Resourcing Ministerial Education: a tasty curate’s egg

Delia2aThe Church of England does not have a good track record of thinking strategically about theological and ministerial education.

In 1977 the imaginatively named ACCM Paper 22 swept away the General Ordination Exam, and instead asked each training institution to articulate its understanding of ministry and its approach to training. In the post-1960s liberal haze, perhaps that looked like a good idea—and it might even have been necessary to breath some life into training in a rapidly changing world. But it saddled ordination training the ludicrous situation (still in place) of widely diverging syllabuses for ordination, so that those training curates could take almost nothing as common in prior training.

Around the time when I entered training, in the late 1980s, someone had the bright idea of asking prospective ordinands to ‘go away and get some more life experience’. The entirely obvious and equally entirely unanticipated consequence of this is the crisis of ministry we are now facing, with a whole cohort of clergy retiring at the same time. It is probably the biggest self-inflicted wound the Church has visited on itself, and a serious impediment to mission.

Not long afterwards, Robert Hardy, then Bishop of Lincoln, chaired a group which recommended closure of Lincoln and Chichester theological colleges (which duly happened) and Oakhill, to which there was uproar and a revolt. Ten years later, John Hind (who had been principal at Chichester just before its closure) chaired a further review. This report offered the straw man of a national central training college, and when that was (predictably) rejected, offered in its place Regional Training Partnerships (RTPs) none of which ever functioned effectively. Apart from provoking heated (and at times acrimonious) debate, the main achievement of the Hind report was to turn theological education into a competitive market; instead of being partners in education and training, colleges and courses now became rivals competing for a share of the ordinand market.

So the news of a new review of training, under the mildly Orwellian title of ‘Resourcing Ministerial Education’, did not fill me with joy. This sense of foreboding was confirmed when I read the ‘Results of Consultations‘ with those involved in delivering training from October 2014. There is a shortish list of things that resonate, quite a long list of things that ‘don’t sound right’ and an even longer list of ‘things missing’. Near the top of the missing list is ‘theology and spirituality’!

But when the report for Synod was published last week, I was pleasantly surprised. The 12 specific proposals at this stage under the last major heading of ‘How should selection and training be reimagined and reshaped?’ (paragraphs 34 to 45) are mostly marked by the kind of sensible, can-do approach perhaps inspired by Justin Welby. They are:

1. Review the selection criteria and the selection process for ordination training. Although the criteria were reviewed fairly recently (so what went wrong with the previous process?) most will agree that this is necessary.

2. Replace Bishop’s Regulations with guidelines and personal learning plans. If done well, this also looks eminently sensible.

3. Introduce a national fund for special training needs. Some will rebel against the hint of Green-style management speak in talk of ‘resourcing gifted individuals in training to prepare for strategic roles’, but these include not just future theological educators, but also ‘missional leaders’ and ‘those committed to serve in poorer dioceses’, which looks fairly comprehensive.

4. Move ordinations to September. This is a particular interest of Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield and chair of the group, who wrote a paper proposing this when he was Warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham. It is eminently sensible, will eliminate the ridiculous stress for ordinands of completing course, moving house and getting ordained, and has only been blocked so far by collective institutional stupidity.

5. Invest in candidates after ordination, following the model of ‘Teach First’ type training. This is a sensible break of the unhelpful stranglehold of funding being limited to pre-ordination training in the current system.

6. Have a standard level of grant for tuition. This follows proposal in the work leading to Common Awards, and raises a very large question about training in collaboration with ‘expensive’ universities like Oxford and Cambridge. There will be much angst here.

7. Abolition of pooled funding of maintenance grants for families. OK, here we reach the first really bad idea. There is a resurfacing of Green/Orwellian language that ‘this will give the dioceses freedom to determine how much of their training budget should be invested directly in ministerial education’. But in reality it will mean closing the door to residential training for ordinands with families in many diocese. Bad move. Really bad move.

8. Candidates over 50 will not be funded and will be locally selected. Since the aim is for this group to diminish in size, this will not have a big impact, and is the logical consequence of aiming for ordinands to be younger overall.

9. Possibility of transfer of sponsorship, perhaps to poorer dioceses. This is interesting, and could be a good way to resolve the imbalance of vocations which arises for demographic reasons—London Diocese generates twice as many ordinands as the next most ‘productive’ diocese, largely because this is where many young people are. It was proposed a couple of years ago that ‘provisional commitment to a title parish’ should be settled prior to training, which was daft and predicated on the notion that training doesn’t actually change anyone. But this proposal looks a lot more sensible.

