The Bishop of Willesden does not like what he reads

The Hind report, Formation for Ministry within a Learning Church is about to wend its way through the synodical process – House of Bishops, General Synod – and then on into the era of implementation. If it is approved, it will radically change the face and shape of ordination training. In all my years on Synod, I do not think I ever so fundamentally disagreed with the presuppositions and recommendations of a report as I do this one.

The working party chaired by the Bishop of Chichester speak of having detected ‘an appetite for radical change’ in the approach of the Church of England to training ordinands. Indeed, there is such an appetite, but reading the report that follows is enough to give the reader indigestion and heartburn. How can such a working party with such a distinguished membership have ended up getting it so wrong?

Training for what?

We need to ask the question ‘What sort of ministry are we training people for?’ The report has attempted to address this, but only gone halfway towards identifying the problem. It says, rather wetly, that ‘the character of the ordained ministry should be appropriate for missionary endeavour in the name of Christ’ Yes, but how are we going to ensure that we call priests with mission in their bloodstream and fire in their souls? Hind does nothing to help with this.

The criteria for selection for ministry require fundamental revision. In the Church of England in the twenty-first century we grow or we die. I understand growth to mean growth in numbers, growth in discipleship, growth in fellowship and growth in relation to our local context. In order to make this happen, we need priests who are leaders in mission. Some will have to operate in the traditional church structures; others will work by becoming leaders in new church structures; others still will have to work in both old church and new church. They will not be able to do the job unless they can lead a church forward in mission. We need to stop defining priests in relation to whether or not they are stipendiary, but rather define them in relation to whether they are leaders or not.

The report takes us up a number of blind alleys. From the uncontroversial premise that we embrace lifelong learning for clergy and laity alike, we are led to the proposal that initial training should be reconfigured to include the whole period from entry into training through to the end of the first curacy. Imagine the excitement of a parish receiving the new deacon: ‘We welcome you – we’ll only see you four days a week, because you’ll be engaged on courses, in-service training and continuing studies.’ What parish is going to want to pay for a curate whom they never see? As the report says: ‘In practice, this will entail a reduction in the extent of ministerial duties during the title post.’ Indeed.

Whatever happened to training on the job, alongside a holy and prayerful parish priest? Of course we need good POT, but this is madness wrapped up in a learning portfolio! The authors of the report detected a high level of agreement and approval for this proposal – of course they did! The people they consulted were those with a vested interest in proliferating training and courses – all those highly paid diocesan officers who aren’t running parishes. You can be sure the training incumbents were not consulted: they might have given the proposal the raspberry it deserves.

Secondly, the understanding of the nature of ministry is wrong. The report majors on educational criteria, whereas actually ministry is much more about skills and gifts. The authors of the report have tried to respond to this criticism, even quoting my original accusation that it ‘capitulates to an understanding of priesthood that is more about educational attainment than issues of holiness, prayer, calling, gifts in ministry, and apostolic charge.’ But they end up embracing ‘professionalization’ anyway. Do we really believe that we will get better quality incumbents by insisting that ‘typically’ they should attain degree level in ministerial theology and practice? Graduate status, while laudable, is no guarantee of ministerial competency or of spiritual gift.

Blind to history

It was interesting that the report was launched on the back of some scaremongering about the lack of understanding of the faith among our clergy, in order to prepare the ground for this recommendation. But it is not about degrees and academic qualifications. It’s about God’s supernatural call to be set apart for the ministry of word and sacrament, and degrees – or the lack of them – are only secondary to that.

There is, thirdly, a blindness to history in the realm of theological training. The genius of the Church of England is that it delivers its best work through harnessing entrepreneurial private institutions. Theological colleges such as St Stephen’s House and St John’s Nottingham have served the Church of England by bringing their distinctive Catholic and Evangelical emphases to training ordinands of conviction and commitment. The future proposed by this report is for ‘regional training partnerships’, in which the pressure will be for all theological distinctives to be ironed out of institutions and the ordinands they train in the name of training for the breadth of the Church.

There may well be some merit in a certain amount of regionalization, but it could be achieved much more easily by closing down all the OLM schemes and locating them in existing colleges and courses, and letting the institutions take the lead in provision. We would then be in a much healthier market situation, where those colleges and courses that had something going for them would survive, and those which should have been closed last time round, had the House of Bishops had the nerve to do so, would have gone to the wall.

Inevitable muddle

There is muddled thinking about who the providers are to be; the report embraces the fantasy (oft repeated in General Synod debates and more recently by the Dearing Report) that the church colleges of higher education represent an untapped theological resource for the Church. Though there are a few notable exceptions, the majority of these institutions have sold their birthright and lack much that could be called distinctively Christian. Training for ministry must be in the context of communities of faith commitment, not in secular institutions.

I guess I’m resigned to Synod adopting the report, and selection and training for ministry degenerating into something so bureaucratic and dull that all our best candidates take one look and walk away. Half of me wonders whether the Diocese of London, with 120 ordinands in training, ought not just to opt out of the whole process and make its own arrangements for training with a few institutions of distinction. That would make Hind economically non-viable, and leave it dead in the water. Now there’s a thought.

Pete Broadbent is the Bishop of Willesden.