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We don’t need no education

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.

15 thoughts on “We don’t need no education

  1. Completely agree with Angela Tilby. Careers such as doctors and vets also take new candidates with no prior knowledge so why us the church so different. In the former students pay for their own training so why cant ordinands for the church? Surely a 5 year plan combining scripture and theology plus practical ministry equip todays clergy should address all needs


      1. Thank you Angela, bullseye. As a Training incumbent since the 1980’s, with several priests and readers helped along their way, I have seen a general watering down of scholarly ministerial education as evangelicalism, having taken over the CofE and tries to avoid as much difficult thinking as it can. Evangelicalism has long since lost its deep love of scripture, (despite the loud cries to the contrary) and has sold out to the consumerism and all the other things that go with the zeitgeist whilst claiming they are specially inspired by the Heiligen Geist. John Stott will be rolling in his grave. Happily, evangelicalism is fragmenting before our eyes. How much more damage it will do before it is a spent force remains to be seen. One newly appointed Theological College principal told me that there’s no such thing as Anglicanism and that, apparently, Hooker is difficult to read and can be understood in different ways. Just like the Bible then!


      2. Whose truth? It may be some kind of affirmation *you* feel you need, but you don’t speak for everyone, or the Church, anymore than I or the author can do. It appeals to those who share the same bias. To claim it as “truth” is arrogant, at best.


  2. I couldn’t agree more with all of this. It seems to me that the most important two sentences are these: ‘ 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.’ The most damaging element in fracturing this uniformity was the wholly unCatholic, and therefore unAnglican decision that clergy could pick and choose which bishop they wanted. That we can pick and choose who can stand at our altars. That we can pick and choose the priest we are prepared to receive communion from. That when the Body and Blood of Christ are offered to us we can turn our noses up and say, ‘Not from you’. And worst of all, that ordinands and priests who take up office are required to sign a declaration that they not only agree with this, but that they want to it carry on, to flourish, to be a permanent mark of the life of the Church of England. Catholic Anglicans used to venerate episcopacy and despise their own bishop. But they submitted to the bishop. Now clergy are allowed to despise episcopacy as long as they approve of their bishop. Scrap the Act of Synod. Scrap the Five Guiding Principles and become a church once again.

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  3. As a Reader of some 12 years, I can say that our Licensing service at Lichfield Cathedral was more on the lines of an ordination without actual ordination! As to formation, I personally think that the rot set in with ASB, and was cemented in by CW. In my humble opinion, CW admits of far too much variation. One can go to different churches and never know what one is going to get. Eight Eucharist Prayers. Who needs EIGHT? And the CW lectionary is just sound bites. The lack of Mattins and Evensong, where a goodly portion of Scripture was read, along with the Psalms is truly to be lamented.


  4. One reason why I value the Book of Common Prayer is that in saying the Daily Offices you absorb large chunks of Scripture and systematically recite the book of Psalms each month.


  5. I agree with much Angela says and was saying it over 20 years ago when I was a DDO. But alas the horse has bolted. The C of E is now so pluralist in doctrine and diverse in liturgy that I cant see how the genie can be put back in the bottle. There does not seem to be much will to grapple with these problems in any concerted way as the solutions remain elusive, and the financial problems we now face, coupled with further numerical decline will only make things worse.


  6. Thank you for such a measured, thoughtful and insightful analysis. Habits of reading and interpreting scripture in the context of liturgical reading are central to ministerial formation if we are to grow and develop. Just recently, with Judges and 1 Samuel at Morning Prayer I find myself going back again to make sense of these challenging texts in biblical scholarship and in order to preach but am aware that this no longer obtains generally as a normal habit among my fellow clergy. Many of my evangelical students at university lack the biblical knowledge one might expect and receive a thin diet from their churches with little in the way of hermeneutics. I was also struck in this article by the yoking of this charismatic tendency to centralisation, ecclesial identity fixing and control in contrast to the uniformity of liturgy and shared practices which was much more engendering of independence of thought and imagination. There are very intelligent, dedicated young clergy out there and they often have recourse to societies of priests as a way of keeping faithful to their ordination vows of the daily office etc. But those are quite tradition specific and encourage the identification by party that this article deprecates. We need a recall to ‘deep’ Anglicanism that will hold us steady through these dark times and bring together those of good will for whom tradition is a living ‘practice’ in Alasdair MacIntyre’s sense, a poetic form if you like, which allows us creative freedom and makes us able to bring out treasures old new commensurate with the enormous challenges that face us all.

