Is there a Doctor in the House?

Bishop Ambrose Studying in his Library

Is there a Doctor in the House?

Fr Peter Anthony rewinds the clock 15 years to explore the claim that the diocesan bishops of the Church of England are less theologically qualified than they used to be. He discovers some positive change, some relative stability, and one major area of weakness in the current cohort.

One of the most frequently voiced criticisms I have heard made of the House of Bishops during the COVID crisis by parochial clergy is that our bishops are no longer as theologically capable as once they were. I suspect, though, it is a common complaint of every generation of clergy that their bishops are worse than they used to be.

I decided to subject this intuition to scrutiny and see if there is any evidence that our bishops are less theologically qualified than their predecessors. I offer, therefore, a simple comparison of the academic qualifications of the diocesan bishops of the Church of England in 2005 and in 2020, to see if there have been any noticeable changes.

The evidence I have collected does indeed show that, amongst other things, there has been a reduction in the number who have a PhD. In addition, there are no longer any with the extensive record of academic publication that might be rewarded with a Doctorate of Divinity or who have held a significant university teaching post. In these specific categories, the present diocesan bishops of the Church of England are, as a group, significantly less theologically qualified than their predecessors were 15 years ago.

The parameters of this comparison

I am comparing here the theological qualifications of the diocesan bishops of the Church of England in January 2020 with those in post in January 2005. (1) I make no other claim than that this brief exercise is a comparison of two snapshots in time. If time were unlimited, it would be good to explore other years and periods and to include a wider range of senior staff, such as suffragan bishops. If nothing else, this article is a call for further research in this area, to investigate the initial trends that seem to emerge out of this limited comparison.

My source of information is quite simply each bishop’s Crockford entry and Wikipedia biography. This exercise is only as accurate, therefore, as the detail revealed in those two sources.

What do academic qualifications tell us?

This study makes no value judgement about the relative worth of different ordained ministries in the light of theological qualifications. A degree is not a guarantee that someone will make a good priest or bishop.

A degree does, however, give us some insight into the level at which an individual has proven capacity to think, reflect, and research, and the extent to which they can be assumed to have tested academic knowledge in certain vital areas. Looking at academic qualifications, therefore, does at least give us information on which some initial conclusions and further questions could be based – even if that isn’t the ultimate arbiter of what makes a good bishop.

Findings

One development my comparison reveals is a decrease in the total number of diocesan bishops who have no degree in theology at all. In January 2020, 15% (6 bishops) did not have a degree in theology, whereas the figure for 2005 was 30% (13 bishops). That more bishops should have studied theology at least to undergraduate level is a welcome change, arguably an improvement.

Figures for graduate study show little change between 2005 and 2020. In 2005, 39% (i.e. 17 bishops) had some form of graduate degree in theology beyond a BA/BTh (i.e. anything from a master’s degree to a doctorate(2)). In 2020 this had reduced only slightly to 37% (15 bishops). It remains the case, therefore, that just over a third of our diocesan bishops has some experience of theological study at graduate level, and that by January 2020 this had remained at a proportion which is similar, if slightly reduced, to that found in 2005.

The area where the greatest change takes place is in the realm of advanced study at doctoral and post-doctoral level. The total number of diocesan bishops with a PhD in 2005 was 13, representing 30%. Amongst those were two doctorates in subjects other than theology: Tom Butler, then Bishop of Southwark, has a doctorate in electronics, and David James, then Bishop of Bradford, has one in organic chemistry. By this year, those figures had reduced: the total number of PhDs in January 2020 was 9 (22%), with none in any subject other than theology.

An interesting additional exercise is to examine the most recently appointed diocesans – those elected to sees in the past five years. The proportion appointed between January 2015 and January 2020 with a PhD is 14% (2 out of 14 bishops). This is lower than the diocesans as a whole (22% – 9 out of 41 bishops) in January 2020. It would appear, therefore, that as time goes on, the Church of England is appointing ever fewer diocesan bishops with a PhD, and this is noticeable even over the past five years.

The most dramatic change between 2005 and 2020 is in the number of diocesan bishops holding a Doctorate in Divinity. By this I mean the award of a “higher” doctorate which signals the recognition of extensive post-doctoral research in the academic world over many years. I include, therefore, only “earned” DDs rather than honorary ones. In 2005, there were 5 such DDs (i.e. 11%). Rowan Williams, Tom Wright, and Geoffrey Rowell all had DDs from the University of Oxford; Kenneth Stevenson had a DD from the University of Manchester and David Stancliffe was awarded a Lambeth DD in 2004 for his contribution to liturgical scholarship during the genesis of Common Worship. There is now not a single diocesan bishop with a DD, nor one who has held a significant chair or academic teaching post in theology at a university.

