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A degree was enough

by
09 October 2015

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Your answers

 

Before the advent of theological colleges, was a degree from one of the ancient universities a sufficient qualification for ordination?

 

Until the mid-19th century, the Church of England depended on the ancient universities to train the clergy, in the long-held belief that residence at university and a degree were adequate preparation for ordination. When a bishop assessed whether an ordinand was “of sound learning”, graduate status was considered sufficient evidence.

Generations of clergy were indeed ordained with only a degree as their formal qualification. These included most of the religious leaders of the 19th century, such as Keble, Pusey, and Newman, as well as the Cambridge triumvirate Westcott, Lightfoot, and Hort.

An example of this approach is that of the Bishop of Ely, who, in 1829, courteously welcomed an ordinand from Cambridge who was a senior Wrangler and a first-class classicist, and is reputed to have told him that it would be quite superfluous to examine a gentleman of his well-known attainments.

Before the introduction of the Oxford Honours School of Theology and the Cambridge Theological Tripos (dating from 1868 and 1874 respectively), all undergraduates at Oxbridge, in whatever academic discipline, were obliged to undertake some measure of theological study as a statutory requirement.

At Oxford, at the start of the 19th century, this included knowledge of the Gospels in Greek and an understanding of the Thirty-Nine Articles — to which every member of the universities subscribed at matriculation — as well as study of Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion. With compulsory attendance at college chapel, this theological study was undertaken in universities that at that time were the confessional domains of Anglicanism.

For graduate ordinands, the prospect of a deacon’s examination held no terrors: this was often no more than a cursory questioning by the bishop’s chaplain on the eve of the ordination, and its importance in no way compared with that of their university degree, which was the real passport to Holy Orders.


(Canon) Terry Palmer
Magor, Monmouthshire

 

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