Deschooling Theology

In a further contribution to debate on the future of theological formation, Tom Plant argues for the maximum possible decentralisation of ministerial education. He wonders whether the ideas of Ivan Illich might be of help to us in forming a radical new vision of what formation might look like liberated from church bureaucracy and academic accreditation.

Various voices have of late lambasted the poor state of theological education in the Church of England, not least on this blog. In a lecture for the Church Union, Canon Robin Ward, Principal of St Stephen’s House, is one of the few who also offers solutions. In the process, he raises the unlikely spectre of priest turned communitarian-libertarian guru Ivan Illich, author of the prescient Deschooling Society. Illich foresaw education happening not en masse, but in smaller, elective communities of mutual learning connected by something like the extensive digital communications we now enjoy, but which were technologically impossible when he wrote in the 1970s. With the unprecedented sharing of intellectual resources online during the Coronavirus lockdown, Illich’s ideas finally look feasible.

It’s time to ‘deschool’ theological education. Instead of large courses and colleges, imagine something like the mediaeval schools in which small communities of, say, twelve people live and study together with just one master, perhaps a house for duty parish priest with a strong academic background or a lay theologian. The community members need not be ordinands. They may also be candidates for lay ministry, potential Religious Studies teachers or catechists, or anyone who wants to live in a community of prayer and study for some time – something like the new Urban Abbey at St Giles, Reading.

Deschooling theological education would break its dependency on the universities: from their curricula, their politics, their term-times, and vitally, from the prestige their degrees accord. It would also challenge the paternalism of which the Church can be guilty. It would, not least, save a great deal of money.

1. A curriculum for the Church

The curriculum of an academic theology degree no longer guarantees the scriptural, philosophical, and doctrinal grounding requisite to ministerial needs or true to the historic teachings of the Church of England. On the small scale of a deschooled community, the curriculum and length of study could be tailored to the particular community, rather than being compromised by the institutional limitations of mass education and the ideological vagaries of our academic elite.

The master of the community would not be able to teach an entire theological curriculum alone, but thanks to online communications, would not need to. The communities could network to provide online lectures, and make far better use of the huge range of material already available online. Where specific tuition in practical skills like languages or music is needed, specialists would be brought in, online or in person, on an ad hoc basis according to community needs.

Community members who have knowledge to share could do so. Many ordinands complain of being “deskilled” at seminary; but why employ a Greek lecturer when one of your community members has a Classics degree, or pay someone to deliver a bereavement course when you have a practising psychotherapist living with you?

Communities would not face the cost of a large, permanent faculty and would make proper use of the gifts of their members, who could hold one another and the master to greater account.

2. A full working year of self-funded, part-time study

The thirty-week teaching year, for which one is expected to abandon employment entirely, barely suits modern 18-21 year olds, let alone anyone else. It fits around the needs of academic research rather than teaching and learning. Deschooled communities would not be limited to the university thirty-week year, since teaching could happen all year round. The teaching would take place only two or three days of each week (as it tends to even in “full time” university education), while the members would continue part-time throughout the year in their employment, secular or otherwise, and pay their own way in the community. Without the imposition of vast holidays, a far fuller curriculum could be taught, including both philosophy and theology.

This would not only save the Church money, but encourage a genuine spirit of community and mutual responsibility, far better than the current infantilisation of ordinands. They would do their own laundry, cleaning, cooking and washing up, just like most people do, but sharing tasks on rotation. They would take charge of the finances of the community, into which they would be paying as they continued to work. Even the community leader’s stipend might be paid by the members’ earnings. So communities would be self-supporting, mutually accountable and prepare ordinands for the financial operation of parishes.

3. Escaping the accreditation scam

The link of accreditation to examinations open only to those who have spent three years and thousands of pounds excludes those without the means and serves no obvious purpose to the Church beyond the social capital of her ministers. Illich would get rid of accreditation altogether, and let people be judged by their fruits. However, relying on references and word of mouth alone is prone to nepotism. The problem is not assessment per se, but making assessment the entire aim of education, and selling it as part of an exclusive package in which the assessors have a monopoly over the teaching.

One answer is to offer examinations and accreditation without prerequisites and only for the cost of marking. These might take the form of general examinations for lay readers and clergy, but given the social status still (for now) accorded to degrees, I would suggest that Lambeth offer theology degrees by examination alone.

There is much talk about inclusion in universities. The offer of degrees by examination alone would allow capable learners and teachers to thrive, regardless of their backgrounds, and would reward autodidacts. It would also break the university hegemony on teaching. This would diversify the social and racial constitution of our ministers and theologians, a far bolder move from the Church in addressing societal inequalities than our usual centralised responses.

4. Lighter weight, lower risk and cheap

Small communities would not need large, expensive colleges to live in. One of the few cases where greater centralisation might help the Church is in the delegation of its housing stock. Given the vast properties that some single clergy or couples live in, especially around cathedral closes, it should not be hard to find suitable places to host small learning communities. They could also fill the spaces in monastic communities with large properties (or their sales proceeds) and nobody to look after them.

