In the modern era there have been three major reviews of ordination training in the Church of England. All three have tried to address some important structural issues; all three have been controversial and have been (to some extent) ideologically driven; all three have had unfortunate unintended consequences.
The first was the imaginatively named ACCM Paper 22 in 1977. This moved the Church away from having a General Ordination Exam, and instead invited each institution to describe how it understood ordained ministry and therefore what training provision it would offer. Both parts of this understanding was then reviewed by an inspection process. The benefits were creativity and innovation; the legacy was an unmanageable diversity which allowed different expressions of training in different traditions but lost commonality.
The second was the so-called Hind report, named after John Hind, then bishop in Chichester, properly known as Formation for Ministry in a Learning Church. (You can still buy a copy on Amazon…) This was shaped by the bruising experience (particularly for John Hind, then principal) of closing Chichester Theological College as well as Lincoln, and the attempt to close Oakhill, which met with rebellion. The most notable effect of Hind was to remove unwieldy central structures of support and decision-making about institutions, and in effect to create a competitive market for training, under which St Mellitus started up and (eventually) St John’s Nottingham ceased ordination training. Because this was done by the market, no-one at the centre could be blamed.
The third was the report on Resourcing for Ministerial Education from 2015. Coming as part of the Renewal And Reform process, the ostensive reasons for this process (led by Stephen Croft, now bishop in Oxford) were the unwieldy nature of ‘bishops’ regulations’ governing training, and the need to allow greater flexibility to encourage a required growth in the number of ordinands entering training to offset the large numbers of clergy due to retire. Though RME included some sensible proposals, there were clearly major issues from the beginning: there was a lack of proper research on the question of effectiveness of training; there was no proper theological thinking about what training is doing; and the warnings about the impact on residential training were ignored.
We are now in the third year of RME. The number of ordinands entering training has indeed increased—by around 14% in the first year, and around another 7% in the second (though it looks like things might have slowed down this year). But the concerns about the impact on residential training have all been realised: in the first year of RME the numbers of candidates entering residential training dropped by 8%, and in the second year by another 6%. If a third year like this follows, we will have lost something like a quarter of the residential provision in the C of E. Despite my question at Synod last month, it is not clear what the financial mechanisms are for helping institutions weather this kind of storm—but St John’s Nottingham has now ceased ordination training, and in that we have lost what was until recently the largest ordination training institution in the Church without anyone asking any serious questions. In the meantime, the take-up of context-based and part-time training has skyrocketed, and several diocesan bishops now refuse to send anyone to residential training at all.
RME is going to be reviewed, but the review process cannot be completed and implemented before September, so we will have a fourth, potentially damaging, year of RME before anything changes. The challenges for the review are significant; these are the issues that I think need considering in thinking about ordination training.
Can we recover a consistent national framework for training? One of the boasts of RME was that it put responsibility back to dioceses. But the problem with that is the one that the Church had 150 years ago—every bishop doing what was right in his (or her, now) own eyes. This ignores the fact that training for ordination is a national activity, for a national body of clergy, where there should both be national standards for training as well as consistent national processes. Training decisions have always been susceptible to local bias, shaped by the particular interests of bishops and DDOs, but RME has let this tendency run riot. And proper theological training requires a critical mass of those involved in teaching, which can only be achieved on a national scale, treating training institutions as a national resource. If training continues to focus on the diocese, it will make it even harder for flourishing dioceses to assist those who are struggling by means of the transfer of ministry resources.
Can we establish an honest and integrated assessment of the cost of training? One of the reasons for the rapid shift to context-based training has been the widespread perception that this is a cheaper way of training clergy, since the maintenance costs of supporting the ordinand and his or her family is hidden in the costs allocated to the local church context. Again, a question at February’s Synod reflected this. It is an illusion! Shifting costs around in this way is not only robbing Peter to pay Paul, but then declaring that Paul is a better class of chap because he is well off! If we believe in stipendiary ministry, then we should believe in stipendiary training (of whatever form) for this ministry. And for anyone training in their late 20s or early 30s, we might anticipate 35 years of ministry. Adding two or three years of stipend at the beginning as an investment is a relatively small price to pay, all things considered.
