Christopher Johnson on studying theology at seminary and the relationship between seminaries and higher education institutions

Emblazoned across the University of Oxford’s badge are the opening words of Psalm 27, Dominus illuminatio mea. This glimpse of Christian scripture discloses a pre-Enlightenment epistemology – that all knowledge is contingent on God, who has revealed his Truth in Jesus Christ and continues to illuminate our understanding of both the natural and supernatural realms. In the Enlightenment, this ultimate dependence on God for knowledge was displaced by secular humanism: an optimism about the capabilities of humanity which saw man as sovereign, in charge of his own destiny. Despite being part of the modern university, devoted to this Enlightenment philosophy, seminaries can share neither this ethic nor eschatology. Instead, they continue to profess Dominus i~uminatio mea as witnesses to the Christian faith in the wider secular institution.

The pursuit of holiness

M. Olier, the founder of the Sulpician order, understood seminary as ‘a place where men strive to give themselves to God, to mortify whatever of evil may be in them, where they strive to kill an egoism that is ever reviving, so that they may unite themselves to our Lord and enter into his mind and heart’ (H. Huvelin, Some Spiritual Guides of the Seventeenth Century, p. 108). Olier believed that study should serve this end: ‘Study …ought to be but another mode of advancing in holiness and in the love of God’ (E.H. Thompson, The Life of Jean -Jacques Olier, p. 462). And so it is in the seminary. Education at theological college equips the seminarian to embark on a lifelong pursuit of holiness and the love of God by coaching him in those necessary skills he will need to understand what that means, and communicate that to others. Knowledge of – and skills in – languages, exegesis, history, doctrine, ethics and liturgy are applicable in areas of ministry as diverse as preaching, writing for the parish magazine (or indeed New Directions), youth ministry, or tending to the dying at their death.

A healthy debate

Given the fundamental differences identified between secular and religious epistemology, it seems odd to think that study at seminary is now wedded to secular qualifications approved by higher education institutions. These qualifications range from certificates in theological studies, to doctoral work, and are matched with the length of time at seminary the bishop stipulates for his candidate, that candidate’s age and experience, and any previous theological qualifications. Questions are constantly raised about this relationship by both the Church and the universities, and such a debate is healthy. However, in a country which is becoming more educated, and a Church where the clergy are becoming less educated, the connection of seminaries with well-respected higher education institutions is important. Qualificationsgive the Church andherministers an authority to speak in public debate, as well as much-needed confidence in her catechetical efforts. Whilst the demographics of those entering training necessitate part-time courses, they are no substitute for full-time rigorous academic work pursued at a college attached to an institution of higher education such as Oxford or Cambridge.

Rejection of heritage

Efforts of secularization in universities, theology faculties and even in the Church of England itself undermine traditional understandings of study as pursued in the seminary. The financial situation does not help: Church of England budget cuts and the financial advantages of part-time courses evince the fact that clerical education is not being treated as a priority.

This is far from the Sulpician model. Train the clergy, thought M. Olier, and they would train the world. Yet amidst these uncertainties, rigorous theological study continues, albeit in small pots dotted here and there. The Church of England is quickly rejecting its theological heritage – not only in the liberal outcomes to the issues which are being debated, but, perhaps more worryingly, in the language in which those debates are conducted. Consequently, study at seminary has never been so important.

Lifelong service

In the opening chapter of The Christian Priest Today, Michael Ramsey makes no apology describing the priest, first and foremost, as ‘the teacher and preacher, and as such … the man of theology’. That element of priestly calling is planted in us and cultivated at seminary in the hope that it may bear much fruit in lifelong service to God and his Church. The Sulpician school of thought which influences one Oxford seminary puts it thus: Just as our Lord makes himself an oblation at the offertory, immolates himself at the consecration and gives himself, whole and entire, at the communion, so ‘a priest must first go up to God, and then come down’ (Huvelin, p. 71).

Seminaries are, then, those upper rooms where, away from the world, those who intend to configure themselves to Christ can learn from their High Priest by communing with him. This might be an alien concept for the world, it might even be an alien concept for the institutional Church, but it gives vitality to God’s Church, and it must be encouraged. Perhaps the best summary of this is found in another image you can see in Oxford: a book depicted on the underside of the porch of the Divinity School. Upon it is painted words from Luke 2:46: ‘they found him sitting in the midst of the teachers’. ND