About Me

Monday, 29 December 2014

Reading the paper as a spiritual exercise...

So at #VicarSchool we've been set some tasks as part of our Christian Spirituality module which we have just started. We were given a list of things to do under various headings and we had to chose one from each heading. They look at different aspects of spirituality and how these impact our lives, as well as encouraging us to think outside our comfort zones. One of the sections is 'cultural'. From the things on the list my understanding of this section is that partly it looks at things that people who are not active in a faith might find as spiritual practices, or which could be taken to be a substitute for them. So for example they are things that people can be passionate about, like supporting a cause or volunteering.

One of the choices is to read a daily newspaper if you don't already, and if you do, then read one of an opposite political stripe. Well largely I get my daily news in 140 character posts via Twitter, that's all I have time for, but occasionally I read the Sunday paper so I thought this might be a good one for me to do. I don't like newspaper labels, well I don't like things that label people persee, but one paper that drives me round the bend (as it does many) is the Daily Mail. So I have chosen to start with this. At this stage my plan is to read a few different papers that I would never touch and see how they affect me and how (and if) one can think about them spiritually or theologically.

So this is week 1 and I know you will be delighted that I am going to share my thoughts on the various newspapers I am going to read with you all... expect ranting and crossness but I hope also a little bit of theological reflection...

So the Daily Fail is where I start. My parents read the DM, my Grandparents used to read the Daily Mail. As a child on Sundays we would go to their house and everyone would share bits of the paper and me and my brother would argue over the 'cartoons' section - which sadly no longer exists but used to be a separate little paper full of cartoons and puzzles for kids. These days I pick it up occasionally at Mum and Dad's and I barely get beyond the front page before I feel irate about something printed in it, or in fact, everything printed in it. The reason I dislike it so much is that it is always written in a way that someone is getting the blame for something. It incites people to hate. It encourages people to tear others down. But people do read it every day. People get their daily news via it, it informs thousands of people each day, it enables people to form opinions on matters of politics, news, entertainment and more (whatever those opinions may be...). In fact their own stats suggest that an average of 1,700,000 people read the paper each day.

So I started this, feeling quite excited actually, what would I learn? would it help me theologically or give me an understanding of a different demographic? 
and then I looked at the paper. 

First headline, queue of people pictured with 'THE QUEUE THAT SHAMES BRITAIN' emblazoned across it. A 'story' about people queueing at 7am just to see their GP. You see I read this and it just makes me feel cross, I haven't even read the story and I feel angry. It make me wonder, does everyone feel like this when they read the DM? The story starts 'shivering in the cold before dawn yesterday, more than 30 patients queue in the desperate hope of seeing a doctor. The scene, a bleak picture of a health service in crisis, is one repeated in many parts of the country...'  although no one in the picture is wearing hats or gloves, in fact some aren't even wearing coats and none of them look 'desperate'. 

The second day the front page was emblazoned with 'END OF THE CASH MACHINE RIP-OFF' and 'Why weary looking Kate didn't take George to church', with a picture of her looking, to be honest pretty normal for someone with a toddler and a baby on the way. 
So negative... 
In fact another paper featured the same story of Prince George not going to church but with wonderful headlines full of how marvellous Kate and the royals are.

The further I head into the paper, I find more of the same: negative, doom and gloom, how people in power are letting you the reader down...

Here's some other headlines...

The Danger Drones
Travelling by train - you'll be lucky
Boxing Day Weather Bomb
legacy of 24-hour drinking, a nation awash with booze
Whitehall's Crazy Eco Zealots
World's Stupidest Selfie

and so on, and so on.....

So... what on earth can I draw from this doom and gloom? Well it occurs to me that many people do read this daily and I can't help but wonder how it affects people who read it regularly. We talk about having a 'positive mental attitude' or how smiling and laughing can make you feel better, so surely if we fill ourselves full of the negative that must have the opposite effect? 

