Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Seminary obituary?

Several people have linked to this interesting article, asking whether seminary education has a future. I haven't got time to write a full response - maybe after Easter - but I want to point out three sources of tension:

- there is a tension between forming priests and training theological academics. The latter has a part to play in the former but if the distinction is ever obscured then it is the training for the priesthood which comes off worse;

- there is a tension between academic theology and mystical theology, between an intellectual enterprise that can be pursued by people of any faith and of none, and the intellectual enterprise which is pursued within a self-reflective community of faith. It is essential for priests to be thoroughly trained in the latter, the former is much less essential;

- there is a tension between the residential formation of priests, allowing for the overview and shaping of a whole person, and the non-residential training of priests which, by default, must end up concentrating on what can be assessed at a distance. The latter is not the same as the former.

As with many things, I can't help but feel that the CofE suffers from confused thinking, backing into situations that it hasn't planned for and then becoming bewildered by the consequences.

More anon.


  1. I must be brief as well Sam, but your third point highlights your ignorance of non-residential training. As someone who trained in a residential college but trains others in a non-residential context I can assure you that a great deal of assessment takes place 'up close and personal' as we observe students in local contexts. There is no assessment at a distance unless by that you mean we have to travel around a bit in observing those training for ministry. The same is true of other non-residential courses I have inspected on behalf of the House of Bishops.

  2. Phil - why do you believe that I'm ignorant of non-residential training? I've been a tutor for ERMC. My point is that a residential course allows for observation of a person day in, day out, week in, week out, in structured and non-structured contexts, for the whole (term) time of training. Sure that can happen on the residential weeks and so on, but it is by no means the same. I'm not saying that there is _no_ 'up close and personal' assessment at all - I'm saying what I thought was a comparatively straightforward point, that the training is _different_ (and that there are consequences to the differences - which I haven't spelled out). Are you saying that you believe there to be no difference in the training between residential and non-residential? What sort of proportions would you give to the distance-learning elements vis-a-vis the local contexts? I suppose an analogy might help make my point clearer - the difference between being a boarding pupil and a day pupil at a school - they all take the same exams in the end, but there remains a definite difference in culture.

  3. The downside of residential training is the danger that it might become too ivory-towerish, divorced from what some call "the real world" (though that is always a phrase that makes me cringe as the real world is multi-faceted).

    The real benefit of full-time residential training (and I may have been extremely lucky/blessed here)is the sense of community that can achieved. At its best it can create a model for the church communities that ordinands will end up leading a few years down the line. It provides radical character formation with nowhere to hide. I too may be ignorant of non-residential training. but I find it difficult to believe that this can be replicated non-residentially.

    Critics of the present system often point to Jesus and the disciples as model of apprenticeship training. But this was old-style apprenticeship where the disciples lived ate and slept ministry in community with the Master.

  4. Sorry Sam, as I said I'm a bit pushed for time at the moment so can't go into this as much as I would like but a couple of comments.

    1. There is still a snobbery around in ministry training that residential is better than non-residential, so I guess I'm a bit twitchy about this at the moment. My argument is it isn't better though it is different and both have strengths and weaknesses.

    2. Regarding assessment the issue is who you regard as being part of the training team. In non-residential training there is a broader group of people alongside the college faculty, including local tutors, supervising incumbents and parishioners who all have valuable input. I would suggest that how a person engages with the practice of ministry in training in the local context is vital in determining how someone's formation is developing. That is part of assessing the whole person.

    3. I greatly value my experience of training. Three years studying theology and then another two at theological college continuing my studies was great and enabled me to spend plenty of time wrestling with subjects that I found fascinating. But I could have sailed through the whole five years without having to develop and sustain a ministry relationship with a local church on anything more than a perfunctory basis. I'm not denying the value of formation in residential training, however, the issue for me is relating training to context.

    4. Simon, at St Mellitus College we have a residential week and 7 residential weekends each year and the weekly sessions include a meal, worship as well as the teaching,. I accept this isn't the same as a residential college but to be honest I hardly saw some of my fellow ordinands at theological college; many of the married ones lived out and people disappeared at weekends. Apart from the worship I don't think there was much different about my experience of theological college compared with my experience as an undergraduate at a college in Durham! In fact the undergraduate experience was as important formationally as I was challenged to live out my faith amongst friends who were sceptical about faith in general and Christianity in particular.

    Sam, let me say where I think you are right and I would love a chat over a pint about this at some point.
    1. We are confused about theological education, both purpose and practice.
    2. We have bought into a model of the academy and financial resourcing that is unravelling fast.
    3. We are not clear about what we believe ordained ministry to be and with that confusion it is not surprising we are confused about how to train people for that ministry.

    Anyway, have a great Easter and I hope I might see you at the Chrism service later today.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.