Last night, we went to watch Educating Rita and it was a terrific performance. I'm very familiar with the film, but had never seen it performed, as it was originally, on stage.
It's simply set with the two main characters of Frank & Rita on stage for the whole time; always a challenge for a playwright, but Willy Russell hasn't gained his reputation for nothing and anyone experiencing this production would see why: fan of the theatre, or not.
What I found myself doing was reflecting on our approach to theological education and 'ministry formation' through the lens of Educating Rita.
Education, as opposed to learning, is a real tension throughout ER. Frank cites the world of exams, literary criticism and the educational world he inhabits as a University Professor, as 'a game'. I have used the same word, applied to higher degrees, having a distinct uneasiness about the nature of some academic development within the spheres of learning we engage within the Church. I know, for example, whenever we need a new Principal for one of our theological Colleges, the starting place of essentials is a Phd, proven practitioner (Baptist Minister) and competent to fulfil the JD. When you trawl through the BUGB handbook, you realise what how few possible candidates that leaves us with! Unfortunately, the Phd is frequently cited as the primary requirement, but whether this is the most useful tool in the kit is debatable.
I’m all for academic excellence, this is neither sour grapes, nor defensiveness, as from the perspective of my second higher research degree I still see it as 'a game'.
When we look at our more general approach to ministerial formation through the ER lens, however, it raises even more questions.
I'm frequently surprised, when speaking to candidates, no one seems to alert them to the actual requirements, which are somewhat different to the presumed and assumed requirements. To be an ordained and accredited Baptist Minister, for example, you need to demonstrate the ability to engage in theological reflection at the depth of ‘level two’, which is diploma level and no one says you need to pass. I’m usually accused of wanting to dumb down the depth of theological study we appropriately ask of our Ministers at this point, but that is not my intention. I don't want to make Ministerial formation easier, but harder! Simply ratcheting up the academic requirements, however, is not the way ahead. The trend is towards more flexibility, in terms of accommodating different learning styles and diverse cultural approaches to learning. The trend, that is, most places apart from Christian Ministerial theological development. Intertwining theological reflection, academic study with practical expression more rigorously will be more demanding, not less, but we may not have the degree certificates to prove it.
Once upon a time, we used to ask every candidate to our MR about the last person they’d led anyone to Jesus. I think we’ve given up, because we didn't get many positive answers. We have since been living with the assumption they’ll learn this at College. Do they?
We are living in exciting times, in my opinion. However, the general growing recognition we need to balance our pastors and teachers out with equipping more apostles, prophets and evangelists, typically under the ‘pioneer’ banner is struggling to find expression when it comes to ‘real’ Ministerial formation.
Can I say Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney were excellent in Educating Rita, in Bath, last night. I’ve no idea where they’re off to next, but if you fancy catching Willy Russell’s updated script, you’ll be booking yourself in for a treat.