A Tale of Two Colleges

John Richardson on a far far better thing in Sydney

The forthcoming Hind Report is undoubtedly correct in seeing the training of its ministers as crucial to the life of the Church. Inevitably, however, whether we have been trained ourselves, or have experienced the ministry of those who have received such training, most of us view theological education within the same, local, context. I must be one of the few people who has been an undergraduate at two theological colleges twenty years and twelve thousand miles apart. But that distance gives me, I feel, a useful perspective on our present situation.

St John’s

My first experience began in 1973 at St John’s College, Nottingham. These were the heady days of Michael Green, and under his influence St John’s was most definitely at the ‘cutting edge’ of Evangelicalism. Yet I left there in 1976 with no formal qualification and no enthusiasm for theology.

One reason for this educational failure was undoubtedly boredom. Having just completed a four-year degree, I opted to take the Licentiate of Theology which I was assured would suit a post-graduate. Unfortunately it turned out to demand little by way of understanding but much by way of sheer output, to the extent that our unofficial motto became ‘Don’t get it right, just get it written.’ A bigger problem, however, was that I just couldn’t see the point of what I was doing, but it is only recently that I have realized why this was so.

Without knowing it at the time, I was part of an Evangelical tradition which had little inclination for theology. I had been converted and subsequently nurtured in the faith by people with little or no theological training or skill. Consequently, I had not had the value of theological awareness modelled to me, and so when I arrived at St John’s even the best of what was on offer was wasted on me.

The college ethos, moreover, reflected the face of post-sixties Anglican Evangelicalism, which was quintessentially pragmatic. Old-style evangelism produced new Christians, new-wave Charismatic spirituality brought new life, Clinical Theology provided the answers to life’s problems and a homoeopathically-diluted continental Calvinism addressed cultural and political issues. Thus at St John’s there was a tremendous enthusiasm, excitement and creativity regarding the practicalities of ministry and engagement with modern culture, but the truly theological disciplines were underplayed and largely devoid of an Evangelical critique. Apart from the familiar green or blue volumes published by IVP, for example, most recommended commentaries were distinctly Liberal, including the Interpreter’s Bible series which we were actually recommended to buy in its entirety.

Heritage

St John’s, however, was only expressing a heritage that was exemplified by one of the most influential figures in post-war Anglican Evangelicalism. The Revd EJH (Bash) Nash, founder of the Iwerne camps for boys from the leading public schools, shaped the spirituality of, amongst others, Dick Lucas, John Stott, David Fletcher and, of course, Michael Green himself. However, in a collection of essays on his mentor, Green makes this revealing observation:

‘(Bash) often regarded theologians with suspicion and even mistrust. In his view too many of them knew all about the inner workings of the car, but had never learnt to drive it properly.’1

It would be invidious to blame one individual for all the subsequent problems of a movement, but later Evangelical leaders undoubtedly perpetuated this suspicion of theology. Indeed, until very recently ordinands who had come up through the ‘Bash’ camps were encouraged to go to Oxford or Cambridge, not because of the strength of teaching in those universities but so that they might act as informal ‘chaplains’ to undergraduates from those same camps. Post-war English Evangelicals certainly ‘did’ God, but they didn’t do theology.

Moore College

As an inheritor of this tradition, I began parish ministry in 1976 and promptly found out how ill-equipped I was. By the 1990s it was obvious even to me that some supplementary education would be very helpful. Thus it was, via a providential combination of circumstances, that in February 1993 I found myself on a plane to Sydney about to become a student at Moore Theological College.

I had been accepted to study for the Diploma of Arts in Theology, which in those days formed the fourth academic year required of all Sydney ordination candidates. Had I known what went on in the previous three years, I would have been a lot less confident than I actually felt! Moore students, I soon discovered, were a frighteningly well-educated bunch. They were also remarkably diverse, not only in terms of personality and ability, but also in theological outlook and style. Some were indeed hard-nosed and hard-line Evangelical. Others were rather more critical of the position of both the college and the diocese on a number of issues. But almost all were fiercely hardworking and committed to getting as much theological understanding under their belts as possible.

Context

Such a positive environment, however, exists within a total context. The Diocese of Sydney is well-known for its Evangelical heritage, yet this has evolved in parallel with the development of Moore College itself. Prior to the appointment of TC Hammond by Archbishop Howard Mowll in 1935, the Principal had been a Liberal, rather than Conservative, Evangelical. (Indeed for a time, in the 1880s, the Principal was a Tractarian!) Moreover, the College was deeply in debt, its academic standards were low, its teaching relied largely on part-time clergy and the number of students was small. In short, it was not unlike some of our own ordination courses today! Mowll deliberately set out to reverse this, and since then the college and the diocese have developed a closely dependent relationship. The teaching of the college determines the kind of clergy and church workers the diocese receives. The diocese ultimately controls the staffing and curriculum of the college.

