Simon Ellis looks back at his post-ordination training and reflects on the teaching needs in our parishes urging that serious study be taken seriously
The common criticism of Post Ordination Training (POT) a decade ago was that there was far too much staring at bowls of leaves and getting in touch with your touchy-feely side and not enough substance. I have been asked by New Directions to put together some thoughts on POT, as we ask ourselves how the Church of England has sleep-walked into where we are now. Looking back (1997–2001), I would say that the 28 curates who undertook POT in the Diocese of Bristol at that time would see it as a curate’s egg.
The philosophy in Bristol was that POT was there not just to give time for the curate to reflect on his relationship with the incumbent and the parish, nor simply to reflect on the new role, nor just to acquire new skills for the new role, but to plug the gaps left from training at college or on courses. We could go further, and say that any course which was intensely academic, covering units, for example, on Anglican Theology and Spirituality and Apologetics, Mission and Pastoral Care, was not simply plugging gaps: it was building something from scratch.
We studied Hooker, Laud, Gore, Herbert, Joseph Butler and Henrietta Barnett. We looked at the Book of Common Prayer. We wrote essays and were given large reading lists. Those who had diplomas were encouraged to put what they did towards a theology degree at Bristol University, and likewise, those with degrees could work towards an MA.
This, I believe, was not the norm, but it would be no surprise to know that the course was devised by Alastair Redfern (now Bishop of Derby but at that time Director of Training for Bristol Diocese), who has a passion for Anglican theology and spirituality. And you would also not be surprised to know that POT in the diocese had the oversight of Bishop Barry Rogerson, who had been Chairman of ABM, was one-time Vice-Principal of Lichfield Theological College and had been on the staff at Wells Theological College. Both men, I believe, were concerned about the quality of learning in the ordinands coming out of our colleges and courses.
This begs the question whether POT should be used to address the shortcomings of our colleges and courses. In some ways this question may have been answered in the fresh approach to life-long learning epitomized in the new structures for Continuing Ministerial Education (CME), as POT is now known.
I remember being amazed on my POT at how some of our number clearly had little grasp of sacramental theology. Why did so many have no knowledge of the Anglican Divines or of the Book of Common Prayer? The answer is never simply one set of institutions.
Personally I think that whilst there is a meltdown in European culture, theological learning has taken some blows at every level, from Sunday School, through parish-based learning, the lack of good RE at schools, through to theological colleges and, yes, the universities, which have lost confidence in Christian theology too. So we simply will not lay the demise of learning at the door of POT.
I do thank God for my experience at Bristol. But even there, the cracks could be seen in the discussion groups and in the lack of commitment to learning evident among some of our curates. We were not always encouraged by our bishops’ attitudes either, to say the least. For example (and there are so many howlers from POT), I was challenged about my views on women priests by Bishop Rogerson. ‘Don’t you know women play cricket, Simon?’ he asked in a serious way. As the father of a teenage girl who is a good left-hand bat, I am perfectly aware that they do. But did not the question reveal a level of theological ignorance of the issue that is a scandal? At the end of his ministry as a diocesan bishop, Rogerson wrote in his monthly article that his only regret in his time at Bristol was the parishes who voted for alternative episcopal care. Need we say more?
I must end on a more hopeful note because we are Easter people. Recently Bishop Andrew Burnham made the point that there is a direct connection between the presence of youth work in our parishes and our ability to foster vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. And here I think we need to have the courage and vision to simply grow young disciples by getting stuck in to the opportunities that come our way.
Signs of hope
Two years ago I had one teenager in my congregation, so I foolishly built a youth club around a stable membership of one! Now we have a regular meeting of 15–20 and they have Mass, regular teaching and the chance to experience fellowship with other teenage Christians, supremely at the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage in August.
If you think this has no connection with a revival in Gospel teaching, then you should have been in the big tent every morning to share in the Bible studies led by Bishop Lindsay Urwin. They were packed and they were there with their Bibles at 9 a.m. Of the likes of these we ‘recruit’ our future priests and church leaders. We came back from the last pilgrimage with a couple of young men with a newly-found sense of vocation to the priesthood.
We now have a confidence in Forward in Faith and a structure emerging which can make a real difference. There is a growth in Christian basics courses in our parishes. Our parishes are becoming, in Bishop John Richard’s phrase, ‘centres of excellence.’ Specifically on POT/CME, we now have very good courses available through the Society of the Holy Cross, PEVs and Forward in Faith.
Can we go further and harness the technology of the internet to build our learning with fellow orthodox Anglicans? We could have a distance-learning college for CME/Reader training/Bishops’ certificates. This would be in line with the new educational philosophy of blended learning, mixing traditional teaching and computer-based learning.
All of these, and many others, should not distract us from the personal daily discipline of praying and learning, which is at the heart of the life of the Church, of her priests and people.