John Edmondson plumbs into the leaky delivery of theological education
Following the General Synod of July 2003, at which the recommendations of the Hind Report were largely accepted, the structure of ordination training serving the Church of England is being subjected to what amounts to the most fundamental change since the growth of the theological college system in the nineteenth century. Although the remaining colleges will continue to enjoy separate recognition by the House of Bishops, it is the basic intention of the process of reorganization that new Regional Training Partnerships will be the principal providers of ordination training, bringing together colleges, Regional Courses, local ordination schemes and diocesan arrangements for continuing ministerial education.
There is much to be said for any reorganization which can produce better initial ministerial education. But in this case it seems that the Church of England is pressing ahead without a detailed awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of each element of the resources which it is reorganizing. I call this ‘Water Board theology’, because of the close analogy with the water supply industry which until recently sought to improve customer service with the glamour of new reservoir schemes when what was really called for was a (now realized) non-glamorous programme of mending leaky pipes. Before it is too late, those driving the present process of change need to give further consideration to what is really being delivered by the Regional Courses so that their weaknesses can be remedied rather than reinforced within the new arrangements.
The Southwark Ordination Course (SOC) was the pathfinder for a style of ordination training which by the academic year 2002/2003 was training more than half of all nationally-sponsored ordinands. SOC’s first intake of students was in 1960 and its general pattern of training set a blueprint for future Regional Courses. Midweek evening lectures were supplemented by regular weekends away and a longer residential summer school. Of the various aims of SOC initially the most familiar to us today would be the desire to avoid uprooting families during training and that of earthing theology in the realities of the working world. The first formal Inspection of the Course took place in 1962 and the Inspection Report concludes with the Inspector’s hopes ‘that this courageous experiment will receive every encouragement’. From that time onwards it has seemed that encouragement, rather than criticism, of the Courses has been generally what has been expected of the Church as a whole. Perhaps this is why the three basic reservations contained in the same report have never yet been addressed adequately. These were lack of contact time with tutors, the slenderness of biblical teaching, and the tiredness of students after a day’s work.
Network of courses
Although SOC started as a local initiative providing an alternative training route for men mainly destined for stipendiary ministry, the publishing of Bishops’ Regulations for the new category of Auxiliary Pastoral (now Non-Stipendiary) Ministry in 1970 gave impetus to the establishment of a network of Courses offering part-time ordination training throughout the country. The network was completed a decade later with the recognition of the Carlisle Course in 1980. A year before that, significant financial worries within the Church, during a time of high national inflation, led to an extraordinary decision by the House of Bishops to validate all of the Regional Courses for training for the Stipendiary Ministry, even when many of them did not see themselves as equipped to do this. From 1979 dates the second major reservation concerning Courses which has never subsequently been remedied, namely the clear statement from the then Chief Secretary of ACCM that ‘Three years of non- residential training is the rough equivalent of half the study hours available in two years of residential training.’
More recently the network of Regional Courses has been subject to adaptation and development. Following the Lincoln and Hereford Reports of the early 90s, all Courses have served more than one diocese. In common with the colleges, since the acceptance of’ ‘ACCM 22’ published in 1987 there has been no central syllabus for ordination training but a responsibility placed on each individual institution to define the syllabus content it deems appropriate for preparation for the ministry.
For the past five years the writer has been engaged in research with the Department of Theology in Durham to evaluate the effectiveness of the Regional Courses in their provision of ordination training. This has involved consulting the archives of the Courses to examine their historical development and surveying past students, training incumbents and Rural Deans who have supervised them when ordained, and diocesan Bishops. A total of 1,248 written responses were received and analyzed, and a number of significant interviews were carried out. The results in part make for alarming reading and at the very least invite reconsideration of the current strategy before the means of implementation become ‘set in stone’.
