Laboratories for disagreeing well

by
10 November 2017

Ordination training offers an unparalleled opportunity to learn the meaning of ‘mutual flourishing’, says Philip Lockley

THE latest branch of one of the most successful franchises in the contemporary Church of England — St Mellitus College, South West, in Plymouth — opened this autumn.

Barely a decade has passed since the original St Mellitus College was established in central London. Offering non-residential, context-based ministerial training, this initiative of London and Chelmsford dioceses has founded further teaching outposts in Essex and Merseyside. Full-time ordinands are placed primarily in a local church, and commute into London or Liverpool for a day of lectures a week.

In the contemporary language of business start-ups and entrepreneurship, St Mellitus is the “disruptor” among the Church of England’s theological education institutions (TEIs). Rather as Airbnb and Uber are “disruptors” in the hotel and taxi industries, forcing the established providers of these services to respond and innovate (or complain to regulators), so St Mellitus is provoking reaction, imitation, and, sometimes, alarm among residential TEIs.

Of course, the analogy has its limits. St Mellitus in no way mirrors Airbnb and Uber in its behaviour towards “competitor” institutions or corporate governance. The comparison is in effect. Variations on the “St Mellitus model” are radically altering the landscape of training for ordination in the Church of England. Equivalent full-time contextual training for Sheffield, Leeds, and York ordinands is now offered by St Hild College, which was founded at the start of the year (News, 20 January). And so-called “mixed-mode” training, similarly involving more time in churches than college, is now promoted by institutions such as Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Trinity College, Bristol, has gone further, dispersing much of its community into parish contexts.

Such change is being driven from below and above. Energetic ordinands are drawn to getting “stuck in” to ministry at ground level, and assume that less time in lectures means more time spreading the gospel. Others embrace the opportunity not to disrupt a child’s schooling or a spouse’s career which commuting to college presents. The welcome news that more women ordinands are entering training (News, 29 September), is probably linked to this.

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Bishops and DDOs also see the appeal of keeping their ordinands near by, and like the “missional” emphasis of contextual training. Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) — a strand of Renewal and Reform — has empowered dioceses to make more key decisions about how their ordinands are trained. As they request more innovative training pathways, dioceses are particularly prioritising mission experience and flexibility for family life.

 

AS SOMEONE who has been through the process of training for ordination very recently, I can recognise the value of these priorities. I worry, however, that the Church is in danger of unconsciously neglecting another priority crucial for its future.

This neglected priority is not the quantity or quality of theological training, as some might assume. Rather, it is the priority of space and time for future clergy to learn the practical meaning of “mutual flourishing”, that phrase now made notorious by the Five Guiding Principles. Training for ordination offers an unparalleled opportunity for those preparing for public ministry to practise “disagreeing well” — to borrow the Archbishop of Canterbury’s phrase. But no existing training pathway explicitly prioritises or promotes this.

Some might deny this neglect. Indeed, St Mellitus College has pioneered a “generous orthodoxy” in its ethos and admissions, attracting ordinands from across liturgical traditions. This is another way in which it has proven to be the great “disrupter”: it has broken the rule, prevailing since the late-Victorian period, that theological colleges are associated with a certain church “party” — Catholic, liberal, or Evangelical. For the past century, residential training has meant that most ordinands choose a college that matches their tradition, so that they train with “Anglicans like them”. At St Mellitus, lectures, classes and common rooms — like those in regional centres for part-time training — are filled with Anglicans who disagree.

Yet that phrase “the space and time” to learn is significant. Non-residential training centres might attract student cohorts with the greater potential for disagreeing well. But they will currently struggle to offer enough space in their brief life as gathered communities to realise this potential. Contact between ordinands is inevitably mostly in formal teaching contexts — bookended by formal worship — once a week, with the occasional intensive weekend together.

Residential colleges have more scope to offer such space and time, as ordinands form community daily for two to three years. But the gravitational pull of founding traditions tends to limit real diversity. Outlier ordinands are certainly known: Evangelicals at Westcott, and women at Oak Hill, for instance. But the idea of mutual flourishing is less about “us” and more about “them” at other colleges.

 

I REFLECT on this after training in a residential college that is experiencing an unexpected degree of diversity. Cranmer Hall, Durham, is an Evangelical college with a long tradition of training women for ordination, in a historically High Church corner of the country. It has recently found itself to be a community dealing with differences that mirror the wider Church; and it has managed — with grace — not to fracture.

Differences were recognised where expectations, based on the college’s reputation, met the reality of the individuals who chose to train there. Evangelicals chose Cranmer because it was on the “sound” side of the spectrum, and were soon working through how they related to fellow ordinands who were in civil partnerships. Likewise, young, talented women, inspired to train at the same college as England’s first women bishops, had to negotiate conversations that questioned the validity of their future ministry — from both “headship” and “traditionalist” theologies.

In my experience, lectures and classes were entirely unsuited to ordinands’ learning to disagree better. Differences were manifested here, certainly, but they could not be transcended. The pressure to preserve decorum in front of a tutor (and let him or her cover the curriculum) tended to limit the depth of dispute. Some theological barneys got going in the common room and bar — but fewer than expected. Some differences are just too personal, too sacred for such spaces.

Instead, it was the places and periods outside these settings where the reality of difference was faced and honoured, gently. This was where diversity met discipleship — the living Christianly with those you learn to love and yet do not agree with. Students devised evening initiatives to improve the quality of their disagreement through structured conversation. The discipline of frequently praying with and for each other, dissolved “otherness”.

For me, the most moving embodiments of such Anglicanism were the conservative family who invited their neighbours in a civil partnership to be their babysitters; and the women organising prayers and visits when a traditionalist Catholic brother was struggling.

 

NONE of this was part of a national strategy for improving ministerial education. Nor was it a priority identified by a diocese. Yet the time and space that students were allowed for such learning was the most valuable gift that I received from residential training. It was the gift of understanding what commitment to “mutual flourishing” might look like.

If the Church of England is serious about its future as a broad and cohesive Church, it needs to train its clergy to lead it as this. The laboratories for such leadership are its institutions for theological education.

As non-residential training becomes the predominant training model, it needs consciously to incorporate appropriate space and time for students to conduct experiments in disagreeing well. And the remaining residential colleges should be encouraged to realise the meaning of mutual flourishing — not by accident of admissions, but by design.

 

The Revd Dr Philip Lockley is Assistant Curate of St Clement’s, Oxford. Before training for ordination at Cranmer Hall, Durham, he taught modern church history in the University of Oxford.

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