What is a theological college? Wycliffe College as a M.A.S.H. Unit

By Stephen Andrews

People think about theological colleges in different ways. To most, perhaps, they are simply schools, maybe professional schools, like the faculties of medicine or law or music. Wycliffe College’s incorporating documents identify us as a “divinity school,” indicating that the education we offer, while practical in its intention, has something to do with God. This is a place where one learns the tools of the pastoral or academic trades.

Some might come to our theological college imagining that it is another expression of church or, maybe, a kind of retreat centre. It is here that they withdraw from the world for a time, think deeply about their faith, find Christian fellowship, and worship together. This is occasionally a cause for disappointment, especially for those who find their convictions challenged or their comfort disturbed. For others, it really is an experience of nourishing community, a community that in many cases lasts a lifetime.

Of seminaries, seed plots, and septic systems

Although it has an archaic feel to it, I like the word “seminary” as a descriptor. Drawn from the late Middle English word meaning “seed plot,” it bears the notions of planting, nurture, growth, rootedness, ‎reproduction, and formation. It suits ‎our aim as a College to cultivate lifelong disciple-makers, formed in community, and informed by Bible-centred teaching.

However, after over a year of isolation and lock-downs, and now with the worrisome rise of new strains of the COVID virus and the possible tsunami of a fourth wave of infections, I have started to think about Wycliffe a little differently. I have begun to picture Wycliffe College as a teaching hospital. After all, we live in an ailing world, with environmental systems that are badly disordered and political systems that seem septic. We worry about the health of the church and whether it will survive the accelerating cultural mutations and technological distractions that seem bent on making it ever more irrelevant.

Many of us, over the course of the past year, have watched helplessly as sickness or infirmity has touched the lives of those we love. And perhaps we ourselves are aware of our own disease, at least in the sense that there are moments when we experience a dis-ease with those around us, or even a dis-ease within ourselves. What does faithfulness to Christ look like in these circumstances for a theological college? Well, it was into a situation that was hardly less-incurable than our own that St James wrote:

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (James 5:14–16, NRSV)

In the business of training healers

This passage opens us to a dimension of our calling that we may not think about often enough. We are in the business of training healers. The epistle indicates that there are leaders in the church whose special ministry is healing. They are called here the “elders,” which is a translation of the Greek word presbuteros. Whether you designate them “elders” or “presbyters” or, as Anglicans do, “priests,” these are the people with particular responsibility for the health of the church, and these are the folks that we equip for leadership at Wycliffe College.

Now it is important to note that, unlike what is needed in the training of doctors, the skills required by the church’s leaders go beyond technique. There are technical aspects of healing, to be sure. St James refers to the act of anointing with oil, commonly understood to have a medicinal function in the ancient world, while other passages in the New Testament speak of the ritual imposition of hands (Luke 4:40). But the work of healing in the church calls for more than method: it demands spiritual discernment.

We see this in the way that James underscores the profound relationship between sin and sickness. Here he is not suggesting a causal relationship, in the same way that someone once told my brother that he had a cold because of unconfessed sin in his life! But James recognises that sin lies at the root of all of our maladies as individuals and as a society. Therefore, confession is part of the healing process for him, for he understands that it is in acknowledging inadequacy and need that God’s people open themselves up to his healing work. And it is his conviction that this is a work we all need. “Confess . . . and pray,” he writes, “that you all may be healed.”

Ministering God’s healing

This understanding should frame the way we undertake our mission as a College. Theological education is more than a commodity, and our students are more than consumers. They are training to be God’s physicians, surgeons, and nurses to minister God’s healing to a hurting church and a wounded world. This sort of pastoral work has been historically called “the cure of souls.” Although the phrase refers to the responsibility of caring for the people in our charge (the Latin cura means “care”), I like that it has this double meaning “to heal,” for healing is the ultimate expression of care. Indeed, it is the work of Christ himself. In T.S. Eliot’s arresting description of the Great Physician (Four Quartets, East Coker IV):

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

It is a humbling privilege to be part of the training of the church’s healers. At the beginning of a new academic year, I invite you to join with me in praying for Wycliffe College and our students. And as we pray for the College, let us also pray for one another, that the One who was wounded for us will also be our Healer.

ALMIGHTY God, whose blessed Son Jesus
Christ went about doing good, and healing
all manner of sickness and disease among the
people: Continue, we beseech you, this his
gracious work among us, especially in this, your
field hospital, called Wycliffe College;
cheer, heal, and sanctify the sick;
grant to the physicians, surgeons, and nurses wisdom and skill,
sympathy and patience; and send down your
blessing upon all who labour to prevent suffering
and to forward your purposes of love; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.