The most worrying result of the surveys is that the opinions of bishops and supervisory clergy are diametrically opposed to those of past students when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of the Courses. Taking into account the views of 1,007 past students responding, the curricular area of general academic theology was given the highest rating and that of mission awareness and skills the lowest. When it came to the assessment of Course training by the Bishops, exactly the opposite pattern emerged and this was repeated in responses by 210 supervisory clergy and rural deans, on the basis of an assessment of those they had personally supervised or overseen. It is the polarity of views with regard to mission awareness and skills which is potentially most serious. On Courses generally, a low profile is given to evangelism, whilst mission tends to be understood in terms of theological discernment of God’s Trinitarian action, already operative in other people and contexts (following the teachings of Professor Daniel Hardy). It seems that bishops and supervisors believe Course-trained clergy can understand others better simply because they have remained in their work or domestic situation whilst training. But those thus trained are only too aware that, having understood others, they have not been trained effectively to encourage them in God-ward direction.
The problem, which exists with regards to general academic theology on Courses has a number of facets which are worthy of note. In the first place, if our bishops rate the Courses so lowly in their teaching of theology, it is rather surprising that they are content that the situation should remain unimproved. After all, what is a priest if not a theologian? Surely the understanding and interpretation of the knowledge of God is central to all ordained ministry. Secondly, the teaching of traditional doctrine has been squeezed in all theological institutions because of extra introductions to the curricula, but with the time constraints on the Courses, the problem is made especially acute. Courses stress their emphasis on the inculcation of a pattern of life-long learning, but the contrasting survey results tend to imply that students graduating from the Courses may not be fully aware of the magnitude of the corpus of theology they have yet to espouse, as against that which they have enjoyed touching upon. At interview, more than one Course Principal used the phrase ‘scratching the surface’ in connection with describing the task in hand.
Finally there is the question of theological approach. There is not now the prevailing degree of liberalism that there once was on Courses, but Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals alike still report instances of that intolerant liberalism among lecturers which is ready to ridicule the holding of orthodox views by students as simply untenable in the context of contemporary theological education. The Courses have a remit of catering for students from the whole spectrum of churchmanship but, because of low staffing levels, each student is likely to find only one member of staff who understands him or her fully.
The ‘ACCM 22’ initiative, already referred to, of demanding that theological institutions themselves define an appropriate content for their syllabus, has had a different effect on the Courses from the colleges. This appears not to have been taken into account adequately by the House of Bishops. Whereas those going to college can value diversity of approach in the context of a choice of institution to attend, typically those attending the Courses have no choice at all. For the Courses the ‘ACCM 22’ approach amounts to a legitimization of different standards throughout the country. This is borne out by the results of the student survey which indicate a wide variation in satisfaction levels. In the worst case 37.5% of all students on one Course wished they could have chosen a college, ‘given their time again’. An analysis of all student responses showed that satisfaction levels were most closely related to experience of Biblical Studies. Putting the two together leads to melancholy conclusions!
Having had the privilege of visiting each of the Regional Theological Courses and talking to personnel from each one, as well as those from the Ministry Division, I can testify to the hard work and personal dedication of staff and students alike on the Regional Courses. Nothing I have learned or written should be taken as a personal criticism of any individual thus involved. They are all doing their best. But that is not the same as saying that the system of Regional Course training as currently provided is adequate. One diocesan bishop has summed up their main weakness obliquely as ‘Residential training enables more in depth focus on everything’! Perhaps the last word should go to the present Archbishops’ Adviser for Bishops’ Ministry, the Reverend Dr John Mantle, who says on p278 of his Britain’s First Worker-Priests (London, SCM, 2000), ‘It is possible to argue that though more and more people are being trained for ministry, fewer and fewer are being helped to grasp in any real depth the building blocks that will help them engage with a sophisticated and fragmented society.’
It is strongly asserted by some that Regional Course training for the ministry is the equivalent of training at colleges, just different. That assertion is not true.
Dr John Edmondson is Vicar of St Mark’s, Bexhill-on-Sea.