10. This recognises that ‘the quality of IME Phase 2 and CMD provision need significant overall improvement’ and therefore investment. Here the report is saying one of the things everyone knows, but no-one dares to mention. However, there is a big proviso here to which I will return.

11. The norm for curacies should be three years, not four—which is good—but ‘the length of curacy should be determined by the time the candidate needs to meet the Formation Criteria.’ This looks like a great idea in principle; the challenge will be defining the criteria adequately, and finding a way to ensure it is applied consistently across dioceses.

12. Additional national funding to education for lay ministry. This looks interesting and important, but is a whole area for consideration on its own. I am not sure that the post of Lay Reader functions effectively or consistently across the Church, so I feel ambivalent about introducing a new lay category for which there is a national selection process.

thumbimage.phpSo much for the specifics, which at this stage are mostly positive (the notable exception being proposal 7). The earlier sections of the report are a more mixed bag, and hold some of the bigger questions.

The section on growing vocations is excellent, blowing a much-needed fresh wind through a vital area of the Church’s life.

The Church of England as a whole needs to make a significant shift from a passive approach to vocations work to a proactive approach to seeking the numbers and quality of candidates the Church requires.

This will involve both diocesan initiatives by bishops as well as ‘significant restructuring within the Ministry Division so that staff resource is dedicated to proactive leadership in vocations work.’ The lack of a central, coordinated national approach to vocations has long been a major omission, so three cheers here.

The issue of funding all the changes is more opaque. The figure of £10 million is floated in paragraph 15, and further work is being done. When the Hind report came to Synod, I was on a subgroup looking at how we might raise an extra £1 million to enhance qualifications in training. But when we looked carefully, the figure had been arrived at by the crudest back-of-an-envelope calculation, and it was clear we were wasting our time even thinking about it. So the sums will need to be done really carefully.

And of course the funding question relies entirely on the prior question of how you measure effectiveness of ministry. This is where the report gets really interesting—or perhaps really ambiguous. A mere two-thirds of a page (paragraphs 26 to 32) are given over to this question, but the comments are on the basis of ‘a major research programme to explore the outcomes of the several forms of ministerial education’. Click on the link, and you will find a 66-page report from the Institute of Education in the University of London, which all looks very impressive. I read it with some anticipation; after all, surely ‘effectiveness of ministry’ and its training correlate ‘effectiveness of training’ are the Holy Grail of church leadership and theological education. Wouldn’t identifying these things resolves differences and give us a clear focus for the significant expenditure on ministerial training? Of course it would.

But it isn’t there.

What is there is ‘perception‘ of effectiveness of training, and that perception is not of those looking on at ministers, but the ministers themselves. At worst, this is like asking clergy whether they look back fondly on their time in training. At best, it is the equivalent of using the most unreliable measure of the effectiveness of training. (It is well documented that student evaluation of teaching is either no measure or a negative measure of effectiveness of learning.) This is a massive methodological hole right at the heart of the research, and therefore of the whole review.

I don’t think that it is the fault of the research team. It is the inevitable result of the approach of the group. In the opening section on ‘What ministry does the Church of England need?’ (ironically, one of the questions included in the ACCM 22 process), it offers this ‘vision’:

Our vision as a Task Group is of a growing church with a flourishing ministry. We hope therefore to see

  • every minister equipped to offer collaborative leadership in mission and to be adaptable in a rapidly changing context
  • a cohort of candidates for ministry who are younger, more diverse and with a wider range of gifts to serve God’s mission
  • an increase of at least 50% in ordinations on 2013 figures sustained annually from 2020
  • the rapid development of lay ministries
  • a continued commitment to an ordained and lay ministry which serves the whole Church both geographically and in terms of church tradition.

This is all good stuff—actually it is excellent stuff—but it is not a vision. It is a plan. It is a good plan, and one that is ‘widely’ shared, but it is a plan and not a vision. And the reason for agreeing on a plan (rather than anything else), is that the group made a decision from the outset:

We have not therefore sought to articulate a single ideal theology or description of ministry as the basis of our proposals other than that contained in the formularies of the Church of England.

I can understand why this decision has been made. With difficult proposals to push through, the last thing we want right now is an inter-tradition fight about what ordination means. But I still think it is problematic. Is it really the case that the ordinal does not define what ministry is, at least to some degree? And could the content of the ordinal really not lead to the defining of a syllabus for training? So all those years when the Church had a General Ordination Exam (GOE), it was fooling itself? And those churches around the world which still operate something similar are wasting their time?