Can we agree a common syllabus for training? I once did a presentation to the support, admin and cleaning staff at St John’s, trying to explain the complexities of the current training set-up in the Church. I simply began by asking the assembled group: ‘Ordinands are training for the same ministry and will take the same ordination vows. Do you think they ought to have the same training?’ To a person, they chorussed ‘Yes!’ There are several concerns that pull training in different directions, and they include different theological traditions in the Church, different convictions about pedagogy and what makes for the most effectively learning method and context, and different convictions about what is needed in ministry in our current context. I am not sure that the first should be allowed, as it simply embeds tribalism for the next generation; I think there is something of a consensus emerging in the second; and I have never found the arguments on the third convincing. For example, if you are working in a new cultural context, do you need to know less or more about the historic debates on key doctrines such as the Trinity? Without understanding how context shaped the past, how can you understand the process of contextualisation in the present?
But we are now in the bizarre situation, having adopted the so-called Common Awards programme validated by the University of Durham, where not only do different institutions offer courses with very few modules in common—where they do teach the same module, it is possible to have zero overlap in content due to the Durham modules being ‘shells’ rather than specifying content.
In fact I don’t think there should be too much difficulty in deciding what training needs to include:
- In biblical studies, we need to engage with the Old Testament law, wisdom and prophetic writings, and understand the interpretative and theological issues in each. In New Testament, we need to engage in general and in depth with the gospels, Paul and the other epistles including Revelation.
- In doctrine and history, we need to understand key doctrines of Christology and atonement, and understand developments in the patristic and mediaeval periods, the Reformation, and the modern era. We need to understand liturgy, and have enough philosophical background to make sense of the modern world.
- In practical theology, we need to understand evangelism and mission, how to lead worship, how to preach (including why we are doing it!), issues around discipleship, learning and education, and the importance and practice of pastoral care.
There needs to be connection and integration between all this—but shouldn’t these things form the core of all training?
Can we do some proper reflection on the different modes of training? The previous ‘research’ on training prior to RME simply asked people whether they thought their training was effective; tribal defence of my own form of training is hardly the basis for strategic thinking. Having taught on part-time courses, at a residential college, and on a context-based programme I am aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Residential training can involve costly upheaval and relocation, with all the distraction and disruption that involves (though with fewer people entering the property market early in life, some of the practical challenges are reduced). But it creates a critical mass of a learning and teaching community, allows depth formation in community, and creates the opportunity for in-depth study which can lay foundations not easily acquired anywhere else.
- Part-time training is flexible and affordable and makes training accessible in a local context that residential training will never be able to. It is economical for the Church since residential costs are avoided—though of course this means the candidate in training is bearing that cost.
- Context-based training encourages strong partnerships between the training institution and the local church, and allows the possibility of continuity in ministry prior to, during, and after training. It mainly avoids the issues of deskilling and dislocation that can come with residential training, and is highly motivating for those in training, since ministry immersion offers an immediate reason for learning. But this approach as currently practiced does not allow the same depth engagement as residential training, and students have too many pressures on their time.
The major current issue between these pathways is the artificial mechanism by which Durham has allowed about one third fewer learning hours for ordinands on context-based training compared with residential training, which has created a disparity both across and within institutions (how can I do so many fewer learning hours and still end up with the same award?) and relies on a pedagogical fiction that church contexts provide equivalent learning to full-time teaching. This anomaly must be resolved.
Theological training is not merely about the acquisition of skills (though it does involve that). It also includes centrally the question of personal and spiritual formation, as well as the induction of ordinands into both a theological tradition and a body of knowledge, as well as involving (for good or for ill) issues of institutional socialisation. All of these needed to be attended to in thinking about training provision.
Can we establish an integration between ordination training and lay ministry training, and (most importantly) between pre- and post-ordination training? The latter will depend on having a more-or-less common syllabus for pre-ordination training, but would be a significant gain in actually delivering coherent training across both stages of initial ministry formation prior to first incumbency.
There are two final questions which are implicit in all this, but which I think need articulating. The first is: is there a way to review and revise training which will not itself need undoing in ten years’ time? To my knowledge, all the problems arising from previous reviews were articulated at the time, but by and large brushed aside or avoided. This raises questions of process and governance, since RME was pushed through on a ‘divide and rule’ basis, each stage of scrutiny being told that another stage would pick up that issue—and vice versa.
The underlying and (for me) the most important question is this: will theological training in future not simply equip our clergy to be aware of issues of critical reflection and the wider context in which we sit—but will it give them confidence in the gospel and the Christian faith as the Church has received it? Will their training shape them as confident Anglican ministers of the gospel?
These are all large questions, so those involved need our prayers, our reflection and input, and our support.
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