Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ad Lucem: the Future of St John's College, Auckland

All education is an exercise in seeking light - knowledge, insight, enlightenment - and theological education and ministry training is no different an exercise. The future of education is always a moving from the relative darkness of the present to the light of the future. In certain ways our church's oldest and best endowed residential theological college, St John's College, is in a shadowy place, having been deemed by our General Synod to be inadequately functioning in governance and management. But its future is 'ad lucem' with new governance and management structures being put in place. Today I believe is the day when the new Commissioner of our residential theological college, Gail Thompson, begins her duties. [Later: a profile is published here in Anglican Taonga]. Were she to talk to me, what would I say to her? Here are five things.

(1) The single most important decision any college of education can make is the appointment of a principal. Gail Thompson knows this already as she has a strong and distinguished background in secondary school principalship (including, most recently, running schools which have fallen on hard times). But I would underline the importance of General Synod's decision in May to bring to an end the dysfunctionality of trying to run our college with three principals and I would press upon her, should it not already be clear, that the single priority of her time between now and General Synod in 2012 is to model with excellence a single principalship of the College. We need our church to be united in agreeing to move from a Commissioner leading the College to appointing a single principal to lead the College beyond 2012.

(2) Notwithstanding any messages our church may have given the College over preceding years about what it wants from the College, what the College most needs to achieve is outstanding graduates who have been well-educated for Anglican ministry and mission. Useful though it has been for St John's College in certain individuals' lives to be a dormitory so they can pursue studies or training in other professions, the one thing which distinguishes St John's College from the multitude of educational institutions which dot our landscape is the opportunity it provides for an outstanding and well-supported education for Anglican ministry and mission. There should not be one residential scholarship at St John's College which is not focused on gaining education and training for ministry and mission.

(3) In relation to (2) the question needs to be asked with vigour and frankness, What will it take for St John's College to be recognised throughout our church as the premium college for ministry and mission education? Or, put in a different way, What will it take for bishops in our church to be beating on the Commissioner's door demanding that the College take their prospective students, only to be told that there is a waiting list for places? The building blocks are already being put in place for a positive answer to these questions, but more needs to be done. Hence (4) and (5).

(4) There is an urgent need for a communications strategy for St John's College. Ad lucem, remember! Too many Anglicans outside of Auckland (perhaps inside as well!) are in the dark about what is happening at the College and, worse, think they know what is happening at the College. Except what they think is happening, and cheerfully tell others is happening is, actually, what was happening two, five or ten years ago. But to be fair to them, when there is no regular newsletter from the College to its alumni, when there is no particular effort made to promote the College or to disseminate news about the College (had you heard about the Commissioner's appointment before reading it here?), then how would anyone know accurately what is happening at the College? Good things are happening at the College, great things are around the corner ... but our church needs to know this.

(5) Stay focused on offering an excellent theological education (via B. Theol. studies available right now at SJC) and an outstanding ministry and mission training programme (via the Anglican Studies programme available right now at SJC). But ask what it will take to draw a long line of applicants to want to enrol for these opportunities (in line with (3) above). Explore how staffing might be developed which excites and inspires future student enrolments: there have been significant retirements in recent years so the College has potential to appoint staff in areas of biblical studies, Christian thought and history, and aspects of ministry training. Speaking of the last of those, some think preaching in our church is pretty dire. What if the College were to appoint a 'Director of Preaching' of such calibre and stature that we in the dioceses without fail sent our budding preachers to learn from this person? And, while I am at it, I suggest thinking creatively about possible appointments. Perhaps (because of the way various things are structured about B. Theol. education), there is no great room for appointing a teaching member of staff in (say, because lack thereof is often lamented) systematic theology, but why not appoint a researching member of staff. One day the Archbishop of Canterbury will retire. A change of scene as Research Professor of Theology at St John's College might do him, and us, good. I can guarantee some keen doctoral students lining him up for supervision!!

So, one final point, communicate well with the St John's College Trust Board. They finance the College to a certain budgeted point each year. But that point can be broken. It has often been said that the Board will fund worthwhile, well-justified theological education and ministry training at the College. Now may be the time to explore the openness of the Board to funding a new vision for St. John's.


Paul Fromont said...

Peter, you mention "mission" several times in your post, but I'd want to be explicit about adding the importance of developing a pioneering track for mission and missional leaders in NZ culture; coupled with practical theology and the ability to bring gospel and culture creatively and imaginatively into conversation.

So, "yes" to Anglican Studies; "Yes" to research; "yes" to biblical studies; "yes" to liturgical studies etc etc. But, a big and explicit "yes" to the recognition that the 21st context, within which the Anglican Church finds itself - largely aged and tired, will require a lot more of us in terms of imaginative and creative leadership development (lay and clergy), leadership selection, formation, discipleship, contextual theology, spirituality, ecclesiology, culture studies, and much more besides if we are to be a vibrant, relevant and missional denomination for the 21st century and beyond.

Like you, I agree this is a critical time and I hope they don't miss the opportunity, or go backwards without also going forwards in insightful, wise and creative ways.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Paul
Staff at SJC are aware of the need to develop great mission(al) training etc!

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter
Thanks heaps for this post, it's really valueable to me as someone who has had the pressure to go to St John's put on me, but has felt a strange reluctance seemingly disproportional to the little bits and pieces I've heard about the place (you're right about communication by the way - your blog is the only place that I have found on the internet mentioning the appointment of a new commissioner). your post is helpful in it's undoubted, but not uncritical support for the college and a lot of the points you raise have been a factor in my thinking about St John's.
However, over and above all these I guess for me is a sense of philosophical difference in this approach towards training for ministry. There is a sense for me of people who went there long ago thinking that if SJC just does what it has always done, but better - then it will return to its glory days. But that seems to me to be a myth that we've been spending a lot of time trying to dispel in the church in recent times. My vicar has fond memories of his seminary training overseas, but recently visited the seminary only to find that it too was a shadow of its former self. I just don't know if the idea of a centralised institutionalising seminary works anymore. People it seems have rejected the idea in their droves and not largely i suspect because they think that SJC is a terrible place to be or offers nothing helpful. I can't forsee a time in the future when people will turn around and line up to get in. The massive growth and focus on distance Ed seems to reflect this too, but alone I don't think it fills the void left by the decline of the seminary. Perhaps instead of trying to ressurect an old way of training leaders, time and resources could be put towards a co-ordinated approach to foster a new one - one that reflects the life and times we live in, one that sees mission as central rather than an add on to training for ministry, and one that connects people locally rather than dislocates then to a centralised institution.
I dont comment much (and sorry for this very long one!), but read your blog most days and really really value your wisdom, insight and grace. Thanks heap.
God Bless

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ben
I appreciate the point you are making about the possibility that 'residential seminary' may have had its day in the sun re training. But I would want to always argue for the brilliant virtue that focused study and reflection, as provided for by leaving familiarity for the "confines" of residential seminary life, offers in preparation for ministry (or, for that matter, for in service training).

St John's is a great place for students - and, for those who go, offers great possibilities, not least in having an outstanding library on site, as well as offering a community life and corporate worship life which distance learning cannot, by definition, provide!