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Should theological training be validated?

The Government’s removal of HEFCE funding from Humanities subjects could have a big impact on ordination and theological training in the C of E, since quite a few institutions have relied on this income to make ends meet.

I contributed to a consultation on Wednesday about the future of training in the light of this. One of the possibilities mooted was that a small number of ordinands would take (in future more expensive) validated courses, whilst the majority would take (cheaper) non-validated courses.

There are some clear disadvantages to university validation. It makes administrative demands on already busy staff, and it would be great to find ways across institutions to minimise this. But there are a number of clear—even vital—advantages of validation.

  • In an increasingly post-Christendom world, there is an apologetic reason for validation: it demonstrates that Christian ministry is something that can bear the weight of objective scrutiny and has academic rigour.
  • At St John’s we have found there have been some real pedagogical gains in talking through issues of programme design and teaching methods with validators, thus making learning more effective.
  • With the expansion of post-92 universities and theology as a discipline, there is now a greater number of universities with a strong sympathy to theology with a Christian vocational orientation, supporting the need for training in theology for ministry.
  • By contrast, more traditional theology courses have, if anything, moved away from ministry concerns—for example, there are now many fewer universities offering Biblical Studies courses than in the past, and many more offering general ‘Religious Studies’. Whereas bishops had in the past been appointed from the ranks of university professors of theology, it is much less clear that this is appropriate for a missional church in the contemporary cultural context. And it is far from clear that, with so many highly-qualified faculty in theological colleges, university-taught theology degrees offer advantages in preparation for ministry.
  • Having two kinds of training, one validated and the other non-validated, would create a two-tier ministry, which is the last thing the C of E needs just now.

As a colleague said to me this week, it is a ‘no-brainer’ to continue to offer validated programmes across the board. But to do so, without incurring significant additional costs, is going to involve making some hard decisions; I hope and pray that the C of E has the courage to make such decisions.

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8 Responses to Should theological training be validated?

  1. Louise Tinniswood February 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    Difficult times ahead for everyone. A two-tier system would work but is surely wrong essentially. From the educational perspective of my previous life (not theologically speaking!) I feel the reason why the teaching at St John’s is so good is that clearly a great deal of thought has gone into programme design and grasping the essentials of teaching and learning styles. I’m not saying the college is currently doing everything right (no institution ever will) but the mixture of biblical studies, theology, practical theology and placements all seem to me to be essential to students once they’re out in the big wide world of ministry. It’s the broad range of subjects that works I think and the flexibility to offer this to students from all backgrounds – equally.

  2. Steve Walton February 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Good thoughtful piece, Ian – although I fear the CofE doesn’t have the heart to spend the money; and if you pay peanuts…

  3. Ian Paul February 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    Thanks for comment Steve. I think there are two questions here: 1. Will the C of E spend the money? and 2. HOW will the C of E spend the money.

    On the first, any central cost like initial training is in a cleft stick, in that (as you will know!) we depend on money from the dioceses and a sense of collaboration and good will from bishops–many of whom, sometime for very good reasons, would often rather have more control on where their money is going.

    On the second, there is going to be some tough talking since the two solutions (a few more expensive validated plus the majority non-validated, versus all on moderately-priced validated) each favour different institutions. Who will make the decision to disadvantage one institution rather than another…?!

  4. Mark Adams February 4, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Would I be right in saying that the price of validating courses is marginal in the cost of running a full-time residential institution like St John’s, so that even if it stopped external validation it would not save a significant amount of money?

    So, if that is true, isn’t the most important question the one that Ian raises in the previous comment – what sort of training institutions does the Church want?

    Personally I greatly value the benefit that residential training at St John’s gave me, and the fantastic opportunity to follow that up with a research degree so I wouldn’t want to see others who follow me denied the same opportunity. If I had only been able to train on a non-residential course then I probably wouldn’t have been able to go forward as there is no way I could have fitted it in with my work.

    Balancing that is the problem of ever increasing Parish Share so a huge amount of money is going into providing clergy when they might not be what we need to respond to the new missional environment.

  5. Ian Paul February 4, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    Thanks for the comment Mark. How much does validation cost? It varies enormously; for us our fees plus staff time were probably worth around 1 full-time faculty member (last year I had to write 30,000 words of report for OU!!), though if we weren’t validated we would still work on programme design issues.

    But the real shocker from a question at last Synod is that MinDiv have been paying something like half a million pounds of university fees without anyone really realising it, because some universities are very expensive and the loss of HEFCE money is only going to increase this.

    I agree with you (not surprisingly) that residential training offers unique benefits. But the odd thing about worrying about the cost is that it shouldn’t really be any more than the cost of a stipend. It that too much to ask…?!

  6. Rachel Hill-Brown February 4, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    I agree with Mark. I know that my full-time training experience was excellent. I really appreciated the quality of teaching at St John’s while I was there. Over the last 4 years I have had the opportunity and privilege of teaching a module at St John’s and I have seen the efforts that go into ensuring the quality of teaching and assessment remains consistently high.

    Validation gives the courses on offer credibility in the Education world that they would not otherwise have. I am aware of the tension that exists between the academic, training for mission and ministry and formation and that a place like St John’s is able to ensure the balance between the three is as good as they can make it.

    Whatever form training takes it surely has to be the best possible quality if we are to equip people to fulfill their calling? There are some big questions here – and it is good to know that there are those out there prepared to fight the corner for full time validated courses.

    My fear is that the Church of England will take so long thinking about it that the results will be dictated by increasing external pressures (including money) rather than by a mission-minded desire to see the kingdom of God grow.

  7. Jenni Williams February 6, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    Surely what makes the whole subject so rich is the synergy that develops when tutors and students interact with the academy to deepen the rigour of their theological thinking, and the academy is reminded that believers have something valuable to contribute to the academic discussion. if this is lost, both sides will be impoverished. But speaking of impoverished, ELQ could finish the whole thing off…

  8. Ian Paul February 6, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Jenni, thanks for comment–I quite agree. I think this is a reflection of my comment about university departments and colleges, and suggests quite strongly that training should neither happen in non-validated colleges NOR in university departments.

    I am interested in your mentioning ELQ, but I think now the change in HEFCE is the one–and it has happened. There are no signs at all of academic rebellion against it; the state of national finances generally forbids it really. So the decision will come down to how the C of E wants to spend its money…

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