John Edmonson continues his series on theological education

ALL THEOLOGIANS and ministers of the Christian faith will develop different personal emphases in their individual understanding of the Gospel and will also, when called upon to teach, vary correspondingly in their approach to, and discharge of, their duties. It is a long-standing concern of the Church that in the context of a small institution the principal can exercise a dominating personal influence. The small size of regional course core staffs relative to those of the residential colleges would indicate that this issue could be even more acute for the former.

During the academic year 2000–2001 the author conducted an interview with either the principal or the person acting for the principal of each of the regional courses. The general objective of these interviews was to inquire about the personal emphases and enthusiasms of each individual and to record something of the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the task at hand.

Since the regional courses offer an alternative mode of training to the colleges for many ordinands, comparisons cannot be avoided in any evaluation of the theological training they provide. As the most recent mode to be developed, the effectiveness of that development also cannot be evaluated without reference to the alternative previously available. One of the prime issues for discussion was, therefore, the general advantages and disadvantages of course-based training against college training. Individuals were also asked if they had an opinion as to which pattern was to be generally preferred for students for whom there currently exists a choice.

East Anglian Ministerial Training Course

Of all the interviewees, the Principal of EAMTC objected the most strongly to the perceived taxonomy of comparison with colleges. He did not want to be quoted in detail, but it is fair to record the general impression that the quality of their output of trained students was seen as equal in all respects to college-trained students, but with certain differences. For instance, EAMTC students could be typified as being ready to argue, but not along traditional ‘party’ lines. They were also generally older than college students and contained a smaller proportion of possible theological educators. The principal advantage of the college was seen to be the ability to immerse students in a particular theological tradition, whereas course students were of necessity immersed in the dialogue between traditions. Both modes of training were seen as valuable within the mixed economy currently available within the Church. A further general advantage of the course was identified as being the obtaining of better than expected results from less confident candidates, whilst a disadvantage was seen to be a tendency to congregationalism caused by so much of the practical training being based in the home parish.

North Eastern and North Thames

Whereas the overall awareness of advantages and disadvantages for the Principal of EAMTC was a measure of considered balance, by contrast the Principals of NEOC and NTMTC were strongly in favour of the course as the better mode of training. NEOC’s opinion was that its course was to be considered neither non-residential, there being a total of nearly one month in each year spent in residence, nor part-time. The reasoning for the latter was that the course enabled the student to do most of his or her learning first-hand in the context of the whole pattern of ordinary life. There was seen to be no academic disadvantage in course-training, although this perception was based on the experience of the course intake being generally already well qualified. NTMTC’s opinion was that the course mode of training was that which ‘did the job properly’, the main reason being again that of contextualization. Having had first hand experience of teaching both in residential and non-residential situations, the Principal described the typical student experience as that of learning about theology in a college but doing theology on a course.

The following critique of theological colleges was offered to complement this opinion: ‘… a lot of traditional assumptions that were made, and still are made I think about residential training – that it’s a good thing for there to be a clean break between the past and the future, and that it’s a good thing for people to be taken out of their own parish and put somewhere else, and it’s a good thing for people no longer to have the occupations and preoccupations and concerns that they had in their job beforehand – a lot of these models, it seems to me, come out of a fundamentally flawed theology of mission, and a flawed theology therefore of ministry and of God’s relationship with the world. So there’s a sense in which I think non-residential part-time training offers ways of being much more intentional about the rootedness of theology in everyday life and the relationship between being and doing.’

In mitigation of the above strong representation, there was, however, an awareness that non-residential training is more suited to older students who can bring more into their training by way of prior learning and experience. It was also asserted that colleges do a good job of training young people straight from university, and that they are much better at training academic theologians.

The admission from a course that ‘we’re not ever I think going to produce someone from here who is a New Testament scholar, for example, or a specialist in ecclesiology’, must form a strong (if unintentional) counter-argument to the benefits of course training previously propounded. If it is impossible to produce an academic theologian on the basis of what is taught on a course, whereas it is possible to produce one on the basis of what is taught in a college, that inevitably points to a limitedness or shallowness to the academic content of what is on offer. The key to effective theological praxis is the application of theological principles in practical situations. Shallowness in academic theology must inevitably lead to as much lack of effectiveness in the sphere of good practical theology as it does in the realm of academic research and teaching.