I was reminded of  2 Cor 10: 3-5 which tells us :

 Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

Perhaps 'weapons of warfare' is a bit strong here, but surely, so many negatives can cause more harm that some physical injuries and indeed have the power to destroy people. As a Christian I do try and keep my thinking linked to my faith, of course that isn't always possible, but what if you don't have that attitude, or a similar one to guide you? Studies have shown that negative feelings, bitterness and unforgiveness can actually affect our physical health. So surely filling ourselves full of negative stuff can only encourage us to be more negative? 

I tweeted about writing this post and Matt Clements (a fellow Tweeter) pointed out:
'as the paper trying to be clever pointing the finger, surely the Mail is the pharisees' paper of choice?!'

hmmm, good point, so I nicked it for my post :)  In fact I rather like that analogy, 'the paper of judgement', the one pointing the finger and missing the point entirely, very pharisaical. Where would they be in Jesus' time? reporting from the sidelines on the latest from the 'crazy prophet' or printing pictures of him looking 'harrowed' or join in with the jeering at his trial, gleefully celebrating his comeuppance? (and printing a very tiny retraction on page 74 after his resurrection maybe?)

I did wonder if in actually reading the Daily Mail I would find it less awful than I thought *queue sniggers*. Well, sadly not, it really made me feel worse than I thought it would, and I only read it for two days! So, whilst I'm not sure I gained anything personally from reading this paper, it made me think about those that do. So often these days it feels like people are full of anger. When something goes wrong, we seek someone to blame, we want recompense, and society encourages us to do so too. How many phonecalls have you had telling you that you are entitled to PPI compensation? (whether you ever actually had it in the first place or not); how many times have you seen someone getting cross as a Customer Service till? or complaining on Facebook about their BFF, Sister or Gas repair man? rather than actually dealing with the situations calmly and with grace?

Of course this isn't all the fault of the Daily Mail, much as I dislike it, I can't put all that on them! But it is something that seems to be becoming the norm isn't it and aside from the paper making me cross, it actually just makes me sad. Sad that people are encouraged to be angry and cross and full of blame, when a national paper, could actually have a real impact on people's lives, on the way they feel, on the way they view life. I wonder, had the DM been around 2000 years ago, whether their incessant negativity would have impacted further how people felt about Jesus?

So enough of the doom and gloom, I'm on to the red tops next, thought I'd get a balance... 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Residential vs Regional: Training in the Church of England // A Mixed view!

This is the fifth post in a series on Ministerial Training in the Church Of England. To see the intro to it all click here. I have asked a selection of people to write on their own experiences of training, in different environments.Today we hear from Simon Archer who has spent time training at both regional and residential college.

Simon says of himself:

About to hit the big 4 oh! I am an ordinand (trainee vicar) living and studying on campus at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. I’m sharing this surreal experience with my wife, four children and 2 cats. I have a feeling the legend of Marmite the Cat with live long after the memory of Simon the Ordinand has faded and that is as it should be.

A Tale of Two Modes //

I had been exploring my calling to ministry for some time, dragging my feet which seems to be the norm. After meeting with with a Vocations Advisor and voicing some concerns over my ability to deal with the academic demands of training it was suggested I speak to SEITE, the South East Institute for Theological Education. I did and signed up for a year with an option to continue if I wished to on a part-time course as an associate student. I would do all the work, write the essays but as I wasn’t an Ordinand so would not attend the weekend or weekly retreats.

Travel forward in time a few years and I have been recommended for training and am just coming to the end of my first term of full-time residential training at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. So the question that might be asked is why did I choose this mode over part-time? What was the difference?

Well let me be clear, my choice was largely practical. My full-time employment was linked to retail and this meant working weekends and being busiest at exactly the times when retreats would be happening. Training part-time was simply not possible without quitting my job and joining another industry. I am happy to say although the option of part-time training with SEITE was discussed I was supported in a decision to train full-time.

So what about the differences? Both modes are challenging. The rigour of the academic lectures and the expectations of the essays and work are equal. The lecturers themselves are all incredibly gifted in both their fields of particular expertise and their abilities in imparting their knowledge. I do not think the quality of the academic training is therefore that different.

