It was my first year, it was Lent term, it was week 5. I remember it as clear as day. This was the first time I really thought to myself: ‘why on earth did I let the DDO persuade me to do tripos?!’
It wouldn’t be the last.
At this point I was struggling with the all too familiar Cambridge imposter syndrome, something which persisted until I got a grade on the board after first year exams. I was also trying, and failing, to differentiate between a present and past participle in Greek. And I had just, yet again, needed to google the meaning of a word in my essay title (the ninth of the academic year so far). On top of Life and Service, an attachment, and not to mention the dynamics of community life, it all began to feel a bit much. I’d be lying if I said didn’t consider giving up…
But, three years later, in my first year of curacy, and *looks at calendar* during what must be week 5 of Lent term back in Cambridge, I’m relieved I didn’t. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now say that the tripos was among the best things I did while at Westcott. It was hard work, yes. But the benefits and rewards have been immense. I’m still reaping them now.
Purely in practical terms, the tripos was great preparation for parish life. The task of writing a sermon, for example, isn’t a million miles away from a supervision essay. A sermon won’t be of academic standard of course (and probably shouldn’t be if you want to keep your congregation on side), but it still requires reading and digesting different materials in order to produce something comprehensible and defendable. Doing this every week for essays, amongst the interruptions and unpredictability of community life, turned out to be both formational and good practice.
The context of the tripos turned out to be excellent preparation too. Being a non-confessional course, not taking for granted the existence of God, or even the rationality of faith, was a change from, say, the Westcott bar or dining hall. But experiencing that, especially in lectures with large numbers of non-religious people, allowed for new and important perspectives to emerge. This has been helpful for the context of parish ministry. My parish is home to about 14,000 people, only 80 of whom on average come to church on a Sunday. Now not even all of the 80 are totally familiar with Christianity, let alone the other 13,920, and I’d be willing to bet this is typical of most parishes in which ordinands serve their curacy. It is for this reason, then, that having a theology ground out in an environment where the language of faith wasn’t the mother tongue, has been a great gift.
Tripos didn’t just help me prepare for the realities of parish life, though. It also profoundly shaped my faith in a way that has been invaluable to my formation. In the lecture halls of the divinity faculty, and the fellow’s sets of Cambridge, I was encouraged for the first time to really explore what I believed. I was challenged to scrutinise what the Church taught, to interrogate what both scripture and the greatest Christian texts really said. It was both challenging and liberating in equal measure. I was introduced properly, for the first time, to the Church Fathers and Eastern theology, both now a great loves of mine. I was able to read the New Testament in its original language, finally seeing behind the translations and
interpretations that had shaped my own biblical understanding. I was able, also, to uncover as never before, the rich layers of scripture, to understand their composition, influence, and impact on subsequent generations. The result? I fell in love with theology, and into even deeper relationship with God.
With all the above, complimented by one-on-one supervisions with some of the best theologians in the world, and lectures delivered by the likes of Ian McFarland, Judith Lieu and Janet Soskice, I feel as if I have been truly resourced for Christian life as a public minister, in a way that will keep on giving. And so as I reflect on that day in Lent term three years ago, I do so with thanks that I didn’t give up. Yes it was hard work, yes at times it felt a bit much, but it has brought me closer to God, left me stronger in faith, and given me more confidence in sharing it. What more could a curate ask for?
Thanks be to God.