that every student is offered a choice as to where he or she wants to train. 

The essential need today is for more people with a vocation to ministry within the Church of England. Data suggests that the number of clergy being trained for the Priesthood is about half of where it needs to be, with stipendiary clergy set to fall from 7.5k to 5.5k over the next decade. This is a cause for alarm. And a cause for massive investment.  There is a clear choice: to invest in the future priests of the church, or to save for a rainy day. Well, it is raining! Now is the moment to invest in theological training to ensure the right number and appropriately formed priests for every parish.  Revd Walker channels his wrath in the wrong direction. He’s right to insist on high standards. He’s wrong to assume you can only achieve this by pushing everyone into one form of training.  Oxford has its place, but we need to think imaginatively not reductively about training.  

Every TEI is trying to ensure that the next generation of deacons and priests are firmly rooted in the foundations of our faith

In the hope that Revd Walker sleeps less fitfully this evening, let me assure him that every TEI is devoted to the flourishing of the Church of England. Every TEI is trying to ensure that the next generation of deacons and priests are firmly rooted in the foundations of our faith. Next year St Mellitus College will host a conference celebrating the 1700-year anniversary of the Nicene Creed. And with senior faculty including Lord (Rowan) Williams and Dr Jane Williams, we currently boast a further twenty-three doctorates in biblical studies, religious studies, missiology, systematics, philosophy, ethics, pastoral theology. 

If we compromise on intellectual rigour, the truths the church is summoned to speak of will not be taken seriously by the world we are summoned to speak to. The church is foundering. The world is fallen. Both need more priests. Instead of dismissing and discouraging our new generation of ordinands, Revd Walker should be helping to prepare and empower them.

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