19 May 2022

Ministry formation is at a turning point, we need a vision

The Anglican Church needs a clear vision for ministry formation writes University of Divinity vice-chancellor Peter Sherlock. Picture: supplied 

By Peter Sherlock 

19 April 2022

What is the future of Anglican ministry formation in this time and place?  

Participants in the St Agnes Seminar offered a kind of desperate hope in answering this question. Much creativity has been exercised in recent decades to call a diverse range of people to ordination, often to bring what God is already doing through them into an Anglican framework. Values such as a robust intellectual formation in the faith remain present, as does the commitment to prophetic and pastoral ministry. Imaginative experiments are underway. 

Candidates for ordination can take great heart from this. Their stories, their potential and their ministries were spoken of tenderly and with compassion.  

All this was tempered by the enormity of the practical challenge of staffing over 300 parishes across Victoria. Then there is the exhaustion of COVID-19. Who would offer for ordination at a moment like this? 

I want to reframe that question in two ways. The greatest challenge for Victorian Anglicans at the present time is not whether we are ordaining enough of the right kind of people. The true challenge is in the laity, the whole people of God. Colin Reilly tells me the ratio of clergy to laity in Melbourne has probably never been higher. Are we still a baptizing church, growing in converts and maturing in Christian discipleship? The future of Anglican ministry formation must answer that question. 

Read more: It’s our future, so how can we fit ministry formation to the 21st century?

Second, as theologian Janet Gaden once said, survival is not a gospel truth. Instead of despair, we need to ponder what new thing God might be doing. Preparation for ordination has changed radically many times in the last 500 years. The dominant phase of the last 150 years – the rise and fall of residential seminaries, the professionalisation of the clergy, and the increasing accessibility of higher education – is drawing to a new turning point. Things will change again. 

What we need is a coherent vision.  

We need academic pathways that are flexible in form but ensure the content of every program is apostolic, contextual and formative. We need graduates with the attributes of faithfulness, agility and discernment. We are pretty good at the apostolic part, but I wonder if we have the necessary depth of understanding of our context, if we are equipping our clergy with the spiritual resilience they require.  

In Melbourne this means we need to stop outsourcing theological education and formation for ordination and pool our fractured resources. We need to stop doing some things so we can properly fund and support curacies – what the world calls apprenticeships. We are way overdue to rethink field education, or work-integrated learning. And we need more, not less, communal daily prayer. 

We also need to equip lay people with basic Christian competencies. Joy Freier spoke powerfully of the need for the catechumenate, such that each of us can communicate our faith and our passion for Jesus to our friends, neighbours and colleagues. I couldn’t agree more.   

Professor Peter Sherlock is vice-chancellor of the University of Divinity.   

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