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Liberate ministry from tribalism

17 March 2023

Training institutions should aid, not hinder, collaboration, says Humphrey Southern


“COLLABORATIVE MINISTRY” has long been a watchword, and claimed as a key aspiration of the Church of England. For an equally long time, it seems, there has been loud and lively lament about how ill-prepared so many of its ministers — especially ordained ministers, it is often claimed — have proved to be to engage in it.

The twin enemies of collaborative ministry would seem to be the evils of clericalism and tribalism, which see ministry as solely or primarily an activity of the clergy, and/or so precious that it can be shared only among participants who overlap with each other extensively in terms of theological outlook, religious culture, or (sometimes) downright prejudice.

The best programmes and institutions of ministerial formation will be intentionally constructed to counter such attitudes, with trainees and faculty of rich diversity both of approach and vocation (in terms of ministerial order). Working, learning, and (especially in the residential seminary mode) living together with ministers and trainee ministers of great difference, co-operating on activities from planning worship to animating the social life of a community to staffing the local village fête (a speciality of my own institution) make for a good grounding for practical collaboration in ministry, better informed by gritty experience than by what is often somewhat romantic theory.

Crucially, also, it will be important for as long as the Church of England retains a two-stage pattern for training (college or course, followed by curacy) that the same values and priorities are modelled and espoused in each phase.

It is no good if an ordinand’s healthy formation in collaborative approaches to ministry, fostered through co-operation with colleagues and others in all sorts of activities and aspects of college or course life, is undermined by the example of a training incumbent whose outlook is different.

It is not unknown for curates to be placed with incumbents whose energy and skill as parish priests — including growing church, running initiatives, forming partnerships, and so on — has been characterised more by individualised energy and focus than by the rather different pace and style that comes with fostering collaboration and enabling the talents of a wide range of colleagues.

IT IS necessary to acknowledge that the ways in which many of our training institutions have developed have not, on the whole, served well the idea of healthy appreciation of difference within the community of the Church.

Alongside the contemporary failing of anxiety, a longer-term besetting institutional sin for the Church of England (and Anglicanism more generally) has always been to allow our varieties of theological tradition, ecclesiological preference, liturgical taste, and similar considerations to become tribal; and many of our training institutions are the product of this tendency.

This is particularly obvious in respect of some of the older colleges, which were explicitly formed to promote particular “parties” within the ecology of the Church of England.

My own institution, Ripon College, Cuddesdon, is an interesting case in point: founded (as Cuddesdon College) specifically, in the intention of its founder, to be “a non-party diocesan seminary”, it came quite rapidly under the influence of the resurgent Catholic tradition in the Church of England — only some time later, and following mergers with other training institutions, rediscovering and very intentionally seeking to develop an ethos that honours and delights in a very broad sweep of the traditions of Anglicanism. More recently, similar partisanship may be detected in relation to modes of formation, particularly as between context-based and residential training.

GENEROSITY and altruism require both imagination and attentiveness to the world, to scripture and the tradition, and to God’s ongoing self-revelation. Servants of the gospel need to learn to listen and to hear, developing theological and spiritual suppleness in their responses to all that God lays before them.

Of late, the Church of England has embraced the rhetoric of “good disagreement”, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or cynicism. Whatever one’s position within that scale, there can be no denying that the Church is full of people whose positions and dispositions are different from one’s own, and that is a reality that needs to be acknowledged and lived with if Christendom is not to degenerate into a fractious collection of sects and tribes.

This is essential for the sake of the unity of the Church, “that the world may believe”, as Jesus prayed. It is also key to missional effectiveness, pastoral attentiveness, and to faithful prophetic engagement. At the root of all of these priorities — and of any ministry that takes the idea of incarnation seriously — is a passionate interest in and love for the world.

The Rt Revd Humphrey Southern is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

This is an edited extract from a lecture that he gave to the Ecclesiastical Law Society on 8 March: “Called on the Mountain to serve on the Plain: Priorities for ministry formation”. The full text of the lecture can be found here

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