Conclusions

The most notable development this comparison shows is that the diocesan bishops have amongst them a reduced number of individuals with proven academic capacity at doctoral and post-doctoral level. Even more strikingly, the presence of a small number of bishops with extensive experience as full-time academic theologians has vanished to zero.

This evidence raises the question of whether the diocesan bishops of the Church of England still have, as a corporate body, the same capacity to undertake theologically informed and academically rigorous reflection on behalf of the Church that their predecessors of 15 years ago had.

My own personal view is that greater thought should be given to candidates’ academic ability when appointments to diocesan sees are made in order to remedy this increasingly worrying gap in the capacities of our diocesan bishops as a group. I am not arguing we need a House of Bishops stuffed full of nothing but donnish boffins. However, it seems clear that the processes used to decide diocesan appointments need to change in order to ensure that at least some candidates with extensive academic experience are appointed to diocesan sees.

The Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony

 (1) It should be noted that in 2005 there were two more diocesan bishops than there are now, as a result of the merger of three Yorkshire dioceses into the Diocese of Leeds. This leaves us with a comparison between the 44 diocesan bishops in post in January 2005, and the 41 diocesan bishops in post in January 2020 (the See of Chester being vacant). I include in the 2020 figures the new Bishop of Hereford, whose election was confirmed on 7th January 2020.

 (2) This, of course, excludes those MAs given by Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin, which are not additional qualifications.

9 thoughts on “Is there a Doctor in the House?

  1. It’s worth noting the far greater academic demands placed on those at postdoctoral level, especially within the academy. The Research Exercise Framework makes it impossible to be a full time minister and in the academy it seems to me. Even more so at episcopal level.

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  2. When Gordon Brown agreed to the Church having control of appointments any external influence was removed. There now exists a situation where extensive consultation, especially amongst clergy prior to appointments, is like that of “The Crown”: rather pointless. The obvious thing for me is that people misunderstand establishment. It is not something external to the Church of England, but a part of its DNA. Without it nothing could be put in place that would keep together its diversity. There is now the anomalous situation of names being submitted to Her Majesty not from the Prime Minister but via his office. If the Church of England wishes to continue to claim it serves a nation, which through its obligations at a local level it still does, then the nation formally should have a far greater say in those chosen to speaks to it, if they bother. Those who defend the status quo should accept that internal church structures (Synod etc) do not reflect the breadth of opinion within the Church and that those who are appointed from its world are now at odds with how many see the future. Any appointed under the current compromise must surely see the baubles of establishment – the most glistening the bishops’ bench in the Lords – as unfairly gained when the Crown has been reduced to rubber stamp for the few who control who “gets on”.

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  3. Many thanks for this. Entries in Crockford do not make the subject matter of a degree obvious. A reference to a Cambridge BA could mean any subject. Nor do Wikipedia (or, for that matter, Who’s Who) entries clarify the position. Similarly, a reference to a PhD could mean anything: and even if the qualification is ostensibly in ‘theology’ I note that a number of doctorates or other higher degrees held by senior clergy are in what could be described as the sociology of religion, rather than in ‘hard’ theology.

    You mention the ‘divinity degrees’. For generations these were not necessarily a marker of genuine theological erudition. The possession of a BD or DD flattered to deceive, not least because at Cambridge the Senate House examinations were overwhelmingly mathematical, with a bit of Paley tacked on at the end (which would make no difference to the ranking of wranglers or the award of a Smith’s prize), whilst at Oxford they were overwhelmingly classical, even after the Jackson/Parsons reforms. Knowledge of divinity, which meant Bible lore and a smattering of patristics was taken as a given, but in practice it should be supposed that genuine knowledge of ‘theology’ was highly variable: the fact that Hare and Thirlwall (the former being a genuine theologian and the latter a classical historian) were practically the only people in Cambridge who knew German in the 1820s should say something about the profundity of past clerical erudition in the subject. Fellows in certain colleges would have to proceed to a BD within a certain number of years following their election or vacate their fellowship; it therefore necessitated taking some formal exercises. The main challenge of the DD was the expense (Burgon and Pusey declined it for that reason: in neither instance did the requirements of the deanery of Chichester nor the Hebrew professorship require it). DDs were doled out with the rations, sometimes ‘by royal mandate’, sometimes ‘de iuris dignitatem’ for bishops, deans and heads of house. Even when headships were secularised a head would remain eligible for an LLD or some other higher degree. Headlam at Oxford and Inge at Cambridge put an end to that little game, but this meant that gaining a divinity degree went from being absurdly easy (a volume of sermons would often suffice in supplicating for a DD) to being disproportionately difficult, and the archbishops were constrained to fill the resulting ‘gap’ by relying upon their own ability to grant Lambeth degrees. Then, in turn, Ramsey put paid to that. For a while Oxbridge could be depended upon awarding honorary DDs to archbishops, but no more, and we now have the incongruity of a ‘Mr Welby’.

