The Bishop of Fulham’s homily on Edward King Day at St Stephen’s House
The object of theological colleges is to secure ministerial efficiency.
I chose these words as my text not only because I knew that they would appeal to the Principal’s methods and convictions; but because they are words originally spoken by our saintly founder Bishop Edward King, whose memory we celebrate tonight. He spoke them as part of a sermon given at another theological college – that in the cathedral city of his diocese of Lincoln – on 27 November 1888. The whole sermon repays careful reading and is full of wisdom. King’s own text was taken from the 49th verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke: ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ These are the first words to be recorded in the Gospels as having been uttered by Our Lord, and are spoken in his adolescence when he was re-united with Our Lady and St Joseph after he had been disputing with the doctors of the law in the temple at Jerusalem. King, addressing clergy returning to their place of formation for its first annual festival, draws out the significance of his text for those reaching the point of ordination: in the conferring of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, they too have been configured for a more deliberate and intense occupation with their heavenly Father’s business. Interestingly, King also applies the text to a certain kind of Christian pilgrimage from one ecclesial community to another, when he writes of how those words from Luke must land with ‘a terrible reality of surprise and disappointment in families of our pious nonconformist brethren, when the Holy Spirit opens the hearts of their children to hear the voice of the Father calling them back into the fullest communion of the Church’. We don’t hear much of that sort of thing in the House of Bishops or in the Council for Christian Unity these days.
Let me return for a moment to my text, to Bishop King’s words. ‘The object of theological colleges is to secure ministerial efficiency.’ I don’t think that our founder was using ‘efficiency’ in its most popular modern sense, that is of carrying something out to a military timetable and with no waste, however admirable both of those qualities might be. I don’t think he meant that theological colleges exist in order to ensure that the PCC’s annual returns are submitted by the
deadline and that the Vicar understands that the parish hall must be fitted with environmentally friendly lightbulbs. No, I think Bishop King was using the word ‘efficiency’ in the sense that has to do with the fitness or power to accomplish, or success in accomplishing, something; with bringing about the purpose intended. And that in turn takes us back to Aristotle and Aquinas and efficient causation. The efficient cause of something is that which, by its action, produces an effect substantially distinct from itself. I am no philosopher so I can best understand this by way of example. The efficient cause of a table is the carpenter who builds it in his workshop; the efficient cause of a statue is the sculptor who sculpts it; the efficient cause of a shrubbery is the gardener who has planted and tended it; the efficient cause of a child, even, are the parents whose offspring it is.
‘The object of theological colleges is to secure ministerial efficiency.’ Bishop King is saying that theological colleges exist in order to fulfil, in order to accomplish, the bringing into existence of ministers, Christian ministers, ministers of the Gospel: deacons and priests. They, the colleges, are to be the carpenters, the sculptors, the gardeners, the parents even, of those whom God is calling to be set aside in a particular sense to be about their heavenly Father’s business.
Here is something obvious, but which needs saying, especially in the context and culture of the Church of England today. To be any of these things – a carpenter, a sculptor, a gardener, a parent – and to be them successfully and efficiently requires time and attention. You cannot rush carving a table or sculpting a statue, and expect it to be any good. Parenting is about the bringing the child in stages to maturity – it is not a dash for growth. Time and attention are needed: time in the workshop; time in the studio; time with the bulbs and the seedlings; time with the child.
Now as with every analogy touching on some aspect of the life of the Church, that of the college as carpenter, sculptor, gardener, or parent is useful but imperfect and incomplete. For it is not only that the institution needs time and attention to make and grow ministers, but also that those whom the Lord is calling to this particular vocation need an environment which is expansive in the dimensions of time and space so that they, God’s ministers in formation, can meet the Lord who is calling them and come to know Him more deeply. The college is the place to meet Jesus in the library and in the lecture room; in the refectory and the common room; and, of course, in the chapel – in the disciplined, structured experience of the incursion of the supernatural into daily living which is the life of prayer and worship, that marking the hours which is at the
heart of living Christianly. As Bishop King said in his sermon: ‘We must know what prayer and worship mean ourselves before we can hope to direct and lead the worship of the people. We must say to them, and own it when we say it, “O come, let us fall down, and kneel before the Lord our maker.”‘
The Church of England is experiencing one of its periodic spasms of nervousness and introspection about theological education. Much of the current debate, as others from across the different theological and spiritual traditions have noted, is not really about renewing ministerial education, but about tinkering with the way in which ministerial education is paid for. The sermon is not the place in which to address the detail, though I cannot help noticing that – Yes-Minister like – when the Church puts transparency and simplicity into the headlines, keep a close eye on your wallet. What we lack is the confident statement of first principles: that, to borrow our founder’s words once again, to secure ministerial efficiency requires an investment of time and attention which the Church should not begrudge, but should confidently insist to be non-negotiable. The aim must be to discover how to enable more candidates for ministry to experience the riches of this and sister institutions, not to trim at the edges and promote alternative forms of ministerial formation which can never accomplish the same task with equal satisfaction.
This is an unfashionable view, but the stakes are very high. Reading recently again Dorothy L. Sayers’ wonderful little essay, ‘Creed or Chaos,’ written in 1940, I was impressed afresh by her magnificent exposition of the need for the teaching and transmission of the fundamentals of Christian doctrine, not to make a church of quasi-academics – perish the thought – but because it is by a sound grasp and confident exposition of doctrine that the Church can actually speak into the reality of people’s lives and communicate meaning and hope. Surely the apologetic task is the Church of England’s greatest challenge and opportunity. We need our pastoral theologians, who have met Jesus in the library and the chapel and the common room – in this place a common room enriched by students and teachers of other disciplines – and who are equipped to make the necessary connexions. That is the mission that this House is surely called to equip Christian ministers for, and we rejoice tonight in the work which is done here under God to prosper that enterprise.
I end with some further words of Bishop Edward King, from the same sermon. Of course, King’s style is of its age; the gender-specific language rather hits one between the eyes, and
I hope the women candidates here tonight will kindly overlook that. But King’s vision must be as relevant today as it was nearly 130 years ago. King asks that the theological college provide for the Church’s ordained ministry men strong in the Lord… men who have thought out as far as they can their own relation to God… men who have walked in the threefold light of their own faculties, of revelation, and of the Church, and have seen how the three agree and lead back to one… Men who have disciplined their reason by endeavouring to discern and speak the exact truth, without fear of the reproof of man, and without the desire of his praise.
But alongside those disciplines of the intellect, the mind and head, King looks for the formation of a priestly heart, of priestly character:
We need men who are rooted and grounded in and constrained by love… men who will love and not grow cold, but who, having loved, like Jesus, will ‘love to the end’; men who know the Church to be a true Society… men who desire to draw
all men within the fold of the visible Church of Christ, because
there they will find their true relation to God and to their
That is truly a vision for mission: it is the programme for a mission-shaped Church. The last words, again, belong to Bishop King: ‘He is about His Father’s business: He is making you a holy priesthood that you may bring the people of England back again into His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.’ ND
Bishop Edward King (1829-1910) is commemorated on 8 March.