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Spiritual Formation: the rise of a tradition

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Posted by Kirsten Birkett, 16 Jan 2020

An extract from Kirsten Birkett's article in the latest edition of Churchman

“Spiritual formation” seems to be an innocuous phrase, for Christians; a good thing to do, what we would want for ourselves and others. It is in use in general church circles, and in more formal literature. In particular, if one investigates developments concerning theological education, it is very clear that spiritual formation is what theological education should be about.[1]

Let us consider selected examples from recent literature, tracing key developments. It is notable that the phrase “ministerial formation” has virtually taken over from “ministerial training” or even “theological education” as the correct term to describe the purpose of theological seminaries. The theological curriculum is meant to provide a “genuinely formative experience.”[2] “‘Vocation’ and ‘formation’ are the normative concepts underlying all contemporary ministerial education,” we are told.[3] This “spiritual formation” has something to do with character and emotions, but predominantly it is about developing a sense of spirituality.[4] It is primarily a sensibility. It is contrasted with traditional theological education which is criticised for being too academic, too divorced from the real world and failing to relate to the whole person.[5]

This is something almost taken for granted, stated as a fact; the discussion is generally not so much about whether spiritual formation should be central to theological education, but about ways to do it. To some extent, this is a reflection of the way in which “spiritual formation” has come to be seen as the dominant mode of understanding Christian life in general,[6] but there is a substantial body of literature that has imported this idea as the dominant paradigm in theological education. For example, recent papers discuss how to manage spiritual formation in a theological college over multiple campuses where student life is fractured;[7] how it might happen in a particular national context;[8] how it happens outside traditional residential training[9] or online.[10]

This is a trend which deserves careful scrutiny. “Spiritual formation” seems a reasonable thing for Christians to do, but what exactly does it mean, and why is it seen as the main purpose of theological education? Indeed, there seems to be considerable vagueness in the literature about what it is, even amongst people who agree it is central to theological education. We are told that both the UK and US have “no developed theology of formation and no clear idea about it.”[11] Yet a little investigation reveals that in wider theological circles, this paradigm of pastoral education being spiritual formation has been gradually dominating discussion for decades. Where did this term come from? Why has it become so dominant, and what happened to the historical ways of understanding the spirituality necessary for an Anglican minister?

Spiritual Formation
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, longing for a better educated clergy, supported Royal Injunctions which prescribed that the universities provide lectures in the true meaning of the Scriptures, the languages of Greek and Hebrew, and reading in Reformed theology.[12] Around the same time, Calvin had arrived in Geneva, eventually to set up the Geneva Academy to teach Greek, Hebrew, theology (which was a combination of what we would now call biblical studies and systematic theology), and philosophy—including logic.[13] Certainly both considered piety an important characteristic in future teachers; this was to come through their increasing understanding of and application of Scripture. The content of their education was to be in the Scriptures, in order to produce clergy who could preach the word of God.[14] Both Cranmer and Calvin considered that the means of coming to maturity in Christ was the teaching of God’s word, and so ministers should be equipped to do just that. The minister, in accord with the requirements of 1 Timothy and Titus, should be a spiritually mature Christian; and the point of education was to train ministers to teach others to become mature, by study of the Bible. Education was not for the sake of their spiritual formation, unless this is understood as a spiritual formation in which learners submitted their thoughts and life to God’s will, as expressed decisively and supremely by the canonical Scripture.

So what changed?

The article continues by tracing the development of spiritual formation in the Catholic Church and within the Church of England.

We have reached the stage where “spiritual formation” is seen as the key thing that we want for ministerial graduates. This has come about through an historical process, in which Roman Catholic ideas have shaped Anglican spirituality and Anglican theological education philosophy, to a large extent without critical examination.

Maybe that is a good thing. Maybe a sterile, overly cerebral Protestantism needed to be challenged by a richer church tradition of spirituality. Several evangelical authors in recent years have argued this, citing their renewed joy in God through exploring Catholic ideas and practices of spirituality.[67]

Yet Anglicans already had a rich basis for spirituality. It seems we have forgotten the wealth of Reformation spirituality, the marvellous way in which humans, finite and fallen creatures, can inhabit with joy their redeemed and adopted status, grateful, praising and secure. This is a spirituality that comes through growth in deep understanding of, and increasing obedience to, God’s word.

