One of the many fascinating debates at Synod this week was on the proposals for Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) on which I have written a couple of times before. I had put down one of four amendments to the motion from Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, and I was asking for work to be done to check that RME was not undermining ‘our shared, catholic understanding of ordination as expressed in the Ordinal’ prior to implementation in September 2017.
There was little time for debate on this, which was a shame, since it was clearly felt to be an important issue from all sides. Andrew Atherstone, from Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, sent me what he had planned to say, and he makes some important historical observations:
Obligatory theological training is a modern invention in the Church of England. Just 100 years ago, there was no national standard – every diocese had a different policy, every bishop did what was right in his own eyes. Sometimes ordinands simply read a few books with a senior rector, during their summer holidays, or a couple of evenings a week. Sometimes they had to rely on their previous degrees in philosophy and ethics as undergraduates at secular universities – hardly sufficient preparation for Christian ministry. Anglican entrepreneurs began to fill the gaps. Creative, innovative pioneers set up new seminaries, linked to cathedrals (Chichester, Salisbury, Lincoln), or linked to historic universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Durham). We need innovation in every generation.
But in those days there was no national standard, no agreed Church of England policy. Bishops made it up as they went along. The result was a huge variation in the way ordinands were trained. Some read widely and vigorously, across the range of theological disciplines, taught by leading scholars and practitioners. Others were very poorly prepared. There was an outcry in the parishes that the quality of clergy was completely unpredictable. So the Church Assembly (the forerunner of General Synod) in the 1920s introduced a national standard and a national policy, and invested the necessary funds.
These new RME proposals have much to commend them, but without sufficient safeguards they will potentially drive us back to the dark old days of the 19th century – where every diocese makes up its own rules, decided, most likely, not by the bishop and DDO, but by the diocesan accountant. We’ve heard a lot about subsidiarity this week. Yes, the context of a parish in Cornwall, or Cumbria, or the Home Counties may be widely different, but the ministry we need from our clergy is broadly similar, whatever their context – women and men who love the Lord Jesus, who know their Bibles well, who are equipped in evangelism and pastoral care: articulate public ambassadors of the Christian gospel. They need to be nationally trained so that they are nationally deployable.
After the debate I had a fascinating conversation with a bishop which was striking in its different focus. I had spent the three days of Synod asking around for what additional ‘diversity’ and ‘decentralisation’ was needed that RME would lead to which was not available in the present system. Having spent nearly a decade as a Dean of Studies, creating taylor-made flexible pathways for ordinands which would build on their prior learning and meet Bishops’ Regulations, I wondered what kind of route of training for what kind of person would now be available which we could not already offer—granted that the administrative processes to get there needed simplification? This bishop was the only person who offered me a convincing answer. He recounted some exciting examples of innovation, talked of people clearly called by God to be ordained, who would equally clearly not meet the current criteria, and even gave an example of a whole congregation, with its pastor, who came and asked ‘How do we become part of the Church of England?’ He offered a fascinating case for the release of entrepreneurial development. But even more fascinating was the terms in which he expressed it:
I need four kinds of priest.
This is important, since I think this language highlights exactly the issue which is being raised. Do we need ‘four kinds of priest’ or do we need ‘priests doing four kinds of things’? And how is our answer to that then related to the nature of training, and the administrative and financial processes by which that training is organised and delivered? The differing answers to this do not fall along any obvious lines of theological tradition. Andrew Atherstone is an evangelical, and evangelicals have often in the past been the most pragmatic and ‘skills based’ when talking about training—not least because they have had a so-called ‘functional’ rather than ‘ontological’ view of ordained ministry. The bishop I spoke to actually comes from a tradition which you might have expected to be more concerned about the agenda Andrew raises.
This tension is represented in the comments on my previous article on this question. Tim Evans from Manchester Diocese has some suspicions about the motivation for the process:
The RME plea is for greater flexibility, but the past 20 years have seen the TEIs being ever more flexible and accommodating to the needs of the Church, individual students, dioceses, parishes. Or is ‘flexibility’ one of those words which really means greater power for some at the expense of others? Is it similar to a ‘flexible labour market’ which in practice means things such as zero hours contracts where all the power is on one side of the relationship?
He then raises the equivalent to the historical question of Andrew Atherstone: ‘And why remove national regulations if we are a national church?’ And he goes on to offer practical problems that might arise:
- Many people do not stay in the diocese in which they were selected and/or ordained, so to train them for that diocese specifically is short sighted. I have served in 2 episcopal areas of London, Blackburn, Carlisle, West Yorkshire, Blackburn and Manchester. What is needed is not always priests trained for one context but priests who can adapt and read the context they are in.
- Regional Courses have been one of the unsung success stories of the Church over the past 50 years but they nearly all serve several dioceses. How will they manage if each diocese/bishop interprets the Bishops’ Guidelines differently, uses its Vote 1 money in different ways, etc. Bishops’ Regs give some consistency across diocses to which bishops are bound – what is the problem with that in a national church?
- And under RME when a diocesan bishop moves on training priorities shift and carefully constructed pathways will be thrown out on the whim of a new bishop.This is a recipe for further fragmentation.
In reply, Ali Campbell from Chichester draws the obvious comparison with training for youth ministry:
Most training for Christian youth ministry (which, if you agree with the recommendations from the Evangelism Task Group yesterday, could soon be recognised as a “calling” and a “specialism” in it’s own right) is part time, with placement practice being an integral part of the equipping process. Whether that is CYM, OASIS, Cliff College. As someone who has been in this “calling” for almost 30 years, I am increasingly puzzled at the rings within rings of training, formation, discernment, process and so much other stuff that is attached to pursuing “ordination” this special “set apart” ministry.
I’m longing for “Re-imagining ministry” in the Church of England to do just that – actually re-imagine it, rather than make manoeuvres (whatever they might be) to tweak what continues to be the dominant form “a calling to the priesthood”. Of course, I understand part of the problem—whether it is preaching or teaching (happening in children’s and youth groups every week); pastoral care (children’s youth and families workers involved in this a lot); leading on new forms of church and mission (again, often children’s youth and families workers at the forefront)—is a nagging question for the ordained as they think about themselves is: what is a priest?
In other words, our theology of ministry is going to inescapably shape our view of training for ministry—not just in its contents, but in its delivery, organisation and financing.
Steve Croft ‘resisted’ my amendment, and did point out that the thinking about theology was going to happen. My amendment was lost—by 154 votes to 204—but the question is not going to go away.
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?