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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,