Roger Homan describes an exercise to determine the degree to which theological colleges teach the Book of Common Prayer

THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND has in place procedures and standards to ensure that those entering its ordained ministry are properly grounded in its worship and doctrine as contained in the Book of Common Prayer. The Church’s procedures are set out in its Canon C7 Of Examination for Holy Orders.

No bishop shall admit any person into holy orders, except such person on careful and diligent examination, wherein the bishop shall have called to his assistance the archdeacons and other ministers appointed for this purpose, be found to possess a sufficient knowledge of holy scripture and of the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church of England as set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal: and to fulfil the requirements as to learning and other qualities which, subject to any directions given by the General Synod, the bishop deems necessary for the office of deacon.

In recent years there has been some concern that these procedures may not have been consistently practised and the focus upon the Book of Common Prayer may have been lost. There were reports coming to the Prayer Book Society that some recently ordained clergy were declaring to parishes that they had little or no experience of the conduct of Prayer Book services. Attention turned to the theological colleges who were formally responsible for the preparation of ordinands. The reports of bishops’ visitors to the colleges who monitored their courses have on the whole remained confidential: where visitors have made comments they have been anodyne or complacent, giving bland assurances that all was in order.

An enquiry had been undertaken in 1986 by Roger Homan and David Martin and was published as Theological Colleges and the Book of Common Prayer. This involved a survey among students in theological colleges and was all but sabotaged. Some colleges refused en bloc to participate; the response rate was low and the tenor of responses was hostile. When the report was published there were attempts in the church press to discredit it on the ground that the principal investigators were members of the Prayer Book Society.


There persisted, however, considerable disquiet concerning Canon C7 and the evident discrepancy between principle and practice. Consequently a further, more extensive and sophisticated enquiry was conducted from the University of Brighton in 1995.

The subjects of the more recent investigation were not current students but the entire 1990 cohort of ordinands in the provinces of Canterbury and York. The choice of a post-qualification target group is standard in the monitoring and evaluation of vocational courses elsewhere in higher education, such as those in the preparation of teachers: its purpose was to gain a reflective insight of the appropriateness of course content in the light of subsequent experience. Questionnaires were sent to all 357 of those who had current addresses in the British Isles and responses were received from 238 (67 per cent): this rate of response is considered to be very high and the disposition of respondents was much more positive than on the previous survey. The questionnaire ran to three pages and asked questions on experiences of worship before training, during the years of training, and since ordination. To pre-empt the criticism that results were merely the effect of biased questions, we took advice from two diocesan directors of ordination on the questionnaire design. For sampling purposes there were personal questions about the type of course and ministry the respondent had experienced and the college or course through which he or she prepared. Respondents were asked whether they would be willing to take part in the second phase of the research which would involve interviewing and some 168 respondents (70 per cent) expressed such willingness.

The sample of interviewees participating in the second phase reflected as far as possible the structure of the whole cohort. It included both men and women. It included not only those trained in colleges but also those prepared on non-residential courses. There were some working in parish ministry and some in other contexts such as chaplaincy. We included candidates across the range of churchmanship as signified by their choice of theological college. Interviews were conducted in six dioceses and the average length of each interview was something over one hour. Interviews were based around five prompts or short questions arising from the questionnaire returns and respondents were allowed to talk freely on each topic. The form of the interview is set out in the final report and the questionnaire appears there in full.


The expectation was that the questionnaire survey would afford some limited statistical measures while the interviews would yield more qualitative data. However, there was an unexpected bonus in the form of extensive margin notes and scribbles and of sometimes long letters which accompanied the returned questionnaires. Even among subjects there was a commitment to the worthwhileness of the enquiry as well as a perceptive awareness of the elusiveness of the data being sought: a non-stipendiary minister who had trained on a non-residential course asked,

But are you going to find out whether they use the Prayer Book in the colleges? That’s the question. The bishops have said they must have both but you won’t find that they do. That’s what I’ll be interested in when your report comes out.

Indeed, this respondent’s prediction was affirmed by the data from the questionnaire. It was found that those training for ordination in theological colleges were less exposed to the Prayer Book than at any other time in their lives. They had used it more in their worship before entering college and had found a need to use it more since. A young clergyman ministering in an East Anglian diocese wrote,

There is a great deal of use of the Prayer Book (for offices and for 8.00 a.m. Holy Communion) and of Rite B in this Diocese, which was my sponsoring Diocese. However, it was very difficult to persuade the powers that be at [name of college] to give very much attention to Rite B or BCP Holy Communion and I found this a drawback during my curacy.

