Angela Tilby asks challenging questions about the capacity of the Church of England’s theological institutions to prepare adequately ministers who love, know and understand both the Scriptures they preach, and the Church they serve.
Today’s theological educators face difficult questions. There are two in particular: How are they to teach theology, and especially, Scripture in a way which inspires and sustains ministry? And how are ministers to be formed in such a way to ensure that they are able faithfully to bear witness to the Christian faith as it has been received in the historic formularies of the Church of England?
These are not new questions. But there are reasons why they are particularly challenging at the moment. One is because of the pressure to find enough money and resources for clergy training. Another is that ordinands often start with less scriptural and theological knowledge, and less practical know-how, than in the past. But it is also because, partly at least in response to these pressures, the Church of England has changed its understanding of ministry away from that it has traditionally held.
Traditionally the Church of England is in the business of forming professionals. Its clergy, on the Reformation model, are primarily ‘learned ministers’. They need above all to be proficient in their knowledge of Scripture and able to interpret it both with relish and sensitivity. The Anglican approach to the Scriptures is beautifully expressed in the Prayer Book collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, where we pray that we might, ‘hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life’. In other words, Scripture is to be attended to, absorbed, savoured and relished because it is Good News, the message of salvation. It is the subject of the minister’s theology, the source of both lively preaching and fruitful pastoral encounter. It is the ground of liturgical prayer, and provides much of its content. It is the mandate by which the Church ministers to the whole of society, because it opens up God’s loving concern for all creation and all people, including the institutions that support the common good.
Most ordination candidates up to the 1960s would have had a reasonable knowledge of Scripture from the combination of church and school. But this cultural background is no longer present. It has been chipped away by changes to the RE syllabus which have meant far less exposure to the Bible in school, by the disappearance of Christianity from the family life of even many committed Christians, and by changes in patterns of worship which have led to fewer and shorter expository sermons.
In such a changed cultural climate the attempt to produce Biblically-literate ministers is even harder than in the past. But, in addition, the Church has gone through its own cultural changes, foremost of which is the adoption of charismatic evangelicalism as the dominant mode of church life, an evangelicalism which morphs into a kind of woke liberalism in response to the challenge of inclusivity. Students preparing for ordination are not expected to have to wrestle with the critical scholarship that I encountered in the 1960s. Reading lists are shorter. Tom Wright for the New Testament. Alister McGrath for doctrine. A dose of liberation and feminist exegesis to explain the more difficult parts of the Old Testament. But simplification comes at a price. It means that ordinands are perhaps less likely to have high expectations of finding enjoyment in Scripture, or to recognise the subtlety with which an authorised lectionary ensures a wide exposure to different, and conflicting, scriptural voices. In this model of formation, faith is shorn of intellectual content and understood as primarily experiential. Ministry is about ‘discipleship’, the passing on of a personal experience of Jesus and a resolve to support the kind of social causes we imagine Jesus would have supported. The result is that the Church is increasingly alienated from and ignorant about the Scriptures it professes to believe.
Narrowing down the range of scriptural scholarship available to most ordinands has consequences. Some of these might seem trivial but together they constitute a loss of the scriptural fluency on which, as I have argued, ministry is based. It’s as basic as knowing how to pronounce Biblical names and places, or as important as understanding complex scriptural teaching and ignoring problematic stories. Only among conservative evangelicals is there a serious commitment to scriptural exposition, and this is now done in a context where evangelical values on issues such as marriage and sexuality are widely at odds with those held by the rest of society. The cumulative effect of the Church’s estrangement from Scripture is to make it less informed, less faithful, less reflective and ultimately less interesting; and so less capable of challenging, informing and uplifting the society within which it is set.
The second question of how ministers are to be formed in a recognisably Church of England pattern is complex. This is because the Church of England no longer recognises a typicalpattern of ministry, as used to be generally, if sometimes grumpily, accepted across barriers of church tradition. It now encourages candidates to label themselves. So you are either traditional or liberal catholic, or conservative or open evangelical, or charismatic; evangelical, catholic or liberal. Some labels have always been around of course, but now they are considered important markers of identity. It is also impressed on today’s ordinands that they should at least pay lip service to the notion that all traditions are valid. But you must have one. It is no longer adequate to consider oneself to be ‘just’ C of E without labelling yourself as ‘central’, which you would be unlikely to do as the premise is that there is no core identity. The Church of England now sees itself as inherently diverse both in theology and practice; it believes that this is to be embraced, and that the diversity is a virtue in itself.
In terms of history this is nonsense. The Church of England has never traditionally valued this kind of diversity. While it has no interest in imposing conformity of thought, either among the clergy or the laity, it values uniformity of practice. This is why an agreed liturgy is so important, together with a commitment to the threefold order of ministry. Canon Law is intended to ensure that all parishioners (not just the worshippers) are held within an authentic understanding of what the Church is, and that they will receive, if they wish to, scriptural teaching and regularised sacraments from authorised ministers.
I never thought I would be in a position of arguing for Canon Law to be part of ministerial training. But that is because the importance of adhering to Canon Law was not something ordinands needed to be taught. It was simply absorbed by observation and practice. The theology behind it was implicit. The Church of England is ‘by law established’ where law is understood in a wholly positive light. It is law as freedom from bullying and sectarianism, law as authenticity and order. Canon Law is what enables the Church’s ministry to take place, binding it into a relationship with the state, the diocese, the parish and particular communities and institutions. Practical realities matter: the care of churchyards, decent altar linen, keeping parish records. These things distinguish the Church from an enthusiastic sect of like-minded believers.
But in recent years the Church of England has seriously undermined its own ecclesiology by an obsession with mission and numbers. It cannot accept that, as Martyn Percy once said, ‘we live in fallow times’ to which we could have responded with grit and patience. Instead it has panicked and enabled inappropriate developments that threaten its very nature. One example is its reluctance and failure to form ordinands in an understanding of liturgical prayer. This has played into the hands of those who believe that worship using ‘set forms’ is opposed to ‘Spirit-led worship’ – the old controversy which Richard Hooker addressed in the 16th century – only this time the Bishops appear neither to care nor to know any better. One of the most dismal events I have attended was a supposed licensing of Readers where the legal side of the licensing had all been in done in advance without a congregation. The ‘service’ comprised songs, a sermon expressing contempt for the Church’s establishment and a secret prayer whispered by the bishop into the ears of each candidate.
It is hard not to conclude that many candidates for ministry are being formed in an ecclesiology which is fundamentally alien to the Church of England. This is based on the notion of the Spirit-led Church, the result of the charismatic movement which swept into the C of E in the late 1960s. This movement has undoubtably been of benefit to individuals in the revitalising of their life of prayer and personal devotion. But it has also inaugurated a bid for power within the Church, throwing up patterns of leadership quite independent of tradition, custom and good practice.
This ‘Spirit-led’ Church has in fact led to an ever-increasing centralisation of control by the London-based Church bureaucracy. The C of E now runs as a business, punishing failure, rewarding success and selling its approved brands to its consumers. Spiritual capitalism has hollowed out the delicate ecology by which parish priest, church wardens and PCC complement the authority of bishops and synods. Parish life, the importance of place and locality, is now shot to pieces. Powerful forces, movements and interests such as the HTB network, St Mellitus, Alpha courses, Fresh Expressions and so-called ‘Resource’ churches dominate. This alternative C of E now controls the money, many of the appointments and the minds and hearts of most of the Church of England’s leadership.
Those who care about these things should not be colluding with the status quo. We should be generating argument and resistance. It is not just the C of E which suffers when its leadership loses the way, it is the nation and society.
The Rev’d Angela Tilby
Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.