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Petertide ordinations: Viewed from the other end

11 July 2014

Not all Greek: older priests disagree about the value of their early training, Pat Ashworth reports

John Barton

John Barton

THE VEN. JOHN BARTON (right) dares to speculate whether the two-thirds of his college time spent "sweating away learning Greek" was really justified for a non-linguist. "I never got round to Hebrew." And learning that the Pentateuch had at least four sources and had been edited was the kind of thing not particularly useful in the pulpit.

"You're trying to encourage people in faith, convert newcomers, support people in their work and spiritual life. . . Do they really want to know that 2 Peter may not have been written by Peter? I think there's a tension between teacher and practitioners.

"In my day, we were really prepared for being a curate, one or two more [curacies], and then a parish. Now we're talking about six to eight parishes in a benefice with one priest. The need has changed enormously. Are you training men and women to have a proper academic grasp, or working backwards from there as to what they should be taught?"

Archdeacon Barton trained at the London College of Divinity, and was ordained in 1963. He has been a parish priest, chief broadcasting officer for the C of E, Archdeacon of Aston, and communications adviser to the Archbishop of York, work he is still involved with since his official retirement in 2003. At college, he "had a whale of a time, argued for three years, and led the revolts as a minority group", he says with relish. "I was so green. I knew nothing when I went there.

"We lived in community, and you had to knock the corners off each other. We had some pastoral training from a visiting lecturer who just took us through the pastoral epistles, notably Timothy I and 2, because everything had to be biblical."

And, while the students did things such as holding a doll over a font and "baptising" it, that was no preparation, he says soberly, for some of the distressing family circumstances he was to encounter.

A great deal of his time as a curate in Canterbury was spent visiting patients in the hospital: "You visited everyone," he says. "Started on Tuesday in the top left-hand corner and worked your way down, visiting everyone who hadn't got the curtains round them. I hadn't a car for the first year, and knew so many people. That changed as soon as I had one.

"In my first living, I started visiting people I didn't know. 'Good morning. I'm your new vicar,' I said to one. She said, 'I've lived here for 12 years, and this is the first time I've had a visit from the Vicar.' I said, 'Well, here I am.' And she said, 'Too late. They're out.'"

PREBENDARY DAVID BRONNERT went from the Universities of Cambridge and London to train for ministry at Tyndale Hall, later to become Trinity College, Bristol. Last year, he and fellow students celebrated 50 years of ordained ministry. For Prebendary Bronnert, the academic rigour proved a solid foundation: "I still do my Hebrew most days, after I've emptied the dishwasher. . ."

After curacies in Cheadle Hulme and Islington, he became chaplain of what was then the North London Polytechnic. As many of the students came from Africa, he was plunged into the whole issue of race. It was 1967. He spent his vacations taking overseas students on tours of Scotland and Wales, and joined with a cross-denominational group to consider what the Church ought to be doing.

He chaired a community-relations council, produced Bible-study notes on race (which were circulated by Ken Livingstone when he chaired the Greater London Council), and ended up "speaking about the issue in theological colleges, to those of all persuasions".

He was glad when the invitation came to go to St John's, Southall, a place with a reputation for being difficult, but one to which he had felt called. "I then had to put into practice all the things I had advocated in print and speech elsewhere," he says with a smile. "I made mistakes, but the Lord did bless us there."

He has just been present at the priesting of a local curate, "older than I was, lovely, married with three children, done a secular and quite important job. On the positive side, curates today have a greater experience of the world and society. Negatively, obviously there isn't the academic rigour." As for equipping the Church of the future, he says: "I don't see how in 1960 to 1963 they could possibly have predicted what the issues would be later on."

CANON JOHN SAUNDERS (slideshow, above), who was born in 1940, came out of the artisan trade of hotel catering to train for ordination at Brasted Place, in Kent.

He had a calling "but no academic qualifications, no GCEs even". The then Bishop of Dover suggested two years at Brasted, a college made up of men from various trades, and he revelled in the time for guided reading and study. Two years at Clifton College followed; ordination in 1970, and then a curacy at St Luke's, Homerton, in Hackney.

"It was a typical East End parish, a lively church with a very committed core of people, very working-class, and involved in Charismatic renewal. It was a happy time, and my training vicar was a great inspiration to me." He and his wife, Judith, lived "at the end of the church hall, in something like a caretaker's flat. I don't think the Church of England subjects curates to that kind of accommodation these days."

He considers that the time he had to study the Bible in depth has stood him in good stead throughout a long career in parish ministry, and as a SAMS missionary in Brazil from 1974 to 1991. Not least the Greek, he reflects: "When you are far away from books and working in another language, to be able to understand in a very small way something of the original text is very helpful. Having my Greek New Testament and Interlinear Bible with me is like having a whole row of commentaries."

Now in a house-for-duty post at St Mark's, Gillingham, he says with contentment: "It's a very nice way to be able to wind down quietly without having been a vicar one day and a member of the congregation the next."

THE VEN. DAVID MEARA will be retiring from full-time ministry as Rector of St Bride's, Fleet Street, and Archdeacon of London later this year. After a Classics degree at Oxford, he went first to Pusey House and then to Cuddesdon, "a gentlemanly place, civilised by Robert Runcie but still vaguely monastic", to train for ordination.

There was tea in the common room, cricket on the lawn, and the bursar encouraged students to go beagling. Training was mostly academic, but pastoralia sessions in the final year included regular visiting at Nuffield Orthopaedic Hospital, "where we would subject hapless patients to random acts of worship on the wards. . . It was only when I arrived in my first parish that the corners began to be knocked off."

He served his title as part of a lively and varied team at Christ Church, Reading, a large parish that contained the most densely populated housing estate in Europe. "In those days, you spent a lot of time visiting people in their homes, which was excellent training, if occasionally daunting," he says.

"I remember sitting with a grieving widower in his wife's bedroom, where the open coffin had been placed. During our conversation, he lovingly stroked his dead wife's cheek and invited me to do the same."

It saddens him that it is now difficult, if not impossible, to do regular house-to-house visiting. "When I look back, that contact formed the bedrock of my pastoral ministry."

His first vicar and congregation were patient as he struggled to find his sermon voice. "I wish we had had more sermon-preparation training at Cuddesdon, because the sermon is still an important means of communicating the gospel. When done well, it can be a minor work of art."

Today's clergy coming out of theological colleges and training schemes are probably better prepared by life experience than his generation, he thinks. "Two-thirds of my contemporaries at Cuddesdon were young men, many unmarried, usually fresh from university. But what we lacked in life experience, we made up for in enthusiasm and energy.

"We were starting ministry at a time when the Church still occupied the public sphere with some confidence, and when there was a general acceptance at parish level that clergy had a right of entry into people's lives.

"With the privatisation of religion, that mindset has weakened. But the ordained ministry still allows clergy the immense privilege of getting alongside people at crucial moments in their lives."

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