Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Open Letter to St John's College

On Anglican Taonga today an 'open letter' to Gail Thomson, the Commissioner of St John's College, Auckland, is due to be posted. It has some suggestions about the future of St John's. One or two I agree with. A number I do not, mainly because the starting point for the suggestions is insufficiently grounded in commitment to the basics of theological learning which is laying a foundation of doctine on a base of thorough knowledge of Scripture. But also because I think the letter inadequately accounts for the good things already in place at St John's College. From last month I reprise my own suggestions here. You might like to write your own open letter ... Later: I understand that possible publication of this open letter is on hold ...


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. 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.


Brother David said...

I am astonished Peter, how can one claim something is a college of theological education if there is no professor of Systematic Theology? If there is no professor of Praxis and Homiletics? If there are no professors of Old and New Testament?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi David,
Staffing at SJC is complicated, so to be fair to the College I simply observe that (1) some classical teaching areas are covered by virtue of its arrangements with the University of Auckland and of Otago theology departments, (2) one person in a classic theological subject is on the staff of SJC (in New Testament), (3) the opportunity exists, in a time of flux, for any deficiencies, upon review, to be remedied.