It is also a very Anglican spirituality. Consider the sort of person described in the liturgy for the Ordination of Priests or Presbyters. Those being ordained promise to be diligent in prayer, reading Holy Scripture and studying to deepen their faith and fit them to bear witness to the truth of the gospel.[68] They know themselves reconciled to God in Christ, and so promise to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and the world. They promise to fashion their lives according to the way of Christ, work with fellow servants in the gospel, respect authority duly exercised; they are to pray for their hearts to be enlarged, and their understanding of the Scriptures to be enlightened.[69] The congregation prays for them to hunger for truth and thirst after righteousness; the bishop prays for them to be renewed in holiness, given wisdom and discipline,[70] for them to be cleansed by the Father, equipped and strengthened by the Holy Spirit—this is spirituality, and where means are mentioned, they are based firmly in Scripture. This is what is necessary for priests/presbyters to fulfil their calling.

Here we come to the point of theological education. What is the end for which these spiritual values are prayed, the job that such ministers are to be equipped to do? It is to be servants and shepherds, to proclaim the word of the Lord and watch for the signs of God’s new creation.[71] They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord, teaching and admonishing, feeding and guiding, telling the story of God’s love, unfolding the Scriptures, preaching the word in season and out of season, declaring the might acts of God. They promise to be diligent in reading Scripture, proclaiming the gospel, ministering doctrine and sacraments to that people may be defended against error. Amongst their other duties of service, sacramental and pastoral, the repeated refrain is of this emphasis on Scripture, which is the means of leading and caring for the flock. This is reinforced in the symbolic act of giving each new priest a Bible, “as a sign of the authority which God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.”[72] And yes, the language of “formation” is here; but they are to be formed by the word.[73]

This is what theological education should be preparing ordinands for: a ministry of service and sacrament, in which the truth of Scripture is taught and the gospel preserved in that Scripture proclaimed, building up the flock they are shepherding.

We want ministers to be spiritually mature, and Protestant Christianity as preserved in the Anglican formularies provides richly for that. However, the current emphasis on spiritual formation has been under a different guise. Instead of remembering that the Spirit works through the Word, a subtly different model of “spiritual formation” has developed. Coming from a Roman Catholic framework, in which the ontological change of ordination creates a man whose primary function is a sacramental ministry, spiritual formation has become a matter of “forming” this kind of person through an interior mysticism. While the words “spiritual formation” need not mean this, this understanding is smuggled in with the phrase, as is understandable given its history.

Anglicans who still want a Bible-shaped ministry are actually talking about a very different thing. They want ministers who can teach the word of God, which itself is the means of creating true spirituality both in themselves and in the congregations they teach. These leaders therefore need to be trained in right handling of the word of God, for which the Reformation model of training is well suited: biblical studies, including biblical languages, systematics (which brings together biblical knowledge in a systematic way), church history and the wider humanities which educate a teacher in how to bring the Bible to people in their real situations. They do not need to be “formed” into the character of a priest; the Word itself forms them, as they are educated how to teach. This is not an intellectual model as opposed to a spiritual one, for the Scriptures are God’s way of making people spiritual. There is no need for a “backlash” against an overly theological curriculum, for if the curriculum is about the Bible, it is already spiritual.

Perhaps evangelicals could emphasise more, amongst themselves, the daily spiritual disciplines that bring Scripture alive to personal experience, and live out a real relationship with God internally and externally. Perhaps evangelical colleges could keep reminding students that the “head knowledge” they are receiving must not be taken in isolation from this real relationship. However, in my experience, evangelical colleges are actually quite good at doing that; people who know and live by Scripture do experience the relationship with God through Christ, found there, as living reality. The Homilies are rich examples of this kind of spirituality; there are more modern accounts as well.74 The more liberal forms of Christianity, which are now pervasive in Catholicism as well as Protestantism, have a tendency to divide the two as they lose confidence in Scripture as the sword of the Spirit. That is where other models of spirituality are brought in to fill the gap.

