Saturday 27 August 2011

Training a Remote Professional Ministry?

A few days on from my trip to the Ministry Inquiry Day, and having revealed my whereabouts to some church locals (proves they don't read this much), I have even more concerns about training for professional ministry.

The core of current training, at least in Luther King House, is 'contextual theology' but I'm reflecting that this needs standing on its head.

The idea is you do a placement and a pastorate, and all essays relate to these: the theology is the medium through which congregational practice is examined (as well as practical theology is predominating over purely academic considerations).

But turn this on its head. Given the wide variety of faith sources, philosophies and 'ordinary talk' that are used in church worship, in what way is processing through a particular theology itself contextual to the churches?

The assumption is a dominant tradition, a universe of meaning, through which congregations can be understood (however much they make the pure practical). But this is not the context of the Unitarian congregation. Ministers are likely to be trained into a language that is remote from the range of congregational expressions.

I'm told - and I don't know how true this is - that there is another revival down in Oxford, at Harris Manchester College, of removing the term 'Unitarian' from titles of faith. Whether this is the old anti-denominationalism again, or another 'Free Christian' push, I don't know. But the danger is an aloofness from the congregations that rely on this institution for some ministers. I'd hope it is just an expression of a more 'high' Unitarianism, although this is rather scarce on the ground. Perhaps it is just difficult to shift old cultures.

Contextual theology is also personal, because we have our own contexts. So, someone like me has a Ph.D studying the Sociology of Religion and then has done a Theology course at MA level. If I was to study a congregation through the medium of Christian theology, I'd have to bend it until it was unrecognisable. Unitarians are not 'useful' to federation tutors because we ask questions that other students won't ask, we are there for our Church purposes and where they are at present.

All this training is expensive, because it is the full formation approach of residence and absorption; I resume that long-running pastorates and placements need to be near at least the contextual college. But if the Unitarians are a congregational system, and the age of trainees is rising, then distance learning should become more appropriate.

I keep returning to my earlier idea, that students should do a range of theology, social science and education degrees or diplomas, and do so from their congregations (or, indeed, residential pastorates), and should gather frequently at Great Hucklow as a united group talking about the denomination and its needs as it is - and joining in with the societies and events also meeting there. It is more relevant, flexible and cheaper. As for ecumenical and interfaith contacts, these will come in the universities or other institutions. I see no benefit in the ecumenical gathering, as it is surely becoming more an interfaith gathering from this perspective. Theological deficiency (in terms of knowing the arguments) can come from the degrees and diplomas taken, but theology is not the be-all and end-all of our situations: educational theory and social science is just as relevant.

I write this despite the fact that the contextual theology approach will probably disappear anyway by the time applicants (before the October deadline) who are accepted start training. Fitting in with the Federation is probably going to be just as problematic in a new arrangement, without the wrong-way-around contextual approach.


Liz said...

'Unitarian' is apparently the only denomination whose title indicates a theological position. It would be interesting to see what would happen if it were dispensed with, bearing in mind its considerable diversity. (I speak as someone on its fringes.)

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The proposal has been made often. It is a transitional title from a broad period of time.

Louise said...

It seems to me that our ministry and spiritual leadership training is falling well behind what is actually happening within our communities. It will soon become irrelevant. The two principals of the colleges have tremendous power when it comes to defining what our potential ministers study. Where is the place to debate this? Is this what the Ministry Commission/Strategic Group does? And how will this become more open to challenge.

I agree that there can be many ways to a trained/qualified ministry but until we have concluded (started?) the debate about what we want ministers to do and what qualities they should have we will get no agreement.

There is no doubt in my mind that having someone paid to so some of the work of a Unitarian community is vital to energise all the volunteers. I am still not convinced that that paid worker needs to be a minister given the content of our ministry training.