    Other avenues to divinity degrees have been shut off. For instance, there is the sad case of the Oxford BD. This was one of the most ancient degrees, and after the Headlam reforms it was often taken by parish clergy who either had a BA in theology or who sat the qualifying exam. This was Headlam’s rather uncharacteristic nod to ‘democracy’. They would then prepare a dissertation, though this was frequently in church history rather than theology. In 2005 the faculty decided to close that off, presumably to force those wanting to take theological degrees to be residential students (paying fees), so the only way of obtaining an Oxford BD these days is to get one at Cambridge (or TCD) and, if possible, incorporate it at Oxford.

    As a result the incidence of bishops having divinity degrees since the 1960s has collapsed. Indeed, I suspect that Eric Kemp was the only bona fide DD in the entire period between the retirement of Mortimer from Exeter until the appointment of Williams and Wright; moreover, Kemp was not a theologian as much as a canonist, and his DD was based upon studies of the application of canon law in the middle ages. Williams’ DD was based upon his patristic scholarship, specifically that of Arius, whilst Wright was the only serious exegete. Rowell’s DD was founded upon his study of the Oxford Movement; whether that amounts to ‘theology’ rather than church history is moot.

    I am not therefore certain that the knowledge or ignorance of the current bench is any greater than most other periods in the history of the Church of England; many bishops in the later middle ages, for instance, were essentially canon (and civil) lawyers because they would segue into secular administration. Probably the period when the bench was bristling with profound theological scholars was in the period between about 1570 and 1670 (though I am possibly being unfair to the eighteenth century bench). A case may also be made for the erudition of the bench in the wake of the Gregorian reforms. The nineteenth century is quite mixed: for every Hurd or Monk there were any number of Comptons or Harcourts, whilst the second quarter of that epoch is marked by the phenomenon of the ‘Greek play bishop’, with the transformative Blomfield as the best exemplar.

    I don’t think we should be too harsh to the current bench. The present need is for administrators who are somehow expected to engineer a Swiss gateau from the ingredients of a Woolton pie. It is little wonder that theological skills are pushed to the margins. However, if diocesan bureaucracies – an overhang of medieval retinues – were abolished, and diocesan assets and administration passed to the Commissioners, the bishops would become purely pastoral agents, and that might create the time and space for prophetic initiative, care for clergy and laity alike, as well as theological study.

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    1. I should add that others at Cambridge were in favour of the reform of divinity degrees (Bethune-Baker, Swete, etc.); the reforms not only encompassed opening the degrees to dissenters but removing the restriction on voting for elections to the Lady Margaret chair to BDs and DDs.

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  4. Well in my life time we did have bishops who had held university posts: Ian Ramsay, Hugh Montefiore, John Austen Baker,John Tinsley,Stephen Sykes,David Jenkins plus some academic Theolgical College Principals like John Hapgood and Rupert Hoare and someone like JV Taylor or John Taylor..plus the Wright/Rowell/Williams more recently. Not sure these sort of people become bishops now. Perhaps bishops should appoint a theological advisor to be a part of the Senior Staff to infuse some theological rigour into their deliberations. At the Second Vatican Council the bishops were not necessarily academic but there was a core of periti

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  5. I’d like to congratulate Dr Anthony on this thinly-veiled application for preferment. (Please don’t post a snappish reply. This is a mild joke which I know that he will appreciate.)

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  6. It’s much more likely that these type of elite academic posts would have been held by privately educated upper class white men.

    What good news that there are early signs of the green shoots of diversity and anti-elitism amongst our bishops. Here’s to a future of diverse individuals with diverse experience called by God to lead God’s people into a fairer future.

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  7. Thanks for this helpful analysis and confirmation of what many non-ordained, theologically literate church members have felt. The sad lack of serious theological education has revealed itself during the recent pandemic when senior bishops have failed to accept the prophetic role of the church and taken refuge in government rulings as justification of their (in)actions!

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