GUEST POST:// Edward Keene is a former solicitor and is in his second year at Wycliffe Hall as an ordinand, while researching church history.
The church can seem a strange place sometimes, even to its own members. Ancient scriptures? Multi-phase liturgy? The Holy Ghost? Even ‘membership’ itself – no one does membership any more, in our non-committal consumerist society. It is no wonder that this mystique can be magnified in the case of those in ‘set-aside’ church work (e.g. vicars), and indeed trebly compounded in the case of those in training for such work at theological colleges. It is therefore with deep compassion on those striving to comprehend this environment (and, being honest, an ounce of vexation!) that I submit the below list; ‘the Top 10 misconceptions about life as an ordinand’. Most of the misconceptions are generic, though the later ones are more specific to Wycliffe Hall, or to me personally.
That we are ‘just’ students. Returning to full time education is unusual, but not unique to ordinands. It is therefore surprising how many people rapidly forget that most of us had ‘normal’ lives, homes, jobs, and contexts prior to theological college. Ordinands in their mid 30s do have more ‘baggage’ (both positive and negative) than spotty 19-year-old undergrads. Surprising but true.
That we are “undergoing training”. This is correct official terminology, but not entirely my perspective. Ordinands are required to spend two, three, or more years as part of a formational community prior to deaconing, but to imagine that we are spoon-fed data in a classroom on ‘how to run a parish’ is wide of the mark. Ideally, college is a reciprocal community in which we actively train ourselves, sharing experience and both learning from and helping others.
That we are all training to be vicars. ‘Vicar’ may be the most widely-recognised term in English society for a person engaged full time in church leadership, but a huge proportion of clergy actually have other roles and titles, whether as chaplains, tutors and teachers, rectors, assistant ministers, archdeacons, bishops, deans, or canons. In fact, none of us will be vicars for at least three years, until our initial assistant curacy is complete.
That we have never preached before. Rarely does anyone begin a course of specialised training without any prior understanding or experience of the field. Some ordinands are quite ‘green’, but everyone has some ministry experience behind them already. The Church of England does not invest thousands of pounds of resources in individuals before checking that they have proven gifting in leadership.
That we are now part of a militaristic command structure, liable to be posted to Outer Mongolia at a moment’s notice. Other churches may treat their ordinands and congregations like pawns on a chessboard, but the Church of England is rather more liberal, with post-ordination positions arranged consensually between candidate, parish, and diocese. Likewise, roles for fully qualified clergy are advertised and candidated in a manner more akin to a professional service than the armed forces. Of course, God is sovereignly in charge of it all – but then that’s true of any work that people do, ordained or not!
That there is one set course which all ordinands undertake. Although all ordinands are training for ordained ministry, we do this in tandem with a plethora of different academic courses, including Common Awards (Diplomas, BAs, MAs, mixed mode); Dept for Continuing Education (DTS; BTh); and Theology Faculty (BAs, MThs, MPhils, DPhils). This diversity certainly gives our Academic Office a headache.
That we study in a “Bible college”. This is an Americanism. Yes, we do of course read, meditate deeply upon and study the Bible. But no, for good or ill, that is not the only thing we do. Church of England seminaries have always been referred to as “theological colleges”, with no associated assumption that the syllabus will be restricted to Biblical studies.
That it must be very difficult for us studying in a place where people have differing theological opinions. There is indeed theological diversity at Wycliffe, but then it is a *college* – not a church. Differences can be lived with – even capitalised on – with the right student mindset. It amuses me that those who throw up this sort of misconception tend, themselves, to work in secular environments with a far greater measure of creedal diversity than is found in a Church of England college!
That college is just an extended jolly, hence the tiring refrain, breezily proffered (sometimes even with a hint of spite), “Enjoy Oxford!”. There certainly are things – many things – to enjoy in Oxford, but study in the world’s leading university is also stretching and demanding. On top of this academic pressure are the extensive relational demands of living in a college community of over 250 (including spouses and children of members), while also seeking to be a positive influence in a local church and/or placement. We should all seek to enjoy whatever work we find ourselves doing in this world, but should also expect that there will be strife mixed in with it. The ground is still cursed.
That Oxford is new to me. It’s actually my home town. Some folks are indeed ‘from’ Oxford, as well as being students here. Surprisingly many people really struggle to cope with this revolutionary concept.
So there’s my Top 10. As it’s Christmas while I write this, here’s a final bonus misconception:
That I could only have chosen to attend Wycliffe because I lacked judgement and awareness of what it was like, and that I must therefore have been ‘surprised’ by the extent of ‘terrible’ things going on here. Au contraire. I have known and followed Wycliffe, with its ins and outs, for a long time and many friends have passed through its doors as students. Caveat emptor? I knew what I was getting myself into!
Merry 10th Day of Christmas, one and all. May you have an ordinand-misconception-free 2019!