There are some compelling arguments for the (relatively new) pattern of ‘contextual training’ for ordination. Steven Sherman, in his snappily titled Revitalizing theological epistemology (2008), argues that the historic separation of the seminary from the local church has created major problems for our whole concept of how we grow in the knowledge of God. His primary target here is the North American scene, and the sense within evangelicalism that knowing God is comprised of grasping the meaning of propositions about God’s identity, so not all of his concerns translate across the Atlantic.
But the older reflection by Robert Banks hits some targets nearer home. In Re-envisioning Theological Education, he reflects on his own, highly traditional, experience of seminary education, and finds little to fault with it. Certainly, some lecturers were better than others and some placement experiences were more useful than others. But overall, at the time, he felt there was little problem with it. But looking back, his most immediate conclusion was that ‘my theological education had required me to learn too much too soon.’ He is clearly not alone in this. Every now and then I am contacted by someone I taught at theological college, who asks about a particular aspect of biblical interpretation or preaching, and my response starts with ‘Do you remember that lecture/seminar/discussion we had?’ After a pause, the next question is ‘Could you send me the handout again please?’.
Banks goes on to review the ‘classic’ model of theological education in the light of his observations about how Jesus went about the task of theological and spiritual formation in his disciples. He wants to reclaim learning as a missional activity, which of course is not unrelated to the series of issues around the notion of discipleship. And so it is not surprising that Banks’ text has been influential for those promoting ‘contextual training’ in the Church of England, and I was recently recommended it as reading to reflect on new forms of training.
Having previously taught on a course, been a visiting lecturer in colleges, and spent nearly a decade at a residential college, my experience of teaching on a contextual training scheme has been fascinating. Despite the good arguments for residential training, there is no doubt that extended exposure to the class room creates fatigue, especially for those who feel called to the practice of ministry. In contextual training, the motivation for learning is clear, as the class room is such a contrast to the rest of the week. Encountering a theological perspective on ministry seems fresh, and students can immediately see the implications of new ways of thinking in the ministry they are engaged in.
But there’s a problem, and it is highlighted when we ‘do the math’ (to coin a cliché). The third years I teach are taking a 20 credit module, which according to Higher Education standards should involve 200 notional learning hours. The ‘notional’ bit means that 50 of these are ‘other learning’ which I take to be thinking about life whilst drinking coffee. Another 50 are given over to the assessment task. I have 24 hours contact time, which leaves another 76 for preparatory reading. This means that, over the eight weeks of teaching, they should be doing around 9.5 hours preparatory reading for my module, and the same again for the other module they are taking. It is difficult to imagine anyone with ministry responsibilities outside the classroom achieving this consistently.
The situation is worse elsewhere in the country. In the institution I have been teaching in there is a very clear statement of expectations, which requires students to set aside three days a week for their study (one in class contact, the other two as independent learning). They also have a very detailed learning agreement which models both good practice and excellence in communication. But a more typical pattern for contextual training elsewhere in the Church is one day a week in class; another day a week in private study; perhaps seven residential weekends; and one intensive study week a year (this is an actual pattern). At the most optimistic reckoning, this adds up to 632 learning hours—and yet this is to earn 120 credits, which involves 1200 notional learning hours. Supervision in context will supplement this, as might personal study over the summer. But there is no denying the fundamental reality of this approach: we are trying to pour a quart of training into a pint-pot of learner availability. This is not a sustainable method of training.
I am happy to be open to correction if I have missed anything—but I am baffled as to why quality assurance processes from either Church or University (in the form of External Examiners) hasn’t picked this up. Let me be quite clear: I am not here being critical of any individual institution. I know full well from my own experience that institutions can only operate within the framework that they are given. It is the framework that is at fault, and in three notable ways:
Since the ‘Hind’ report more than a decade ago, theological education has operated more or less as a free market. The advantage of this is that it prevents the centre having to make any difficult decisions about resourcing and planning, leaving the market to decide whether any one institution needs to close—as indeed it is doing right now. But the serious problem is that it pushes education to the lowest common denominator. This means that those offering contextual training are not able to create courses that lead to better but lower qualifications (a contextual diploma compared with a residential BA) since few will choose that in the context of a competitive market.
2. Split between pre- and post-ordination training funding
There is a financial firewall between pre-ordination training (which is national) and post-ordination training (which is diocesan), so that if an institution offers fewer learning hours prior to ordination, it cannot easily be paid to deliver further hours post-ordination, and so loses out financially. To push all funding (pre and post) into dioceses is no answer; a better solution would be to have a national (rather than diocesan) budget for post-ordination training so that pre-ordination training institutions can offer continuity of learning after the point of ordination.
3. Lack of common syllabus
The failure of the Common Awards process to agree on a shared syllabus means that diocesan post-ordination training still struggles with the variety of training and experience brought by clergy who trained at different institutions with different syllabuses where they have covered different ground in different subject areas.
There is one thing which is not an obstacle to better coordination: the distinctive theological traditions of the residential training institutions. There is no pedagogical, theological or organisational need to merge training into theologically amorphous diocesan or national institutions. The only problem here (if there is one) is a lack of trust between certain dioceses and certain training institutions—but the three factors above are much more significant.
If we are to do some serious—and honest—rethinking of theological education in order to fit it for ministry in a missional church, then it is these structural issues we need to address. Trying to squeeze too much teaching into too few hours whilst loading too much other responsibility does not deliver Robert Banks’ vision of learning as a missional task. Removing the artificial barriers between pre- and post-ordination training, financially and institutionally, must surely be the way forward. This will involve addressing some painful truths. It would mean doing some more honest assessment of different training patterns. It would mean recognising that you cannot provide a theological or pedagogical critical mass by distributing your educators across 44 difference diocesan centres. And it would mean looking honestly at student workloads.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?