The failure of such communities would result in closure, but at no cost to the Church, and the community members left adrift could still find other communities in which to complete their studies: no need for expensive bail-outs.

I envision small seminaries popping up in cities and around cathedral closes, networked to provide a comprehensive theological education not just to ordinands but to anyone who is willing to study hard and to contribute financially as they can. They would enrich the spiritual life of the churches, cathedrals and monasteries and the towns or villages they are based in, dispersed far more widely than just university cities. Like residential colleges, these would be spiritually grounded in a communal life of work, study and prayer; but like non-residential courses, they would develop greater self-determination and responsibility. Theological educators in the Church, lay and ordained, would be put to proper use, rather than trying to compete for the few places available in often politically charged secular theology departments. And all this can be done by cutting costs, decentralising, building personal responsibility, and developing people’s gifts.

There are proposals for a new theological institution in the North West. Our bishops could act quickly to make a trial run of these Illichian proposals for a deschooled theological education. They would need to resist their instincts which, I suspect, tend to be left-leaning, centralising and paternalistic, bolstered by an understandable fear of abuse of authority. As the Church is buffeted into mediocrity and defensiveness, it is tempting to try to grasp the rudder even harder. But now is surely the time for letting go and taking risks, especially when they could save both money and souls.

The Rev’d Thomas Plant is Chaplain of Lichfield Cathedral School and Fellow of the Cambridge Society for the Study of Platonism

One thought on “Deschooling Theology

  1. One of the reasons why cathedral chapters were not also abolished in 1540 (or so), or that new chapters were founded in lieu of dissolved cathedral priories, was that they were supposed to provide a wide educative function. Several of them founded grammar schools, but in terms of clerical education, little or nothing happened, although a chapter like Canterbury was blessed with scholars of prodigious European reputation like the emigres Vossius and the Casaubons (Isaac and his son Meric). Essentially chapters enjoyed the revenues and lived as gentlemen. When cathedral establishments were reformed in 1840 it was argued that their educative purpose could be revived. Again, this did not happen, though some cathedrals, including Lichfield, sponsored seminaries, whilst Durham applied some of its vast coal royalties to the new university founded an Van Mildert’s behest. In more recent times a few cathedrals have established education centres: the one at Canterbury founded by the late John Simpson and built to the designs of the late William Waterfield houses the old St Augustine’s College library (housed for a number of years at Pusey House) which can be used for the benefit of diocesan clergy.

    So the recommendation that the cathedrals be used strikes a chord.

    Another past precedent is Sion College, which was founded by Thomas White in 1630 for the educative benefit of London clergy, though it now has but a shadowy existence, the building on the Embankment now being used by bankers and the library having been subsumed into the Lambeth library.

    There are two fundamental questions that need to be posed: (i) can the Church afford seminary education; and (ii) what is the cost/benefit to the Church as a whole of seminary education? I believe that the Church can no longer afford residential seminary education. I also believe that the value added of seminaries is doubtful, not least because of the partisanship that they have often engendered, to the prejudice of the wider Church.

    The proposal for coenobitic house groups has a certain appeal, though perhaps not to those with family commitments or those who are not in sympathy with the general outlook of the leader of the applicable community. The wider issue with seminaries everywhere (and Mr Plant’s recommendations strike me as being a plea for stripped down seminaries) is that they have long been accused of providing a narrow education which can encourage a partisan outlook.

    I am not an alumnus of a seminary or theological faculty, so cannot write with any expertise. However, I have noticed no meaningful qualitative difference between those clergy educated at seminaries and those who have been through non-residential courses. I have some sympathy with Dr Orford’s comments elsewhere on this blog that the connection between the universities and clerical education being subject to diminishing returns; I don’t think that the universities have wanted to get involved for some time – look at the story of KCL and clerical education (and its BD degree).

    Too much of the Church is too expensive to run relative to its deteriorating income. Community-based education may not necessarily achieve the economies of scale which will be necessary to offset the impact of that progressive loss of income. What would achieve economies of scale is if the Commissioners (who are the only part of the Church with any money, the conevo redoubts excepted) invested in distance learning facilities, including an e-library. DDOs could provide guidance. There could then be an examination, as Mr Plant suggests. The e-library could include access to all commentaries, JSTOR, monographs published online by T&T Clark, Eerdmans, Brill, OUP, CUP, etc., certain theological journals not on JSTOR and perhaps links to the Bodleian, the Cambridge University Library, the Senate House Library, the Lambeth Palace Library, etc. 20-30,000 subscribers would hopefully yield heavily discounted subscriptions.

    There has been a fetishisation of degrees in the post-Reformation Church. Prior to the Reformation relatively few clergy had degrees (and comparatively few bishops had doctorates). The near universality of degrees was really a phenomenon of the period c. 1660 to c. 1880. The mania for often pointless post-nominals is an increasingly expensive vanity as much as a benchmark, and one of the more bizarre developments of modern life.


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