Theological education at the crossroads

Archdeacon Bill Harrison, director for mission and ministry in the diocese of Huron, says Anglicans need to acknowledge that priests “serve the church, but they are not the church.” Photo: André Forget
Archdeacon Bill Harrison, director for mission and ministry in the diocese of Huron, says Anglicans need to acknowledge that priests “serve the church, but they are not the church.” Photo: André Forget
Published February 16, 2017

Niagara Falls, Ont.

As the number of Anglicans in Canada decreases and churches close, the parish model-in which every church has a priest and every priest is full-time-is rapidly becoming a relic of the past. How can the Anglican Church of Canada train priests to serve in this new, more uncertain reality?

This was the question posed to a group of 70 priests, educators, bishops, diocesan and theological college support staff at the beginning of the conference on theological education and the training of priests held Feb. 14.

In a wide-ranging address, Archdeacon Bill Harrison, director for mission and ministry in the diocese of Huron, said that meeting the challenge of this question requires the church to see the role of the priest as one that has evolved throughout Christian history.

Anglicans need to acknowledge that “priests serve the church, but they are not the church,” he said.

Harrison’s presentation was the first of the four-day gathering called Equipping the Saints: A National Gathering on Local Initiatives in Theological Education for Priestly Ministry.

Organized by the Rev. Eileen Scully, director of the national church’s faith, worship and ministry department, the conference was designed to provide a forum for discussing alternatives to the MDiv as a way of training priests, and to talk about the place of priests trained through alternative programs in the Canadian church.

Harrison began his talk by noting that over the past 500 years, priests have been expected to take on an ever-growing list of duties. Not only are they asked to be sacramental ministers and preachers, they are also trained to be teachers, scholars, leaders, counsellors and social justice advocates.

Through the MDiv, seminaries have attempted to equip candidates for the priesthood with the skills they need to discharge all of these responsibilities. The result, Harrison said, is a church that tends to place too much responsibility for too many things on the shoulders of its priests.

“I wonder whether the effort to cover all of those bases through priestly preparation may have been a mistake,” he said. “I wonder whether we have, unintentionally, contributed to the sense that the church is primarily a priestly organization rather than a community of all the baptized.”

At the same time, the Canadian church also has a long history as a missionary church, in which it has often been impossible to expect every priest to hold an MDiv and attend seminary for three years.

“We have a substantial history of ordaining people without the MDiv degree or equivalent,” he said. This history is a reminder that Canadian Anglicans have long had to be flexible and attentive to their local contexts when it comes to training and recognizing ministers, he said.

Harrison closed his talk by posing four questions he believes the church must grapple with as it considers the future of training for ministry.

First, is it possible to imagine priests who are not trained to fulfill all the above-mentioned roles, and if so, under what circumstances might this be acceptable? Second, is the pressure created by needing to fill all these roles a distraction from the imperative to evangelize and create disciples? Third, should the training of priests be considered in relation to the training of deacons and lay people? Finally, what impact should the growth of less traditional forms of ministry have on the formation of priests?

While he did not provide answers to these questions, Harrison said he hoped they would guide the discussion at the conference.

Debates over theological education and the formation of priests in the Anglican Church of Canada are nothing new, however. As Harrison and Scully both noted, they have been going on for the past 20 years.

In 1998, the Anglican church held a series of consultations on discernment for ministry with the intention of creating “national standards” for theological education and priestly formation. This led to a theological education commission that looked at how candidates are prepared for ministry.

In 2007, General Synod passed a motion calling for a national gathering to formulate a strategic plan for the future of ordained ministry in Canada, which led to the January 2010 conference at Manoir d’Youville in Chateauguay, Que. This in turn spurred the creation of the Primate’s Commission on Theological Education and Formation for Presbyteral Ministry at the General Synod later that same year.

Over the course of the following triennium, the commission created a series of guidelines for those in the early stages of candidacy to the priesthood, for priests themselves, for bishops and archdeacons who need to evaluate the ministry of their priests, and for theological education programmes.

Their work was presented to General Synod 2013 as the “Competencies for the Ordination to the Priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada.”

The competencies explicitly signalled a shift away from the notion of “standards” for theological education, toward a more fluid, adaptable model.

In an interview, Scully said she believes there is no longer much will to see a nationally applicable set of standards enforced, and does not expect this conference to produce a new set of competencies.

Instead, she wants to connect people working in different parts of the church to foster greater co-operation and sharing of information.

“I would be very happy to see some very concrete partnerships develop amongst dioceses [and] between dioceses and schools,” she said. Several dioceses have already created local ministry training programs, which other dioceses may want to adapt or learn from, she noted.

“We can’t…create a one-size-fits-all program,” she said, adding that the most important role General Synod staff members like herself can play is in facilitating lateral relationships between groups and individuals working to address the problems they are facing in their own local contexts.


  • André Forget

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

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