One uniquely valuable aspect of this relationship is a ‘recycling’ between diocese and college which leads to exactly the sort of confidence in theological education that Hind feels the Anglican Church in England currently lacks. Existing tutors from Moore College regularly re-enter parish life, whilst new tutors are recruited from amongst the parish clergy. Thus for example, Dr John Woodhouse, the newly-elected Principal, previously spent several years as Rector of Christ Church, St Ives, but prior to that taught on the college faculty. The benefit of this is threefold. Parishioners get a chance to see ‘academics’ running churches, thus demonstrating the relevance of their educational achievements to pastoral ministry, students at the college know that they are being taught by people who understand the pastoral task, and the curriculum remains firmly connected to the demands of parish life on the basis of the experiences of the lecturers themselves.

The college is also involved in parish life through part-time educational programmes. Its Extension Studies material allows laypeople to study for the Preliminary Theological Certificate and the Certificate in Theology. The PTC (which is increasingly being used in this country2) is also the basic qualification for Readers in the diocese. It is intensely biblical in content and Reformed in theology, and therefore would not be to everyone’s taste, but the effect of its widespread use is that the college enjoys a practical relationship with the parish churches and, moreover, that many students arrive at the college with a substantial theological equipping. (In fact in my time there the college was experiencing difficulties over the mismatch between Sydney first-years and those arriving from elsewhere.) Many Sydney clergy also study part-time for a college Master’s degree, and significantly such ongoing study is not seen as a respite or distraction from parish work but as a complement to it.

Standards

Within such a hotbed of Evangelicalism, it might be assumed that the curriculum at Moore would be narrow. Yet I found that students and staff happily engaged with every available strand of theology. Of course they did this from an Evangelical perspective, but then everyone must have a perspective of some sort. The expectation, however, was that the solid foundations laid in the early part of their courses would enable students to tackle contradictory ideas competently and confidently later on. Thus I was introduced to the likes of Phyllis Trible and EP Sanders as well as Augustine and Luther. Indeed, the attitude of students and lecturers alike was that anyone was worth reading if they had something interesting to say.

There was also an expectation that you would know Greek. Incoming students had their brains fried by a pre-term ‘Greek Week’ (paralleled by an intensive counselling course, referred to rather disparagingly as ‘Touch-Feely Week’). The long-term fruit of this, however, was that all New Testament work in the fourth year was done from the Greek text – and everyone coped. Of course, some coped better than others, but once again high expectations and motivation led to high achievement. Because it was seen that competence in biblical languages helped gospel ministry, those who had offered for gospel ministry did their best to achieve that competence. (For my own part, I felt motivated enough to take a part-time course in Hebrew when I got back home!)

When I left Moore, I had learned more in ten months than I would previously have thought possible. Perhaps more significantly, I had learned more than I would previously have thought necessary. And I had done only one of a possible four years! Not surprisingly, I still feel that one could put a Moore graduate up against any similar person from any English theological institution in the confidence that the Aussie would beat the Pom every time.

Lessons

The lessons for us, however, are complex. We cannot simply translate the Sydney educational experience to these shores because we do not share their ethos. Some might say ‘Thank goodness!’, but we must remember that we do, nevertheless, have an ethos of our own – which is of the bland leading the bland. The danger of the Hind Report is that, in spite of assurances to the contrary, the distinctive emphases of the colleges will eventually disappear because this is what the institution wants to happen and because there is insufficient motivation at the grass roots to prevent it happening. In relation to what it calls ‘theological colleges founded in a particular tradition of the Church’, Hind concludes that,

training for ordination must, in principle, be training for ordained ministry in the Church of England as a whole, and not just part of it.’3

That is to say, training in a ‘particular tradition’ is inadequate for the demands of ‘the Church … as a whole’ – a conclusion which rests on the assumption that a unitive ethos exists for the ‘whole’ Church of England to which the more divisive traditions must be subordinated as ‘parts’. Yet in reality it can be demonstrated that the evangelization of Western societies is achievable only by the more ‘divisive’ strands of Christianity. Thus in The Churching of America, the sociologists Finke and Stark write,

‘… to the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper. The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to a vivid otherworldliness.’4

In Sydney, of course, we see a traditionalist and aggressive Evangelical Anglicanism. We also see the only diocese in Australia where church membership has increased in step with population growth. And we see a diocese which is now seeking to bring 10% of the population into Bible-believing churches by the year 2010.

If we are to achieve something like the ‘churching of England’, it is not going to happen via a theologically-homogenized training for ministers reflecting the ‘breadth’ of the Anglican church in this country. Thus when the ‘Third Province’ comes into being it must create its own theological institution or it will be hamstrung from the outset. Similarly, it is vital that, even if they remain within the existing Provinces, Anglican Evangelicals retain colleges which reflect their tradition. The alternative is that in return for an assurance that they will survive, these traditions will be deprived of the opportunity to deepen, and so, inevitably, they will wither.

 

Revd John P Richardson

Somewhere near Stansted, ‘The Airport that Comes to You’

Endnotes

  1. A Study in Spiritual Power (Crowborough: Highland Books, 1992) 110

  2. For details of the Moore College Extension Studies course in this country, go to http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/moore_college/mcesuk.htm

  3. Hind, 6:9, emphasis original

  4. R Finke & R Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000) 1

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