“You are training to serve a world which hasn’t yet been imagined in a church which we don’t yet recognise…”
So began the lectures on Christian leadership which I used to give at Cranmer Hall.
Before me sat 30-40 people with an average of 35-45 years of active ministry ahead of them.
Our task is to ‘proclaim afresh in each generation’ the ‘faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds’ (according to the ‘Declaration of Assent’ used at the start of every expression of public ministry in the Church of England).
The good news remains the same, but the ways that we communicate it change with every passing day.
Perhaps once this was easy. Maybe when the world didn’t change very much, all we needed to do was to train people in the things that they would be doing for many years to come. Even if that’s how it once was, though, it isn’t like that anymore! The world is changing faster than we can begin to grasp. New technology is outdated before it’s even began to wear out. Life is bewildering, multi-textured, varied, and fast paced. The good news remains the same, but the ways that we communicate it change with every passing day, and the issues that we face change and evolve and grow.
As I write Synod is wrestling with the Godly response to questions raised by sexuality in our society, by which we mean homosexuality as we have not even begun to grapple with the current issues under debate in wider society such as transsexuality or gender fluidity. Where are the resources for this going to come from? And when we’ve reflected theologically on those issues who will be doing the work that leads us beyond them?
My point is that training mattered even in a basically static culture. Clergy and lay ministers needed to understand the theological framework which would underpin a lifetime of ministry, and learn how to do the things that needed doing in the church and by the people of God. These things were taught in many different ways, but they needed to be taught. Nowadays we are not training people to do things which others have done before, or at least we are not just training them to do this.
We are seeking to train a generation of entrepreneurs, improvisers, and bold leaders…priests who will lead communities of Christians in often bewildered faithfulness through uncharted territory. To quote the Ministry Division of the Church of England, we are looking for ministers who are ‘flexible, adaptable, and collaborative’ (cf Criterion F of the ‘Selection Criteria’, although this phrase is used more widely).
We need to train theologians rather than simply theologically literate ministers.
We need clergy who are utterly faithful to Christ and our inherited faith, and able to improvise whilst carefully incarnating this good news afresh in a changing world, in order that we might ‘hand on entire the faith that has been entrusted to [us]’ (to borrow a phrase from the Common Worship Ordinal for Bishops, on the basis that this is not a task that Bishops can perform alone). We are, if you like, training Jazz musicians who need musical discipline and skill to enable free soaring improvisation rather than teaching people to play their Grade pieces on the piano…we actually need to train theologians rather than simply theologically literate ministers.
We need to imbue disciplines of thought, research, collaboration, and spirituality which can begin to sustain whilst new realities are inhabited. We need those who are rooted in the timeless disciplines of theology, loving others, treasuring the scriptures, intelligently dialoguing with tradition, and engaging the modern world with wise and patient reason.
We need a profound rootedness in Christ, and a pervasive discipline of prayer and study.
I have been through theological education twice. I have received the ministrations of a TEI (Theological Education Institution) and I have been responsible for them. I know that there are times when all the stuff we do can all seem tedious, detached, dry, and frustratingly far from ‘the action’, but there are things that God cannot do while we are at the ‘coal face’ of ministry. If we are not to ‘fear what they fear, and… be intimidated, but in [our] hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’ (1 Peter 3.14b-15a, NRSV) and then lead others to do the same faithfully through all the changing scenes of life, we need a profound rootedness in Christ and a pervasive discipline of prayer and study.
More: if we are to ‘always be ready to make [our] defence to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting for the hope that is in [us]; yet do it with gentleness and reverence’ (1 Peter 3.15b-16a, NRSV) we need a far deeper formation than simple induction…and we need to share the journey with others who will become brother and sister pilgrims on a long and testing road.
This is the heart of training. It matters because the needs of the world are so great, and because the good news of Jesus Christ is so much greater.
Stay faithful… His faithfulness is beyond imagining.
Press on… and you take hold of the One who has taken hold of you.
Take the opportunities afforded you in training, and in so doing you will be taken to places you have not yet begun to conceive for the Lord is sending workers out into the vast, complex, and fruitful harvest field.