One of the important issues coming up in this session of Synod is the reconfiguration of ministerial training as part of the Renewal and Reform programme, under the title ‘Resourcing Ministerial Education.’ I commented on it last year, and had an exchange with Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, who is leading on this.
In view of the proposal coming to Synod, the principals of the residential theological colleges circulated a briefing paper helpfully identifying their concerns, and also wrote to the Church Times outlining the issues. Perhaps the most important response to this should be to welcome it. How can we possibly consider any changes to ministerial training without the active and positive involvement of those responsible for delivering a significant part of it? We don’t want to make the same mistakes here as Jeremy Hunt is making with doctors in his handling of the NHS.
On the specific points, Steven Croft has again offered a reply. It is helpful, in that it suggests at one or two points some revision to the proposals, and sets out some reassurances about future financing. I am not quite sure, though, that it actually addresses the concerns being raised. Two of the smaller, specific concerns illustrate this. The principals’ paper notes that it will be hard for those in the 40–55 age bracket to train residentially…
The report states that the ‘Standard grant is age-related to reflect typical choices for each age band’ (para 15). However, the proposed standard grant for age band (c) “40-55”, reflects the current choice made by only 47% of those in this age bracket. And the the proposed standard grant for age band (d) “55 and over” reflects the current choice made by only 45% of those in this age bracket. This does not seem to us ‘typical’
And their letter claims that the banding will disproportionately affect married women, who tend to come into training slightly later than married men, and so will be less able to train residentially under the proposed funding pattern.
We believe that one of the proposals will disadvantage one particular group, and another will disadvantage one particular form of training.
The group that we believe will be disadvantaged is women. On the basis of detailed research in November 2015, we fear that the age-related standard grant, by giving a bigger grant for those aged 29 or under, will enshrine an inbuilt and systemic bias against women and in favour of men in financial terms. This is because the existing pattern and profile of ordinands shows more men than women in that age bracket entering training. While we support an increased effort in encouraging younger women to explore ordination, we cannot endorse a system of funding which reinforces such a bias.
Croft’s responds to these concerns as follows:
RME is not discriminatory against any group, including older candidates or women: dioceses receive a block grant to spend as they see fit in relation to the requirements of each candidate. The age-related grants which make up the block grant are not allocated to an individual. Bishops will have greater flexibility than in the present system to direct a higher level of funding for individual older candidates and women to promote equal opportunity.
This response does not actually engage with the issue being presented. The complaint is not that the proposed changes are deliberately discriminatory, that anyone is making discriminatory decisions, but that the structure of the proposals has an in-built bias for the reasons that they have set out. Of course, bishops could choose to spend more on these two groups—but given that their total finances will be limited, that would mean reducing allocations of funding to another group, and why would they choose to do that? The issue not addressed is the proposed structure itself.
But the much bigger issue is the underlying proposal that decision-making should be de-centralised and regionalised—and I don’t think I have understood where this impulse is coming from. I have had some very interesting conversations about this in the last couple of days, and one person (involved in national training) commented on the strength of anxiety within with dioceses about the falling number of clergy, and how they are going to be replaced. Do those delivering training really appreciate the strength of feeling about this?
Perhaps we have reached the point, either permanently or temporarily, when three years of residential training to level 6 academically is just too expensive or time-consuming. If we really are in need of a 50% growth in ordinations, the same level of commitment to the ‘traditional’ route is not going to be possible. But if this is the case, then less just say it honestly. And on what grounds is addressing this regionally, rather than nationally, going to be preferable? If we wanted to fix or cap the number training residentially, and grow other forms of training, then this would be much better done through central planning and decision-making. The alternative to that will be a growing north-south divide in terms of training, resources, and clergy numbers—and it is a divide which doesn’t need to get any bigger.
I’ve received various other comments as well. ‘Bishops’ regulations are 100 years old and out of date.’ If so, why not update them, and even rename them as training regulations? Why is regional devolution of training standards preferable to revised national guidelines and processes? ‘Training institutions are not responsive to the needs of dioceses as they would like.’ That is an odd comment. It is the institutions who have often innovated and proposed new patterns and new syllabuses. As academic dean of a college, I spent a good deal of my time planning tailor-made pathways for candidates (within the template of the bishops’ regulations) in order to meet training needs by building on previous study.
The claim that needs careful exploration is this one from Steven Croft:
There is already significant and legitimate variation between the ministry needs of, say, a rural diocese and an urban or metropolitan area. These differences are reflected in the differences in training offered by regional courses and to some extent by residential colleges, where context determines the placement experiences available and informs theological study.
Here is the $64,000 question: what is the relation between the shared view on the theological and ministerial (priestly) formation of a candidate, the goals in growth in theological understanding, including the inhabiting of the theological tradition of the Church, and the more diverse practical and pragmatic needs of ministry in a particular context? I suspect that the differences of view on the practical issues above do, in the end, come down to differences of view on this, much more fundamental, question. Steven reports on ‘a major piece of work to develop a common theological statement on formation for ministry’ which has commanded ‘a broad consensus…as a common statement of the endeavour of forming disciples and ministers in the Church of England’. I cannot help feeling that the differences on RME—and the tetchiness in the discussion?—won’t be addressed until we can find the broad consensus on the theological vision.
Perhaps we need to do our business in the reverse order?
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?