By some measures, theological education and ordination training in the Church of England is in a state of rude health. The Renewal and Reform programme set a target of increasing the numbers coming forward and training for ordination by 50% over the next five years, in order to address the large numbers of clergy retiring, and in the first year of this plan the numbers increased by 14%. In the least year or two, at least three of the residential colleges (Trinity in Bristol, Cranmer in Durham and Ridley Hall in Cambridge) had their highest ever intakes. It seems as though the system is running like a well-oiled machine.
And yet, two weeks ago in the Church Times, the leaders of many of the training institutions complained that the whole system was on the verge of collapse.
Just as the Church of England seeks to expand the number of ordinands by 50 per cent, the leaders of the theological education institutions (TEIs) have told this paper that the training process is “totally underfunded”, “starved of funds”, and “quite likely to collapse”.
The Principal of St Augustine’s College, Kent (until 2015, the South East Institute of Theological Education), the Revd Dr Alan Gregory, said in reply an enquiry: “I agree that the financial situation is a critical one. We are like the story of the donkey whose feed was reduced until he dropped down dead. We are almost in the position of the donkey every year.”
I am not sure exactly what prompted the quotation from Alan Gregory—and (having been in the system for the best part of ten years myself) I am aware that there has been a concerned about strategic viability for as long as I can remember. There is a structural reason for this: for historical reasons, residential colleges are in an odd relationship with the Church, in that they are legally and managerially separate organisations, who have entered an agreement with the Church to train ordinands under certain conditions. In theory, they could actually train people for other churches and other ministries, and are free to do so (in some years, I think Oakhill in London has actually had more ministers in training from other denominations than from the C of E). But in practice, training Anglican ordinands has been the main business. In this regard, colleges are in a similar situation to farmers supplying Tesco: in theory, they could diversify and look to other business partners, but in practice that is not possible. So colleges are in practice very much constrained by the Church, but are not managed by them. It is difficult to see an easy way of changing this structural oddity.
But this has led to a sense of financial squeeze, since the Church itself is financially constrained. No college manages to cover its costs through ordination training alone, and indeed all the training institutions working with the Church have been encouraged to diversify and look to other sources of income generation. And this is where the problems start. If you are in a university town, and can rent out your buildings to a language school every summer, then that is easily manageable. But what if you are not and you can’t? If you have generated historic assets over many years, you can put those to work—but what if you have no historic assets? It would be neither wise nor acceptable for the Church to pay differentiated rates for training in such different circumstances—but it does mean that this is not a level playing field.
If this is the long-term situation, why the outcry now? The CT article gives a mere hint:
Finding funds for clergy training has never been easy, and there is a historical element to the crisis, as too many training institutions have chased too few candidates for ordination. But a new move this year has caused more uncertainty, handing funding decisions from the Archbishops’ Council to the dioceses.
This is the process known as Resourcing Ministerial Education, introduced by Steven Croft (now Bishop of Oxford) when he was chair of Ministry Division, which sought to reconfigure some key elements of the previous arrangements—the most radical of which was to give block grants to dioceses and allow them to spend them on ordinands’ training as they saw fit, rather than to pay institutions and ordinands directly from a central fund.
When the RME proposals were first published, I noted the positive elements that were present. But I also noted some serious problems in the proposals, at first focussing on the complete lack of any criteria for what constitutes ‘effective’ training.
Click on the link, and you will find a 66-page report from the Institute of Education in the University of London, which all looks very impressive. I read it with some anticipation; after all, surely ‘effectiveness of ministry’ and its training correlate ‘effectiveness of training’ are the Holy Grail of church leadership and theological education. Wouldn’t identifying these things resolves differences and give us a clear focus for the significant expenditure on ministerial training? Of course it would.
But it isn’t there.
There was no further debate on this point, and the discussion quickly shifted to the consequences of the new funding system. After a series of exchanges with Steven Croft—on published blogs, personally and in writing—my observation was that the system would lead to a rapid decline in the more expensive forms of residential training, and a growth in non-residential and ‘context-based’ training, not because of need or effectiveness, but because of costs.
If I am deciding whether to buy apples or pears, and I find that apples are 50p each but pears are 30p each, and I have produced a 66-page report demonstrating that apples and pears are equally good for me—and I am focussing on best value for money—which will I buy? Answer: pears! And if I am told I need more fruit than previously, and that budgets are tight, will I buy some apples and some pears? No! I will buy nothing but pears. This is the logical outcome of the statement that residential training and part-time training offer no difference in effectiveness. And this is where most readers of the initial report saw a lack of commitment to theological training.
