Letter from the Vicar (May 2011)
There has been a long tradition of curates at Holy Trinity. Darren is currently our stipendiary assistant curate in training. He continues a line of such people stretching back a long way into our history.
Although today we call them ‘Associate Priests’ Anne and Ruth are also curates. So too, in a sense, am I. In the Church of England the term ‘curate’ has come mainly to mean an assistant to the principal parish priest, whereas it originally simply meant one who has the cure of souls. So in the Prayer Book we are bidden to pray for all Bishops and Curates, meaning, in effect, all the clergy. Be that as it may, curates are mainly thought of as new clergy starting out on the path of Christian ministry. The term that is often used to describe the means by we get to become fully-fledged clergy is ‘formation’. It is a word that means something more and something subtly different from education or training. Formation is something that all Christians are involved in. The Christian Life is a continuing process of growing into the full stature of Jesus Christ (Eph. 4.13). This has numerous aspects – spiritual, psychological, social, as well as educational. It is a process that has continued since the beginning of the Church. It does not happen by accident. Led by the Holy Spirit the Church in various ways has enabled its members to grow in their discipleship throughout their lives. Within the Christian community some are called to focus, express and fulfil the calling of the whole Church. In order that they may take forward the ministry of Christ, the ordained and authorised have particular need for detailed knowledge and expertise in theology and other skills relevant to the context in which they are serving and apt to the roles they are exercising. For those entering upon ordained and authorised ministry this particular type of formation is concentrated in the period they are at theological college or on theological courses, though it begins before that as they prepare for the testing of their vocation and continues afterwards, especially in the first few years in ministry.
I have first and second hand experience of these institutions. By and large I think well of them. I think they do a reasonable job and that the people they produce are duly equipped to set out on their ministries. That is not to say, however, that I don’t have my own vision of what ministerial formation should be like if I had a say in it. For me the starting point of any Christian formation must be the person of Jesus Christ. If we believe we are called to any form of Christian ministry our calling must be traced back to the call of Jesus to his disciples. Having called them to ‘follow me’ and in the case of some – though not all – to abandon their former way of life, Jesus himself undertook a process of formation with them. He taught them, he showed them, he guided them, he supported them, he rebuked them. For up to three years they were in the seminary, the seedbed of his formation. And they were ‘ordained’ to undertake the work they had to do in the power of the Spirit. They were sent out by Jesus during his own ministry and at the end they were commissioned by him to continue his work. Where did Jesus lay his emphasis in this formational process and how should that inform what happens in our colleges and courses? Well to start with there was a good deal of teaching. Some of this was in public, some in private. So there needs to be a solid theological core in ministerial formation.
Sometimes this seems a bit thin to me. I believe in theology and I believe that our Church is diminished because there isn’t enough of it about. But Jesus’ theology was never purely abstract. It was linked to human realities in the most concrete sense. So too the theology taught and learned in our colleges and courses must link to people’s lives and experiences. As well as teaching his disciples, Jesus also gave them practical guidance. He showed them how to continue his healing ministry, how to undertake the ministry of forgiveness, even how to recall his unique presence in the breaking of bread. And again our aspirant ministers need practical training, often, like the disciples, learning by example. Jesus also guided the spiritual lives of his disciples. He taught them to pray, he opened their hearts to a deeper, more intimate relationship with God. So the deepening of the spiritual lives of ordinands is another priority for those in training. This often goes hand in hand with personal development.
The disciples were a difficult bunch and Jesus had to work hard to form them into the powerful and authoritative force they became to take forward his message. Yet by no means did he form them into a homogenous mass. They retained their individual personalities. In our processes of formation too the rich diversity of human character and personality needs to be encouraged. We don’t want clones!
Finally, and I believe this is often overlooked in ministerial formation, Jesus’ disciples embraced the message of Jesus and, though it was transfigured by the experience of his death and resurrection, they carried forward and embodied his vision of God’s Kingdom. Any accurate account of the character of the Kingdom of which Jesus preached appreciates that it has a political aspect, so we can say that there was a fully political dimension to the work and lives of Jesus’ disciples. This ought to be true of us as Christian ministers and the processes of formation should not shy away from it as they often do. The vision of God’s transforming love, justice, peace and forgiveness must find a place in the work of formation done by our colleges and courses and new ministers should be like those young people referred to in Peter’s Pentecostal speech in Acts 2, those who see visions and dream dreams. Because as well as being theologians, as well as being pastors and practitioners, as well as being women and men of God at ease with themselves, we also need visionary clergy, we need dreamy curates! Let us pray that that is what our processes of formation will bring about!