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  7. I note the default disparagement of Angela Tilby in some of the comments above; some of her recent interventions have provoked an almost visceral response in certain quarters, which are fascinating in themselves. Those responses indicate that those who perceive themselves as being responsible for ‘success’ harbour a deep resentment for anyone who might wish to challenge the foundations upon which that success appears to have been built. Indeed, some of the responses were so angry it indicates that there is almost a state of undeclared war between those who are bought into the current growth strategies and their opponents. What concerns me about this is that the sheer depth of the antagonism between the two parties means that those who run the Church (who are now, mostly, from the first of these parties) have very little room for manoeuvre.

    In my experience of the Church, I have seen no meaningful qualitative difference between those clergy who have trained at seminaries, and those who have not. I sense that levels of clerical education are relatively poor almost across the board. This is not new: remember ‘mumpsimus sumpsimus’. However, the Church did aspire to be a learned profession, even if that aspiration was as often honoured in the breach as in the observance (for all that there were some astonishingly learned figures, whose learning was as often misdirected as it was well directed). Moreover, the erudition of many eighteenth and nineteenth century was often confined to local botanical or antiquarian subjects, and was a function of the liberal amount of time available to them, secure as they were in their ample incomes from glebe and tithe.

    It is true that a ‘people of one Book’ were, on the whole, vastly better educated in the Bible and Bible-lore than almost the entirety of the present population. However, Anglican clergy in the ‘golden age’ were often better educated, tout court. The expansion of formal education has occurred, at times, in inverse proportion to the incidence of learning that people pick up on their own motion and in their own time. It would be difficult to envisage a personality like Samuel Lee (1783-1852), a carpenters’ apprentice who gained an extraordinary range of knowledge in ancient and modern languages over four continents whilst working at his lathe in Shrewsbury, who studied as a sizar at Queens’, took orders, edited the Peshitta, translated Job, and became Sir Thomas Adams’s professor of Arabic and then regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge.

    There was no formal education in scripture or doctrine until the foundation of the theological colleges. Prospective ordinands were assumed to have a sufficient stock of learning, which would be probed by examining chaplains with greater or lesser degrees of severity. There were no theological schools at the universities, and professors professed their subjects only intermittently. For generations the only way of obtaining a degree at Cambridge (other than by means of a pass degree or a ten-year BD) was via the Senate House examinations, which were overwhelmingly mathematical; similarly the Schools at Oxford were overwhelmingly classical.

    Seminary education did a great disservice to the Church in France, where it engendered a narrow-minded, reactionary and resentful clerisy: one of the main reasons why the French clergy became susceptible to political attack in the latter part of the nineteenth century. There are some signs that it has entrenched destructive partisanship in the Church of England. Moreover, since Hooker, the emphasis has been on scripture, tradition and reason. To be sure, some seminaries attempt to make up the deficiencies in knowledge of scripture, but are patristics and ecclesiastical history taught to any great extent? It seems not in many cases (and judging by some of the painful comments I have heard in many sermons). There goes tradition. Is any knowledge of the sciences or other humanities imparted to ordinands? It does not appear to be so. There goes reason.

    I don’t believe theological education in England provides sufficient added value relative to its cost. It would be better if, once people are accepted for ordination, they were put under the immediate charge of the DDO and/or examining chaplain, who would then give them reading lists for materials which could be found on an e-library (note how many monographs and journals are available via CUP or Oxford Scholarship Online). The Commissioners could establish such an e-library (with access for all clergy, including retirees, readers, etc.), and the bulk purchase of access could be procured at significant discounts.

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  8. Ah yes … the curates of today; their not like what they used to be, ipso facto, wha’ever. Don’t they teach them nothing? They’re doing absolutely nothing for my fellow septuagenarians let alone the venerable professor in the pew while pandering to the one family that consistently arrives late, or rather they did before this wretched lockdown was inflicted upon us.
    You’ve got to blame those curates’ parents too, or rather parent, who never forced them to keep quiet in church, if they were even there. And the teachers. They teach ’em nuffin- always having ‘Baker days’ off and what happened to RI and a daily act of collective worship of an even broadly Christian (let alone truly Anglican) nature?
    I think I hear the handcart at the door. Let us pray.
    How about ministers being prepared adequately to love, know and understand people to receive and respond to the Scriptures they preach, and the God they serve?


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