The Church of England already has a richly biblical spirituality, and if this is practised faithfully by its ministers no other is needed.

Read the full version of Kirsty’s article in the latest edition of
Churchman, available here.
Subscribe to
Churchman here.

1. Two other things also become clear: that spiritual formation is achieved primarily through theological reflection, and also that what theology is, what we are training people in, is an activity that starts with Christian experience, not with God’s revealed word. I hope to explore these second two streams in more detail in future publications, also taking into account the debate over whether the model for theological education should be more akin to ‘Athens’ or ‘Berlin’—or neither.
2. Michael Fuller and Kenneth Fleming, “Bridging a Gap: A Curriculum Uniting Competencies and Theological Disciplines,” JATE 2 (2005): 163.
3. Alexander Faludy, “Fastening on Aaron’s Breastplate: Formation, Grace and the Ministry in Post-Reformation England,” JATE 4 (2007): 10.
4. Darren Cronshaw, “Reenvisioning Theological Education and Missional Spirituality,” JATE 9 (2012): 9–27; Marilyn Naidoo, “An Empirical Study on Spiritual Formation at Protestant Theological Training Institutions in South Africa,” Religion and Theology 18 (2011): 118–46.
5. Paul Overend, “Education or Formation? The Issue of Personhood in Learning for Ministry,” JATE 4 (2007): 133–48; Andrew D. Mayes, introduction to Spirituality in Ministerial Formation: The Dynamic of Prayer in Learning (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009).
6. See, for instance, Steve L. Porter, “Philosophy and Spiritual Formation: A Call to Philosophy and Spiritual Formation,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 7 (2014): 248–57; Steve L. Porter, “Sanctification in a New Key: Relieving Evangelical Anxieties over Spiritual Formation,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 1 (2008): 129–48; Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation, and the Restoration of the Soul,” JPsT 26 (1998): 101–9.
7. Mary E. Lowe and Stephen D. Lowe, “Reciprocal Ecology: A Comprehensive Model of Spiritual Formation in Theological Education,” TEd 48 (2013): 1–14.
8. Stephen O. Asaju, “The Three Faces of Theological Education: Scholarship, Spiritual Formation and Service,” Ogbomoso Journal of Theology 16 (2011): 79– 92.
9. Ian McIntosh, “Formation in the Margins,” JATE 11 (2014): 139–49.
10. Lee Longden, “Is Online Community Transformative Community?” JATE 10 (2013): 102–15.
11. Mayes, Spirituality in Ministerial Formation, 1. Mayes is one of only two authors I have found who have attempted to trace the history of this now ubiquitous phrase. The other is Sue Groom, “The Language of Formation in Official Church of England Documents,” AThR 99 (2017): 233—54. These are both very useful studies for their historical overviews, although I take a less positive view of the development of “formation” language.
12. R. D. Croft, “Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the Education of the English Clergy, 1533–1553,” HEJ 11 (1982): 158.
13. Herman J. Selderhuis, ed., The Calvin Handbook, trans. Henry J. Baron et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 166–67.
14. This becomes evident in Cranmer’s first Homily, not to mention the ordinal promises in the prayer book of 1552. Calvin saw a similar place for Scripture in church: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 647 (4.1.5). The Heidelberg Catechism enshrined this priority, teaching that in order to be obedient to the Sabbath commandment, Christians should support theological education for ministers, since what ought to be done on the Sabbath is “diligently attend the church of God, to hear God’s word.”
67. Examples are cited in Allan Chapple, True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality (London: Latimer Trust, 2014), 3–6.
68. Common Worship: Ordination Services, Study Edition (London: Church House, 2007), 38.
69. Common Worship, 39.
70. Common Worship, 43.
71. Common Worship, 37.
72. Common Worship, 44.
73. Common Worship, 37, unlike the 1662 ordinal which does not use “formation” language.
74. See Chapple, True Devotion, for a lengthy discussion.

Kirsten Birkett is a Latimer Research Fellow.

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