West of England

The Principal of WEMTC believed that courses can equip people for full-time stipendiary ministry as well as colleges, but introduced an important caveat, namely the increasing awareness in the Church of the need for Continuing Ministerial Education, so that some training areas can be dealt with whilst in ministry rather than during initial training.

St Albans and Oxford

A number of principals seemed to be keenly aware of difficulties experienced by students training on courses, which lead to disadvantages in the mode of training. A difficulty can be an advantage if it leads to better learning, but not otherwise. The Principal of SAOMC, for instance, accepted that the major strength of course training was the ability and requirement for the student to relate to his or her learning to application in the church and daily living. But there was also an awareness of the major disadvantage about the lack of time for students to study in depth. Courses were said to offer a more general understanding and more practically-oriented learning and to be better for those students who sought this approach. But a college was thought to be the place for the student who wished to consider an area of theological study in depth; perhaps to learn Greek or Hebrew or to read the Fathers first-hand. The phrase ‘scratching the surface’ was used about courses.

Carlisle and Blackburn

‘Scratching the surface’ was also used by the Principal of CBDTI who thought nevertheless that the awareness on the part of the student that he or she did not ‘know it all’ could be a strength. He identified a danger among college-trained individuals of studying more, but thinking they then know it all, which could be a very negative factor. Alongside the disadvantage of course training due to lack of substance in the curriculum, he also identified (admittedly in the context of the Regional Course with the smallest student body), a tendency among some to inappropriate individualism in their approach to ministry.

The South East

The Assistant Principal of SEITE named the integration of theological principles to practical daily living of necessity as being the greatest advantage to course training. Uniquely though, he cited the stress caused to part-time students as being the next most helpful thing, creating an empathy with the highly stressed lives of many members of congregations in the modern age. Against these advantages he highlighted the strong disadvantage of students having too little personal time to absorb the large amount of information being presented to them. The busyness of keeping up with working life, family commitments and course work was said frequently to mitigate against the existence of personal ‘open-space’ for reflection and assimilation. Also the same busyness was said to sap the energy required for such reflection should the time ever happen to become available.

Northern Ordination Course

One of the features about courses to have emerged from the above is clearly the need for the student to engage in his or her study alongside the normal activity of the rest of life. One of the major features of the Christian tradition generally has been the place of going apart for some in order to gain time to reflect and pray. The Principal of NOC drew attention to the area of spirituality in connection with course limitations, and made the point that what a course cannot do is immerse a student in the practice of spirituality, for example the Daily Office.

Southern Training Scheme

The Acting Principal of STETS proved an enthusiast for course type education and was prepared to say that ‘for the purpose of training people for mission and ministry, a course which has a rhythm of gathering and then dispersing, of doing things bit by bit alongside the realities of life, is close to being the best way.’ But there was also an awareness of a number of practical disadvantages. Limits to time and the tiredness which comes from having to study on top of the demands of a working life have already been alluded to. One practical disadvantage not mentioned so far was the difficulty that students were likely to experience in gaining access to books for general browsing or reading around a subject. There was a related frustration also cited, arising when a student became excited about an individual topic but was forced by ‘the system’ to just touch on it briefly before moving on to the next topic. The importance of integration in the curriculum was emphasized so that students could return to particular issues at various stages of their course. But the language used was in terms of coping with disadvantage rather than mitigating or overcoming it.

West of England

The Principal of WMMTC added one specific advantage of course training to the list already discussed, namely the ability of courses better to draw upon the ministry and life experiences of students to date as a resource for learning. But he also added the specific disadvantage of lack of contact time between students and staff, which was said particularly to mitigate against the possibility of impromptu type discussions about theological issues. The particular thrust of his assessment, however, was the need neither to place greater emphasis on college nor courses, but rather to start with a careful assessment of the personal needs of each individual student. In support of this certain evidence was referred to which pointed to there being a wider diversity of personality types now present in ordinands than had been the case when only college training was available. This was said to be due to different people coming forward for ministry in confidence that suitable training would be available.

