Conference explores alternatives to seminary education

The Rev. Shawn Sanford Beck, education and training co-ordinator for the diocese of Saskatoon, says seminary-trained priests have a role to play in teaching locally-trained clergy. Photo: André Forget
The Rev. Shawn Sanford Beck, education and training co-ordinator for the diocese of Saskatoon, says seminary-trained priests have a role to play in teaching locally-trained clergy. Photo: André Forget
Published February 27, 2017

Niagara Falls, Ont.

As dioceses struggle to provide adequate ministry to communities that cannot afford full-time priests, church leaders and theological colleges in the Anglican Church of Canada are exploring new ways to train priests and ministers locally, from mentorship programs to weekend classes to peer-to-peer learning.

Anglicans engaged in alternative forms of theological education across Canada shared their experiences of creating ministry education programs that do not rely on candidates pursuing a tradition MDiv at a conference called Equipping the Saints: A National Gathering on Local Initiatives in Theological Education for Priestly Ministry, which met February 13-17.

Though the presenters represented disparate and culturally unique areas such as Central Newfoundland, rural Saskatchewan and interior British Columbia, several themes emerged.

One was the importance of using the talents and skills already present among clergy and laypeople of the diocese.

For example, the Rev. Shawn Sanford Beck, education and training co-ordinator for the diocese of Saskatoon, explained that his diocese is using seminary-trained priests to help teach locally-trained ministers.

“If you are at an MDiv level, you should be qualified to be helping others who are not working at an MDiv level,” he said. “I see our whole diocese as a faculty.”

The Rev. Joanne Mercer, a professor at Queen’s College in St. John’s, Nfld., is also turning to local talent to spearhead theological education in the diocese of Central Newfoundland, where she serves as rector of the parish of Twillingate.

Queen’s has entered into a partnership with the diocese and Twillingate to help provide theological education to local Anglicans. This arrangement is made possible, in part, because her parish already includes several members with graduate degrees in theology, who have taken on some of the teaching.

In her presentation, Mercer cautioned against putting too much emphasis on training explicitly for the priesthood.

Mercer said many people interested in theological education do not necessarily see themselves becoming priests-but this sometimes changes once they’ve had the opportunity to pursue studies.

“People come for one kind of education, and often stay for another,” she said.

If the church sees local theological education only as being a tool for training priests, instead of an option for any layperson interested in deepening their understanding of Christianity, it may unwittingly turn away potential ministers, she said.

Archbishop John Privett, diocesan bishop of Kootenay and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia, who is heavily involved in running the Kootenay School of Ministry, agreed.

He said that in his experience, there are many people who might feel a vocation to the priesthood who simply have not had a chance to pursue an MDiv.

Because the Kootenay School of Ministry is a seminary “without bricks and mortar”-one that brings teaching to local communities rather than requiring students to be resident at a college or university-these potential ministers can receive the training they need to serve the church.

Privett noted, however, that diocesan leaders need to work to ensure tensions don’t arise between locally-trained clergy and their seminary-trained counterparts, who sometimes see locally-trained priests as a threat to their own livelihoods.

He added that diocesan leaders also need to ensure that locally-trained clergy are seen as having an equally valid ordination, and not viewed as second-class ministers.

Privett was not the only presenter to acknowledge the general concern that exists about the credentials of locally-trained clergy; others noted that some Anglicans question whether candidates trained in a local context have the same qualifications as seminary-trained clergy.

However, as many of the presenters made clear, locally-raised clergy are hardly a novelty in the Canadian church.

Archdeacon Catherine Harper, co-ordinator of the Qu’Appelle School of Mission and Ministry in the diocese of Qu’Appelle, noted that in the early days of the diocese, the difficulty of providing traditional forms of theological education meant that requirements for ordination were more flexible.

She said her diocese always struggled, historically, to find priests who were able and willing to serve. She added that this history informs how the diocese is approaching contemporary challenges.

“If we look at our past, it definitely has informed what we’re doing at present,” she said, noting that the Qu’Appelle School of Mission and Ministry, by offering weekend and intensive courses, is being consistent with the kind of ministry training offered at various points in the diocese’s past.

The Rev. Iain Luke, principal of the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad in Saskatoon, agreed, noting that in western Canada, communities often went without full-time priests for years.

“People know how to be church, and look for how clergy might enhance and equip them to do that,” he said, adding that this is how he sees the mission of Emmanuel and St. Chad in the 21st century.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Catherine Harper as Canon rather than Archdeacon.


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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