Nicholas Turner worries about efficient theological education

‘The Church needs more intensive, better focused, higher quality and more extended theological education’ for its clergy. A new report shows a clear desire for higher standards, and for the continuation of the discipline of training beyond ordination. No argument here.

Its first priority is ‘a deep grounding in the Scriptures and Christian theology’. But does this admirable intention require so comprehensive a re-ordering of the entire structure of the CofE’s theological education as it goes on to propose? Will a modernized, efficient structure deliver the higher standards it seeks? That is the question.

It may be trying too hard. ‘We make proposals to provide high quality training for the clergy’ (1.3) it states in the introduction. Excellent. But note how the continuation of this sentence falls steadily away from that first simple intention: ‘that will equip them to offer vibrant and collaborative spiritual leadership and to empower a vocationally motivated laity – and, thereby, to promote and serve God’s mission in the world.’

A virtual report

The ‘Structure and Funding of Ordination Training Working Party’ was established in March 2000 under the chairmanship of Bishop John Hind. An interim report was circulated among the interested institutions, and now the final report has been posted on the internet, in preparation for the July General Synod. 76,000 words, heavy with jargon and technical educational language, it is also extremely hard to discover – most search engines cannot find it – and may even demand a password.

‘We detect an appetite for significant change,’ it declares, ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary,’ ‘building on existing strengths’ (1.3). It is clearly attempting to be comprehensive, and has carefully answered every objection and included every qualification. This, inevitably, makes it still more difficult to read.

It would be unfortunate if it were to be accepted by Synod, simply because it is too long and complicated to be understood, or too technical to be analyzed by any but the experts. Parts of it are excellent, but that is what the curate said to the bishop about his egg. It is not an easy report to judge; that is not a criticism, it is simply a fact.

It is also, to its credit, quite open-ended. There is considerable detail on finance, but, unlike so many other projects for change, the lack of money does not seem to be the dominant sub-text. It fits both a New Directions style pessimism and a Church House style optimism, an expanding, confident Church or the declining remnant.

It is not immune from the savings culture, but that is almost a formal requirement these days. It notes that if 75 students with families could (for the sake of their dependents of course) be transferred from colleges to courses, that would save £1 million a year. This then provides them with some of the money needed for their suggested reforms.

Excellent proposals

There are many proposals that are either eminently sensible or simply catching up with changes in the secular educational world. There is, in other words, much helpful material, which could be put into effect without the need for wider debate.

It is recommended that initial ministerial education (IME) should be ‘reconfigured’ as the period from acceptance for training to the end of the title parish (Pr 1). It should be considered as a coherent whole, which it is not at present, so that it can lead into the more established second phase of continuing ministerial education (CME).

One of the implications of this is that less stress need be made in college on practical training for such things as the pastoral offices, if this is to be properly dealt with in the first training post. It would also allow, and maybe even demand, some initial theological training before a college or course. Its phrasing is more polite, but essentially the problem is the increasingly high number of theologically illiterate applicants, who need some clear, introductory teaching before their training begins.

The use of credit points, co-ordinated across the whole range of the Church’s theological education would enable older candidates in particular to make use of their earlier learning and experience. It would also mean that work done in one course could be taken into account in another scheme, elsewhere and at a later date. In a fluid social and educational context, credits are increasingly the means by which different institutions take account of work done elsewhere.

This links to another co-ordinating proposal, that much of the Church’s educational provision be extended beyond ordinands and clergy to the laity, as it says, ‘under the general title Education for Discipleship’, so that there is a basis of shared theological competence (Pr 3). A lay person might take up some part-time study (there are Bishop’s Certificates offered in some dioceses), which could then be taken into account if he or she ever offered for ordination.

This in turn lays a basis for providing a common level of theological competence that could be demanded of prospective ordinands before their training begins. A certain number of credit points or equivalent would have to be obtained by those who have gained ‘no prior formal learning in theology’ (5.27).

Intelligent priests

All this in turn leads to a still more important proposal, that every candidate for the ordained ministry should achieve a minimum of diploma level in ministerial theology, and that all who hold posts of responsibility (team vicars and above) should achieve degree level, or its equivalent. Which, in turn, means that opportunity must be given for clergy in the early years of their ministry to improve their qualifications.

The report speaks of ‘rising expectations’ of the clergy, which in some ways is a strange notion. Generally, expectations are falling, and it notes poor levels of biblical literacy among newly ordained clergy and a ‘clear deficit in theological knowledge and skills in curates’ (4.17). What it refers to are the newer managerial expectations.

The laity may recognize that the quality of its priests is falling, yet still have rising expectations of its clergy as parish managers, able to deal with committees, finance, ministry teams and community groups. The idea that parish incumbents are responsible professional leaders and therefore must have attained a common and appropriate level of education and training is much to be welcomed.