Formation is perhaps an area that is worth looking at. It’s an odd term that many speak of at colleges whilst rolling their eyes but in fairly simple term it’s about preparation for public ministry and the transition and changes you go through. At SEITE there were the retreats, church placements and the like but at Cuddesdon there is a great deal more attention paid to this. In a single term I have been and am continuing a placement at a local hospital, I have a church placement on Sundays, I have spent two weeks as Chapel Assistant and then Duty Sacristan, a preaching themed study week. I am in a worship group whose responsibilities change weekly from preparing and leading worship corporately or individually to serving dinner to the college or running the bar. There are the Daily Offices and Eucharist as well as supplementary groups offering Ignatian Spirituality or Rosary Prayer and meditation. There are guest theologian speakers both at the college and in Oxford who are leaders in contemporary thought. In January I will be spending a week in L’Arche community, something I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to do. This formational experience is something I could never have imagined or managed part-time.

Which is harder? I think this is an important question because I think actually the answer is part-time. With everything I do now I have immense support, academic staff on tap and my days, although full, are planned to be able to incorporate family time alongside all the work and experience. We have a part-time and mixed-mode students here and if I am absolutely honest I don’t know how they cope and I do know that many struggle. Many are holding down full-time work with all it’s demands, family responsibilities, travel and their training. And I know a few are pleading to move to full-time as soon as possible.

If it was my decision to make it would be that as many as possible are encouraged to train full-time but nobody should be prevented from responding to God’s calling so we certainly need the different modes. How we support the formation of those in other modes by offering the depth of experience seen in full-time training may be the area we need to focus on in the future.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Residential vs Regional: Ministerial Training in the Church of England: A Residential View Part 2

This is the fourth post in a series on Ministerial Training in the Church Of England. To see the intro to it all click here. I have asked a selection of people to write on their own experiences of training, in different environments.

Today Chris Routledge gives us his experience of training at a residential college, full time. 
Chris is the Assistant Curate in the parish of Northfleet & Rosherville, in Rochester Diocese, and is moving in January to be Vicar of the parishes of Bradwell and Porthill in Lichfield Diocese. He trained at Ripon College Cuddesdon from 2009-2011, having been a Church Army Evangelist for 9 years previous to beginning ordination training. Chris is married to Clare and they have a 4-year-old son, Nathan. Chris blogs at Cenobite's Community

In 2009, my wife and I moved to Cuddesdon to begin two years of training to be ordained. 
We felt residential training would be right for a number of reasons, including the opportunity for my wife to make new friends who would stay with her for the rest of her life, and with whom she would be able to share the experience together of what it means to be a clergy spouse. The college we went to had an excellent "Partners Group," which allowed spouses to take as much or little interest as they liked, with no pressure. This group was fundamental in enabling my wife both to settle into community life, and prepare her for life beyond college.

One of the most important reasons for me was that word which seems to be the 'marmite' of theological training, formation. For me, whilst I was definitely looking forward to the theological training, it was the formational side which I knew would be the most important for me - the becoming a deacon, and then a priest. The reason for that is because I had spent twelve years in Church Army - three years in training, and then nine years as an Evangelist - and so the transition from licensed lay minister to ordination was always going to be a big step. I went to college knowing that I needed to leave the Church Army part of my life behind - not deny it, because it will always be a part of my life and who I am - but to make that break in preparation for ordination. Moving to a new place was an important symbolic action in that transition.

Residential training made the formational process happen in ways that I cannot imagine could happen in a non-residential training environment. Students and staff at college lived a rhythm of life which included daily prayer together, eating together - basically, we did everything together (except sleeping, of course)! This rhythm of daily life was instrumental for me in the formational process, and has set me up well for the realities of ordained ministry. The daily offices, for example, are life-giving in both offering the day ahead to God, and commending the day past to God, in a way I had not appreciated would be so foundational before beginning residential training.
In addition, living together in community brought the added experience of learning how to "disagree peaceably." I confess to having one occasion where myself and a couple of other ordinands had a minor set-to; living in community meant that we needed to resolve what had happened if we were to be able to avoid minor tensions developing into a situation where we found it hard to be in the same room as one another. For myself, it placed me in the valuable position of needing to take the initiative to resolve what had happened, which, for someone who has a natural preference to avoid conflict, was easily one of the most important formational experiences of my training. Again, I don't think it would have happened in quite the same way in non-residential training, where it could easily be a week or more before seeing again the person with whom one has fallen out.

