Choosing a school for Revs…

Thanks to my BAP post and Twitter conversations with wannabe vicars, I’ve found myself regularly explaining how I came to choose the Vicar School at which I’m currently being formed and moulded. For posterity, here’s an explanation, just in case you find yourself needing to choose one…

The road to Anglican vicar school goes something like this: feel called to ministry; explore call; fill in forms; meet regularly with a DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands); have a couple of Examining Chaplains interviews; get the ok from an Archdeacon or Bishop to attend a BAP (that’s a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, as opposed to a bread roll or female bit of anatomy); and get a ‘yes’ from the panel and your Bishop.

At some point, concurrent with, or after the BAP process, you also need to choose somewhere to train. It would be sensible if this was some centralised, UCAS style system with one application form, but it is not. Instead, you need to visit colleges you think you might be interested in, fill in their own application forms and have interviews. (Some colleges even insist you fill their form in before visiting.)

There are almost countless institutions you can train in. You begin by narrowing down your selection based on the following factors:

  • Are you training full-time or part-time? [Part-timers usually study on a ‘course’ rather than at a ‘college’.]
  • Are you being trained for stipendiary, non-stipendiary or pioneer ministry?
  • What kind of tradition do you worship in?
  • Do you want to live in a residential college for the next 2-3 years?

One of the best tips I was given by my DDO was to visit places and wait until you found somewhere where you felt at home (I did worry that I might not find anywhere), and it was an excellent tip! I visited two residential colleges which didn’t feel right. Then I visited what became my college and felt instantly at home. Lucky, as it’s where I’d wanted to go all along.

I knew what I didn’t want – a residential college where, as a single person, I’d be forced back into a halls-style bedroom and have to eat in a canteen full of unhealthy options. [It’s worth saying some colleges provide flats for singletons, but the ones I looked at didn’t.] I also knew what I wanted – a place where I’d get to experience the reality of church-based ministry, the ups and downs of parish life and where I’d get to practice and develop my skills.

There aren’t many places that offer mixed-mode training (the combination of academic theology and practical church-based experience), but St Mellitus is one of them and is the newest kid on the block as far as theological colleges are concerned. I’ll spare you its full history (it’s on its website), but it combines the traditional part-time route (it includes what was the North Thames Ministerial Training Course) with a full-time mixed-mode course, bringing us all together on regular residentials throughout the year.

Christmas Jumpers When I am old and grey, this will be my abiding memory of vicar school. (Christmas jumper day, 2011.)

Within a month of starting training, I knew I’d chosen the right place. Whenever anyone asks me about how I’m finding training, I can genuinely say I love it! I’ve made life-long friends, I’m having brilliant teaching, I’ve got plenty of opportunities to experience every day life in church ministry, and I’m part of a community that genuinely cares about how I’m doing in my training. So, what’s below is totally biased, but it’s my blog and I wanted to share my experiences. There are various myths about mixed mode training and St Mellitus that I’d like to dispel…

If you’re in a parish job half of your week, surely you’re only a part-time student and don’t get as much academic input as a residential college would have? In a word, no. Our ‘job’ in the parish is just as much part of our training as the academic stuff is. Often, our essays, lectures and formation training will have a direct link with what we’re doing in our church contexts – and not just in terms of sermon fodder. I love having somewhere (and someone) to talk to in my parish about theology who understands how to apply to our situation. I also love having fellow students (and staff) with whom I can discuss questions I have about my church. And academically, it’s rigorous. Maybe there are fewer contact hours, but there is a huge emphasis upon our personal studying as well as teaching. And don’t forget the residentials – seven a year, plus the week long autumn one. Plus, the teaching staff are top quality!

What about community? If you only see people once a week, how do you get to know other ordinands? Maybe if we only saw each other on Mondays, it would be tricky, but the residentials are a major factor in getting to know people. The students on the part-time route aren’t strangers either and there are ways in which we’re brought together in small groups that mix years, centres and traditions. Then there are formation groups – like a tutor group – in which we meet regularly and who are our major support network during training. Mine is officially the best formation group ever. I was dubious when I was told that these strangers would be friends throughout my ministry, but I’m now pretty much convinced that they will be.

