Speaking of ministerial training; what did full time training do for anyone?

How best to train and equip ordinands for ministry is without doubt a complex question. If there was one easy and straightforward way things would be so much easier! Training and formation is, however, neither easy or straightforward. In fact I would be deeply suspicious of anyone who said their experience of the pilgrimage towards the laying on of hands by the bishop in the cathedral had been struggle free. Formation without struggle is something I simply can’t imagine.

For me training, which I did full time (for 2 years), on top of that hill just outside Oxford, was both the ‘best of times’ and ‘the worst of times.’ But, I am glad that I trained full time, in a college. I wouldn’t, looking back, have had it any other way. In fact I don’t think I would have got through it any other way. I have huge respect for those who train part time (even though I suspect that they don’t do this in reality, because training for ordination is a full time pre-occupation), because i know that I couldn’t have done it.

Training full time was the ‘best of times’ in that it provided me with the opportunity to be completely absorbed in preparing for an uncertain future. I enjoyed the academic side of my training and was fortunate to study for a M.A. I also made some wonderful friends and met lots of ‘interesting people.’ In many ways full time training allowed me to find my spiritual anchor and identity. For this I will always be truly grateful. Looking back I think that full time training graced me with two significant gifts that I am not sure that I would have been able to receive so readily on another pathway. These gifts, or graces, were an appreciation and love of liturgy and an emerging sense of stability.

On the ‘Holy Hill’ our lives, and I would say education, were very much shaped through the liturgies of the church. Morning Prayer was said, in community, every day. The Eucharist was also celebrated every. I was introduced to gospel processions, acclamations and the occaisional smell of incense. Evening Prayer was chanted before supper and Compline was sung (occasionally said), every night; feast days and festivals were observed. It was a rich, and for me deeply enriching, experience. We were also given the opportunity to lead ‘creative worship’ (100 things you can do with pebbles, water, post it notes and T lights) and contemporary worship. Through our Sunday placements we were given the opportunity to experience different types of church. As I say it was a rich, and enriching, liturgical experience. Engaging with and studying liturgy is something I equate with the ‘best of times’ and there is no doubt that such a saturation in the liturgies of the church has benefited me greatly in my ongoing ministry.

In may ways just being in a full time college was the ‘worst of times.’ To arrive in a college, as a weekly border, at the age of forty-five was a bizarre and weird experience. But, there again, ministering in the church is a bizarre and weird experience! I found full time training to be a hugely intense experience; an, at times, overly intense experience. Being surrounded by a large number of people, all of whom seemed to be preoccupied with their own sense of calling and the search for God, meant that it was sometimes hard to breathe. And of course in communities characterised by intensity of feeling the potential for hurting self and others is never far away.

The paradox of full time training, for me, and with hindsight is simply this: that ‘the worst of times,’ turned out to the ‘the best of times,’ for it was through the worst of times that a sense of stability slowly started to emerge. In my first year at college it sometimes felt that my whole world was collapsing around me and the second year wasn’t much better!

At Cuddesdon I had to learn to trust; to trust the college, the system and the people around me. At college for the first time in my adult life I had no defences and no props. It was through trusting the college, the system and the people around me that something truly amazing started to happen: an increase in trust in God.

Stability isn’t, however, reduciable to grim trust; the ability to hang on in there by our very finger nails. I think that stability’s real concern is the development of the ability to be ourselves, and to let others be themselves, within the norms and constraints of communal life. Stability is a commitment to people, practice and place. And, isn’t this what ministry is about at heart: commitment to people, practice and place? Again, with hindsight, I now believe that all true formation must include growth in trust and growth in (personal) stability.

At Cuddesdon I met, studied with and prayed alongside people who I naturally liked, respected and clicked with, but there were also others who I didn’t naturally like and whose company I found difficult. Cuddesdon, it appears, in this sense, was no different to most other Christian communities! For sure it was possibly more intense, full on, and full time but that’s all.

Rowan Williams has recently written that ‘life together is the solid foundation for growth into intimacy with God, into what people call the mystical,’ and that ‘unless you have got yourself accustomed to the toolbox of daily attention to the awkward reality of human others, the search for deeper intimacy with God will lead to destructive illusion.’

If ++Rowan is correct, and I think he is, full time residential training is one way that growth in stability, which must surely be the bedrock of all true formation (thus speaks a Benedictine oblate!), may be nurtured and developed.

I am not ideologically committed to the notion of full time residential training, for there are clearly a large number of wonderful clergy who have trained part time and on courses, but I do have two worries: to what extent is part time training able to foster a love for and appreciation of the liturgies of the church, and is so much of training now focused on mission and evangelism, techniques and strategy, that growth in the virtues and graces that must necessarily underpin all ministry, such as stability, are necessarily crowded out? Put another way: is there a danger that too much emphasis is nowadays placed on training (perhaps even on the job training) at the expense of formation?

One thought on “Speaking of ministerial training; what did full time training do for anyone?

  1. It would be good to know how “formation”is understood in different traditions…a question i once asked of Oakhill when i was a DDO. The idea goes back to a paper written by Prof Dan Hardy c 1986 now mouldering in the bowels of MinDiv. But he predicated it on the C of E being able to come to a common mind on what its understanding of ministry/priesthood was. And that is no easy, possibly an impossible task given the C of E as it is.

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