Thinking outside the box

The Church of England, like any other branch of the Civil Service, is not noted for its radical approaches to the tasks it faces. Having been around for a very long time, there is an inbuilt bias towards preserving the status quo. We naturally prefer to fail in the time-honoured fashion and convince ourselves that our poor performance is in fact very commendable.

You only have to think of all the dignitaries telling us what a success the Decade of Evangelism was – the decade in which we lost a substantial proportion of our congregations. The younger generation are deserting the Church in droves, or perhaps were never recruited in the first place. Men are noticeable by their absence from Sunday worship and yet the Church of England maintains its sedate progress through increasingly stormy waters. We excuse our failures and convince ourselves that no young people live in our parish and that all the men have demanding jobs.

Somehow we never seem to notice that the New Frontiers church down the road seems to be largely unaffected by these social phenomena. We shouldn’t be surprised. In the real world incumbent monopolists, lulled into a false sense of security by years of protectionism are frequently taken to the cleaners by new dynamic thrusting upstarts as soon as competition is allowed into the marketplace.

Approaching the problem

So it is refreshing to find that a working party is thinking radically about the provision for theological education. For a start they are thinking about the training of full-time stipendiary clergy, NSMs, OLMs, lay readers and other laity all in the same breath. That must be good, if only because they are all likely to finish up working together collaboratively in parishes. Then they are looking at pre-selection training, ordination training and post-ordination training together and that must be good too. How many ordinands were acutely aware of the discontinuities when they were going through the system?

Full marks for setting a challenging agenda, but where are the Richard Bransons on the working party to come up with creative proposals with flair? The working party is chaired by a bishop who was formerly the principal of a theological college (from which the House of Bishops withdrew recognition shortly after he left). There is another statutory diocesan bishop. There is one evangelical principal and one Anglo-Catholic one. There is a principal of a regional training course and three ladies (one chaplain of a Higher Education institution, one principal of an OLM scheme and one principal of a college in York), a statutory diocesan secretary and a lay member of the General Synod. There is the statutory representative from another Anglican Church (the Church in Wales) and a statutory ecumenical observer (from the Methodists).

Old Hands

To put it mildly, the working party doesn’t exactly have a great deal of external input to its deliberations. Most of its members are practitioners involved in the delivery of the educational process. Few are involved primarily as consumers of the end product – and it shows.

The basic philosophy of the working party seems to be that the Church must control and own the whole educational process from beginning to end. The present division between colleges and courses managing pre-ordination training and dioceses managing post-ordination training does not find favour.

Somehow, it is taken as a given that the present situation is inherently unsatisfactory, but no convincing argument is offered as to why this should be so. As far as I am aware, my former employers BT, still recruit as trainee managers graduates from just about every university in the country. No one suggests that there ought to be a BT University with an integrated programme taking each intake from A levels all the way to middle management positions in the company. BT managers need business skills, so they do their MBAs in business schools all over the place. They don’t all find themselves herded into a BT business school.

Babies and Bathwater

There seems to be a real danger that the working party are heading in the direction of a scorched earth approach. Their possible conclusions seem to be influenced by the life cycle of a butterfly or perhaps a moth. The caterpillar gorges itself while it can and then turns into a chrysalis. Its internal body parts all dissolve into a milky substance and then reform so that when the creature emerges, it does so as a winged insect.

The working party seems determined to abolish all the existing institutions – colleges, courses and the like, and come up with an enormous national institution or large regional ones. There is a clear desire to prepare students for ministry in the ‘Church of England’ rather than in one particular tradition of it.

That is all very well, but it is a giant leap of faith. Some would say it smacks of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It seems the working party would like to dismantle all the institutions that have served us (some very well and some pretty abysmally) and ask us to believe that the massive costs and disruption of reorganization and relocation will produce something better.


I can see that the establishment apparatchiks might be pleased with the featureless clones such a system might produce, but what might the consumers say? The consumers incidentally form the electorate for the House of Laity of the General Synod. From observation, I notice that in many dioceses the powerhouse parishes are those with a distinctive churchmanship. The parishes that draw in the congregations, raise the finances, bankroll the diocese and produce the ordinands are generally not middle-of-the-road, wishy-washy ones. They tend to be distinctive and are unlikely to be supportive of moves to turn off the supply of the kind of new ministers they desire and be fobbed off with bland ‘Church of England’ types instead.

In fact, the kind of ministers that the working party’s proposals would produce are the kind you find in failing churches right across the country. Is this working party simply a front for yesterday’s élite to have a last throw of the dice to try and pass on to posterity a failing Church of England? Why, oh why cannot we build on the excellence that we have (however little of it there may be)? When will we have a working party which is not in awe of the kind of centralized command economy that failed the Soviet Union? Who will have the courage to let a thousand flowers bloom, abolish the quotas the House of Bishops impose on the existing theological colleges, and let independent enterprise respond to the needs of the parishes? In so doing the colleges and courses might serve the Church far better than the dead hand of centralized control could ever do.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.