During training, we were blessed to have our son born, and again, residential training provided natural support structures for us as first-time parents. It also meant that our son spent the first 9 months of his life being used to having lots of people around of all ages, which we believe has been of great benefit in his development.

Finally, residential training allowed me flexibility in choosing exactly the right placements I needed to "fill gaps" in my previous experience. So, for example, I spent the first year worshipping in an Anglo-Catholic church, which helped me to both experience and appreciate the nuances of worship in that tradition. I don't know if there would have been such a breadth of options for placements if I had gone down the non-residential route.

For me personally, and for us as a family, residential training afforded opportunities which were what we needed in the training process. Whilst it may not be right for everyone, it certainly was for us, and I would have been desperately disappointed if it had not been an option.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Residential vs Regional: Ministerial Training in the Church of England: A Residential View

This is the third post in a series on Ministerial Training in the Church Of England. To see the intro to it all click here. I have asked a selection of people to write on their own experiences of training, in different environments.

Today Hugh Bourne gives us his experience of training at a residential college, full time. Hugh is a third year Ordinand at Oak Hill College. Hugh blogs at HughBo.com

I'm a few months into my third and final year of full-time, residential training preparing for ordained ministry in the Church of England - and I think it's great! 
Before I explain why I think it's so valuable let me answer three common objections to this mode of training:

1) Cost - yes it's expensive, further education is expensive, wherever you go, as is the cost of living. But it's not an issue as the costs are met by a combined effort of my sending diocese and the CofE Ministry Division. This might be an argument against residential training if you're a Diocesan Treasurer, but not from an ordinand.

2) Relocating - this will present different challenges for different people depending on life stage and circumstances, for us it was not a big upheaval, but certainly a wrench to leave friends, family and jobs. But to not do this at the college stage is really delaying the inevitable, it's rare to serve a curacy at a sending church and by offering ourselves for ordination we offer ourselves to the Church of England as a whole - moving will be an inevitable part of ministry!

3) Ivory Tower - no one really questions the fact that many medical students study for 3 years (pre-clinical) before they do much training with real life patients, we actually assume that our doctors our well qualified for the job. Academic study, when done well is incredibly relevant to real life and real ministry because the connections are made, my own college has recently launched an 'integrated curriculum'  to help this to happen. There may also be a sense in which the training is disconnected from the parish context, the reality is that in my training I will have had a much broader (if not as intense) experience of parish ministry. It's possible that an ordinand could complete their training having only really experienced one church (their whole life!) - that doesn't prepare well for wider ministry in the CofE.

Students wrestling with theological essays...

Let me tell you about some of the things I get from 3 years of residential training:

: Over 1000 hours of lectures - (approx... x12 1hour lecture, x10 week term, x3 terms, x3 years).
: A BA degree which gives accreditation to my study, demonstrates a level of academic competence, is transferrable and can be built upon. While some mixed-mode courses offer the same level of accreditation there really is no comparison in terms of academic rigour (just compare teaching time).
: 24 hour access to a theological library of over 50,000 books.
: We get a free lunch! But seriously, catering means I can get on with study and some of the best conversations happen at the meal table with my fellow students.
: A breadth of church experience in two year long parish placements, one intensive two-week parish placement, a week long chaplaincy placement and week long parish mission.
: Daily chapel services which immerse me in a breadth of liturgy and ground me in a worshipping community.
: The time and expertise to commit to learning Greek and Hebrew (I only did a year of Greek, but many of my peers have done three years of both!).
: I train side by side with Anglicans, Baptists, Charismatics, a whole range and spectrum of people from different backgrounds. Some are training to be ministers others to be missionaries or youth workers. There are groups which meet to pray, practise preaching, help each other learn languages, revision groups, social groups, special interest groups - study and worship are in sync and both done in community.
: We live in community, my neighbours are my peers, my lecturers do their laundry in the same laundrette, children play together. My neighbours are my peers now, they'll also be in the future providing a basis for long term support for the next X years in ministry.
: When I leave college in June to begin a curacy I will have spent 4 years in full-time parish ministry (including 3 years of practical study here and here, followed by three years in full-time training to degree level here.

