We are once again undertaking a review of ordination training in the Church of England, technically known as IME 1–3, Initial Ministerial Training years 1 to 3, to note that initial training continues in curacy prior to anyone becoming an incumbent (sole leader of a congregation). The reason for this is that all previous discussions have been beset by conflicts of vested interests, and effected only by decisions made with a lack of transparency, accountability, and participation for all those involved. The complexity for the C of E is that there are at least four parties to questions of training, each with their own concerns which in some way clash or are in tension with each other: bishops and dioceses; training institutions; central church management and decision-making (Ministry Council); and ordinands themselves, along with those who support and sponsor them.
In the debate in Synod last week I made this short speech, outlining some key concerns:
I am very encouraged by the new and refreshing tenor of these discussions about ministry training. For many years—decades even—these discussions have been beset by playing off vested interests, with a lack of transparency and accountability—until very recently. I welcome the change of tone.
In this spirit, could I make a plea for four issues to be addressed.
First, we desperately need to rediscover a depth of biblical and theological engagement in our pre-ordination training. Everyone I speak to—training incumbents, bishops, even ordinands themselves—recognise the continuing decline in biblical and theological literacy in the newly ordained. This is not the fault of the candidates—it is a failure of our current system.
Secondly, please can we find a common core for training. Deacons, priests and bishops are ordained using the same vows to a shared ministry. It makes no sense that they do not cover much of the same issues in their training. Without this, we continue to sow division into the future of the church.
Thirdly, we must find a way of equalising hours of study across different pathways. I fear we have succumbed to a missional pragmatism in some of our pathways which undermines depth engagement with key issues.
Fourthly, can we please abandon the idea that ‘formation’ is something separate from study of Scripture and theology. Reading scripture is deeply personally formational, and learning how to read and study scripture aright is a preparation for a lifetime of continuing formation.
If we address these things, I really hope after RMF, we can avoid RMG, RMH, RMI and RMJ in years to come!
There were two very interesting sets of reactions to this. The first was that many people, across the whole range of theological traditions, agreed with my comments very strongly—including some who shared them on social media after I had posted them. This is very significant, since it shows that there is a desire across the Church to address serious concerns with where we have ended up in our approach to training.
I should also add (as an aside) that many people think that the Church is becoming more ‘liberal’. I am not sure that is really the case—at least not in the sense that the word ‘liberal’ has been used historically. Liberal theology in the past has been a robust and substantial intellectual tradition in the Church—and one which has shaped me in many regards. Compared with, say, the evangelicalism of 100 years ago, I think that my acceptance of critical thinking in the reading and interpretation of Scripture makes me look quite ‘liberal’ intellectually. What is happening in the Church at the moment is that it is becoming more ‘progressive’, but that is most often coming out of ignorance, rather than being a well-informed position. At Synod someone shared an anecdote from their recent ordination retreat: on reading the 39 Articles in preparation for their ordination, they were asked by another ordinand ‘What are those?’ And another ordinand was asking whether the Parable of the Good Samaritan came in the gospels. Anecdotes don’t prove anything, but they do illustrate something.
The other reaction was one I had come across before: someone from a particularly tradition in the Church objected to the idea of a common core syllabus, because it would be the means by which a different tradition would impose its agenda on the whole Church. This is a reaction I have had from all traditions! But it precisely illustrates why we need to agree a common core syllabus: without it, we are teaching, training, and forming those being prepared for ordained ministry in quite different ways, and this embeds our divisions and perpetuates them for years to come.
It also illustrates the solution to this disagreement: get people from different theological traditions in a room to thrash out what a core syllabus should cover. We need to deal with our disagreements, not run away from them. I have a feeling and a hope that, when we do this in the light of the ordinal and our current ministry context, we might actually find some surprising agreement.
To that end, I would like to suggest here a list of things that all those being ordained need to have studied and understood. There are many ways to organise this, but one helpful way is to focus on: biblical studies; doctrine, liturgy and history; and practical theology. The reason for this stems from the Church of England’s own identity: we are Reformed, so need to be rooted in Scripture; we are Catholic, so need to understand doctrine, liturgy and history; and we are a Church for the nation, offering missional invitation and pastoral care. Taking each heading in turn:
Those being ordained should have studied:
- The synoptic gospels
- The Gospel of John
- Pauline theology
- Paul’s major letters (1 Corinthians, Romans)
- Hebrews, Revelation, the catholic epistles
- Torah (Pentateuch)
- The OT prophets
- Wisdom literature
- OT ‘histories’
In each case, the teaching and learning needs to cover the content of the texts, theological themes, critical issues in reading, and the history of interpretation, including recent developments. In addition there should be the opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew, which for some should be compulsory.
