Teaching retreats bolster contemporary Anglican formation at VST

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Vancouver School of Theology students take part in a weekend retreat in September 2017 as part of the contemporary Anglican formation program. Submitted photo by Grant Rodgers

The following is part of a series exploring the impact of projects across the Anglican Church of Canada supported by grants from the Anglican Foundation, visionary sponsor for General Synod 2019. 

At the Vancouver School of Theology (VST), student experience in previous generations was often very different than it is for many who enrol in classes today.  

In the pastPrincipal Richard Topping recalls, “Every day began and ended with prayer. [Students] lived in the residence on site. There was a real sense, for Anglicans especially but for all of our students, of getting down the rhythms of prayer by living on site, and the whole community was involved.” 

Since then, the number of part-time and online students in all denominations has skyrocketed, driven in part by the rising cost of theological education. Many students must juggle work with their courses at VST in the hopes of minimizing debt after graduation.  

In the face of this more dispersed learning model, Topping says, “The question of formation is pretty importantHow do you do that when you’re less of a residential community than you used to beOne of the ways we thought we might be able to address that is by setting up classes that were intensive classes over weekends in a retreat-style format.  

With the help of funding from the Anglican Foundation of Canada (AFC), these weekend retreats for credit are now a reality, and a major part of Anglican education at VST. 

Over three days at the Bethlehem Retreat Centre in Nanaimo, B.C., students observe the daily office, celebrate the Eucharist, eat, socialize and learn together on a specific topic. VST offers four different Anglican retreats, each with a different focus. These include Anglican perspectives on baptism, marriage, the Eucharist, reconciliation, end of life and funerals. Each retreat is worth one full academic credit. 

Topping calls the AFC grants “absolutely crucial” to the retreats. In November 2014 and May 2016, the Anglican Foundation provided two grants of $5,000 each to develop the contemporary Anglican formation program, which included doing research to study previous models of formation.  

After the establishment of the teaching retreats, the foundation provided three further $10,000 grants, one each November in 2016, 2017, and 2018. These grants enable the school to take students offsite, covering the extra expenses involved in bringing together a dispersed group of pupils for a concentrated course. Such costs typically include transportation, accommodation and meals. 

Though devotional retreats existed prior to the foundation grants, the shift towards teaching retreats was a major draw to Grant Rodgers, director of Anglican formation at VST, in taking on his current position. His work at the school includes teaching at the retreats as well as other courses. 

“The chance to teach while conducting a retreat, I just thought, was such a creative way to do it,” Rodgers says. 

“For me, that’s the most enjoyable part of the core of [teaching at the school],” he adds. “That’s where we see our students really coalescing and forming relationships, because they’re going to be colleagues in the future. That kind of bonding process that the retreats provide has just been invaluable. Without the Anglican Foundationwe would be obliged to do some substantial fundraising in other areas to make that happen.” 

A new grant application for $10,000 to continue supporting the Anglican retreats was recently approved in May, bringing the total of AFC grants for the contemporary Anglican formation program to $50,000.

VST is “extremely grateful” for the funding provided by the foundation, Topping says. 

“We see this as one of the ways in which we’re partnering with one of our denominations that supports the school to respond to contextual challenges for priestly formation.” 

Correction: Figures for the amount of money provided through grants in this story have been updated to reflect the latest contributions of the Anglican Foundation.

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Matt Gardner
Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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