John Edmonson on General Curriculum and Scriptural Education

It is axiomatic to this series about theological education as delivered by the Regional Theological Courses, that one of the pressing requirements of the contemporary Church of England is to train future clergy who will so know their faith in breadth and depth that they will be able to teach the faith effectively, both to those within the Church so that they can grow in their own faith, and also to those currently outside the Church so that they can become persuaded of the benefits of active membership of the worshipping community in the parishes. In what has been identified by others as a ‘post-Christian’ society, the Church must become more and more an effective proclaimer of the Gospel.

One of the problems concerning ministerial training is that the increasing fragmentation and individualism of society, which has resulted in a shunning of institutions generally, including the Church, has had a clear influence on the world of education, including the training of ordinands. Training has adapted to the patterns of a tide of post-Christian individualism, rather than encompassed programmes, which would effectively counter it. This can be seen in the scramble within the area of higher education to tailor curricula to cater for the needs of the individual. More and more, in the Church’s theological education, ordinands have wished to ensure that they are able to obtain secular academic awards for their study, and to maximize those awards wherever possible. There has been an increase in emphasis on a doctrine of success in educational terms, being measured by signs of personal growth in understanding on the part of the person being trained. There has been an increase in profile of emphasis of ‘politically correct’ issues such as feminism and racial awareness, which have found their way into the curriculum. But there has been less emphasis on equipping ordinands with an understanding of the basics of their faith. Much has been made of the ideal of engendering a culture of learning in ordinands, but little has been done to assess whether in the context of an increasingly pressed parish life this is likely to happen.

Referring to the House of Bishops’ Inspection of the Northern Ordination Course in 1984, the Principal of that course delivered the withering criticism of the Inspectors on his retirement some four years later: ‘The last inspection focussed entirely on method, with no comment on content – like a wine taster concerned only with the shape of the bottle and design of the label.’ After eleven years of adaptation and change on the part of NOC in order to take on board the dictums of central Church authorities, the External Examiner then commented,

There have been a number of drawbacks in having the Biblical studies modules clustered at the beginning of the course. It can lead to the impression that students have now ‘done’ the Bible. To some extent this has been mitigated by discussions of the Bible on theme weekends, but it is clearly not ideal to have no formal biblical studies courses in the last two years. It does not allow students to develop their skills adequately and it tends to mean that attention is focused on learning basic critical skills (which is of course essential), leaving little time for consideration of the theological interpretation of such texts. It has also meant that there is no great connection, or indeed proximity between the Biblical Studies courses and the course on preaching and communication. Whilst students have expressed appreciation to me of the help given with communication skills, I feel strongly that this is only part of what is required in homiletics and that more attention should be given to the use of the Bible in preaching, Bible study and Christian education.

One member of staff of a Regional Course said in informal conversation, ‘We do all of the Old Testament in ten evening sessions – ridiculous, isn’t it?!’ The point of these pieces of evidence is to illustrate the amount by which Biblical Studies, by way of example, can become so compressed that it becomes a minor aspect of the curriculum in practice, rather than the major subject, which should undergird everything else. Going back to the NOC Principal’s criticism of their 1984 Inspection, he also said, ‘we do actually believe that “covering the ground is important” … Students on the Course will not consciously remember everything they meet, but they may subsequently remember what a certain matter was at least on the syllabus, and will be able to refresh their memories.’ At the time ACCM did not believe that this conservative approach could possibly be a recipe for reputed excellence. Today, the world of the ordained minister is even busier and even when the necessity for lifelong learning has been accepted, it is unlikely that what has not been covered can be applied, or that where there is no awareness of the existence of issues, those issues will subsequently be sought out.

There is general acceptance that residential colleges and Regional Courses are different in what they provide, and do not attempt to be monochrome. The greatest strength of the Regional Courses is said by many to be the facility offered of doing theology ‘in context’. But the attempt to quantify this assertion proves disappointing. For instance, on the East Midlands Course, modules ‘Pastoral Studies 1, 2 and 3’ are to do with practical placements and the opportunity to learn issues of ministry in a variety of settings. A commendable total of 225 hours is included. Alongside the author’s experience of approximately 680 hours of placement over a three-year period at college, this total is seen to equate to a one third ratio. But if within this placement total the parochial element is examined specifically, the relevant totals are 75 hours and 465 hours. Little wonder that courses are often said to produce students with a narrow congregational focus. Could it mean that the rally-call of ‘theology in context’ applied to the Regional Courses could mean in practice little more than ‘trying to study theology whilst desperately busy with other things’?

