Robin Ward presents crucial aspects of residential formation
This year I will be fifty and I will have been ordained for twenty five years. There are only six people who are younger than me on my page in Crockford’s. This is really all we need to know about the impending and now urgent crisis about ministry, and in particular stipendiary ministry, in the Church of England. ‘Re-imagining ministry’ was meant to be one of the key themes of the last quinquennium of the General Synod, but nothing much happened. The ‘Reform and Renewal’ agenda has set out a bold aspiration to recruit 50% more ordinands and to reform the way in which training is funded; but the only concrete result so far is the timorous package of financial changes to come to Synod, the only consequence of which that I can see will be to bog down anyone involved in ministerial education with even more tiresome administrative complexity. Meanwhile, time passes on.
To this want of vision, we must add a want of resources. The most recent ‘Statistics for Mission’ indicate with an inexorable severity the truth that the average Church of England congregation is small, getting smaller, and getting older. The giving of Church of England congregations has been pretty heroic since the great Commissioners’ crisis in the early 1990s, but this is simply not going to continue for much longer. What will have to go? Ministerial education, and in particular residential training, is expensive, and an obvious target: if all these clergy trained in the colleges have failed to do anything to reverse decline, then why continue to train them in this way?
It is important to remember that the foundation of seminaries has always been a sign of reform and renewal in the Church. Ever since St Basil of Caesarea worked out the classic synthesis of the ascetic, intellectual, and pastoral life with those he gathered around him in fourth century Cappadocia, the ideal model of formation for the clergy has always been one in which theology is learned in the setting of a purposeful community of prayer. And this is not simply the fruit of a church at leisure, one that proposes an undemanding pastoral ministry well-resourced by the civil power among a settled and pliant Christian population.
The seminary as the Church of England knows it is a nineteenth century phenomenon, but it takes its inspiration and its model from the revival of seminary life in France in the seventeenth century: not the Tridentine seminary of the little Italian dioceses, full of schoolchildren; but the community of priests and ordination candidates living together and sharing a common life of study, prayer, and self-discipline. This is the Sulpician seminary, named after the great Parisian seminary that was founded by the parish priest of Saint-Sulpice, Jean-Jacques Olier, as a response to the conditions he found there when he assumed his pastoral charge in 1641.
It is worth recalling what these conditions were. The degree to which settled religious life in the so-called heartlands of Europe collapsed during the traumas of the Reformation is often forgotten. When St Peter Canisius arrived in Vienna in the 1540s there had been no ordinations to the priesthood for nearly two decades, and over two hundred parishes in the diocese of Passau were vacant. Olier – who turned down a bishopric and peerage for the sake of parochial ministry – found that he had responsibility for some 40,000 souls at Saint-Sulpice, of whom hardly any had any notion of Christianity, a large proportion were overt Satanists, and where the murder rate was often in double figures each week.
Here the seminary was vital to reform: the clergy needed to have a regular life, a sure faith, and a solid formation to survive and make headway in such an environment – and those formed in the spirit of Saint-Sulpice did so. It was precisely this ethos and success that inspired Henry Parry Liddon, as Vice-Principal of Cuddesdon College in the 1850s, to model the life of that college on the Sulpician ideal: an inspiration that survives in the unlikely inclusion of Olier’s prayer ‘O Jesus, living in Mary’, in the Cuddesdon Office Book. This was not antiquarianism: the eclipse of religion in the Universities and the desperate neglect of so many
parishes – half the parishes in the diocese of York at that time had a Eucharist less than once a month – made the need for effective priestly formation urgent and apparent.
So much for history. What is the seminary for now? Those who come to be formed for the priesthood come with all sorts of previous academic and professional experience, and are often much older than they were in comparison with even twenty years ago. But what should unify all formation for the priesthood is the posing of three questions, questions that the candidates should have before them every day of their time at college: Who is Jesus Christ? What is the Church? What is a Priest?
Who is Jesus Christ? Ordinands must come to understand their life in the light of the truth of Jesus Christ, so that they can say with St Paul: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal 2.20). This is fundamentally important, particularly so when human egoism presents such a strong temptation to reverse the roles, and for students of theology to judge Christ in the light of their own notions, or notions they have inexpertly encountered for the first time in their studies. It is an underestimated but crucial point of evangelization to recall that men and women need courage to enter the way to eternal life: those who are to be priests need that courage if they are to undertake their ministry faithfully, and teach it to others. This can only happen if they know the person of Jesus Christ.
What is the Church? Ordinands need to understand that their studies take place in an ecclesial setting and have an ecclesial end. Academic work at whatever level is for the sake of the Church, and ordinands must have confidence that those responsible for their formation will act responsibly in passing on that sense of obligation and service by their own example and teaching. It is the most egregious abdication of responsibility on the part of those charged with the formation of candidates for the priesthood to use this as an opportunity to deconstruct their faith by academic, liturgical, or emotional means – and then to baptize this as the dismal pseudo-cult of ‘brokenness’. This is no good to anyone. Candidates must have confidence in their ecclesial mission, and a sense of responsibility that they will speak for and live out a tradition that flourished before them and will continue to do so when they are gone.
What is a Priest? The seminary needs to give candidates a two-fold sense of the ministerial priesthood. The liturgical life of the college should be characterized by an expansive and impressive cult, so that the adoration offered by Christ as high priest to the Father is at its heart. Messing about with endless experimentation, or perpetuating minimalism and squalor as a way of ‘grounding’ candidates could not be more misguided. It must be patently obvious by now that the liturgical life of Catholic Anglicanism cannot be sustained by more decades of Gregory Murray and I, the Lord of Sea and Sky: engagement with the Benedictine Reform of the Reform is pressing and urgent. But the pastoral work of the priesthood must also be apparent: here the last ten years in particular have seen a move away from the pastoral placement as observation to the pastoral placement as participation, in which candidates begin to develop those skills of initiative and zeal that their ministry will require.
Theological colleges are human institutions, and like all human institutions they need reform and recalling to their first inspiration from time to time. Those who have responsibility for them can only draw on the resources available to them to the best of their ability, and in many ways the last thirty years have been an iron time for theology, for spirituality, for liturgy, and for mission. But the obstacles we face are hardly worth comparing with those that confronted Christians in the past, whether in the Europe of faith or the mission field, and certainly with the sufferings of so many Christians in the present. If reform and renewal are to come, then it will be through the work of priests who live for Christ, love His Church, and serve it in the beauty of holiness and the preaching of good news to the poor. If we are to have those priests, we must have the seminaries to form them. ND
The Revd Dr Robin Ward is Principal of St Stephen’s House.