A Top Ten List for Theological Students (Sermon for Friday after Ascension for Trinity College Theological School)
The Matthaean Ascension story depicts Jesus instructing the eleven to make disciples and baptise, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. This “everything” did not seem to all ancient readers simply to refer back to the Gospel itself; many Christians assumed that whatever they did in Church had been prescribed among such commands, and some documents like Church Orders explicitly placed liturgical and ecclesial instructions into this narrative context, giving their own practices apostolic or even dominical origins.
Being myself about to leave and scheduled to preach in Ascensiontide, I have my own opportunity for parting advice, but thought it sufficiently important to de-emphasise the relative importance of my own by putting them into a genre that implies a little self-satire. So, bearing in mind also that my next long-term destination is the USA, I offer you on departure a quintessentially American discourse, the “top ten” list à la David Letterman, for the theological student and future minister.
Emerging from theological college with degree, and from cathedral with holy orders, it is tempting for the newly-ordained to begin inflicting themselves on the Church; insights and passions are likely to be spilling from your full cups. Stop. Listen. God has been doing things in your new place of ministry before; more indeed probably than you will get to do. Things are as they are for a reason. Pay attention not just to individual pastoral need, but to community understandings and concerns. You will be effective leaders only if you start where the people are, and then move together.
9. Take Initiatives
The central structures of the dioceses are important, but different from (rather than more important than) parishes and other communities and networks. In our time the most important initiatives are likely to come from the latter. Bishops often have their work cut out just managing what emerges from the local scene; don’t wait for them to take action. We need you to be entrepreneurs and initiators, engaging with new ways to offer people the Gospel and the sacraments. Sometimes you will have to seek forgiveness rather than permission.
8. Keep studying
We can’t possibly teach you everything you need to know here in theological college. In fact the realities of the Church today are that you probably didn’t even know all the things the curriculum still assumes you do before you got here. That’s not your fault; your fault would consist of not remedying that, and that process can’t end here. If your personal standard for theological education is just meeting degree or diocesan requirements, you’re aiming too low. Come back for your Master’s in a few years, when you know more about your needs and gaps, or take the steps to seek the further education that will help you and the kind of learner you are.
7. Get mentored
Given that the curacy system is less extensive than it was, some of you will find yourselves ministering without the support and supervision formerly taken for granted. There are structures intended to compensate but these cannot do all you need. Neither, for that matter, can a traditional curacy, truth be told. So get it yourselves. Ask those you trust for advice about senior colleagues (in experience, whether or not age) who might help. Don’t stick to friends; don’t be afraid to learn from people who are different.
Now a few that relate to your roles of liturgical leadership and prayer:
Liturgy can be as easy as opening the book and turning the pages; but that is rarely good liturgy. If you believe that word and sacraments are worth dedicating your life to, prepare for both. A well-designed pew sheet is not a substitute for a well-rehearsed liturgy either. If you would typically throw a large party with no preparation, by all means try the same for the liturgy; you will see in time how many people come back to either.
Preaching of a high standard is not the most common experience in our Churches today, and one of the results of that is that some of you may not have heard many preachers who actually made you want to preach like them. But the vocation of the priest and deacon in public worship is as much or more to preach than merely to intone prayers or perform sacramental acts. The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer indicate that a sermon is a normal part of the liturgy; do not despise the privilege this offers to proclaim the Gospel and to teach.
4. Read the Bible
The Daily Office allows Anglicans to hear or read virtually the whole of Scripture every year. This gives us an almost uniquely biblical spirituality, if we fulfil it. For various reasons the framework for this discipline is less effective than it was; don’t let this prevent you from reading and learning about scripture as best you can, day in and day out. Of course you’ve studied the Bible here in sophisticated ways, but method is not an alternative to content. It’s forgivable if not edifying when a lay person scheduled to read on Sunday can’t find their place; the same doesn’t apply to a cleric. If you really don't know the names of the books of the Bible in order, go learn them. Knowledge of and facility with scripture is a gift to you personally, but also an indispensable tool for teaching and for debate in the issues we will face as Anglicans in the years ahead. Do not dare self yourself short by thinking that others may take a stand on scripture, while you can work from some other set of authorities.
This work relies on our being called to serve a reality which lies not just deep within but beyond ourselves; it is not our own work, but God’s. Prayer is the means by which we engage and acknowledge that reality. Prayer is not just asking; prayer is listening. Your survival in ministry and your effectiveness depend on that acknowledgement and connection, practiced in a disciplined form. The Daily Office is again the most evident gift that the Church offers you; use it, and whatever else you need, to pray alone and with others.
And two broader ones about the self and vocation:
2. It’s not about you
While we all believe you are here because God has called you to be, what God has called you here for is the Church, not yourself. God doesn't need theological colleges and ordination processes to work in the world, but the Church does. We trust that your deepest self will in fact be nurtured and expressed in however your own calling turns out to be fulfilled, but that is not the same thing as the fulfilment of your own dreams and yearnings as they now are. Resist the temptations that ministry offers to use liturgies, vestments, and whatever else primarily as expressions of your own personal theology and spirituality; put the best of who you are in the service of the whole community.
1. God will cope
After the above list and its accumulation of things you ought or ought not to do or be, let me offer a word of assurance. When you fail to meet these or other expectations that you or others set, God will cope. This is not your excuse for indiscipline or incompetence; rather it is the reminder that we dependent on grace. God has called you to this work and will do through you what God will; engage in this work with passion, and trust in the end that it is not up to you.
So much for lists. Over on NBC (and here in Australia, on ABC 2) Jimmy Fallon has a different sort of signature “list”, in the form of “thank-you" notes. My “thank-yous”, then: to my colleagues for their efforts and support here over these eleven years; to you, for daring to come and see what God might do with you and through you, as well as to you; and last but not least, thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.