Through the validation documentation that is in the public domain for each Course, it becomes clear that it would be virtually an impossible task to compare the curricula on any detailed basis. Even if the data for such factors as contact hours, private study hours and CATS credits were to be presented in standard format, the differences in makeup of individual modules when taking a fully or partially themed approach means that hours of contact time for New Testament Studies, for example, are not only debatable, but would no doubt be hotly debated if comparative attempts were made. The serious point which arises out of this is as to whether the Ministry Division of the Church of England is able in any way to judge critically a thematic curriculum in terms of relative weighting of constituent disciplines. The question may not be thought relevant to those who seek only to ensure that a certain amount of academic study at a certain recognized ‘level’. But ordination training is training to do a job, and it must surely be relevant to specify, for example, a certain level of contact with formal Biblical Studies as a minimum. If the argument is made that a thematic curriculum is the equivalent of a disciplinary one, why is it admitted by one principal that Regional Courses will never produce theologians? If the Ministry Division is in fact doing a very clear comparative assessment of curricula, why does it not require the data to be provided to make this easier? It may, of course, be admitted that individual institutions always have varied in their delivery of the content of their curricula. But one cannot help feeling that the loss of a central syllabus must make it much more difficult for critical local syllabus supervision to be implemented. Of course, since there is such confidentiality attached to the reports of the Bishops’ Inspectors (unlike similar inspection reports in the general education world), it is impossible to say whether there is any critical attention at all paid to what is in the curriculum, as against how it is delivered!

The Regional Courses now offer between them the opportunity for participants who are ordination candidates to work through a variety of different tracks to a variety of different qualifications, of which the commonest are Higher Education Diploma, Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree. The last is available to those with appropriate graduate standing. But the MA programmes on offer illustrate a further curricular issue, which is also a potential serious concern. The problem is that those who complete a course leading to a Master’s qualification can vary enormously in the amount of theological study they have actually done. Of course, each Master’s programme is correctly validated as such, and involves the appropriate amount of study at Higher Education ‘level 4’. But whilst some of the entry to Masters’ programmes is limited to those already with a first degree in theology, in other cases the entry is available on a much wider basis to graduates from a wide variety of disciplines. Now whereas in general academic terms it may be perfectly appropriate to arrange the latter, signifying that a given individual has completed a body of study at Higher Education levels 1–4, the curriculum of the Regional Theological Courses is meant in the first instance to offer appropriate professional training for ordinands. It is unlikely that those training to be doctors or solicitors would be offered significant exemptions on the basis of a theology degree, but the reverse is certainly possible. It is possible that this could give a very misleading impression of what a particular individual’s qualifications might signify in terms of both knowledge and aptitude.

To illustrate the above point, it is possible to compare the EAMTC Peterborough Project and the EMMTC Master’s degree general programme. The current EMMTC handbook states helpfully:

The EAMTC Peterborough Project has come to birth from the meeting of two visions:

The vision of the East Anglian Ministerial Training Course (EAMTC) to create an ecumenical opportunity for ordinands of any age, with degrees in theology, to pursue integrated study and learning as part of a small pioneering community which engages theologically with its local context.

The vision of the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough, building upon its Celtic and Benedictine foundations, to see the Cathedral fulfil its role as a centre of teaching, learning and study for a new generation in the city.

Clearly it is intended that in the case of a Peterborough Project MA graduate, the qualification will signify the experience of effectively engaging in applied theology in an advanced way, on the basis of a corpus of theological learning at graduate level which has already been accumulated.

By contrast with the above, the East Midlands Course MA programme does not demand a first degree in theology for normal entry. The following extract from validation documentation even reveals:

Students on the Diploma programme and the MA programme undertake their taught modules together. The work of these students on these taught modules is differentiated by the assignments set for them; the assignments set for the MA students are always of a much more technical and demanding character and level than those set for the Diploma students.

It is evident that MA candidates in this situation engage in precisely the same face to face contact with academic staff for taught courses as do Diploma candidates. Indeed, in each individual part of the course the two are in practice one group with arguably substantially the same teaching input! Reading lists are the same. The difference in assessments consists of longer pieces of written work: typically 2,500 words instead of 2,000 words for an essay seems to be demanded and a dissertation has also to be completed. But it is hard to see how this particular MA degree differs from what would elsewhere be a first degree in theology for many of the candidates. It is also difficult to discern how the identical input can be defined as level 2 for one purpose and level 4 for another. It would seem that this course is producing some Masters of Arts in Theological and Pastoral Studies who have had considerably less contact time, in the context of a taught course, with their lecturers and tutors than used to be the case for many of those seeking merely to ‘get through’ the GME essay scheme. It may be that the ACCM22 decision to require individual academic institutions to define appropriate training for ministry was intended to release creative thought and initiative rather than bolster up a monochrome central syllabus. But the price in terms of discrepancy between and divergence of professional qualifications has been enormous.

The Regional Courses offer less training than the colleges in the practical application of the Gospel in people’s lives and less opportunity to grasp the essentials of the Gospel, in terms of Biblical Study and Christian doctrine. Although the courses they offer are validated academically by various institutions as having the content necessary for the award of, for instance, a Higher Education Diploma, this is not the same as saying that they offer the best training that the Church in its overall historical experience has been able to formulate. One bishop responded on a survey form that ‘residential training enables more in-depth focus on everything’. This is kinder than saying that Regional Courses deliver less focus on everything, but the latter is certainly true. Yet that is not to say that the training offered by Regional Courses is not appropriate for ordination training; it is just by its nature less thorough. Perhaps one answer would be to recognize this more explicitly when arranging subsequent ministry for the people concerned. But one great difficulty in attempting to match individuals to the ministerial requirements of posts in different settings would be the very wide divergence, for similarly named qualifications, in what has actually been studied.