South West

The needs of individuals was the main emphasis, too, of the Principal of SWMTC who cited theological colleges as being the better option for those who had not so far in life experienced, but wished to experience the collegiate or university environment. The opportunity for some students to experience immersion in institutional life was felt to be an important developmental issue. The need for some individuals to be able to give up what they have been doing in order to devote themselves wholly to a new thing, was also put forward. Weighted against this, on the other hand, was the need of other students to remain in some sort of ownership and control of their own learning, not to become suddenly dependent on other people, such as college staff, determining what the shape of their day would be. For some students over thirty the time of transition taken in settling into an institution can effectively further reduce a two-year course already seen as inadequate in length of time for reasons of formation. Personal factors such as domestic arrangements and children’s schooling were cited as practical reasons which would probably be definitive in any decision between the two basic modes of training.

East Midlands

The principal of EMMTC was unwilling to discuss specific advantages and disadvantages associated with courses and colleges, in any generic way. Rather his whole emphasis was on listening to the story of the individual potential student and helping that individual to find his or her way through the choice to be made. There was obviously acceptance of differences because ‘… in some instances it would be a great deal more formationally effective that they’re on a course, and in some instances in a college…’. But the main emphasis was of not being ‘at all at ease with the notion of blanket solutions’ in this area of discussion. There was the assertion that ‘the standards which the central church lays down on its training institutions are comparable. The courses are not given a different set of expectations than colleges are.’ In this context the important evidence about differing amounts of contact time, which has been freely admitted by central Church authorities was not pursued!

It can be seen from the above that in the driving seats of the regional theological courses are people with a wide variety of understanding concerning the critical assessment of the general effectiveness of the course mode of training. No-one was represented, understandably, who thought that courses were ineffective in training all individuals. But among the opinions represented were those that courses are generally the most effective, that both can be effective given different people and different circumstances, and that there should be no general differentiation. All these opinions cannot be right, and indeed it could be asserted that given their contrasting nature, some must represent misunderstanding.

General Comment

As a short article does not permit a detailed appraisal of several differing points of view, I will conclude instead with a general comment on those who have been chosen by the respective governing bodies to act as principals of the regional courses. Since the greatest strength of regional courses on the evidence obtained is the doing of theology in a local context, and since the greater number of course students will, when ordained, be performing a church-based ministry, it is perhaps helpful to see the amount of practical church-based experience possessed in general by such office holders.

The following figures are derived from the 2000/2001 and 2002/2003 editions of Crockfords. They reflect the situation when the interviews took place. Individuals are not identified but the figures have been derived by tracing the records of those concerned.

Of the twelve Course Principals, four had no experience of incumbent status posts; a further two had been team vicars. Only five had had experience of full-time parish leadership as vicar, rector or team rector, with figures of 8, 3, 8, 3 and 7 years. The average experience of being in full-time overall leadership of a parish was thus only 2 years 5 months. This was in marked contrast to the situation with the English Colleges, in which, of the eleven, two principals had no experience of incumbency. All the rest had had full-time overall leadership of a parish, with the length of service being 4, 9, 4, 11, 10, 7, 6, 9 and 10 years. This gives an average for all College principals of 6 years 4 months.

It could be asserted that it is an unusual phenomenon, to say the least, that the regional courses, which are reputed to have as their greatest strength the ability to help students do their theology in practical situations, have as their leaders people who, on average, are far less likely to have had substantial experience of the practical issues of parish leadership than their college counterparts. Indeed, given the influence of the principal over the ethos and life of each institution, there is a strong argument that the potential student who wishes to learn the skills of effective parochial ministry should seriously consider the residential option where the gathered wisdom may be greater. Even given the possibility of drawing different conclusions from the data, the notable mismatch between the working experiences of the two categories of principal is a situation which should be reflected on by the wider church.

Dr John Edmondson is Vicar of St Mark’s, Bexhill.