John Edmonson on foundation training and financial imperatives

The 1970s was the decade in which the initial network of Regional Theological Courses was both developed and completed. But towards its end the principal driving force in that development had ceased to be the needs of the developing non-stipendiary ministry, or even general educational theory, but instead the general economic climate of the country. It was a time of high inflation, and rapidly escalating bills for ordination training in the residential colleges were causing much concern. The Report GS303, ‘Theological Training: A Policy for the Future’, of 1976 sought in its clause 14a to inspire some encouragement by setting the Church’s training costs alongside those of other professions. In 1975 the annual training cost of an ordinand was said to be on average £815, compared with a social worker at £1,500, a teacher at £2,200, a doctor at £5,000 and an RAF pilot at £100,000! By bleak contrast, a hurriedly put together supplementary report entitled GS315 ‘The Cost of Ordination Training’ and published just five months later referred to inflation in theological college fees of 18.7% between the academic year 1975/76 and 1976/77, expenditure from the Central Ordination Fund of £1,000,000 in 1978 compared with an approved estimate of £483,000 for 1977, and the exhaustion of all but £5,573 of reserves by 1 January 1978. In this context, the average annual fee of £347 for an ordinand in non-residential training compared with £1,130 for residential looked very attractive indeed. In December 1976 ACCM therefore set up a Working Party on Courses ‘to evaluate the present quality and methods of ordination training, in the light of known and foreseeable financial circumstances’.

The Working Party was to report twice in the next year, publishing their GS Misc 62, ‘ACCM: The First Report of the Working Party on Courses’ in June 1977, and their GS359, ‘ACCM: The Second Report of the Working Party on Courses’ the following December. The finance-driven approach of the First Report was made abundantly clear in the Preface: ‘The Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry shares the general anxiety of the Church at the increasing costs of ordination training. It reaffirms the Church’s long-accepted commitment to the training of recommended candidates, but is anxious to explore any possibilities of reducing the cost of training without significant educational loss.’ This general parameter was both amplified and made more explicit in paragraph 4 of the report, entitled ‘Known and Foreseeable Financial Circumstances’. There the anxiety was defended and, whilst it was asserted that it would be ‘shameful’ if the nature and content of the training of ordinands were to be determined by finance to the exclusion of educational principles, the axiom was propounded that ‘we can only enjoy what we can afford.’ An estimate for the necessary level of ACCM grants for training, given status quo in the shape of the system was placed at £1,050,000 as a minimum figure or ‘if the worst came to the worst’ somewhere between £1,350,000 and £1,500,000. This was in addition to minimum costs for the training of lay workers of £58,000.

The First Report aimed not to comment in detail on the place of the Regional Theological Courses. This was reserved for the Second Report. But a number of opening issues were tabled as a basis for further thought. These issues, contained in paragraphs 27–29, were all intended to point to the possibility of training candidates for stipendiary ministry on a part time basis in order to save money. The concluding remarks of paragraph 30 amply demonstrate this intention:

… it should be noted that the cost of non-residential training is considerably less. While the average cost of residential training is £1,604 per year, the average cost of non-residential training is £475 per year. Moreover, non-residential training is sometimes paid for wholly by the candidate himself, while residential training usually involves heavy additional charges (though not from central church funds) for family maintenance, Even allowing for the fact that non-residential training is a year longer, it is still much cheaper.

It must be admitted that whilst finance was the driving issue behind the First Report, it was not the only live issue in the then debate about the appropriate shape of ordination training as it affected the Regional Courses. It was also noted that there was a clear difference between the Southwark and North-West Courses where it was possible to train for stipendiary ministry, and the rest, where it was not. It was reported that while most of the courses had been designed specifically for Auxiliary Pastoral Ministry training, and accordingly had sought recognition only for this, some were desirous to see this recognition extended to the stipendiary ministry as well. The fact that no reference was made to the serious educational deficiencies tabled at the November 1976 General Synod is perhaps an indication of the seriousness of the financial crisis: after all, with all reserves gone by the end of 1977 and no action taken, the only prospect would have been the non-payment of training bills from colleges and courses and a breakdown of training.

