Summer time in the north
The relaxed informal atmosphere of York in a heat-wave seems to put everyone in a good mood. With the tense atmosphere of Reading defused, we could settle down to four days of debates, interspersed with presentations from those who had persuaded the Business Committee that what they had to say was far too important to be contained in a GS Miscellaneous paper. It is nice to have presentations, of course. When else would you be able to leave the chamber and slake your thirst with a cup of tea downstairs?
Mr Tatchell put in an appearance. He turned up with a few others waving placards and denouncing us as homophobes for daring to disagree with his opinions. It is rather sad. I cannot imagine how he manages to get all the time off work for his activities.
Sometimes one can be forgiven for thinking that the House of Bishops is like a wagon load of monkeys. Nothing is quite what it seems and even the most innocuous speech seems to be cloaking a hidden agenda. For instance, no sooner had Synod approved the Anglican-Methodist covenant than the Bishop of Wonderland (sorry, Woolwich) popped up to move a following motion from the Southwark Diocesan Synod. Motions from Southwark should carry a Health Warning, because the Bishop was keen to assure us that the covenant we had just approved was quite meaningless and changed nothing.
In Wonderland, they wanted something tangible and the Bishop was asking for the interchangeability of presbyteral ministries. Was this a cunning ploy to pave the way for non-episcopal ordinations, or for the Methodists to provide our first woman bishop by the back door, we wondered? If it was, the entertaining piece of bluster, wit and hyperbole which passed for the proposer’s speech left Synod none the wiser. There was a majority of 18 and I really wonder what the 137 members who voted in favour thought they were voting for
The Hind Report
The debate on theological education was potentially one of the most significant of the week. The Bishop of Chichester’s working party was inviting Synod to approve their proposals for a radical shake-up of colleges, regional courses and diocesan training. Members were literally queueing up to express their reservations, knowing that there had been quite a close vote in the House of Bishops on whether the report should come to the Synod at all.
The first skirmish came early on when Dr Paul Roberts moved one of those ‘Delete all words after this Synod’ amendments. He lost by 227-141.
Next came Dr Ian Paul who wanted to strike out the bit about curates having to do part-time study to qualify for degrees. He carried Synod by 207-149. The Bishop of Southwell joined the fray asking that the House of Bishops should continue to grant recognition directly to the theological colleges rather than through regional partnerships. Synod supported him overwhelmingly.
The next proposal under attack was the one to reduce by 75 the number of married ordinands in residential training. This would have meant shunting off 75 people every year from the high standard college courses to the part-time regional training schemes. These are widely perceived as offering a decidedly second-rate training – unless of course you are a chairman of one of the courses, in which case you think they are simply marvellous.
Several speakers pointed out that the flow of early retired recruits into the ministry was drying up and therefore further research into secular employment and retirement trends was needed before any college places were lost. Synod supported Jonathan Alderton Ford’s amendment to this effect.
Professor Thiselton moved that any reduction in college places should be less drastic than the 75 places the report suggested and he too received Synod’s endorsement. He then went on to try and ensure that ordinands would be free to train in regions other than their own. There were principled denials that this had ever been an issue, but Synod was minded to underline that it should not become one.
What is left
So all in all, though some of the teeth have been drawn from this deeply flawed report, it remains capable of doing serious damage to the future of theological education. Regional partnerships sound an interesting concept, but no-one appears to have the slightest idea where the regional boundaries will be – and who is going to embark on a 200 mile round trip to go to evening class after a hard day’s work?
One of the saddest features of the report was its institutional perspective. It made the laudable claim to survey all training from vocation, selection, training and ordination through a title post to first incumbency or position of responsibility. However, it failed even to acknowledge the existence of the burgeoning movement of pre-ordination training. Growing numbers of young people are serving as lay assistants or apprentices in churches – my own parish employs four each year, and courses like Cornhill now have over 100 students annually.
Growing numbers of curates seek further training on Proclamation Trust conferences, since they find the fare in their dioceses so anorexic. It is hard to take any report on training seriously if its authors are apparently so blissfully unaware of what is happening in the real world. When one speaker ‘welcomed the analysis and vision of the report’ I did wonder for a moment whether he was being sarcastic.
Worse still, the Report is firmly stuck in the mindset of managed decline. The Church of England desperately needs more ordinands if it is to have any hope at all of winning the nation for Christ. So are we planning for growth? Not a bit of it. The Bishop of Chichester, devoid of any creative inspiration, simply proposes a supine response to declining numbers of ordinands, rather than tackling the underlying reasons for that decline.
If the Church of England continues to lose its confidence in the Gospel and to be apparently incapable of deciding what is right and what is wrong, is it any wonder that potential ordinands hold back? With illiberal liberals intent on squeezing out orthodox believers, as is happening in Canada and America, with disbelieving voices in the Church prepared to argue against just about everything we read in the Bible, is the Church of England an appealing prospect for anyone called to gospel ministry? Perhaps that is why one of my friends on General Synod is seeking ordination in one of the Free Churches.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.