What is the future if dioceses take over ordination training? Will clergy continue to learn biblical languages? How important is Greek anyway? Ben Sargent considers the future of the Church.
The recent report of the Resourcing Theological Education task group has fostered a great deal of welcome discussion of what is the appropriate way forward for theological education for the ordained ministry of the Church of England. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the report is the proposal that dioceses play a new role both in training and in determining the appropriate training pathways for ordinands.
Most of the reaction to this that has made it into church media and theological blogs has been negative. Some have argued that diocesan responsibility for training will inevitably result in fewer ordinands at residential theological colleges and a consequent breakdown in historic relationships with theological faculties at some of our most prestigious universities. This change, it is suggested, may take effect because the decision to send an ordinand on an expensive residential course will have to be made by those with an awareness of diocesan commitments to fix crumbling vicarages, pay salaries and invest in local mission. The result could be a loss of current world-class training available to ordinands and, perhaps, the closure of some of our cherished training institutions. Of course, none of this is as new and revolutionary as it sounds. Before the nineteeth Century there was no real formal education for clergy. As late as the 1970s(?) several dioceses had their own theological colleges (Lincoln, Chichester, Salisbury). Yet to some extent, the fears raised by Resourcing Theological Education may be justified, though it undoubtedly represents a real opportunity to rethink what theological education for ordination is really about.
Within my own diocese the possible shift of emphasis towards dioceses has been anticipated and with real excitement. We have been able to think about how our training of accredited ministers can be meaningfully mission orientated, setting up a School of Mission. This means developing courses to enable those trained to proclaim the Gospel afresh and grapple with the particular demands facing our area of England.
Yet alongside this opportunity is another danger. The resources for theological education within a diocese can be very impressive. Most diocesan education schemes can draw upon volunteer clergy with a range of theological expertise, often with post-graduate qualifications. But one area in which residential theological colleges consistently out-perform local courses is in biblical studies: particularly in the learning of biblical languages. Of course, the learning of biblical languages seems irrelevant to many clergy and, indeed, biblical languages are not essential for faithful Gospel ministry. They do, however, offer the potential to dig deep into the Holy Scriptures. As we seek to proclaim the Gospel to a society to whom it is stranger than it has been for many decades, we need more, not less, deep reflection upon Scripture. As we seek to make Jesus Christ known, we need a deeper familiarity with the historical setting and significance of his words and deeds. When preparing the soil for a vegetable you want to see grow for years come, perhaps asparagus or artichokes, the deeper you dig down to prepare the ground, the more growth you will see. The deeper our roots spread into the Bible, the better able we are to flourish. This is the image Psalm 1 gives of the person whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates upon it day and night. The word translated ‘meditates’ implies a deep and reflective study: certainly something enhanced through knowledge of the languages of Scripture.
Within our own history, the biblical languages have played an important role in re-shaping and rebuilding the Church. It must not be forgotten that in the Sixteenth Century it was clergy gifted with the biblical languages who saw that the Bible proclaimed grace, not merit. When Huldrych Zwingli sought to bring order to the chaos of Zurich Reformation and the competing claims of radical preachers, it was through a school of preaching which taught biblical languages that he achieved this.
Of course there are occasions when challenges to learning or time constraints make the learning of biblical languages unrealistic. But the Church of the future needs ordained ministers with deeper, not shallower, roots in the Word of God. We proclaim Jesus Christ who lived and died and rose again for us, within all the contingencies of our human history. At this time, we need a deeper connection to that Jesus of history, about whom eyewitnesses wrote in Greek. He is the one who changes lives. He is the one who will build his Church.
The Revd Dr Ben Sargent is vicar of Bransgore and Hinton Admiral in the Diocese of Winchester and a member of the Latimer Trust Theology Work Group.
This article was first published in the CEN in May 2015
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