As it happened, in the short term the financial situation was alleviated in two ways in the summer of 1977. In the first place the House of Bishops decided to relax their requirements for the length of training, especially for graduate candidates, whilst in the July Synod the full minimum requirement of £1,050,000 was voted for ordination training for 1978.

Given what has already been highlighted about certain educational concerns over some of the Regional Courses, one might have thought that the removal of the immediate financial crisis would have indicated the desirability of allowing a little more time for the growth and development of the Regional Courses in their then present form before recommending wholesale change in ethos. After all, of those then existing, only one, Southwark, was more than seven years old. But this was not to be the case and GS359, ‘The second report of the Working Party on Courses’, made recommendations which were far-reaching. These included the validation of courses for training for Stipendiary ministry with choice between college and course being determined by the personal needs of each candidate.

It is at this point in the proceedings that some divergence in opinion arises as to the importance of finances in leading following decisions. Mark Hodge in his ACCM report commissioned by the House of Bishops had this to say in 1985:

But the crisis passed after the agreement of the General Synod in July 1977 to allocate substantial additional funds towards the training budget. The financial pressures were thereby eased and do not appear to have been an important factor in the final discussions leading to the House of Bishops’ decision.

The rationale of the decision rather lay in the perceived contradiction involved in recognition for training for stipendiary ministry having being given to only two courses, in the face of the assumed compatibility of standards in all selection and training for stipendiary and non-stipendiary ministry.

The House of Bishops’ decision referred to will be returned to. But the point to be made is that the above ACCM retrospective conclusion about the lack of importance of financial issues post July 1977 does not do justice to the documentary evidence available. In fact there was a significant, continuing, concern over the cost of training expressed by the Working Party, quite apart from the general concern abroad in the Church due to the continuing uncertain general economic climate. Hence two reasons were cited by the Working Party concerning its own self-understanding post-July 1977. The first, contained in paragraph 8, was a continuing crisis ‘in the strict sense of a time of judgement’. Reference was made to the need to assess all training as to whether it gave an educational quality which was worth the price. It was said that it had to be possible to assure parishes that were ‘getting value for money’ in educational terms. The belief was tabled that financial stringency had called into question some of the training which had been developed in a period of comparatively open budgets. There was a continuing need for evaluation of training ‘in the light of known and foreseeable financial circumstances’. The second reason given by the Working Party, in paragraph 9, was the continuing financial urgency affecting the whole Church which was unchanged by the Synod vote for the training budget and which it was said would need time to resolve. The looming real possibility of there being ‘simply not the money available’ in 1980 was spelt out. The spectre of ordinands having to leave college and seek alternative employment was written in centre stage. The prospect of Diocesan Boards of Finance simply not having the will to pay what General Synod voted was tabled as a possible agenda item. There may have been mention of an ‘overriding concern to secure a higher standard of ministerial training’, but this was clearly set in the context of statements such as ‘However unwelcome some economies may be, they are to be preferred to telling x hundred men and women that the central funds of the Church simply cannot pay their fees in full, in spite of our renewed [July General Synod] pledge to do so.’

There can be no doubt that those on the Working Party were striving to safeguard the best possible standard of ordination training for the Church. But equally there can be no doubt that the process involved the consideration, in the context of crisis, of every possible financial economy that could be made.

The Second Report did, of course, consider in its recommendations many other issues besides that of finance. Thus, paragraph 15 detailed the fluidity of patterns of ministry, ordained and lay, in the church of the day. Nor was it simply trying to recommend simply the cheapest form of training. Rather, it could be said that where it was possible to highlight some educational benefit from a pattern of training which was cheaper, it did so. Hence a list of differing advantages of residential and non-residential training was produced (in paragraph 55), along with the assertion that the needs of every ordinand were different. The implication was that the (cheaper) pattern of non-residential training might well be educationally the better for some of them.

In support of this flexibility of approach, it was recommended that a more flexible scheme of training should be adopted to suit the individual needs of ordinands in the first instance, and that the first step in this direction should be the formation of a national network of non-residential training for stipendiary ministry. The basis for this was recommended to be the various courses then recognized for training for non-stipendiary ministry, of which it was said that some also wished to train men for stipendiary ministry, to join Southwark and the North West Ordination Course, but had hitherto been discouraged from doing so.

