Resourcing Ministerial Education: back to the egg

Delia2aAs 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.

apples_and_pearsFirst, 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.

thumbimage.phpOn the other issues, I mostly agree with Croft’s responses. But mid-way through, he highlights the issue we must wrestle with:

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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2 thoughts on “Resourcing Ministerial Education: back to the egg”


    ‘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.’

    I’d agree with your perception, although that tone was set by the Task Force’s explicit reluctance 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’ upset the ‘many good, creative and diverse initiatives being taken forward across dioceses’.

    I think that the CofE has missed a significant opportunity to impart vision in a manner similar to the way in which Vatican II (rescued by Cardinal Suenens shuttle diplomacy) provided the conciliar vision that inspired the Charismatic Renewal.

    It now appears routine for working groups to side-step articulating orthodox theology.

    As Ian explained about Pilling: ‘Although the Report mentions a few key Scriptural texts, and claims to ‘desire to place Scripture at the heart of ethics and discipleship’, it does so in the context of saying ‘we do not all believe that the evidence of Scripture points to only one set of ethical conclusions.’ (§235)
    Thus, the Report raises a famous question, ‘Did God really say?’ and then finds itself without an answer.’

    The scripture: ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’ comes to mind.

    There was a basic theological consensus that facilitated the success of the Alpha courses among numerous denominations.

    Would it have been that difficult for the Task Force seek to articulate a similar unifying theological consensus for ministerial education?

  2. One of the key assumptions behind the Resourcing Ministerial Education Task Force report is implied by an opening statement: ‘ At present, if we take no action, we face a significant net decline in the number of stipendiary ministers and alongside this further decline in congregations and hence our capacity to serve every community.’

    Although the assumption is aligned with Task Force’s endorsement of the dioceses’ request for a significant increase in the number and quality of ministers, it is tied to another assumption implied by the absence of any clear proposal to alter the discernment process: namely, that the quality of ministers is not causally related to the quality of discernment, nor the actual content of ministerial education.

    I found the report to be remarkably lacking in critical scrutiny of the discernment process, remembering that this the pre-cursor to ministerial education. I wonder how that squares with biblical examples of discernment for ministry. As Paul enjoined Timothy: ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.’ (2 Tim. 2:2)

    In answer to this injunction, the most important qualification is willing self-sacrifice and absence of presumption. In terms of the former, we read that Judas and Silas were chosen by the Jerusalem Council to return to Antioch, they were described as ‘men that have risked their lives in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’. (Acts 15:26)

    In terms of presumption, Miriam, Aaron’s sons, Eli’s sons, Saul, Jesse’s eldest, Eliab and many others were rejected because they exhibited or were discerned to be arrogant towards what God commanded through his prophets. Yet, today many discerned for ordained ministry disparage the prophetic status of those writings that both Jesus and St. Paul described as Holy Scripture.

    There is something terribly wrong about discernment for ministry that appears incapable of weeding out from its process the clear majority of career-driven candidates who, once ordained, who come from far and wide, vying to make the shortlist for vacancies in the South-East (especially London), while allowing far more needy parishes in the socially and economically deprived areas of the North-East parishes to languish without a priest for over two years.

    The discernment process is clearly no longer fit for purpose. Largely because it does not appear to discern a genuine willingness in candidates to be deployed wherever the need is greatest as the chief hallmark of genuine Christian ministry.

    One wonders how this calibre of priests would have interpreted St. Paul’s vision of the man of Macedonia pleading for help (Acts 16:9). No doubt, the majority would have dismissed it as a parish too far and save themselves from a night in a Philippians jail!

    While I’m sure that I’m not the kind of candidate that the CofE would want: over 50, sternly evangelical, unwilling to accept (read as intolerant towards) rank unbelief as part of the on-going Christian search for meaning. I’d still abandon my full-time fairly well compensated job in London for a chance to be involved in furthering the gospel in desperately needy parishes in the North-East, even as a self-supporting minister.

    I’ve never been through the discernment process. I might be proved wrong, but having gone head to head with a DDO on this blog, I have a pretty good idea of what they might say. Just as well I have a ‘day job’, eh?. 🙂


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