Saturday, 24 September 2011

Nurturing Complex Vocations

Earlier this week I was at Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for a meeting of young priest-theologians. I was very excited to be invited along - not least because I'm not yet ordained to the Priesthood and I haven't finished my PhD so calling myself a priest-theologian seems premature. Nonetheless, it was a good day for me. I have long struggled to hold together the two the aspects of my sense of vocation: that of a parish priest, and that of an academic theologian. So, to be invited along to a meeting addressing exactly that issue, and finding like-minded people with a similar vocation, was a real treat. Several times during my training, and even a little since moving into full-time ordained ministry, I have come across a negative attitude towards academia from other ordained colleagues. Many pose the question of the practicality of systematic theology or biblical studies for example, or the "relevance" of this for a congregation. I have some sympathy with this position, but only a little: the rise of practical theology has, to my mind, overlooked the need to allow our thought life to be shaped and moulded theologically. Other colleagues can be quite scathing to those of us engaged in reading and thinking theology on a regular basis: it takes time away from the "real" stuff of mission and ministry in the parish. Inevitably when ministers get together there is a competition about who is the busiest, or "who has the least time to sit around and read books" as it can sometimes feel. To find, as I have, a supportive incumbent is relatively rare for curates and assistant ministers. So, to hold a national meeting recognizing and affirming the vocation of scholar-priests was a good thing.

We were addressed in the morning by Professor Sarah Coakley and members of the Littlemore Group, and then by AB Rowan in the afternoon. Here are some of my highlights recorded as quotes from the various speakers (I'm afraid in my rushed notes I did not atttribute them properly):

"Out of the Priest-scholar comes a particular kind of theology, rooted in practices of parish-life but charged with academic rigour...The aim of this kind of ministry is to reignite the imagination of the nation for Christ"
"The Priest-theologian is some-one who can't regularly flourish without opportunity to read and talk theology"
"For the Priest-theologian the love of study is connected to the love of God, and understood and exercised as a gift from God...this is a non-utilitarian vision of study, like prayer and praise it is enacted out of love for God"
"The Church is a learning community; it is a community of disciples...A disciple is some-one who hasn't finished learning...the responsbility of the Priest-scholar is to make connections and aid the ongoing discipleship of the whole Body of Christ..."

One of the questions that struck me through the day was to do with the way the language of priest-scholar or priest-theologian is often used in such a way that "priest" acts adjectively and "scholar" or "theologian" as the noun. To my mind this often seems to imply something about the priorities of this kind of ministry to those who do not share that vocation, i.e. that the main concern is academia. Such a feeling can be forgiven since it can often appear to be true: many of the most well-known priest-scholars hold university lectureships and other positions and engage in parish ministry in thier spare time or at least part-time. Several high-profile clergy in the UK are mostly known for their scholarly output - Tom Wright and Rowan Williams are two good examples. But, as some of the quotations above hopefully suggest, the meeting at Lambeth brought together many who, like me, are working full time in parish ministry and contributing to the academy alongside that (perhaps we might be "scholar-priests"?) along with those who are also ordained full-time academics.

I came away from Lambeth Palace and walked down the South Bankof the Thames with a strong sense that God is at work in raising up priest-scholars in the Church of England for a new generation of questions, and for new mission and ministry that is culturally appropriate. Not least to encourage and enable thoughful discipleship in the church in the 21st century. Nonetheless, there remains the need for a culture shift in the wider church. In the open-evangelical tradition from which I have come there needs to be a recognition that Priest-theologians can make creative contributions to the real life issues that people face in the church and in the world. I can't speak for other traditions, but I'd be interested to know, what do you think?

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