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Opinion >

It’s the theology, stupid

What do we want from our clergy, asks Alister McGrath

DIOCESE OF BRISTOL

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Happy with their lot: newly ordained priests in Bristol in 2014

Credit: DIOCESE OF BRISTOL

Happy with their lot: newly ordained priests in Bristol in 2014

THE consultation document Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) comes at a time of significant institutional change within the Church of England. The immediate context of both RME and the earlier Green report is well-rehearsed: declining congregations, ageing clergy (many of whom are coming up to retirement), and dwindling financial resources.

RME argues that the Church of England needs a "significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders" to meet this challenging situation.

It proposes a raft of measures to meet this challenge. The Church should be proactive in its approach to vocations, actively seeking to encourage callings to lay and ordained ministry, particularly among the young. Individual dioceses should be given greater autonomy over the training pathways for their ordinands. Increased funding will be sought to resource high quality training.

Certain "gifted individuals" would be offered enhanced training, to allow them to assume strategic positions in the future - the "talent pool" proposed by the Green report, presumably.

But what assumptions lie behind this document? What sort of ministers does RME believe the Church needs? Like the Green report, RME is pragmatic in its outlook, favouring a corporate, management-driven institutional approach to ministerial training. It makes a respectful nod towards the words of Jesus in Matthew 9.37, in its single reference to scripture.

Yet, on the whole, it avoids advocating any explicitly theological engagement with ministry, apparently seeing this as peripheral (something the Church doesn't need), a luxury (something the Church can't afford), or - crucially - divisive (causing needless controversy within the Church).

TO BE asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about), however, is like being told to make bricks without straw. What keeps people going in ministry, and what, in my experience, congregations are longing for, is an exciting and empowering vision of God, articulated in a theology that is integrated with worship, prayer, and social action.

Ministry has both vertical and horizontal dimensions, standing at the intersection of God and the world. Both those dimensions need to be sustained. RME's exclusively pragmatic approach to ministerial training risks the loss of its core motivation and inspiration for Christian ministry.

This hostility towards theological scholarship seems to reflect a lack of understanding of what theology is, and why it matters. The training that we offer our ministers must do far more than simply acquaint them with the institutional ethos of the Church of England. It must energise them through engagement with the realities of the Christian gospel.

That is why Thomas Merton and so many others see study and prayer as so deeply interconnected, and of equal importance in the life of faith. Good theology inspires and motivates those in ministry to love and serve God and his people.

When the Green report and RME are read together, they point towards a "reimagining" of the Church as an institution or organisation rather than as the people of God. The understanding of the Church as the "body of Christ" is being displaced by corporate and technocratic concerns, in which the promotion of the well-being of an institution, and compliance with its culture seem to take priority over the gospel itself.

Everyone agrees that organisations need to be run well; but functional competence is neither the ground nor the goal of the Church of England. 

THE Church of England is not an organisation that exists for its own ends and purposes: its fundamental ground and goal is the Christian gospel. Yes, its ministers need to know what is distinctive about the Church of England. But, more fundamentally, they need to have a personal knowledge of the Christian gospel, to have assimilated its themes, and to appreciate how this informs and stimulates pastoral care, mission, preaching, and spirituality.

The Church of England as an institution provides a robust framework for ministry and service. Yet the living reality at the heart of its worship is the risen Christ, whose service and proclamation is the true business of the Church.

This emphasis on the Church as an organisation highlights another problem with this report. There appears to be no serious attempt to find out what congregations feel they want or need from their clergy. The management needs of the Church appear to have been given priority over the pastoral, ethical, and spiritual needs of congregations. The people of God were not, it seems, given a voice in this process.

RME tells us a great deal about what the Church's leaders believe the people of God ought to get, but not what congregations themselves believe that they need.

The concerns of the people of God need to be high on RME's agenda. The parish congregations I serve regularly tell me what they want from their clergy. They want help in reading the Bible and understanding its message. They want help in deepening their faith and their life of prayer (they might not always use the word "spirituality", but that's what they're getting at).

They want help in facing challenging life issues, and doing things right when faced with complex ethical questions. They want reassurance and guidance as they face up to illness and death.

And, in the end, all these questions demand answers from ministers who are informed and nourished by a sound knowledge of the Christian faith. 

PERHAPS the people I talk to are not representative. But this gathering of the felt needs of congregations needs to be done, and done properly, before we take new directions in ministerial education which could cause us to lose something vital and irreplaceable.

The best theology always aims at serving the Church - sometimes, it must be said, by criticising it - and resourcing ministry. Wherever the process of review initiated by RME leads us, it must never be allowed to disconnect ministry from good theology.

RME is fundamentally right in talking about a good practical theology's emerging in "iterative dialogue with the developing situation". One of the most exciting aspects of my recent professional work was supervising clergy working for a doctorate of theology and ministry at King's College, London. This course, and others like it, demanded that students use a deep grasp of Christian theology to inform, and offer a critique of, their pastoral ministry. Many found it life-changing. Perhaps more im-portantly, their congregations benefited even more.

RME rightly invites us to face up to some significant challenges to the future of ministry within the Church of England. We cannot evade discussion of issues of finance, resourcing, and patterns of ministerial education. Yet there is a risk that we may fail to ask the right questions - particularly if we allow the institutional needs of the Church to trump the spiritual and pastoral needs of congregations, or lose sight of the importance of a theological vision in inspiring and sustaining Christian ministry.

To its critics, the study of theology distracts from real life. But, at its best, theology inspires and informs precisely the committed and caring ministry that RME recognises as essential for the future of the Church.

The Revd Dr Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, and Associate Priest in the Shill Valley and Broadshire Benefice in the diocese of Oxford. He was previously Principal of Wycliffe Hall (1995-2004), and Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King's College, London (2008-14).

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