What does a priest in training have to do?
PUBLISHED: 16:57 11 December 2018 | UPDATED: 17:19 11 December 2018
What is life like at theological college? What subjects do vicars need to study? Our columnist and trainee priest James Marston reports on his progress.
It’s just seven months to go before, if all goes to plan, I get ordained.
This is a terrifying, yet exciting prospect.
Terrifying because of the enormity of what the responsibility includes, exciting because the last few years will have been leading to that day in June 2019.
Ordination will be an end, but also a beginning as I head off to answer my vocation to serve God and develop my own ministry within the Church of England as a priest and, more simply, as a Christian.
Some of you have been following my journey, but in the meantime I have one more year – well one more academic year – at Westcott House in Cambridge to learn something of my new trade, gain some more experience in the ways of the church, and get to grips with the study required.
This is, at least for me, no easy task.
We, as ordinands – that’s the word the church uses for those who are following vocations to the priesthood – have a lot of reading, writing, and essays to do, alongside our lives within a community of 60 or so other ordinands.
My studies this term include the following:
Bible in Context – a look at the various ways in which the bible has been interpreted over the generations and how it might speak to us today.
Texts and Traditions in Christian Spirituality – looking at what the rich history of spiritual practice in the history of Christianity can tell us and help shape our spiritual lives.
Topics in Christian Doctrine – the development of doctrine – what Christians believe about God over the centuries – with a focus on certain doctrinal aspects such as the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, baptism, and the Eucharist.
All of this I thought I knew something about until I actually sat down to read a little more.
Turns out that what I thought was how the Bible is interpreted is often only one way it has been understood, turns out that what I thought was spirituality was only one form of it, turns out that what I thought was doctrine was a series of ideas, compromises and conversations that are still ongoing and still debated.
It’s almost as if these subjects are aimed at exposing ordinands to questions we hoped never to answer, to shake our faith to its very roots, and then to build it all back up again in the process.
For each subject we have to write a 2,500 word essay – a typical title might be “Compare and contrast three different interpretations of one biblical text, one of which should be from the Early Church, and one may be an artistic or musical interpretation” – with deadlines in the Christmas vacation, which are somewhat thwarting my ideas of long student holidays and resting with my feet up by an open fire.
I spend my days at my laptop, in my room, at the library – well not all of the day – I manage to fit in the odd coffee as well.
What I have discovered is that as we leave lectures and seminars, we all discuss what we think on the way back to lunch giving us the chance to assimilate and process what we have heard in order that we can consolidate our own thoughts – as often with life, its the bits in between that really count.
We are well looked after, our meals and accommodation are provided, we start each day with morning prayer at 7.40am and end with evening prayer at 5.30pm – and this rhythm will shape our lives in the years to come. We are encouraged to explore and examine things like silent prayer, the rosary, informal prayer, and other Christian practices as we develop and exercise our own spiritualities. We take part in services and we help run the community – last week I did some of the recycling, this week I am going to the cash and carry to buy provisions for the college bar.
We also learn the practicalities that will come in useful – how to work out the service for a baptism, how to support mourners when it comes to funerals, how to deal, as priests, with the more difficult circumstances people find life throws at them; the loss of a child, the suicide, the untimely death.
Alongside our studies, we are encouraged to experience other forms of worship in the Church of England. I have been going to some of the formal yet beautiful evensongs at Cambridge colleges and looking at the more charismatic forms of worship where you might find a rock band instead of an organ and choir.
And all through this, with the foundation of prayer and the support of our tutors, we are getting to know God a little bit better so we can serve him, as he would wish, after that date in June.