The current situation of training is baffling to many looking in from the outside—and baffling because of this one failure, to have an agreed pre-ordination syllabus. I was once tasked with explaining, concisely and in an engaging way, the Common Awards process of discussion to the support staff (administrators, cooks and cleaners) of the college I taught at. I asked a question: ‘Given that everyone is training for the same ministry, do you think we should all cover the same things?’ Every person in the room thought the answer was ‘Yes’! It is baffling to most who look at the system as a whole that some ordinands spend twice as much time studying the Bible as others, or that people can be ordained without having had any teaching on how to preach, or that church history might be an option (rather than compulsory), or that it is possible to complete training without having engaged with Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Failure to talk about a common syllabus was a major missed opportunity in the Common Awards process. And it came about (essentially) because of mistrust within the system. Evangelicals thought they would have a liberal syllabus imposed on them; liberals feared an evangelical syllabus. And those in the centre had neither the energy—nor probably the authority—to knock heads together. (You might then ask the purpose of Common Awards, and the enormous amount of work it has involved. To save money? That doesn’t look as though it will happen. To simplify administration? Not in the institutions I am aware of. To coordinate syllabuses? Most are continuing to teach what they taught before, but ‘re-badged’. To link colleges with courses? Yet, as an external examiner, I will be looking at colleges only. So what has been gained?)

Without a common syllabus, I think it is going to be hard to achieve some important gains the report is aiming for. But what will happen is the shrinking and eventual closure of residential colleges—which will be a major loss to the Church. By avoiding actually asking the question of ‘effectiveness of training’, the report has concluded that

[T]he findings show no distinction between college and course pathways in relation to effectiveness related to numerical and spiritual growth and other measures. (para 31)

It is quite hard imaging any C of E report saying anything different, of course. But if that is the case, why should the national church fund residential training? It might have ‘distinctive benefits’, but if ‘effectiveness’ is not one of those, why worry? And if training decisions are pushed to dioceses, as is proposed, why wouldn’t financially-hard-pressed bishops opt for the cheapest path, the local option, the one over which they have most control? And if we need to increase the numbers in training by 50%, there are further financial incentives. And when maintenance funding for married candidates is pooled (proposal 7 above), the pressure will increase. (A number of dioceses have refused to allow married candidates to train residentially for several years now, simply out of misunderstanding the existing pooling mechanism and thinking we were already in the situation that is being proposed.)

We do need a plan, but we also need a vision. If vocations are going to increase by 50%, this will not be in response to good management, nor in response to the cry that (in the words of Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden) ‘the Church of England is in last chance saloon’. They will increase by people capturing a theological vision—that is where renewal comes from. And it is theological vision which needs to be at the heart of thinking about future ministerial training.

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8 thoughts on “Resourcing Ministerial Education: a tasty curate’s egg”

  1. This is all good stuff Ian. Thanks for being comprehensive, even-handed, and having the best interests of the church, and the kingdom (not the same thing) at heart. I especially concur with your calling out of proposal 7 – this has seemed to me to have been the (relatively) unspoken programme for some time and seems entirely unfortunate. Trouble is, if you ask anyone whether they want to leave everything behind for 2-3 years or maintain a life at home whilst training alongside, I would think a good proportion would instinctively opt for the latter. It took me 2.5 years to truly see the benefit of residential theological education. It is only now being borne out as I am enjoying curacy immensely. It’s hard asking people who don’t know what they’re getting in to or being prepared for (who would do it if they did know?) whether they think they know how they would like to get in to the thing they don’t know they’re getting into.

  2. Thanks Ian- this is a judicious and informed response, unlike some reports we might mention….

    I agree with pretty much everything you say here but would add:
    1. We need more ordinands and more younger ones but this does not mean less older ones. Some dioceses are already turning away enquirers over 50 – we can’t afford to do this and nor can we presume to know that God does not call the over 50s.
    2. Removal of married maintenance grant is disastrous as you say, but also fails to see that this is formational money. It also sends out signal that we don’t really care for or about candidates’ families. It may adversely affect women more than men – though it may not.
    3. I do think colleges and courses are both effective but at different things. We need both to give flexibility of training and we need more college / course partnerships -I once proposed such for St John’s Nottingham and EAMTC – that might have saved both institutions! (And some colleges are better than others, as is true for courses. Of course, all institutions you and I have taught in have been excellent!)
    4. The proposal to get MinDiv fit for purpose is long overdue – TEIs need good national support, not to be treated as inconveniences.