The report speaks throughout of collaborative ministry, but the seriousness with which it treats all ministerial training might raise the status of the parish clergy, and lead to a reduction in the number of ordained diocesan officers, whose positions have been created in part because of the lowered expectations of the parochial clergy.

Individual plans

The proposals mentioned so far indicate the working party’s seriousness of purpose; nothing less than a thorough and solid improvement in the quality of theological education is envisaged. The intentions are admirable; what is less certain is its confidence that these intentions can be put into effect; it is as though the theological notion of sin does not here apply.

One of the suggestions, based on the opportunities afforded by a comprehensive range of training options co-ordinated by a system of credits, is that each candidate should have an individually tailored scheme for his or her training (8.16). ‘It is important to clarify’, it continues, ‘that the phrase “individual training plan” ought not to be taken to imply that decisions about training should be driven by individual candidates or that training should be “individualized”.’ This is exactly what it implies; the insertion of an ‘ought’ does not nullify the pressures of a consumer culture of choice.

Where does the necessary control and discipline come from? Directly and by example, from the older colleges founded in a firm tradition and with a clear focus on ministry and mission. As a former tutor at such a college, I may be particularly sensitive to the implied criticisms, but I found its attack on ‘theological colleges founded in a particular tradition of the Church’ intemperate. Its articulated principle (6.9) that ‘training for ordination must, in principle, be training for ordained ministry in the Church of England as a whole, and not just part of it’ seems patronizing.

Or foolish. The idea that one might remove the distinctive character of, say, Oak Hill and St Stephen’s House, in search of a collaborative comprehensiveness, without losing their most valuable qualities does not seem realistic. One can go further. The idea that one could centralize and co-ordinate without losing distinctiveness and diversity is nonsense.

The core focus for theological education is not the Church of England, it is the Christian faith. Church administrators must recognize that they are nurturing ministers whose primary loyalty may not be (ought not to be) the earthly institution, but, as Article XXIII reminds us, the wider (and less sharply defined) world of ‘the Lord’s vineyard’.

Regional partnerships

Education is not efficient. There may be efficiencies to be made, but that is something else entirely. The proposal that administrative services seek savings by co-operation, sharing of resources and the ‘appropriate use of Information Technology’ (7.7) is quite acceptable so long as one does not take it too seriously.

Unfortunately, the comprehensiveness of the report, by setting this efficiency within the context of entirely new schemes, militates against its own proposals. The efficiency it is seeking will only be achieved by the introduction of new layers of management, which in turn will lead to the bureaucratic overload that is part of the present problem.

Education is not efficient. The principal proposals hope to be. Regional theological training partnerships (Pr 5 & 6) will provide the full range of the CofE’s needs, training stipendiary clergy as well as readers, lay workers, OLMs, as well as offering lay education, mission training and research.

It is undoubtedly a ‘new framework’. It would certainly be more efficient, but would it be theological education? There is an internal logic to the whole of this report, it is full of many interesting and valuable proposals, and yet the overall vision does not carry conviction.

Even if the regional partnerships, collaborative, ecumenical and centrally administered, were not simply a revamp of the worst features of existing regional training schemes; even if they did find a new energy (and the north west of England would surely gain), even if they fulfilled the best hopes laid on them, are they what we want or need? It seems churlish to say this, after so much hard work, but I think the answer is no.

What is offered is a managerial vision of ministry that is neither wanted nor needed. Ironically, even if it were (and I may have misread its aims), it demands a quality of intellectual weight and theological leadership from diocesan bishops that very few would be able to provide – the Bishops of Durham and Chichester certainly, but not many others.

The final straw, unfairly perhaps, is its ninth proposal. ‘We recommend that the regional training partnerships bid for funds on a yearly basis from the Ministry Division.’ With all the problems and debate surrounding the NHS, not to mention education, prisons, transport and every other area of public life touched by internal markets and private-public economics, it is impossible to welcome the CofE’s entry into this contemporary nightmare.

Sorry, but no thanks

It is my Anglican diffidence. It is as though I have gone into a shop and described what I want, and the shopkeeper has expended a great deal of effort searching out in the back and then returns, and I feel hugely embarrassed to have to say, ‘I am sorry. That is not what I had in mind at all.’

The desire to see clergy theological education improved, to see the required standards rise, to ensure that the biblical and doctrinal core is firmly established, all this is excellent. I want to welcome this report, and I want General Synod to demand all this of the Ministry Division.

But I remain unconvinced that the ‘significant change’ it proposes will achieve any of it. It will achieve something, but not these hopes.

Current numbers of ordinands:

Colleges 540
Courses 588
OLM candidates 217


Nicholas Turner was formerly a tutor at St Stephen’s House and is now one of the Bishops’ Inspectors for theological training.