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.
So 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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