It was not always so. From the beginnings of Methodism until the mid-20th Century, most UM elders were educated in the Course of Study. Seminary degrees did not become common, let alone required, until after that. In today’s context, many of our pastors have not gone to seminary, and will not/cannot go. Their path to full ordination and advancement within the clergy is cut short. Is this fair? Does seven-plus years of higher education really produce a better product? How did they do it back before the creation of Universities?
In the first four centuries of Christianity, there were no institutes to train clergy. Catechetical instruction, especially in the East, was extensive. The Church took immense care to prepare disciples. But there is little information about where clergy learned their special knowledge and skills. Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan, had been trained as a secular administrator. He hadn’t even been baptized when the Christians of Milan acclaimed him their bishop at an open election. He was a devout man, who was intimately familiar with the life of the Church (delaying baptism in that era was common, before the Church developed a system of confession and absolution which allayed fears about sins committed after baptism). A leader already in secular life, he stepped into church leadership seamlessly.
The great missionary push into the countryside and into the pagan courts of the Germanic peoples who had dismembered the western Empire is where we begin to pick up traces of how clergy education was conducted. There were two common routes. Following the new Rule of St. Benedict (c. 500), a proper monastic education could give candidates a full understanding of the Scriptures, of liturgy and church music, and of pastoral relationships. But how if you didn’t want to be a monk? Well, then, you could apply to join a bishop’s household.
A bishop in those days was a magnate like other secular leaders. He lived in a large house, usually, and had a large church. There would be several clergy on his staff, as well as lay servants. And like a Master receiving apprentices in a secular job, the bishop would take likely boys into his service to train them up for clergy and other public offices. They would live in his household, eat and serve at his table, be supervised in their lessons by a tutor and given increasing responsibilities (under supervision) as they grew up and finished their formal studies. Some would eventually be ordained and assigned to places of work by the bishop.
Some who joined a monastery or were taken into a bishop’s household were young boys. They would have to be taught Latin and arithmetic and anything else considered important to a basic education before they could be taught anything that would fit them for the clergy, specifically. Others would have learned their Latin along with their catechism, at home or with their village priest.
Eventually, the education and training department of the bishop’s household became a subordinate unit of administration, housed within the cathedral complex but not necessarily in daily contact with the bishop. It was becoming a school. When the first universities were formed, most of the colleges were made up of secular scholars, Masters and undergraduates together. But along with the colleges were units called “halls.” The Hall was a religious college; in fact, it was the bishop’s household (education division), transferred to a new location. Eventually, there was almost no distinction to be made between a College and a Hall. By the Renaissance, a university education was a common way of preparing for a clergy career. You could take other routes, but the Church wanted the candidate to know a lot of things, and satisfying the bishops’ examiners was easier if you had a theological degree in hand.
Methodism, as a lay movement within the Church of England, used preachers with or without formal education. It developed a Course of Study – sort of a bishop’s household on horseback – to teach what candidates needed to know. The other elders on the Board of Ordained Ministry assumed direct responsibility for preparing candidates for admission to the clergy. In the Twentieth Century, however, and especially after World War Two, the new fad of pursuing graduate education slowly turned the B.D. (the higher education alternative to the COS) into a mandatory course of study; then, it turned the B.D. into an M.Div.
The point is, there is no absolute reason why you have to have lots and lots of formal education from expensive institutions to teach and train the clergy for their service. We could do it directly, as in the days of monasteries and bishop’s households. A committee of elders in each Annual Conference could oversee the Course of Study and shepherd candidates through the process. Of course, it would help if the people named to that committee (or BOOM) actually knew their stuff and could teach it, and hadn’t been placed there for political reasons.
That may be asking too much. The Church didn’t “fall” under Constantine, but his embrace of Christianity made being a clergy person – especially a bishop – a high status position instead of a low status position, with many deleterious effects. Ecclesiastical politicians and status games among the clergy have been the curse of the Church ever since.