What The Clergy Need To Know

This was written for a SEAD series. It bears on some of the responses to my article on “Are Ordinations Too Elaborate?”

What Do The Clergy Need To Know?
The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.

The invitation to reflect on this question causes me to be glad and grateful that I know some things and wish devoutly that I knew better some other things. I am very aware that what I have to say about this question has a great deal to do with my context in ministry. I was trained in seminary to provide pastoral care, liturgical leadership, preaching and teaching(in about that order of significance) for a settled Christian people. I now find myself increasingly, in a missionary context in a culture which is at once sophisticated and superstitious, and in which many people have never heard, or barely heard or misheard, the fundamental Christian proclamation. The big thing that clergy need to know is that the calling is shifting to a more explicitly missionary, evangelical calling. I doubt we need an utterly new seminary curriculum but we do need to approach the seminary experience with a sharpened sense of the missionary shape of ordained service in the contemporary church.

Let me begin with what I am grateful for knowing. I am grateful for a sense of the supernatural and miraculous that I breathed in from the religious atmosphere of the church of my childhood. I have always known that there were learned, wise and cultured people who had one foot in another, unseen world. Although the sense of the supernatural is necessarily personal, the ethos of a seminary can facilitate and cultivate the spiritual sight which perceives the reality of the unseen world or the ethos of a seminary can collude with the secularizing trend of the society. I grew up taught by monastics, hearing the Latin Mass, deeply formed by a mystical and sacramental view of reality. It has left me with a reverence for the Church, for the Sacraments and for Holy Orders which I count a great blessing. There is a kind of knowledge to be had here, which I got in childhood but which can be got in other ways, the lack of which seems to me a great hindrance for a priest.

I am grateful for a very traditional Liberal Arts education. My college(New College, Sarasota, Florida) was organized around a basic presentation of the history and development of Western thought and culture. There was an emphasis on the relationship between the leading ideas in philosophy, politics and the arts and the evolution and transformation of broad cultural trends. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the ability to analyze and articulate arguments. The seminar was the fundamental format for education. Being able to articulate an argument, civilly but rigorously was the sign of accomplishment. Argument by assertion, ad hominem argument and question begging were understood to be signs of a lack of accomplishment. I am especially grateful for practice in taking a critical posture toward theories and for being given some historical perspective on the history of theory making. As a sometime teacher in seminaries I find that many students have real difficulty taking a critical posture toward theory and ideology. The students are able and talented. They simply lack practice in this kind of second order thinking. Graduate Theological Education often assumes that students have a background and perspective which contemporary college courses do not necessarily provide. The story of how Western Civilization has gotten to its present impasse needs to be part of the equipment of the priest who is being called to be a missionary to that culture. A basic familiarization with the history of ideas and the nature of philosophy, including political and social philosophy, is very important. There is a need for a kind of Liberal Arts boot camp for those who have not had this basic exposure.

I am grateful for the Biblical Studies that I pursued in seminary. The historical-critical method is a powerful tool of interpretation and exposition and a part of the necessary equipment of a priest. It is more and more recognized that this approach to the study of the bible needs to be balanced by other approaches. The clergy especially need to have a sense of the narrative unity of the bible. That the Bible tells a story which begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation and that throughout it is one story of promise and fulfillment, one story of grace was something which was not presented to me in seminary. Clergy need the balance of narrative and canonical approaches to scriptural study.

When I was in seminary it was the done thing to opt out of language studies. I took that option and regard it as the biggest educational mistake I have made and I have since made some remedial efforts. A priest needs to know enough Greek and enough Hebrew to understand the problem of translation and the part interpretation plays in any translation. The clergy need to be able to use an interlinear text and the grammars and lexicons and other aids to study in order to understand the choices made by the various English versions. The clergy need to have a small vocabulary of key Greek and Hebrew words like messiah and eucharist. Within a body of clergy there needs to be a critical mass of clerics who are able with the original languages, but every cleric needs a familiarity with the languages of the bible. As language skills fade, the temptation to be dishonest with the text is more and more irresistible. The fundamental task of preaching is a task of translation, of making the Word live in the present moment. The preacher treads a path somewhere between translation and paraphrase. For the most part we start with a familiar but somehow opaque English text and seek to bring it alive. It is very hard to do that without some sense of the moves that have already been made in the translation process. It is hard to perform the task of interpretation without some sense of how the Bible writers think and that is hard to acquire without at least a familiarity with the original languages.

A priest needs to know how to preach. This is the place where the study of scripture and theology, self-examination and the study of the people and times come together. The priest needs to know that, as Richard Baxter says, “we speak to dying men, as dying men.” Homiletics can be taught but the two main ingredients are exposure to great preaching and unrelenting practice in preaching. A priest needs to know that the kind of preaching most needed in most places in our church is simple, clear exposition of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. We need to know that most people do not know what we are talking about and that we have to begin with first things.

When I was first ordained the book that I referred to again and again was John MacQuarrie’s systematic theology. It is not my favorite book now but it was the one theology book that I had from seminary that was organized according to the traditional chapters of the Christian story. Looking at the table of contents you could get some sense of how the doctrine of salvation related to the doctrine of the church and the sacraments. I think it would have been a surprise to the professors in the practical courses at seminary, but people in my first parish did indeed ask questions about the resurrection of the body and the real presence and this thematically organized book gave me a place to start in crafting my response to these very deeply felt questions. The clergy don’t all have to be systematic theologians and much of the academic theology that is written is simply too arcane, too wrapped up in professional disputes to be very helpful in the parish. A parish priest does need to know what is at stake in any presentation of the faith and how the chapters relate to each other, how, for example, if you get the atonement wrong you are going to have trouble with baptism and ministry, how your take on Christology will influence your preaching and pastoral care and so forth.