The overall goal should be for those being ordained to have grown in confidence in their handling of Scripture, and to have confidence in Scripture as ‘the word of God written’ which will nourish them and those they minister and build up their faith.
I have grouped these areas of study into manageable chunks which, in higher education terms, would take up about 10 credits. I cannot see how this material could be covered in less than 80 credits, that is, one third of a full-time two-year course or equivalent.
Doctrine, liturgy, history
This area is much more complex to think about, since there are quite different ways that it can be approached. To take one example, in thinking about the doctrine of the person of Christ (Christology), you could either look at different ways in which this had been considered through different periods of history, and different themes. Or you could study different periods of the history of Christian thought, and in each one have a section on Christology. But overall, it seems to me that ordinands should cover:
- Theories of atonement
- The medieval period
- The Reformation
- Modernity and postmodernity
- Anglican liturgical development from 1552, 1662, into the modern period
- Philosophy of religion
The goal here should be to enable ordinands affirm with confidence their answer to this question in the ordination service:
Do you believe the doctrine of the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it, and in your ministry will you expound and teach it?
Note the twin focusses here on ‘the Christian faith’ and ‘as the Church of England has received it’. Once more, I don’t see how this material could be covered in less than 80 credits, that is, one third of a full-time two-year course or equivalent.
In some ways, this is more straightforward to think about. Ordinands need to cover:
- Pastoral care
- Leading worship
- Mission and evangelism
- Sacramental theology and practice (baptism, Communion)
- Education, learning, and growth in discipleship
These are the subjects which most obviously connect with actual practice and placement experience during training, unlike the previous two lists. In fact, alongside exploring issues and principles, an essential elements in all of these is the integration of practice with reflection, drawing on scriptural and theological perspectives.
I suspect that some readers of these lists would see this kind of outline as quite ‘traditional’ in some respects, but I hope they provoke some observations and discussion, and raise some questions.
My first question is: what is wrong with these lists? What is missing, and what is unnecessary? I am genuinely interested in answers to these questions—but it is not obvious to me what from these lists someone being ordained in the Church of England could do without. At best, there might be one or two things that could be pushed into the second part of initial training—but there is no agreed framework for that either at the moment.
And my observation is that I don’t think all these things are being covered in ordination training across the different pathways at the moment. Some pathways miss a number of these subjects out; others simply don’t have time to cover them adequately—though I say this from observation, rather than a systematic analysis of current provision (which should be done, but because of diversity of training would be a complex task). And I have never been convinced by the suggestion that ordination for ministry in certain contexts means that you can miss some of this out—not least because ordained ministry in the C of E is nationally deployable.
When I wrote about this previously, Simon Stocks asked this question in comments:
Are you aware of any approved ordination training pathways that do not include all the elements you outline?
If that is the case, then why can’t we move to a common core syllabus immediately? The fact that so many have resisted it suggests that it is indeed not the case!
Two final comments, on ‘traditions’ and delivery.
Having something like these lists as a core curriculum need not determine or constraint the distinctive theological or intellectual tradition of an institution, within the boundaries of Anglican identity. Institutions always vary in their ethos, and that ethos is carried by many more things than the subject content. In fact, it is vital that the tradition is not carried by a selectivity of content; we should not commit to being evangelical, or liberal, or catholic out of ignorance of other traditions and emphasises, but as a result of engagement with them.
Secondly, there are important discussions to be had about modes of delivery. I was trained in a residential college; I completed my PhD part-time whilst doing a mixture of ministerial and non-ministerial work; I first taught on a diocesan course; I had a substantial period of time as academic dean of a residential college; but I have since taught on a context-based course. I previously commented on these three main modes of training:
- 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.
But the question that all pathways need to address is the equity of learning hours—and we are currently living with an unhelpful fudge. (See on that posts in the comments an exchange between Mike Higton of Durham and myself on the question of learning hours in context-based training.)
A further major factor in the delivery of training is how we make it inclusive across educational and class divides; it remains the case that the Church of England has a poor record of selecting and training working-class leaders, and as a result consistently fails to reach the working-class population.