How do you afford to do this type of training? Just like any regular full-time ordinand, I get a combination of grants from Ministry Division and my diocese. The church I work for also makes a contribution – in my case it’s housing, for others it’s a half-time salary. As is usually the case in the church, it’s not a fortune, but it’s ok and people do check that you’re coping financially.

How do you find a placement? Some people stay at the church they already attend or work at. Others get a placement with help from the college – you don’t need to hunt it out yourself. Plus, it’s ok to not like the first one you’re offered, it’s important to end up at the right place for you and for the church to get the right ordinand.

Aren’t you just going to become a workaholic? Well, it’s possible! But you need good boundaries between work, studying and family life – three areas that the tutors at college will regularly check up on. Blur those boundaries and life will get hard.

Isn’t it just HTB’s theological college? No. Yes, it has strong links with HTB and yes, part of St Mellitus grew out of SPTC (HTB’s theology centre), but the broadness of Anglicanism is reflected within it. Read anything about the college and much mention will be made of ‘generous orthodoxy’ – embracing all that the church has to offer. When the whole college is assembled, worship will be conducted in all sorts of styles, and usually by those students who are comfortable in that tradition. So Anglo-Catholic ordinands will do amazing high eucharists; charismatic students might lead a worship band full service with prayer ministry; there’s BCP and Common Worship; plus alternative styles of every description. There is no inclination towards ‘middle of the road, trying to please everyone’ worship, which I love – because often when you try to do that, it fails. Attendance at the annual HTB Leadership Conference is part of the course, and many full-time ordinands have placements at HTB network churches, but that’s just a bonus.

Isn’t it an academic soft option? Some people argue that a course like this is an easy option compared to other colleges – particularly Oxbridge ones where you’re expected to do an essay a week (I ranted about our essays earlier this year). It might be suggested that if you hold academic ambitions, you’d be better off elsewhere. Rubbish. I have friends who are academically brilliant and are flourishing. Fellow ordinands are doing MA’s via a route at King’s College London or on St Mellitus’ own brand new MA, others have places to do MA’s post-ordination. I’m being very supported in my ambition to do a PhD at some point in the near future, with tutors offering to read my ideas and encouraging me in routes that might be a good option. I have no doubt that I’m being challenged academically!

There’s no way I’ve covered everything, but this is already a very long post! And, to be honest, you’re probably reading this with zero intention of ever ending up at a vicar school! If you have some specific questions, do let me know – I’m happy to share more. If you find yourself visiting St Mellitus at any point before June 2014, give me a shout, I’m always happy to talk people’s ears off in the flesh.

Comments

  1. great post
    wonderful blog / web overhaul here Liz///…
    and epic ordinand sweater photo-shoot! irrepresible! 😉

  2. I have just found this post – which is apposite as spent part of evening trying to pick theological colleges. Surreal, but exciting. Hope you’re well. 🙂

  3. Andy Freeman says:

    Hey Liz, Great post thanks for this. I trained at St Mellitus and loved it. Wanted to let you and others know that CMS also does mixed mode training for OPM designated candidates. I work with this now after graduating from St.M and it’s a really good option if you’d going down the Pioneer Route. http://pioneer.cms-uk.org/

    • Hi Andy – I think we actually met at Greenbelt last summer during one of the Pioneer gatherings. (I was part of the group that got in courtesy of Shannon Hopkins!)
      Good point about CMS, although worth emphasising that it’s only a route for OPM’s, which is why I couldn’t go down that path. (London is rather funny when it comes to Pioneers…) Always a fan of CMS, thanks to a very happy 2 years working for them!

  4. Hi Liz, just wanted to say thanks for this – as someone way back at the stage of first talking about vocation and trying to read everything I possibly can, I’ve bookmarked it in case I need it a bit further down the line! All the best with the rest of your training 🙂 Claire

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