An uninspiring report for consideration in July

Synod members spent the middle of June ploughing through 200 pages of GS1496 which rejoiced in the title of Formation for Ministry within a Learning Church. For those who lacked the stamina there was a 25 page summary. So what are we to make of the Hind Committee’s proposals to recast theological education in the Church of England?

In times past clergy were trained in one of the theological colleges, but over the last forty years alternatives to residential courses have evolved. There are part-time regional courses which have proved popular with candidates for NSM and with older ordinands with families. Some dioceses have pioneered OLM, and candidates have been trained in their dioceses, as happens with lay reader training.

The major thrust of the proposals is to consider ministerial training as a whole, embracing vocation, selection, training for ordination, serving in a title post and going right up to first incumbency. This would involve bringing together all the resources of the colleges, the courses and the dioceses – and reorganizing them along regional lines.

The proposals are designed to provide ‘high quality training for the clergy that will equip them to offer vibrant and collaborative spiritual leadership’. That is talking the language of business management. If you substitute a couple of words, you would probably be exactly expressing the sentiments of Tesco’s training manual for supermarket managers. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong in that; it just depends on whether your model of the church is a kind of spiritual Tesco’s.

The Archdeacon of Leicester, writing in the Open Synod Group’s newsletter applauds the report’s theme of lifelong learning, but does wonder whether the proposals will be deliverable. ‘There are real issues about the level of time, money and resources that will be soaked up getting the partnerships to work effectively,’ he says. ‘It is uncertain whether the dioceses will relinquish their role in Reader and lay training. And is this really a zero-cost package,’ he asks, ‘let alone one that reduces the financial demands on the Church?’

The nub of the matter is really whether we are going to melt down everything that we have in the hope that something better will emerge. The improvements offered are all speculative and some may feel that the centralization proposed will inevitably stifle creativity and innovation.

There is already a head of steam building up to oppose the direction this report advocates, but if it emerges from Synod in any recognizable form a number of changes will have to be made.

One of the most damaging proposals in the report (10.2) proposes saving money by reducing the number of married ordinands who train on a full-time basis. This would prevent a key group of ordinands from having the full time residential training which is widely acknowledged as being particularly effective in equipping ordinands for pastoral ministry.

There is an alarming proposal (14.3) which suggests that the final decision about a candidate’s theological education should be made through agreement between the sponsoring bishop, advised by the DDO, and the relevant regional training partnership. This is paternalism gone mad. The final decision has to be made by agreement between the sponsoring bishop and the candidate. This is the situation at the moment and the report offers no convincing argument for change. It is important that candidates are not forced by bishops or training partnerships to train where they do not want to train. It is also important to protect training institutions from being black-listed by bishops with their own agendas.

There is concern that we should be training ordinands for the whole Church of England, and the report’s enthusiasm for regional training may be unhelpful here. What is needed is a guarantee that candidates will be free to move across the regions for training and to be funded for training outside their regions. It would make no sense to destroy the national character of the student body at our theological colleges. There are great benefits in cross-fertilization – unless of course you are determined to reinforce a North-South divide. If you want to see what could easily happen, just look at the Church of Ireland. The only way to be appointed to a title post in Ireland is to train at the Church of Ireland Training College in Dublin – a recipe for inbreeding if ever there was.

One fears that one of the hidden agendas of the report is to assert episcopal control over the whole scheme of things. If the House of Bishops were to grant recognition only to regional training partnerships, as recommended in proposal 6.2, the spectre of centralized control looms menacingly large. It would be far better for the House of Bishops to continue to grant recognition to colleges within the regional partnerships. In this way rationalization of the existing institutions could proceed and the regional partnerships be established.

From the colleges’ point of view, their independence and that of their trusts would be preserved within the partnerships, but they would continue to draw students from all parts of the country, even though other parts of the partnership would have a more regional focus. It would obviously be inappropriate to have regional control of a national asset. There will be a need for a more direct relationship between the colleges and the House of Bishops than the report envisages.

There is also an air of unreality about some of the report’s proposals. The committee do seem to have got carried away by this idea of lifelong learning, but proposal 4.3 clearly needs some rethinking. Of course we expect clergy to continue their education throughout their careers, but is it realistic to expect a curate to be undertaking part-time study to qualify for a degree? Frankly there is unlikely to be the time available for a curate in a title post to do justice both to the demands of the post and the rigours of study for a degree. It would be far more sensible if degrees were acquired before ordination when the candidate can focus on the demands of the course without being burdened by parish duties.

The group of educationalists who wrote this report are clearly enthusiastic for radical change and have even fewer inhibitions than Tony Blair has when he is addressing constitutional issues. However, the person in the pew needs to be concerned about what all these proposals might mean. After all, we are the consumers of the product that the theological education process turns out – and we are the ones who will have to pick up the tab. Who was it who said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’? Maybe he had a point.

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