demanding digressions

St Paul’s met for the third of the Lenten series on Liturgy today: a ludicrously quick look at the early development of the eucharist, followed by a consideration of the Liturgy of the Word (used loosely to mean everything before the offertory).

Simple, right?

But along the way, questions arose that took us into the history of baptismal practice, the development of priests (as opposed to bishops and deacons), Reformation and 20th Century liturgical change, and a discussion on the word ‘debts’ as it related both to parables and to various theories of atonement.

There are many people who would claim that priests don’t need to have theology degrees (though bizarrely, they are often the same people who tell you that lay people and ordinands need to get qualifications from Bangor). I am sure not all priests need degrees. But I fear more need them than are getting them.

And I really can’t see how one can run Lent courses without.

12 thoughts on “demanding digressions”

  1. You are so right, Kimberly – and even with a degree in theology it would be hard enough to answer all the questions that may be put. So often folk demean the need for learning – but, from my own experience, I realise that the more you know the more you know that you don’t know (if you can follow the sense of this!). As a lay person starting with you to extend my theological knowledge I feel like a toddler learning its first words!

  2. The teacher should always know more than the pupils about the subject they teach. Otherwise they will have nothing in reserve. And this pupil sure appreciates the depth!

  3. Greetings from the other side of the Firth. As a priest without a theology degree, my comment might be taken as biased, but I am one of those who believe that you don’t need a degree to perform the main priestly function of presiding at the Eucharist, nor do you really need it for pastoral ministry. What you need is personal spirituality and its related attributes (e.g., wisdom, patience, insight), which have been identified, affirmed and formally validated by the Church. Where you do need some formal study in theology and related disciplines is for preaching and teaching, and these are not the exclusive preserve of the ordained. And, yes, I am running a Lent course at the moment, though I only have a (modest) Diploma in Theology – from Bangor, as it happens.

  4. Point taken Eamonn. I stand by the original post, though, because of different contexts. In the central belt, where there are plenty of theology degrees floating around, it might not matter so much if the priest has one. Or indeed if all of the priests have one. There is likely to be someone near by who can faciliate a congregation’s theological explorations.

    But I’m finding that outside the central belt, priests are working mostly on their own, with congregations that have had very little teaching beyond sermons, and there is a desire to learn. If we value lay ministry and life long learning half as much as we claim to, we need to be able to offer a relatively high standard of teaching in situ, and not rely solely on the few lay people who will be able to engage in accredited training which happens largely (guess where?) in the central belt.

    One question, Eamonn: if you had been ordained at a different point in your life, would you have wanted a degree in theology?

  5. I think there is room for both, of course, although a sound academic background in theology is a wonderful resource for both the priest and their congregation, especially in the circumstances you describe. Someone without such rigourous theological training, finding themselves in that position, would presumably have contacts to ask or be able to source books in order to stay at least one step ahead of the punters! And I suspect they would keep the conversation on safe ground or employ that old teachers’ trick – go and look it up for next day and show me what you find.

  6. It is worth remembering that the report New Century, New Directions (don’t say that too fast, BTW or it becomes obscene) said this about training for priesthood:

    “Standards in educational attainment should be raised from levels obtaining at present to levels that set students reasonable but challenging goals. For example, a candidate for the priesthood should have a degree in theology or equivalent and have been recommended by a National Selection Conference.”

    When that report passed at General Synod, I was there and voted for it on the basis of statements like that. I’ve not changed my mind. My own first degree in theology was, by far, the most useful preparation for ordained ministry that I’ve had.

    Many of us voted for New Century, New Directions in the belief that it was the report that would effectively close down TISEC and stop it (or perhaps forbid it from) offering courses. I’m sorry now that this did not happen. It is perhaps time for the church to review New Century, New Directions and ask what progress has been made.

  7. Ummm, these postings interest me as an educationalist very much. I suppose I think that both Kimberley and Eamonn have valid points – you do need the level of engagement that a degree offers to come to terms with the sophisticated theology of Augustine and the like, as well as synchronicity, and ecuminism, and the development of theology through liturgy etc.

    However, a theology degree per se is no guarantee that the individual will actually engage in the reflective way required once they are out in a parish.

    Perhaps a community of scholarly priests need not depend so much on a theology degree as a supportive environment that encourages reflection on a daily basis. If this is so, then this raises questions for the lonely priests in the middle of no where. I’m not sure a degree in such a situation will make a difference.

    However, formation of the clergy is a critical issue and an intellectually challenging approach is surely one to be embraced by a Christian tradition with so much theology under its ‘historical belt’.

  8. I’m going to hop back to observe that if you’re a punter with high expectations of professionals in whatever field, you’re going to find the sermon a complete turn-off if it is woolly or simplistic. This is fine if said punter is content and spiritually mature, but seriously bad for the church if there is a chance that thinking punters write it off as intellectually unsustainable.

    I came into the church because of the inspiration provided by one or two serious intellects. The rest followed – but I don’t know that I’d ever have been in the place for anything to happen had I continued, as an arrogant twenty-something, to write Christianity off as a no-brainer.

  9. Looking at all these arguments I maintain the need for the grounding of a theology degree, but would add that without the necessary spiritual attributes individuals are (I would hope) unlikely to pass selection for ordination.

  10. Point taken in turn, Kimberly. And yes, if I had come to ministry at a younger age, I would probably have taken a degree. Even now, the idea is attractive, or would be if I had more time and energy.

    I nevertheless decry the all-too-widespread tendency to denigrate the training received at TISEC. I and my cohort of fellow-students were properly critical of some aspects, and we made these criticisms explicit in the appropriate places, but I think they would all agree with me that the assessments set us intellectually ‘challenging goals’, even if at less than degree level.

    The point about the difference between the central belt and other areas is obviously valid. Nevertheless, it is precisely clergy shortages outside the central belt (and in some places within it) that will eventually trigger a debate on whether we need more flexible (or radical?) approaches to ministry training.

  11. TISEC always worked best for part time (non-degree) students and was most painful for those who already had degrees. But I am glad, Eamonn, that you and your cohort had a better experience than many who went before you.

    Vicki is right that a degree in itself is no guarantee of reflective practice — nor indeed of pastoral ability. But it offers two things: grist to the reflective mill, and (to mix metaphors) a well fired faith that can handle threats and disruptions.

    I have always been glad that I did my BD before selection, as it left me completely free to dismantle faith and put it back together again. I think that’s harder as an ordinand — by then there’s so much at stake. That doesn’t solve the training problem, of course, since we can’t expect people to have theology degrees before selection. But it might flesh out the value of a full time degree in a place where a significant number of one’s colleagues are free to ask the most difficult questions.

    I wonder if priests-with-degrees and priest-without-degrees would tell different stories about the relationship between study and faith.

  12. Yes to all of this. Which is why the honest dialogue facilitated by blogs is so invaluable, as it enables all those (clerical and lay) who came to faith along different paths to share their experiences and, it’s to be hoped, help each other in their several journeys.

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