Paradoxically I feel incredibly well equipped while feeling rather inadequate for the ministry ahead. If I had the choice between residential and a form of mixed-mode training (I realise some have no choice realistically), to choose mixed-mode would in my mind be downplaying the importance of being academically equipped for ministry and would be a disservice to the people which I will serve. After all no one wants to be operated on by the doctor who hasn't spent adequate time in the classroom!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Residential vs Regional: Ministerial Training in the Church of England: A Regional View

This is the second post in a series on Ministerial Training in the Church Of England. To see the intro to it all click here. I have asked a selection of people to write on their own experiences of training, in different environments.

Today Stacey Rand, gives us her experience of training part time at a regional college. Stacey is a second year Ordinand at the South East Institute for Theological Education (SEITE). She lives in Canterbury and works as a researcher in the field of social care policy.  

The phone rang. It was the call I’d been waiting for, and the answer was a yes…  I’d been recommended for training! Once the feeling of shock passed (really, me?!), then came the difficult choice of where to do my pre-ordination training. There were two options – either residential training (‘theological college’), or non-residential training (‘course’).

After much thought and prayer, I felt that non-residential training would be a better fit for me.

Why? Well, first of all, I don't really have a particular ‘tradition’ that I feel I belong to. I've worshipped in Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic and ‘middle-of-the-road’ churches. Theological colleges tended to focus on a particular church tradition or style of worship. Instead, I was looking for somewhere where the diversity in the Church of England was reflected and celebrated.

Also, I’d only recently moved from Cambridge to Canterbury. My husband had been studying for his PhD and we had been very involved in Cambridge college life. It felt quite important at this stage to move on into the next phase of our life together as a married couple ‘in the real world’, outside of the sheltered environment of a college (which feels at times a bit like a boarding school for adults!)  

Asburnham Place, taken at a
recent residential weekend

So I chose to study non-residentially at SEITE - and I’ve not regretted this decision for one moment. I really value the diversity of the students, in age, background and church tradition. There is a real sense of unity in the love of God, as well as our shared purpose for coming together. And I haven’t felt ‘de-skilled’ like I’d expected to. Instead, I’ve felt the freedom to bring prior learning to integrate into what is being taught. It feels less like being broken and re-made in conformity with a particular image of a ‘vicar’, and more like a gentle re-shaping that allows space for individual diversity.

Importantly, the course emphasises that it isn’t about teaching us everything we’ll ever need to know, but to equip us with the tools for lifelong learning. The regular residential weekends have been an opportunity for an extended time of learning in community - both in the classroom and the bar!

Finally, there’s an emphasis on learning by experience. My home church and placements have offered space to explore important issues and to learn through real life situations. Placement supervisors have been generous in sharing both the joys and challenges of their ministry, for which I am very grateful.

Ashburnham Place
There have, however, been some compromises. I would have really liked to have studied for a full degree, but that has not been possible. Instead, I am self-supporting through my work as a researcher to study part-time for an undergraduate diploma. My ‘day job’ is fulfilling, stimulating and interesting. My work colleagues have been really supportive. And there are aspects of my work that I would describe as part of my vocation. That said, it can still sometimes be challenging to balance the demands of employment and part-time study.

It might be said that the monastic spirituality in the community rhythm of residential training is essential to prepare the future leaders of the Church for the challenges ahead. However, this route may not be right for everyone. A strength of the current system is that there are a diversity of routes to allow for the diversity of people who are training for lay or ordained ministry.   

Non-residential courses may also equally offer a ‘spiritually-grounded’ model of training – in the mendicant rather than monastic tradition. Unlike monastics (monks, nuns) who live in a monastery, mendicants (friars, sisters) go out and live among the people. The mendicant tradition is a call to be outward-looking and working to seek God in all things and all situations - to have the ‘bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other’.

