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