Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Response: John White and Anglican Theological Education

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Response: John White and Anglican Theological Education

Article excerpt


When a major international theological journal publishes as stringent a critique of theological education as that of John White, perhaps a tutor from one of the institutions he has criticised might be forgiven for wanting to respond in kind.1 White presents his case as if it concerned Anglicanism generally. But most of his experience-and most of his comments-derive from an English Anglican context. There may be relevant comparisons elsewhere, but such as they are, they lie outside the scope of his critique, and of this reply.

White claims that training programmes in the Church of England have been dominated increasingly by what he calls "externally generated expectations" (p. 395). The current pattern of training, he says, fails the clergy as a whole-witness clergy burnout, domestic dysfunction, and the preoccupation of parish ministry with maintenance rather than mission (p. 396). So he sets out a number of principles which should inform training. First, he says, "the primary objectives of ministerial formation are the needs of the world, and the needs of the Church in service of the world," not the needs of ordinands themselves (p. 397). Second, the current system of assessing vocations presupposes a personal, individualistic model of vocation; this needs to be abandoned in favour of an ecclesial one (pp. 398-9). Third, there should be a close match between the shape of training and the actual needs of the Church's ministry to the world (p. 400). Then he goes on to suggest "some points of practice". In effect, he proposes two kinds of separation-first, the separation of the intensive, academic model of study from the basic elements of vocational training, and, second, the separation of theological education for parish ministry, which should happen almost exclusively in a part-time context, from research specialization, which should happen in research institutes attached to universities (pp. 407-11).

There is nothing very new in all this.2 Whatever the merits of the case, in any event, the presentation is thin. At a superficial level, some aspects of the argument are frankly puzzling. Positions are stated strongly, only to be undermined elsewhere by comments which lead in a very different direction. White appears to value very highly, for example, the conviction of a vision of service to "all people in any place", seeing this as the Anglican Communion's "signal contribution" to ecumenical ecclesiology (more on that claim in a moment), yet, four pages later, he is explicitly criticising "the myth of the invincibility of the parish system", even though the parish system is precisely the historical form in which the service of "all people in any place" has been articulated (pp. 397 & 401). Again, his assumption that failure in the Church's ministry-such as "burnout"-is evidence of a failure in theological education is extraordinary; much more relevant, surely, are the actual expectations and conditions of the exercise of ministry itself, years after leaving college (p. 396). And that last point disables much of the force of his critique. It buys into one of the chief burdens of theological education today, namely the view that whatever is wrong with the Church is mainly the fault of theological college or course, and to be remedied there as nowhere else. 2

How well does White know the shape and content of Anglican training today? He begins with what is, after all, a fairly hefty position of personal authority, claiming contact with "some 1,200 clergy" (p. 395). It is curious, then-to say the least-that his article is written without reference to any of the substantial discussions which have taken place on the subject of training in the Church of England over the last twenty years, or to any of the documentation and organizational changes they have generated.

His description of the current system of training in the Church of England is peppered with what I would take to be half-truths, exaggerations, and unsubstantial generalizations. …

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