My experience so far of training has been both challenging, rewarding, confusing, exasperating, exhausting, joyful, humbling (especially to know the love and support of the people around me), and full of blessings – and it has really made me know what it is to trust God in all things. Hopefully, a good preparation for a lifetime of ministry?

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Residential vs Regional: Training in the Church of England

Southwark Cathedral, where some of the
SEITE training takes place

So if you are a regular reader of this blog, it cannot have escaped your notice that I am training for Ordination in the CofE. Throughout the last few years as I have explored this and now in my training, I have regularly thought about the various types of training available. There are essentially 3 modes of training: residential (full time), regional (part or full time) and mixed mode. For a long time, residential training was the only option available and requires someone training to up sticks and move to their college for two years while they train, a bit like going off to uni. In many cases this means partners and families move too.  I've got to be honest I'm not entirely sure why the option for regional training was brought in, so please feel free to comment if you can point me to this info! However I am based at SEITE, whose website says the following about regional training there:
SEITE was founded in 1994 to serve the churches of the South East of England in training people for Christian ministry but its roots go back much further. In 1959, the Bishop of Southwark had a vision for training Christians to take ministry from the church out into society. In doing so, he broke with the normal pattern of ministerial training in which ministers are taken away from their everyday situations to study theology in a college community. Instead he set up the Southwark Ordination Course which trained people for ministry whilst they remained firmly rooted in their everyday lives and local communities. This way, people learn to make connections between Christian theology and the world in which they live. This vision remains central to SEITE.

In addition to being rooted in their own communities it does mean people have the option to study part time, and continue in their current paid jobs, but it also means those studying at regional colleges can stay in their homes and not have to uproot their lives and families at this stage (whether training full or part time).

So then why am I writing about this? Well, ever since this process began for me, I have come up against the view that regional training is the poorer second cousin to residential. Many Bishops encourage their Ordinands to go to residential colleges, and students have to have very good reasons for not taking this path. In addition, a widely held view across the church seems to be that those at regional colleges do not get as good an eduction as those training residentially and that they are therefore unprepared for ministry life. Here's a prime example from a comment on a recent blog. (You can read the full comments and post at his blog, so I won't repeat it all here but as an example....)

. does it make a difference that there is usually less study time, and always less contact time, on [regional] courses? 
 . what is the impact of having less qualified staff (as they usually are, in terms of higher degrees) who are more often teaching outside their area of first expertise? 
. what is the logic of training people who will be in full-time stipendiary ministry on a part-time non-stipendiary course?
. is it pastorally responsible to put such pressure on people early in their training? 
On the last question, a friend of mine who was principal of both a course and a college admitted that on the course, people often either did not do the hours expected, or if they did, whilst holding down a full-time job, ended up with intolerable pressures on their marriages and family life.

This comes from someone with much experience in residential training, but as I responded to him in the comments of his own blog, it does not seem to be based on fact. For example, where is the evidence? which I did ask for; actually at my college (can't speak for others) our tutors are teaching in their area of expertise and it’s something I wouldn’t even question as the standard of teaching has been so high; and that diversity amongst students as at SEITE actually is hugely beneficial as we learn from each other; lastly that there are pressures on all students, they just differ from college to college.

(I should just say that this post was not just about modes of training, it was written after the anouncement that a well known college, St Johns, Nottingham, will no longer be offering residential training, and he does make some very good points in the piece around the subject of training in general.)

So to be honest I am a bit fed up with this view that regional training is not as good as residential. The Church of England allows training for ministry in a number of ways, all of which are overseen by Ministry Division. Colleges are inspected and standards must be reached. I have tried to find out if there is any official research done on the differences between the forms of training but as yet I haven't found any, so again if anyone can point me to some that would be great. However what this does mean is that people's opinion is largely formed on hearsay, tradition and personal experience rather than any factual evidence. Now I'm not about to start down that route myself but I have asked a few people to write about their own experiences of training in different environments to give a personal and perhaps more balanced view of the different forms of training currently. So in the coming few days we will hear from people at various colleges in guest posts here on my blog. Please do join in the discussion in the comments, I would love to hear from others of their own experiences...