It has been announced this morning that St John’s College, Nottingham, having just celebrated its 150th anniversary, is to cease training full-time residential ordinands.
After many months of prayerful consideration, the college Council and Directorate are ready to take the bold step of remodelling the college to meet the future training needs of the church. This plan will see an end to the admission of any new full-time residential students at the Nottingham campus from September 2015, and the development of new models of ministerial formation and training for discipleship. Recruitment of new full and part-time students on all Midlands CYM and Extension Studies programmes will continue as normal.
The website and the press release put the most positive angle possible on this, but it is clear from Charity Commission returns that there are serious financial problems; according to the returns, the college had a deficit of more than £245,000 in the last reported year, and the Financial History section makes it clear that this has been a long standing problem. No institution, even the well-run, can withstand that kind of financial pressure.
But there are surely further challenges ahead. The press release talks of four areas of training, and all of them are already under pressure. In terms of ordination training, the college is looking to go down a St Mellitus/course approach to training. But St Mellitus only got off the ground with a substantial investment of capital, not from a deficit position, and courses can only flourish if they are embedded in and actively sponsored by their regional dioceses. It is lack of good regional relations which has hindered St John’s in the past. In the post-Hind period where theological education is a market, anyone wanting to flourish is going to have to have something distinctive to offer.
The situation grieves me all the more as it affects an institution into which I investing nearly a decade of energy and ministry.
Whatever happens at St John’s, this raises wider questions about training for ministry in the Church of England. Will it be good news for other residential colleges, in that there are fewer other competitors, or bad news, in that it signals the beginning of the end for full-time residential training? It does appear that other colleges are not suffering the same challenges. I understand that Cranmer Hall in Durham is flourishing under the leadership of Mark Tanner, and we have friends training at Trinity College, Bristol who are having a great time. Finances at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, are apparently doing well, after the troubles of a few years ago, and Ripon College, Cuddesdon appears to be taking over the world with a combination of residential and course-based training. So it does seem that residential training, across traditions, is still viable.
But when there is continued financial pressure on dioceses, with a continued fall in numbers attending Anglican church services, isn’t residential training just an expense too far? I don’t believe so, for four key reasons.
First, being part of a residential community gives opportunities for intense formation and accountability which, done well, is not available in other forms of training. I am increasingly convinced that when things go wrong in ministry (at any level) these are very often linked to fundamental issues of self-esteem, self-awareness, and whether or not the ministers in question are rooted in a confident sense of call from God. That’s not to say residential training solves all these issues, or that part-time training cannot, but that full-time training gives the best chance of addressing them.
Secondly, and related, being residential and moving to a new context is often a vital part of allowing those being trained to stand back and reflect on previous experience and understanding, to have the space to rethink some (often quite central) aspects of faith, and develop the ability to reflect critically on what they are doing. As one former student commented to me:
Residential training was such a blessing. That move to a new community, joining a local church in a completely different context was for me just as important as the training itself.
Thirdly, there are things that you can do in a three-year full-time course that you will never do later, and which are very hard to do in part-time training. Christian Today carries a review of a recent Grove booklet by Graham Archer of CPAS, Don’t Lose Heart. It focuses on the issue of clergy morale, and is an excellent exposition of the apostle Paul’s insights into encouragement in ministry.
A rather different perspective on morale is then offered by Rev Will Vanderhart, pastoral chaplain at Holy Trinity Brompton:
I would question the training model that focuses on learning biblical Greek. It needs to offer a social work model of education, dealing with issues like mental health, aspects like reconciliation, arbitration, marriage and vulnerable adults. I’m not surprised that some people are overwhelmed and disheartened – they’ve learned how to translate the New Testament, but not how to make an impact in areas where there is gross social dysfunction.
I don’t doubt there are always things to question about training. But loss of knowledge of Scripture and theology, in part as a result in ‘thinning out’ training, is one of the major issues blighting the Church and its current debates. And if you think being able to read the New Testament, possibly in Greek, but in any case in an informed and critically reflective way, is important for preaching, pastoral care and ministry, then this is only going to happen in initial training, and only going to happen in depth in a full-time course. I have much respect for fellow educators at St Mellitus—but is packing a full-time course into a schedule alongside significant part-time ministry going to give sufficient space for engaging in these issues in depth? The important things Will mentions should be being taught…in coordinated post-ordination training. The failure to agree a common syllabus as part of the Common Awards process is a loss here.
Fourthly, although people comment on the cost of training, residential training is nothing more, in reality, than starting offering a stipend early. Even if someone doesn’t start training until the age of 35, they will still be expecting 35 years of stipend. Can the Church really not afford to extend that to 37 years for the sake of laying good foundations?
Simon Vibert, Vice-Principal of Wycliffe Hall, commented to me:
Mixed Mode and Part Time is very helpful and necessary for many people. However, the demise of residential training has huge implications for training clergy (and Bishops and Future Theological College Faculty, etc) who will be equipped for a lifetime of ministry, who will have confidence that they have studied in depth and been training by competent practitioners and who will have spent 2 or 3 years being formed by the Holy Spirit for Gospel ministry. Challenging days—this decision is not good news for anyone …
A few years ago I was asked to offer my vision for the development of residential theological education. This is what I said:
A residential college must be an agent of theological renewal. Even if, nationally, church attendance is ‘bottoming out’ and there are signs of churches and dioceses beginning to grow again, there is a desperate need for the whole church to rediscover the dynamic of spiritual life that comes from encountering God’s grace. Whereas charismatic renewal focussed primarily on fresh experience of God, theological renewal seeks, alongside this, to enable fresh understanding of God, so that experience and understanding develop together. I believe this will be vital in the post-modern, post-Christendom context we increasingly find ourselves in.
A residential college will do this more widely and more effectively when it lives out a connectness in all aspects of its life:
- Connecting with God by keeping spirituality at the heart of the college’s life. To take this seriously will mean becoming less busy by reviewing decision-making processes and structures.
- Connecting with the world-wide church by building on and developing our historic links with individuals and churches overseas, through placements, prayer support and mission partnership.
- Connecting with the national church more effectively by offering consultancy through ‘centres’ that can add value to diocesan strategies and clergy training.
- Connecting with our constituency by building relationships with leaders of large churches and evangelical/charismatic networks, and working in partnership with other theological colleges.
- Connecting with the academic world through developing our research culture.
- Connecting with potential students through a well-thought-out and coherent marketing strategy.
- Connecting with our past, so we have a better understanding of the legacy of the college that we are inheriting.
- Connecting with local churches through part-time study, day conferences and opportunities for occasional resourcing events. Are there ways in which local people can contribute to our life and mission?
- Connecting with ourselves, by having clear communication to the whole community (staff and students) of our aims, goals and strategies, and enabling a releasing of gifts and allowing responsive feedback.
- Connecting with our physical environment, seeing the physical space we offer as an expression of our welcome and hospitality.
- Connecting within the faculty team, so that the Principal is less a line manager or individual figurehead, and more a primus inter pares who envisions, enables and releases team members in their ministry.
I still think this is a compelling vision, and one that is achievable—and indeed is happening in various places. It is certainly an approach worth investing in.
In the meantime, please keep all the staff and students of St John’s in your prayers as they face this challenging time together.
Please note that in an earlier version of this post, the comments of Will Vanderhart about the content of training were mistakenly attributed to Graham Archer. My apologies to Graham!
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