As part of the ‘Reform and Renewal’ process, one of the four main papers looked at the future needs and funding for ministerial training. Written by a group chaired by Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, I think it was one of the better papers. There were some excellent and need changes, some of which are already being implemented. The most strategic of these is the reorganisation of Ministry Division of Archbishops’ Council, so that it is focussing on national vocations strategy—but there are a good number of other sensible and practical changes which almost everyone can agree on.
Having said that, I noted previously that the report also included some potentially disastrous recommendations. Chief amongst these was the suggestion that both funding and decision-making be devolved back to dioceses, and that support for married ordinands should no longer be centrally pooled. I was not the only one to blanch at this; 17 professors of theology in universities wrote to the Church Times expressing their concern at the potential loss of a national structure for theological education, and Alistair McGrath also interpreted this as a loss of commitment to theological education.
To his credit, Steven Croft has been very responsive to this feedback—more so than some other members of the R and R group. He offered a clarification on financial matters in response to the things I had observed, and has now issued a second comment on feedback and the process from here on. (I also appreciated a personal conversation with him along the way.) The latest response tackles criticism head-on, and though there are some important clarifications, I am not sure we have yet got to the nub of the issue.
The first major criticism was whether there was a good theological rationale for what was proposed. Here, Croft is clear that there was never intended to be:
The report is about the future resourcing of ministerial education. It is fundamentally about how best to get best value from and where necessary increase the resources available, ensure that theological education is lifelong, more flexible, extends to lay people as well as the ordained, and that the best possible such education is offered to the largest number of people.
That is good as far as it goes—if it weren’t for the fact that the initial report did offer some sort of rationale, or at least an evaluation. A significant piece of research from the Institute of Learning at King’s, London, led to a 66-page report based on…nothing at all. The evaluation of different forms of training was based on whether those trained ‘felt’ that their training was useful, rather than any objective measure of what the training delivered. I think most people reading this felt that it would have been more honest to say ‘We are not going to make any assumptions about the relative merits of different forms of training’, since that appeared to be the goal of the exercise. But of course making that explicit would have looked very odd in a report on ‘value’. Why pay x for not very good training when you could spend y on better training—and how do you make any judgements if you have no idea of the relative effectiveness of these two approaches?
The second major issue related to theology, and in particular the criticisms from McGrath and the university professors. Here, Croft sounds baffled:
I’ve reread the report several times for anything which might indicate this and I can’t find it. Nor can I find any evidence for the view that theological engagement with ministry is seen as peripheral, a luxury or divisive. The RME Task Group would have identified wholeheartedly with Alister’s paragraphs on theological vision for ministry. We simply assumed that this would be shared ground.
I sympathise with Croft’s predicament here—because the sense of loss of commitment to theology was not explicit in the report, but implicit, arising in two areas.
First, if I am deciding whether to buy apples or pears, and I find that apples are 50p each but pears are 30p each, and I have produced a 66-page report demonstrating that apples and pears are equally good for me—and I am focussing on best value for money—which will I buy? Answer: pears! And if I am told I need more fruit than previously, and that budgets are tight, will I buy some apples and some pears? No! I will buy nothing but pears. This is the logical outcome of the statement that residential training and part-time training offer no difference in effectiveness. And this is where most readers of the initial report saw a lack of commitment to theological training.
Secondly, the loss of residential theological training will be the inevitable albeit unintended outcome of the proposal to devolve budgeting and planning to diocese. Yes, Croft is right:
The evidence from all across the Church of England is that bishops, parishes, and clergy all place a high value on residential training as part of the mixed economy of training we need for the future.
But when bishops are faced with serious budget issues in their dioceses, most if not all will want to investing in training which is best value for money—and given that pears are cheaper than apples, much as they are committed to a mixed economy of apples and pears, the diet will be pears alone. It is worth remembering that the C of E is something of a specialist in unintended consequences; after all, the rapid decline in the number of stipendiary clergy, which Croft is so concerned about, was itself an unintended consequence of changing the average age at which people entered training. So we really do need to think these things through.
However, the present arrangements also have some serious disadvantages. They are complicated and inflexible. Decisions about an ordinand’s training are separated entirely from the consequences in terms of costs. The consistent feedback from Bishops and Dioceses is that theological training institutions need to be more responsive to the changing ministerial needs of the Church as a whole.
Here is the central question: should ‘decisions about an ordinand’s training are separated entirely from the consequences in terms of costs’? In the past we have said ‘No’; a candidate should be trained in the best way for that person’s development, regardless of whether they are single or married, with or without dependents. But if the number of those in training is to increase, and diocesan budgets remain tight, can we afford this luxury? Will residential training in future only be an option for the single or self-supporting?
There are so many good things in this report that I hope the majority go through. But I suspect this will only happen if the key issue about value for money, and the unintended consequences of structural change, are engaged with head on.
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