It’s now been eight years since graduating seminary. Sufficient time, I think, has passed for me to evaluate that experience and its role in my formation for priesthood and ministry. There are the usual cliché observations that could be made about the divorce between theory and practice: systematic theology does not prepare one to lead a vestry meeting. This point lacks depth, however. Obviously there is a need for on-the-job training, and since I served as a curate for five years, this is a truth I will readily admit and even promote. But, on the other hand, I agree with Thomas Aquinas: the practical comes from the theoretical. A pastor poorly trained in systematics or dogmatics is likely to make all kinds of practical decisions that will be pastorally cruel, in the way that FitzSimmons Allison points out in his book The Cruelty of Heresy (1994): the ancient heresies often have their modern-day exponents, the influence of whom on Christ’s flock is far from benign.
One of the things that has become increasingly clear is that my training in seminary gave me the tools to continue my education beyond seminary. I’ve always been fond of (perhaps a little too fond of) Mark Twain’s aphorism, “Don’t let your formal education get in the way of your real education.” It’s always been the case for me that some of the most important reading I’ve done was in the books that were not on the required reading list of my classes. Nevertheless, there are tools that are gained in seminary education that I now understand to be necessary for the ongoing education of a priest.
Seminary, for example, can give a basic competency in the original languages of the Scriptures. Even if one is not at ease using a Greek New Testament or Hebrew Bible, one at least has a facility for using the commentaries, word study books, and other resources that can aid the preacher in his or her perennial task and the pastor in theological reflection.
A seminary education can provide a fluency in the language of theology so that theological texts can be read critically and understood, whether it be the popular devotional works of one’s day, a historic work of whatever kind, or the various texts that an institutional church like ours produces: resolutions, canons, communiqués, etc.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, a seminary education can inspire a sense of awe and wonder at the enormity of Christian learning through the centuries. Three years surely cannot suffice to learn patristics, exegesis, theology, liturgics, and history. Like a well-designed hors d’oeuvre, seminary education should increase the appetite for learning, not satiate it. This is not to say that every seminary student, however brilliant, is a candidate for a Th.M. or Ph.D. The well-read and thoughtful parson has a place, and the healthy desire for learning and study labors toward a hope envisioned in the eschaton: “then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
When I graduated seminary, there was a long list of things I had not read but felt would be useful to the pastor and priest. Thankfully, that list has not grown any shorter, but, in fact, only longer as I have added new things. If you follow the lines of one constellation it leads to a whole new nexus of light and learning. In the beginning I really struggled with some way to structure my ongoing learning and study, especially since most of it would by necessity be away from the artificial pressure of classrooms, professors, and papers. I also realized early on that mine needed to be a daily task. The wisdom of our Anglican heritage of common prayer tells us that our prayers need to be structured, and those who practice the Daily Office will affirm that the prayer of the heart can bud amidst the rhythms of daily confession, intercession, and the hearing of God’s Word in an ordered and ongoing cycle.
Initially, I tried to structure my reading by waking up a little early each day. I had read somewhere that George Washington used to wake a few hours before dawn to read and study. Perhaps because of the hazards of modern lighting (which keep us up later), I found this method impossible: I was tired and wavering and, honestly, not retaining much of what I read. Then a parishioner passed on to me The Bible in 90 Days. This Bible originated from the rather simple idea to divide the Bible into small but manageable sequential chunks. I wondered if perhaps there would be some interest in the parish to read the Bible in this fashion, but I didn’t feel like I could ask parishioners to try something without first doing it myself. So I began reading the Bible from cover to cover in three months. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it only took me, an average-paced reader, about 45 minutes a day. It struck me that many could carve out 45 minutes in a day to do some serious reading, especially if one weighs that against the amount of time we spend being entertained in front of screens. Further, it seemed to me that this was a manageable goal well beyond the short-term goal of reading the Bible from cover to cover.
I’m happy to report that this has been, at least for me, a very successful approach to the need for continued study. In the year following my first reading of the Bible in 90 days, I was joined by about 50 parishioners in the same exercise, a clear witness of its possibility and utility. In the meantime I have been able to take that daily 45 minutes and apply it to other very useful ends: a progressive reading of parts of the Greek New Testament, digestion of commentaries on books in preparation for Bible studies, some classics of theology (Augustine’s City of God and currently half of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae), and other miscellaneous books on everything from church history to pastoralia to liturgy. Though the amount read daily pales in comparison to the volume a postgraduate might be reading, still, taking the proverbial first step on a long journey and continuing to do so daily, one manages to get pretty far and certainly much further than I initially imagined.
It would be all too easy to bewail the lack of learning in the clergy of our church — and I am willing to put myself under that particular judgment — yet imagine the status of the clergy should we all commit to continue our studies using whatever structure worked. Then perhaps we might begin to take to heart Cranmer’s exhortation in the Ordinal “to consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures” and “that, by daily reading and weighing the Scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your Ministry.”
Other posts by John Mason Lock may be found here. The featured image is “Study” (2015) by Moyan Brenn. It is licensed under Creative Commons.