The College Covenant examined.
A Response to the Community Covenant at the Church of Ireland Theological College
Please note that our sub-divisions follow those in the text of the covenant.
The Church of Ireland has one theological college and only one and so the recent college ‘community covenant’ should be of interest to every member of the Church of Ireland. We read there that the ‘community covenant’ was agreed at a meeting with staff and students on the 22nd October 2001. It also stated that this covenant has been drawn up to deal with issues of ‘tension’ that have surfaced in recent years (see conclusion below).
Reform Ireland wish to make a considered response. A preliminary observation: we feel that such a document should be readily available to every parish. The author/s of this document should have appended their names. In addition, was it written by students as well as staff? Undue secrecy is ever a threat within the Church of Ireland. More openness is required in many areas.
I. Why a covenant?
Yes indeed! The whole approach has been very much a hole in the corner affair! (Acts 26:26). Better by far would have been a theological and ethical document spelling out the kind of life and teaching expected from our pastor-teachers in the Church of God. Unsurprisingly the NT has a good deal to say on this, e.g. 1 Timothy 3. The ordinal too is a useful supplement to NT teaching. Indeed the Old and New covenants of Scripture deal very adequately with most of the issues likely to arise in the course of theological training.
Strange too the need for such a covenant for students who have been through the CACTM selection procedures and hope to train for Christian ministry. The note of threat in Section 1 directed to those who may not wish to sign such a covenant – “If, for any reason, someone feels that they are not able to sign this covenant, a letter of detailed explanation will need to be written to the Principal. Depending on the reasons cited, the Principal may then determine to notify the ordinand’s bishop.” Is this an example of arm-twisting?
II. Life in these halls
Much in this section of the document is excellent and could refer to the type of behaviour to be expected in any decent student accommodation.
It is good to know that the abuse of alcohol will not be tolerated. Again the NT is so helpful – pastors in the church should “ have a good reputation with outsiders…. And not given to drunkenness” (1 Tim 3). In the past reports of drunkenness caused much distress within the Church of Ireland and did not give the CITC a good reputation.
III. Life in the chapel
a) Attending the Wednesday community Eucharist is obligatory. Are students free to exercise adult responsibility as to when they can absent themselves?
b) “Honouring worship practices that differ from one’s own norms” is suggested. Good, provided those practices are consistent with Church of Ireland practice and teaching. Such respect should also extend to language and traditions: in the Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer, the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion are the normative titles for the second sacrament of the Gospel. We note that the author of 3b does not seem to be aware of this.
c) Is the CITC Liturgical Guidelines booklet available from the College? At what price? Does it differ from the BCP/APB?
d) It is right to respect others. In recent years some sermons have been delivered in CITC chapel which have caused much offence. Church members who pay for the upkeep of the college have the right to expect that teaching will be orthodox. The college is not a secular university. Where attacks have been made on basic Christian doctrine (eg the denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and His uniqueness) students should be encouraged to raise concerns, protest and even in some extreme cases to absent themselves from partaking of the sacrament.
The Berean principle at Acts 17:11 encouraged those first century Christians to subject all teaching to careful scrutiny in the light of Scripture. Gullibility is no part of Christian maturity.
IV. Life in the Lecture Hall
a) While it is right and proper that students should attend lectures occasional absences are very much part of life in a University college. Students should be encouraged to develop a responsible and mature attitude here. Legalism is not the way forward.
b) ‘Respect’ is a two way process. Students at CITC have often felt that such ‘respect’ should require a knowledge of all the main traditions within Anglicanism. The absence of conservative books on almost all reading lists produced at the college does not suggest or encourage respect. CITC has in recent years been associated with a low view of Scripture linked with ‘liberal’ theology. Balanced scholarship in terms of staffing is important too. We long for a principled comprehensiveness at CITC. The laity have a right to expect such.
V. Life between students and students and between students and staff
a) Is such ‘permission’ necessary for college organisations? Is there a denial of student freedom here? Will it be necessary to seek permission for every move?
b) What is meant by ‘harassment’? Conservative students have suffered much in recent years so in future the wider Church of Ireland needs assurance from the Principal that the comprehensive nature of the C of I will be fully recognised and especially that scholarship will be balanced and not just taken from the liberal/radical stable. It is so important that the theological college should keep in touch with the life of the churches which sponsor and train students. It is all too easy for the college to get out of touch and become a ‘community’ separate from the wider C of I community.
There seems to be a real possibility of recourse to rough-justice here – not unknown in the Church in recent times. Have ‘breaches’ here to do with serious doctrinal deviations or ethical problems? It is possible to strain out the gnats and swallow the camel!
a) When a student is ‘offended’ at some of the teaching at CITC as has been all too common in recent years does the student have redress? Does heretical teaching have a “negative impact” on the rest of the community? It certainly does at parish level. Just think of some of the teaching coming from sections of ECUSA or nearer home from Richard Holloway and Peter Selby.
b) The College Visitor, we understand, is the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Walton Empey. Could not the diocesan bishop and the student’s rector both be informed, where a matter of discipline arises?
c) Where a student is summoned for interview, by the Principal (Dr. Adrian Empey) or a bishop, in connection with an alleged breach of the college covenant, that student should have the right to invite a friend, a solicitor, his/her rector or a union representative to accompany him/her. Justice must be seen to be done and undue secrecy avoided!
‘Imbalance’ in communal life will require a much deeper analysis than that suggested in the current covenant. The covenant seems to deal with symptoms rather than causes of the recent disease. We have hinted at some necessary reforms in the above response. The CITC needs to give more attention to:
- The manner of staff appointments within the College. We note that no member of the present staff has ever served as a rector in Northern Ireland.
- The separation of CITC from CACTM in staffing the selection conferences (as in the C of E between the colleges and ABM).
- The need for the CITC to keep in regular touch with the parishes especially in the North where most of our people reside.
- It may also be necessary in matters of accountability for the Church to learn from the secular world. Maybe we need an ombudsman and to learn from fair employment legislation. Many bodies in Northern Ireland seek to end discrimination: the Church could catch up! Church structures are not free from the infection of human sin.
It is to be hoped that this College covenant will be dropped in the next academic year. The College should seek to develop Biblical faith, Christian character, loyalty to our basic creeds and articles of faith. New legalism is no substitute. Indeed the Covenant will become irrelevant in a healthy Christian atmosphere, where orthodox Christian doctrine is promoted alongside Christian conduct.
10th December 2001