One question is what should clergy know and another question is what Anglican clergy or Episcopal priests should know. I think that Anglican clergy, including Episcopal priests, should know something about Anglican Theology. One of the places you can learn something about what is at stake systematically in contested questions is in Patristics. The study of the Fathers has always been central to the Anglican ethos in Divinity. The world of the first five Christian centuries is more like our world than perhaps any other era in Christian history. There seem to be multiple reasons for spending a very significant portion of time with the Church Fathers.

An Anglican priest must understand the Reformation and must have read at least some of Luther, Calvin and the Anabaptists, and should also understand the peculiar take on Reformation issues represented in the Anglican Reformers and in the compilation of the Book Of Common Prayer. A careful study of the 39 Articles and the theological background of the 1549 Prayer Book would usefully organize many of these themes. There ought to be a chance to get in depth with some of the great Anglican Divines like Hooker, Donne, Herbert and Maurice. The story of how this strong tradition has renewed itself in the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic revivals of the 19th century are things worth knowing in themselves and for the light they shed on the problem of renewing the church in our own day. Michael Ramsey points out how interesting a figure Maurice is because he anticipates so many of the problems of modern theology in a distinctively Anglican way. It is curious that he does not come up more often in the syllabi.

An Episcopal priest needs to know something about the history of the Episcopal Church. Parish clergy who are assigned to an established parish need to be able to interpret the story of their parish in the context of the story of the greater church and society. When I got to the parish I was surprised by how I missed having Greek and Hebrew. I was also surprised by how helpful history was and how often it provided the key to understanding parish problems and potentials.

Spiritual formation is receiving some well deserved attention these days. A priest should know the life of prayer from experience and have a knowledge of the depth and breadth of the church’s ascetic tradition. I read many things in seminary that were opaque to me at the time, like the exercises of St. Ignatius for instance, but which have become vital at particularly ripe moments later in life. The seminary course in Ascetic and Spiritual Theology should aim to provide an orientation and direction for further reading and study. It is important for clergy to know that in the life of prayer, one size does not fit all, and that different people at different times in their lives need differing approaches to the life of prayer, and that there exists profound received wisdom with regard to this problem.

There is always a tension in the seminary curriculum between what a priest should know in a general way and what a priest needs to know to be a competent practitioner of parish ministry. Some of the practical and prudential skill development should be seen as part of post-ordination training. A priest needs to know how liturgy and worship reflect and communicate a total sacramental vision of life and how the liturgy works in people’s lives. I love C.S. Lewis’ comment that most of the laity are more interested in whether something in the liturgy is meat or poison than in its original location on the menu. Alexander Schmemann also inveighed against what he called a merely archeological approach to liturgical studies. A parish priest does not need to be an expert in liturgical studies but a parish priest does need to have a liturgical consciousness and a liturgical conscience. A priest should know that when you are dealing with the liturgy you are dealing with the depths of the human heart. Proceed with reverence and caution.

A priest needs to have at least the rudiments of a pastoral psychology. Clergy need some way of conceptualizing the human heart, of understanding normal human growth and development and of understanding how things can go wrong. It is important for the clergy to know that all psychological theories are a combination of clinical science and unexamined presuppositions about human nature and ultimate values. It is not possible to do theology without some philosophical framework and it is not possible to engage in pastoral ministry without some psychological framework. The question is not whether you will have a psychological perspective but whether it will be critically held and consistent with your theology. I still find psychological perspectives coming out of the psychodynamic tradition of the depth psychologies the most helpful and heuristically powerful. Concepts like transference and counter-transference seem to me like necessary survival equipment. Family Systems Theory is a psychological perspective that has been powerful and helpful to many clergy and is now a standard part of the curriculum in many places. What clergy really need to know is not some particular theory but the difference between an idealized view of human reality, their own human reality and the reality of those they serve, and an honest and sober view of human reality, one which brings the hidden drama of the human heart into view. We tend to get this knowledge from psychologists, you could get it from novelists. Part of pastoral ministry is always the struggle to let go of how people should be and to find the grace to deal with them as they are. The clergy also need to know the difference between how they think they should be and how they really are.

I think the curriculum in the more professionally related subjects like Christian Education, Pastoral Counseling, Congregational Studies and Parish Administration should be oriented toward giving students a sense that each of these areas represents a field of learning which has its own sophistication and its own standards of excellence. A priest should learn enough in seminary about these practicum areas to know how much there is to know and learn, and how well developed the thinking and learning in each one of these areas really is. In this missionary age I am learning that I need to know something about marketing and management science. The dismissive attitude toward worldly knowledge that many clergy profess will not serve the church well. We need to know enough about many things to be able to bring the gifts and knowledge of others to bear upon the common mission. Knowing how much you don’t know helps with this. The clergy need to know that their profession above all others involves a commitment to a life of learning and study. The best thing of all to know is how to learn.

©Leander Harding+ 2002

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