Preparing to receive what will be a newly ordained Curate again next month reminds me how creative was the training I myself received at Queen’s College, Birmingham thirty-five years ago. From the experience of worship across the whole breadth of the Christian tradition (which we were reflecting on deeply in tutor groups at the end of our first term in December 1982) to the most challenging academic ethics course (which included rigorous engagement with the churches’ public wrestling with issues of human sexuality during our final term in May 1984), we were encouraged to let in-depth sustained placement experience cross fertilise with serious theology whilst aware of how rapidly changing the ecclesiastical, mission and social context was around us - as I was remembering a little while ago. I’m certain that the failures in my ministry since are not attributable to any falling short in the quality of my training.
Now, for what is actually the fourth time in twenty years, I’ve been over to a training institution’s briefing event for incumbents receiving Curates from it, albeit a slightly more token event than the previous ones elsewhere – this time it was three and a half hours so there wasn’t quite time for any personal engagement with tutors, questions or exploration of course content. Two students spoke movingly about the experience of worship across the whole breadth of the Anglican tradition and the Principal outlined almost exactly the principles and much of the practice of my own training. He offered the way that week questions about gay marriage and divorce had arisen in an ethics class as evidence of how well the issues from placements challenged and grounded the theological exploration (I’m sure that issues of clerical abuse would have been at the forefront of students’ and placement parishes’ minds and ethical questions that week as well), before moving on to other things he had to do in the college to give us the opportunity to talk further with our about-to-be ordained new colleagues.
It is the demand of mission in a rapidly changing context with which he challenged us most - and promised us to expect new colleagues to have deep insights and questions as they settled in with us. So it was welcome that almost immediately I had to go over to Bradford Cathedral where the Bishop wanted us to find out what the HeartEdge movement from St Martin-in-the-Fields could provide. Canon Sam Wells was stretching – he suggested that it is precisely the areas of apparent ‘deficit’ which are our ‘assets’. The people of God had more insight in exile than in the promised land. The ministry of Jesus was the road to the cross. So, the community needs and ecclesiastical failures around us ought to be what alerts us to our task and opportunities. He gave examples of where paying attention to those with dementia and those bereaved by suicide (places of human deficit as deep as any) had been for him places of the most authentic encounter with God - not far from my most recent Queen's, Birmingham inspired reflection.
He (Sam Wells) suspected that it was a post-War ‘stewardship’ model of church life which deceives us into ideas of congregational self-sufficiency and restricts the possibilities of ministerial prophetic focus. He offered the idea that the creation of social enterprises might both better finance our churches and better ensure some less expected areas of mission engagement – although he was very realistic about how the most idealistically designed social enterprises might not be the most financially advantageous ones. Challenges, questions and insight abound just as the excitement and opportunities of beginning to work with a new Curate present themselves.
Meanwhile, the picture is of gas main renewal in our road this week. It uncovered the fact that this house’s conservatory had been built across the line of our gas main.