Theological Training: The Way Ahead?

Although it is now some two years since the publication of the Bishop of Lincoln’s report A Way Ahead focused attention on theological training with the recommendation that some theological colleges should be closed, it would be naive to imagine that these proposals have either been forgotten or that his vision of creating “groups or resources – clusters, consortia or federations” for the training of clergy will not in time be seen as the only viable option that the Church has. To be sure the bishop’s report was roughly handled at the time but that must not blind us to the real possibility that, in due course, his proposals will be enacted to the very letter.

I say this for a number of reasons. First of all we should remember that no matter what is said about the Holy Spirit calling the Church into new forms of ministerial training it is well known that financial considerations loom large in the decision-making processes of this kind. Very often the decisions that are taken are not so much Spirit-driven but financially led. That the Church is in the throes of a major financial crisis brought about by centralised mismanagement cannot be gainsaid, just as it cannot be contradicted that residential theological training is a very expensive commodity indeed. According to the calculations of the Central Board of Finance œ6,371,000 is needed in 1996 if it is to meet its responsibilities in providing for the training of all those recommended by ABM. Although it is difficult to locate figures that compare in a meaningful way the cost of those trained residentially as opposed to those trained on the growing number of locally organised, managed and run diocesan courses, the fact that in 1996 well over half will not he trained residentially suggests that it is these types of courses that are becoming increasingly attractive to a financially strapped Church. Moreover, now that women have been admitted to the priesthood, and bearing in mind that their numbers are likely to grow in the coming years, it is obviously a far more attractive prospect for them to manage locally arranged evening classes and the occasional weekend away rather than to drag their husbands away from their well paid jobs and children away from their schools in order to attend a residential theological college the other side of the country.

There is, of course, an added dimension to this problem that behoves all those concerned with the Church’s doctrinal stance to ponder very seriously and carefully indeed. The obvious attractiveness of locally based diocesan courses (seen from the perspective of the wise hierarchy) is that they are not hide bound by those awful Evangelical or Catholic hangovers from the past. The trouble with many overtly Evangelical or Catholic colleges is that they are old fashioned enough actually to persist in teaching that some doctrines are right and that some are wrong. They even try to instil in their ordinands some sort of doctrinal conviction that might even have the pertinence to pronounce on such things as female presbyteral ministry, same sex “marriage”, and the bodily resurrection of Christ. Clearly such issues are divisive and the mere existence of such theological colleges gives the lie to the constant litany that emanates from Church House that all is rosy in the Church’s theological garden. In order to `transcend our differences” therefore, the temptation to construct `theological’ courses that are bland and liberal to a (wo)man and that contain little, if any, specific doctrinal Anglican teaching is a very powerful temptation, most difficult to resist. It is not by accident, for example, that the two theological colleges first slated for closure were those of a most distinct and pronounced churchmanship namely Catholic Mirfield and Evangelical Oak Hill. That these two colleges combined were perceived as potentially offering the stiffest resistance to recent ecclesiological experiments was also commented on at the time as was Oak Hill’s motto `Be right and persist”; not a politically correct motto at the best of times and most certainly not something to be encouraged in today’s theological climate. Although both Mirfield and Oak Hill have been spared the axe, it would be the height of folly to imagine that the agenda to close those last bastions of a recognisable Churchmanship is not still running.

Clearly a slimline financially accountable Church regularly reporting to a self-appointed inner cabinet cannot afford to keep these colleges open. But if that is the case how are we to guard and keep our theological, biblical heritage alive? It is at this point that we can all learn from the Evangelical wing of the Church, that has always, in its best moments, sat lightly both to the Episcopate and, at the same time, to the central power structures of the Church. Evangelicals are masters at setting up courses and institutions that are under minimal Episcopal control. The Proclamation Trust, the conservative Evangelical organisation headed by Dick Lucas has managed to establish the Cornhill Training scheme, which regularly attracts forty-odd students each year. They undertake rigorous courses in preaching, evangelism, biblical studies and systematic theology. So well established is this venture that it would only take a little fine tuning to turn it into a full scale theological college that would, in no time at all, be able to produce bible believing, gospel preaching ministers. Admittedly Cornhill has no Episcopal recognition but the Proclamation Trust have discovered that this is not needed in order secure God’s blessing on the venture; for the Lord has a strange way of blessing those who are faithful to Him irrespective of the Church’s outward recognition. It would not be long, I suspect, before the Catholic wing of the Church, is able to organise similar courses run on similar lines. Pusey House, for example would be an ideal base from which to run such courses. Oxford is centrally located. It holds deep significance for the Catholic movement and it would not be long before it would begin to attract many persecuted Catholics who are being shabbily treated up and down the country.

We must not forget however, that new information technology lies at our very finger tips. As far as Evangelicals are concerned it has to be noted that it would be very easy indeed to link up, via video-teleconferencing, to august, sound Presbyterian seminaries in the United States. The advantage of this, as far as Evangelicals are concerned, is that these seminaries take doctrine very seriously indeed. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Evangelical students could buy into Dr Carson’s lectures in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical School in Deerfield, Illinois. Alternatively students could tap into Dr Richard Gaffin and Dr Sinclair Ferguson at Westminster Theological Seminary and take their lectures on Pauline Theology and the Doctrine of the Word of God. All that would be needed is a modem, a PC, a telephone line and a camera. Already discussions to that end are being informally discussed but should the need arise things could swing into action very rapidly indeed. Should the need arise (and it looks a distinct possibility) this is a way forward. Should we not be discussing all these possibilities now?

Nigel Atkinson is Principal of Latimer House, Oxford.