One of the great pretensions of the Church of England is her adulterous love affair with academia. Academic discipline is good, and may even be vital in some cases, but it is no substitute for knowing God and knowing people.
Academic distinction in the church can be seen as a short-cut or pre-requisit to ‘preferment’ – which is considered to mean getting a “better” job. Some ordinands or curates are forced to do a time consuming MA when clearly what they really need is a decent prayer life and some experience in evangelism, and there’s a cyclical cry for Bishops with doctoral qualifications who can speak more pertinently to society because of their 3 or 4 years investigating the minutiae of some doctrine in solitary isolation.
I am very grateful to those for whom investing in a distinct teaching ministry is a sacrificial, time and finance consuming deposit which will in time further the life of the church, and have, despite my reservations, continued in study a little myself. Used rightly it can even help know God and know people. But there is so much potential for hubris around it is worth exposing that to truth.
When you start thinking ‘should I be a vicar’, go to see a DDO [Diocesan Director of Ordinands – the gatekeeper for selection to ordination], or even go to the Big Brother House ‘Bishop’s Advisory Panel’ for a 48 day final discernment interview, one of the things that you will be checked out for is your intellectual capacity.
If you’re from a non-academic background don’t worry. The CoE is increasingly well equipped to offer alternative training pathways and theology access courses. As one of my mentors found out it can be deeply affirming to be helped to achieve a degree or other qualification that you had not expected to do unless you’d been called to be a vicar.
But I think we subtly con ourselves when we think the degrees and courses are what prepares us for the job, and this begins with the very first books we read.
If I had to take a penalty one day in a World Cup Finals match I would love to have been prepared by Gareth Southgate. He’s been there, done that, still got the teeshirt, still living under the microscope, still on the pitch with me head to head whether I passed or failed. I could have read a book by an expert on the history of penalties, with a doctorate in call trajectories. I could have watched videos of players and seen how they do it. Reading and observation would both help, but I would still like Southgate there with me on the pitch, side by side.
And you need to ask yourself the same question when you think about do you want to be a vicar, and who/what to read – even where to train and who to train with.
I recently invited a hugely significant retired church leader to speak at a conference for leaders. He is a household name in the CoE but needed some persuading. Richard, he said, you know far more about that than me. I’ve been out of the game for so long. It’s years since I ran a parish. He recalled how an internationally famous evangelist and church leader had moved to his church in the 1980s to continue itinerant ministry but not run a church. Within a few short years, he said, it was as if his ideas were becoming stale – so obviously grounded in yesterday’s tales and not todays.
If you were wanting to read a book on being a vicar, or choose someone to train with, a college to attend, a ministry to work under, a Diocese to serve, I suggest one of the most vital things to look for is authenticity… have they done the job? Could they do the job? Do they know what it’s like to be in the job? Have they got a sense of humour about what the job is really like? And if not to any of the above, have they at least got a tonne of empathy so they can intuit what you might face in your future pastoral and evangelistic parish ministry? If, as in the anecdote above, they used to do the job what are they doing now to make sure they understand what it is like to be at the coal-face today? I wouldn’t first and foremost look to see if they had an MA or PhD describing the job other people do, anymore than I’d choose a newspaper ‘expert’ pundit over Southgate to be my penalty coach.
And so to my book recommendation for potential / training vicars: It’s an old one and probably not on any DDOs recommended reading list, but I think you’ll find it insightful (and I think should be required reading for anyone coming from a well-resourced church who might end up in a smaller or more traditional context). It’s Bob Jackson’s book Till The Fat Lady Sings, written when he was Vicar at St Mary’s Scarborough. You can get it for a penny here. It’s an old one, quick read, funny in places, moving in others, all based around true stories in a parish but put into fiction. It gives an insight into the emotions of clerical life through the lens of Vince, a Vicar with 10 years to go until retirement, who’s life gets invaded by a young curate, and the prayers of his far more saintly wife.
My second recommendation from someone with a tonne of empathy, but not the experience of Bob, would be Adrian Plass’ An Alien as St Wilfrid’s also available for a penny.
Both these books will show you some of the heart-aching trials ahead, and why it’s worth giving your life to do it anyway… And when you’ve got your heart around that you can work out what ontology means to your selectors.