Holy Useful

Barry Orford replies to an earlier article on this blog by Angela Tilby. He shares many of her concerns about theological formation. As a constructive contribution to debate he ponders two possible ways forward in renewing our seminaries. The first is the need for a rediscovery of our common liturgical tradition. The second is to wonder whether the time has come for ministerial formation increasingly to sever its links with the secular academy. 

I know I am not alone in thinking that Angela Tilby in her article ‘We don’t need no education’ has voiced powerfully the concerns of those almost frantic at the present state of the Church of England. Caution is necessary about such alarm, because our Church has been in lamentable situations before now, being almost extinguished under the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, it is particularly distressing to witness an ecclesiastical shambles of our own making, the product of institutional self-interest, managerial authoritarianism, and decisions being made without basic knowledge of our intellectual, liturgical and spiritual inheritance. Many of Angela Tilby’s points deserve articles in their own right. I wish to touch on two issues she raises.

To begin with, Canon Tilby is courageous in asserting that one feature which has long been eroding our confidence is the progressive loss of liturgies which we have in common. Indeed, the title Common Worship for our liturgical texts invites derision. However good the intentions of our liturgists, we see a chaotic worshipping environment, where even the fundamental Anglican insistence on liturgical devotion is being ditched by “Spirit-led” congregations without a murmur of episcopal censure.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Book of Common Prayer – and they were revealed starkly during the First World War, beginning the movement for liturgical reform – there was no question until now that it was a foundation document of our Church. Its rites were the property of all Anglicans, and its language formed the public and private prayer of generations, as well as instructing them in the basics of Christian doctrine. For example, Morning and Evening Prayer ensured that the Apostles’ Creed was recited daily in public worship, a regular reminder of the irreducible essentials of Christian faith. (How many of those training for ordination now are told that clergy are under a canonical obligation to recite the Office daily?) More than anything, these services were memorable.

This is not a plea for liturgical antiquarianism. Adaptations to services will inevitably be necessary, but let them be part of a firm tradition rooted in the BCP and written by those who can write well. As Charles Williams remarked, why is it that when ecclesiastical authorities need something written, they so rarely turn to anyone whose business is writing? (It must be admitted, though, that today even professional writers cannot be relied on for good style and correct grammar.)

In short, I am with Angela Tilby in believing that there is a need for us to be drawn together again by agreed liturgies which do not permit endless variations and exceptions – truly a Common Prayer.

Another issue raised by Canon Tilby is that of ordination training. It is rumoured that in the corridors of power residential training is looked on with disfavour. (Too expensive.) Non-residential courses are viewed as the way forward. We should not be dismissive about such courses because good work can be done by them, but I wonder whether a more radical view of priestly formation may now be required.

Putting it bluntly, is it time for ordination training to cut loose from the universities? Accreditation of courses by secular academic departments is costly, so ought the Church of England to consider establishing its own scheme for ordination studies? Those with long memories will say that this is a return to the era of the General Ordination Examination. (G.O.E. We must have acronyms today.) Would this be such a bad thing?

I am not proposing dumbing-down in ordination training. On the contrary, I wish to see future priests given the most rigorous instruction possible, but teaching directly applied to the vocation they are pursuing. This would include an introduction to the critical study of the scriptures and its application in preaching, as well as a thorough grounding in Christian doctrine, ancient and modern, and its role in homiletics. (It is seventy years since Dorothy L. Sayers asserted that one reason so many sermons are deadly dull is that preachers do not teach dogma. Without that, what do we have to say?) The principles of liturgy must be instilled into a generation of ordinands probably unaware of them, and too frequently unfamiliar with liturgy at all. Some guidance on the exciting challenges offered to theology by the sciences would not come amiss. Church history, especially Anglican history, must be moved to a central role. These basic elements would be accompanied by the studies in pastoralia and spirituality proper to priestly formation.

With imaginative thinking, this should not be impossible. Cost will certainly be involved, because this cannot be a fast-track road to ordination, but only one other cause has an equal claim on our money, and that is putting priests into parishes.

Canon Tilby reminds us that where the priestly life is concerned the Church of England has traditionally been in the business of forming professionals. In support of what she says, I would make Michael Ramsey’s Durham ordination charge ‘A Devout, Learned and Useful Clergy’ compulsory reading for ordinands, for those involved with the selection of ordination candidates, and those responsible for ordination studies. Its tone is of its time, but it sets a standard which is needed urgently in the Church now. A Christian community where “anything goes” in its services and in its understanding of theology, scripture and ministry must inevitably disintegrate into incoherence. The signs suggest that this is the threat which faces us.

The Rev’d Dr Barry A. Orford, Emeritus Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford

3 thoughts on “Holy Useful

  1. Well actually the Common Awards programme provides what Barry asks for – an academic programme shaped by the Church’s needs. Durham university’s attitude has been from the beginning @What do you need? Let’s work out how to provide it.@.


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