    • Thanks, Charles.

      On the question of over-50s, I agree with you that it seems odd to turn them away just for the sake of attracting younger ordinands. As you say (to borrow someone else’s phrase) it is not a ‘zero sum’ game. On the question of affordability, since over-50s won’t attract training funding, costs of the transition to ordination are relatively low. And with clergy numbers declining overall, it would be odd to refuse them.

      On the marriage grant, something no-one appears to have noticed is the gender impact. It could be argued that this is positive discrimination; one of the reasons more women than men train non-residentially is that men with careers are less likely to uproot for the same of the woman’s training. Removing funding for men means that they too will be tied to locality. But I agree that this does not look in terms of family support.

      Yes, there is no doubt that partnership between St John’s and EAMTC would have saved both from what (in end) has been the same fate. But how to persuade people of this…?!

      It is only really one sentence—but the comment on restructuring MinDiv is perhaps the most far-reaching proposal of this report. It is loooong overdue!

  3. Thanks for this, a helpful summary.
    Having personally been through the selection process in the last few years I am delighted to see that this is included in the report as needing attention. I’ve been doing some research into this with the sole purpose of providing a guide to the selection process for those entering it. As with many of the things highlighted the process varies dramatically from diocese to diocese which makes it very difficult to get a clear idea of what is expected of you going though it, and even what happens afterwards. Both at BAP and at college I have met people with such vastly different experiences of the process it’s a wonder we’ve ended up in the same institution!

    Your point about vision is absolutely vital. Despite having a clear calling, I sometimes feel I’ve had to fight against the church just to get into it. By this I mean that although I feel passionate about the CofE and have a very clear calling as to my future role within it, I often find myself defending the institution to myself, let alone those around me. There are some wonderful good ideas bandied around with nothing or little to back them up, pioneer ministry being one of those. If we want to encourage people, and yes especially the younger candidates, we need a much much clearer vision of what they are coming into, what is expected of them and some real commitment to helping them achieve their potential.

    When I was going through the selection process, a member of the clergy told me to just ‘jump through the hoops, once you’re in, you can do what you like’. Which isn’t 100% true of course, but actually this comment seems to be a widely held viewpoint. If you are going through selection with any hint of wanting to do something ‘a bit different’ the general consensus seems to be keep that to yourself and once you’re ordained you can think about it then, this is certainly my own experience. If we want to encourage people to come into this institution with gifts and talents and ideas that could impact the church of the future, then let encourage that, not sweep it under the carpet!

    All that said if we are going to have a new vision for people potentially entering into training, there does need to be a better structure in place to slot them into. Which comes first…?

  4. A very interesting post and one I can only comment on as the spouse of an ordinand. I would hope that in future decisions the Church would also seek the views of spouses/families on training and formation for such a public ministry.

    I am aware of the differences in courses and content between residential and non-residential training as I have several friends training, mostly part-time. We choose non-residential training because it was convenient, fitted around work and I was not prepared to move myself and our children away from family and friends, especially during secondary school years. We would have trained residentially when we first explored ordination but the Diocese version of BAP said ‘Yes, but not yet’, and by the time the process was re-started the children were older. Would we have been more ‘formed’ if we’d lived in community with others and shared experiences more deeply with them? I think yes we would. However I also know that the way training has happened for us has been the best way for a whole number of reasons.

    I can see that removing married funding would be a mistake as the option to choose the most suitable way to train for each individual might be taken away. Moving ordinations to September is a brilliant idea for families as moving children, house and area during June/July is really difficult for everyone and leaving part-way through a school year, let alone securing a school place, is made harder by the current timescales.

    The impact on family is one area that I think does need more consideration. The vocation may be for the ordinand but the effect on the whole family during training, through curacy and on into the future is something that I personally feel deserves more conversations. It’s the small details that illustrate the point really; as an example, we have been invited to the pre-ordination lunch in the Cathedral – lovely but on a school day – and with current government dictates on attendance figures (and I also work in a school), it is almost impossible to get the day off.

    Part-time non-residential training was the only way forward for us (and even now we are not moving and taking a part-time SSM curacy) but I do think that both ways of training are valuable and hope that future ordinands and their families will have positive and formational experiences however they choose to train.

    • Thanks Ali, that is interesting. I notice that you are, in some ways, talking of a trade-off between the ideal for formation and training versus practical issues for the family. The report is actually doing the opposite—claiming that neither route is better in terms of training. That would inevitably (given the practical issues) mean the running down of the residential option, and its eventual demise.


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