Of all clergy responding some 49 declared their worship before training to have been mainly Prayer Book and 44 had been mainly occupied in Prayer Book worship since ordination: but during training the number dropped to thirty-three of whom the larger number had been engaged on non-residential courses. One in five of our clergy thought their training had inadequately prepared them for the conduct of traditional worship.

This narrowing of the worship experience of ordinands during the critical period of their preparation has serious implications. In other professions it is common to relate the capacities that are developed in training to those that are needed on the job. In the secular world the training agency reckons to cater for need, not to close down the supply. But theological colleges send out students who for want of experience of the traditional forms will be predisposed to lead parishes according to familiar practice. Indeed, two of those interviewed had found themselves in particularly challenging kinds of ministry and told that they had given special thought to the kind of worship that would best suit the needs of their congregations. In both cases they had resorted to the forms that had been used in their respective college chapels. College experience of worship, it was clear, was to become the range from which parishes would subsequently be served. So much the more important it is that this range should be broad and true to the spirit of Canon C7.

We then asked the cohort of 1990 ordinands how well informed they felt they were on the Book of Common prayer. Of 237 responding this question, 42 thought they were very well informed, 113 thought they were as well informed as time allowed and 82 felt they were not well informed. For comparative reference, only 54 felt themselves to be not well informed on the liturgical movement. These statistics have some bearing on the claim that Canon C7 is alive and well. The evidence is that in 1990 the procedures for bishops, archdeacons and others to examine candidates for ordination allowed at least eighty-two men and women to slip through who on their own assessment were not well informed. If the screening system is as meticulous as Canon C7 suggests, this finding wants some explanation: we need to know how so many were able to pull the wool over their bishops’ eyes.

College visitors will of course have checked the existence of courses in the conduct of traditional worship and would have reported to bishops accordingly. In the 1995 enquiry we pursued similar questions. It transpired from respondents that in one college students were given support to conduct both traditional and experimental worship. The classes on experimental worship were held in the middle of the day and were compulsory while the classes on traditional worship were held at the end of a long day and were voluntary.

It will be seen from the questions instanced above that the enquiry was very much concerned with technical aspects of preparation for ordination such as the development of knowledge, confidence, competences and skills. This range of concerns is akin to that with which inspectors of teacher education are occupied following the specification of teacher competences in government circulars. However, it did not uniformly appeal to clergy respondents, some of whom related instead to a spiritual definition of preparation. From the questionnaire returns there emerged six paradigms of preparation for ordination and interviewees were invited to respond to them: these were education, formation, theology, training, learning and preparation.

Respondents were sharply divided in their preferences for these descriptions which corresponded to levels of churchmanship. Respondents from the more Catholic colleges favoured the notion of formation and accordingly rejected suggestions that the role of priest could in any way be investigated as a cluster of trained skills. On the other hand students from the more evangelical colleges were happy to respond to questions that suggested the role could be conducted better by the training of skills and reported that, for example, professional actors had been used in their colleges to teach voice control.

So one respondent who felt that the questionnaire missed the point wrote a long letter in which he observed:

The ordained life is capable up to a point of consideration as a profession, but sociological – or any other analysis – eventually breaks down for at the end of the day it is a calling to a state of being. I am a priest, it is not my job.

And again one of the clergy interviewed affirmed,

But anybody can have a trained voice. A layperson can have a trained voice. The point is that I’m a priest.

The opposite view was expressed with commitment:

I’d have to dump formation. That’s catholic, almost monastic. I’d see that as a High Church word.


Assurances that Canon C7 prevails must be treated with some caution. On the one hand, significantly large numbers of recent ordinands are saying that they were not adequately acquainted with or practised in the use of the Book of Common Prayer. Far from ensuring use of the Prayer Book, the theological colleges limit ordinands’ experience of it. And at some colleges and for a considerable number of ordinands, knowledge and practice are not seen to be relevant elements in the process of preparation.

Roger Homan is a research sociologist in the Department of Education of the University of Brighton.

The full report, To the Altar of God by Roger Homan, can be obtained from:

The Research Office, Faculty of Education, University of Brighton, Falmer, East Sussex BN1 9PH, price œ2.50 including postage.