On Wednesday it was announced that the leaders of the dioceses in the North West of England are planning to open a new theological college, combining residential and part-time ordination training with lay training of various kinds. I was able to ask Dr Emma Ineson, Bishop of Penrith in Carlisle Diocese, about this new venture.
IP: This is quite a surprising initiative, given the talk of cutting ministry in a number of dioceses, and looking for economies in training at every level. How long has this been under consideration, and what prompted the idea?
EI: Shortly before I took up my current post last year, the NW bishops commissioned Bishop Graham James to do this review as part of their commitment to the provision of outstanding theological education for lay and ordained leaders across the region. Given my long-standing involvement in the sector, I was encouraged by the way my episcopal colleagues were committed to exploring how to provide excellent training and formation. The main impetus was never about saving money but about working together to provide the best possible training for the largest number of people across the diverse communities that make up the north west dioceses.
The plans we have announced this week honour that ideal as we will seek to build upon the strengths of the current providers to equip the next generation of leaders from the region for mission. It’s true, of course, that when you pool resources, they can go further, but financial considerations haven’t been the driving factor.
IP: Why do you think this training initiative will be important for mission and ministry in the region?
Firstly it’s important to say that the new college will be very much building on the strengths of the existing 3 providers in the region, All Saints, St Mellitus and Cumbria Christian Learning, all of whom have much to offer in the way they have trained people for ministry. But we’re coming into a new era for all sorts of reasons, and this is an opportunity to ‘do a new thing’ together across the 6 Dioceses (Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Carlisle, Blackburn, Sodor and Man). The Church of England is undertaking review of its vision and strategy for the next 10 years and I hope the new college can draw on some key emphases that will emerging from that process. The Church of England Ministry Council has also commissioned some very good work over the past year looking at how we discern, select and train people for ministry and what kind of formation of character and dispositions we need to see in our ministers, and that will be a strong focus of the new college.
And then there’s all we’ve learned and discovered during the pandemic. We’re emerging into a new world, and we’ll need to see people well equipped to share the Good News of Jesus in that new reality—responding to the challenges of ingrained racial inequality, equipping people for engagement with science and new technologies, making sure the training is accessible to the D/disabled community, and to people from different educational backgrounds, pioneering new forms of mission and planting new churches, and above all being confident in the good news of the Gospel of Christ, through a deep engagement with Scripture and the Christian Tradition.
Lay discipleship is key to this, equipping Christians to live out their faith in everyday life and so we’ll need leaders confident and equipped to release the gifts of the whole people fo God. God is calling women and men from a wide range of backgrounds to be lay and ordained leaders in his church in this region. This new college will set out to offer each of them outstanding training and formation so that they can in turn play key roles in leading the whole people of God in the missional renewal of the region.
IP: I have had a sense that it has long been a challenge to find the right training provision for this region. What challenges will this new initiative need to overcome?
EI: Some might say that we’ve already overcome one of the major challenges—all 13 bishops in the region deciding together to work towards the new college! There’s been a real sense of unity which has been great to see. There will obviously be more challenges on the way. We’ve set ourselves a tight timescale, for instance, and we need to continue to make sure that whatever emerges is suited to a range of very diverse contexts across our region, with appropriate local representation. We need to make sure that current students and staff in the institutions are well cared-for and anxiety and uncertainty minimised.
But I am confident, because we have invested a great deal of time and expertise already in this proposal. It has been professionally researched by Bishop Graham, who consulted widely in the region and beyond, and then both the transition plans and the operational plans have been systematically developed based on rigorous analysis. Crucially, all of this has been bathed in prayer by those doing the work and the bishops who commissioned it. We know there will be challenges ahead but we are convinced that the Lord has called us to pursue the establishment of this new college and so we are committed to working in his strength to make it a reality.
IP: During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have become used to doing things online which previous they would have done in person. How far will that learning be made use of in this new initiative?
EI: I think that when people look back in 50 or 100 years they will see the current pandemic as something of a watershed moment in many areas of life, including education and training. We are conscious that the dioceses of the North West include physically remote communities (including an island!) where traditional models of training and formation are difficult to sustain. Here in Cumbria people have to travel huge distances to meet together. But we have learnt so much already about what is possible in training. All 3 of the current TEIs in the region make good use of online technology already and we’ll be seeking to build on that. Our desire is to provide outstanding training to those whom the Lord is calling wherever they might live and so we will be working to integrate the full potential of dispersed forms of learning within the pathways that the new college will offer.
This will also help to reduce the environmental cost of training as less travel will mean a smaller carbon footprint. So this new college will have to be agile and nimble. One of our number refers to a “pop-up” theological college that can find expression anywhere it is needed. However, you won’t be surprised to hear me say, as the former principal of a residential college, that there is also no substitute to face to face encounter, for teaching that is in person and embodied, and for the sharing of the rhythms of our lives and worship together. So both will be part of the new college, I hope.
IP: You yourself have had a long involvement in theological education. What do you think are the priorities for lay and ordained ministry training at the moment in the Church?
EI: I think the real priority is to see the church be the church. By that I mean the need is to see women, men and children growing in their everyday discipleship, transformed by the Holy Spirit and living ‘Christianly’ in the world wherever God takes them. If we could see that happen really, the church and the world would be transformed overnight. So we will need to offer a range of opportunities for lay people to engage with theological learning for discipleship, and that will emerge increasingly over time in the new college.
We also need ordained and other authorised leaders who are theologically adept, deeply and widely biblically literate, able to teach and lead in forming disciples, and able to think strategically and pastorally about leading change amongst God’s people. We have much to learn from the worldwide church, from those who have not traditionally found a voice in the academy, and from each other around our diverse region.
IP: What impact do you think this initiative might have on the national scene in theological education in the C of E as a whole?
EI: We realise that this project will be watched with interest by many around the country but we are focused on faithfully pursing the vision for a new college for the north west because we believe that is what God is calling us to do. The vision before us is to establish a college that will joyfully live out a mission-orientated faith in Jesus Christ, in which outstanding theological education is provided for servant-hearted lay and ordained leaders across the region, a place where mutual flourishing and generous orthodoxy are modelled by staff and students alike, and where all are deeply rooted in prayer, fellowship, the study of Scripture and the breaking of bread. We find this vision inspiring and I suspect many others will too. I hope we can continue to demonstrate working together across a region, that might model something new and different for the church as a whole.
IP: How can we pray for you all?
EI: Thank you! There has been a great deal of hard work invested before this week’s announcement but there is much more for us to do in the year ahead before the college receives its first students in autumn 2021. Please pray that the Lord would graciously grant my colleagues on the team wisdom and passion, stamina and sabbath, strength and compassion.
IP: We will! Thank you for your time.
Dr Emma Ineson is Bishop of Penrith, with particular responsibility for the county’s God for All strategy, and is based in Kendal. Before joining the Diocese in 2019, she was Principal of Trinity College, Bristol. She is married to Mat, who is also ordained, and they have two adult children.
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