The Second Report was followed by resolutions in the House of Bishops in February 1978, reported in GS374, ‘The Future of the Ministry’, published in May. The latter mainly proposed a three year guarantee of stability for the theological colleges but also included the following: ‘11.iv. That this House… recognises the need for the future consideration of the best ways of utilising all available resources and at diversifying the patterns of training, taking into account the recommendations of Bishop Tomkins’ Working Party.’

The debate on ‘The Future of the Ministry’ took place in the July General Synod. The report was generally commended for its positive and optimistic note. But there were also a number of factors mentioned which might properly have mitigated against the immediate implementation of the bishops’ clause 11.iv referred to above. The training offered for non-stipendiary ministry by the Regional Courses was described by one speaker as ‘by no means uniform at the moment and which could be in serious respects defective’, resulting in ordinands who were, on completion of initial training, ‘without the advantage of concentrated study and therefore to some extent imperfectly, inadequately and incompletely prepared’. There was said to be ‘more weight and more substance in some of the courses undertaken by readers than in some of the courses at present engaged in by those preparing for non-stipendiary ministry’. Of course, as is always the case in lively debate, there were those who denied the assertions. But it could not be said that the debate overall represented a tacit declaration of confidence in the Regional Courses. In the light of this part of paragraph 57 of the Second Report seems crucial: ‘Nonetheless ACCM should not recommend [part-time] courses for wider recognition until any reasonable suspicions of their adequacy have been removed, until there is at least one full-time member of staff, and until they have demonstrated the likelihood of their having a realistic number of students and of their attaining the high all-round standards which are already apparent in SOC and NWOC.’

It is arguable that the last caveat was simply ignored. After the General Synod debate, ACCM cited ‘powerful educational arguments’ in favour of part-time courses as a valid means of training for stipendiary ministry. There is no evidence to suggest that such ‘powerful educational arguments’ did not consist solely of the shortlist quoted in para 55 of the Second Report: ‘More opportunity to relate academic input to everyday life; more opportunity to share theological ideas with those unacquainted with language or unsympathetic to content; more opportunity to learn by doing; linking of spirituality with local church and secular world; continuing stimulus of secular world; less danger of institutionalisation; less upheaval to family and fewer moves.’ But nowhere was there offered evidence for the truth of these arguments, which the evidence of Southwark students in the previous decade would suggest were less powerful than the confidence of the 1978 ACCM Report would assert.

After the Synod debate, ACCM recommended to the House of Bishops that ‘all existing recognised non-residential courses should now be recognised for training candidates aged 30 and over for stipendiary ministry as well as for non-stipendiary ministry’. The section of ACCM’s paper to the House of Bishops in January 1979 which is cited as containing the most forcible argument is quoted by Hodge. Not surprisingly the assertion is made that ‘There is no reason in principle for refusing to train stipendiary ministers on non-residential courses.’ But, most surprisingly, the principal argument now given for this proposed step appears to be to ensure that non-stipendiary ministers trained on part-time courses are not made to feel second-class by the failure of their courses to train stipendiaries as well!

The House of Bishops acceded to ACCM’s request. The verdict on this step, given by Hodge some six years later was as follows:

It was, perhaps, an unusual step to validate twelve courses together in this way, particularly in view of that fact that a number of the courses did not conceive of themselves as offering suitable preparation to candidates for full-time, stipendiary ministry. Nor were they so regarded by the Courses and Examinations Sub-Committee.

Given that Hodge’s research was not independent but commissioned by the House of Bishops, and given also that he was concentrating on educational issues, the epithet ‘unusual’ which he used to describe the House of Bishops decision might perhaps be better translated as ‘extraordinary’. From 1979 and in the wake of a massive financial crisis, all the Regional Theological Courses were validated thenceforth for training for both non-stipendiary ministry and stipendiary ministry, whether they wanted to be or not.

Dr John Edmonson is Vicar of St Mark’s, Bexhill