Secondly, the loss of residential theological training will be the inevitable albeit unintended outcome of the proposal to devolve budgeting and planning to diocese.
After the first year of RME, what has happened? Did I (and others) have a point, and would we begin to see a shift away from residential training to context-based and part-time training? Or was Steven Croft right, and we were all just defending our prejudices and scaremongering. Well, the change has been assessed after one year, and (as they say) the results are in.
The number of ordinands following non-residential full-time courses (primarily those known previously as context based courses) has grown by almost 70%.
In contrast the number of residential ordinands has seen a 9% fall.
The number of ordinands following a regional part time course has shown a 22% increase.
I think it is worth reiterating: these are the results of the first year only of the introduction of RME. This represents a massive, radical reconfiguration of ordination training, driven by changes in financial arrangements, without a single sentence of rationale in relation either to theological or pedagogical concerns. To quote Will Smith in the film I, Robot, ‘You know, somehow “I told you so” just doesn’t quite say it’.
(You might, dear reader, be asking how some residential colleges have experienced record intakes if this was the case, and you might then need to be reminded that the college which was the largest at one point has recruited no students for three years. If that is a surprise to you, then you might then wonder how such a momentous thing could happen without any comment from the centre or any review of the processes of training and funding. That would be a good question to ask.)
The biggest single drop-out from residential training is in the two-year category, that it, those coming into training over the age of 32. The within this age group, the numbers heading for residential training have dropped by one third, again in a single year.
Why does all this matter? If we need to make training more affordable, isn’t this just a necessary adjustment? Well, perhaps—but that was explicitly and repeatedly denied when the RME processes were proposed. But there is a deeper reason, and at this point we need to remember a witticism:
Q: How do hedgehogs make love?
Anyone who is within the system of theological education needs to make observations about that system very carefully, since comments about theological strategy are all too easy interpreted as criticisms of particular people or institutions. In my experience, everyone involved in theological education is highly committed and hard-working, and so is naturally concerned about the particular institution or training process that they are involved in. But as I have pointed out before, the shift from residential to non-residential training represents a significant reduction in actual learning hours within training. There are some very good pedagogical and even theological arguments for a context-based approach to training, and many of us would be very happy to see initial training as a significant, ongoing part of formation in an integrated way before and after actual ordination. But the dramatic shift shown above in the first year of RME actually represents a massive cut to the theological learning hours prior to ordination, which is not made up in post-ordination training. Let me say again: I am not here criticising any individuals or institutions; what I am criticising is the strategic direction that training is taking.
Anyone who thinks theology matters in the formation of ministers in the Church of England should be greatly concerned.
There remain two other concerns, one for RME, and one for the training as a whole. In relation to RME, it is clear that some dioceses have spent their block grant in such as way as to generate significant financial surpluses—in other words, they have directed people to cheaper training pathways—whilst other dioceses have generated deficits. This not only indicates a basic failure of the system, but (in conjunction with the national figures above) makes it impossible to argue that finance has not played a key part in determining training—again, contrary to everything that was said when RME was introduced.
The second concern is the deep problem of the lack of a common syllabus for ordination training across institutions. Failure to talk about a common syllabus was a major missed opportunity in the Common Awards process. And it came about (essentially) because of mistrust within the system. Evangelicals thought they would have a liberal syllabus imposed on them; liberals feared an evangelical syllabus. And those in the centre had neither the energy—nor probably the authority—to knock heads together.
The current situation of training is baffling to many looking in from the outside—and baffling because of this one failure, to have an agreed pre-ordination syllabus. I was once tasked with explaining, concisely and in an engaging way, the Common Awards process of discussion to the support staff (administrators, cooks and cleaners) of the college I taught at. I asked a question: ‘Given that everyone is training for the same ministry, do you think we should all cover the same things?’ Every person in the room thought the answer was ‘Yes’! It is baffling to most who look at the system as a whole that some ordinands spend twice as much time studying the Bible as others, or that people can be ordained without having had any teaching on how to preach, or that church history might be an option (rather than compulsory), or that it is possible to complete training without having engaged with Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Despite all the recent changes—or rather, because of them—a major rethink of theological education is needed.
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