The Doubting Deans

John Edmonson with new evidence on regional courses

At the July 2003 General Synod, the debate on the Hind Report was opened with the hope that Synod would be able to engage directly with some of the serious issues surrounding its proposals.1 Although ‘a diverse and expert group’ was said to have ‘wrestled long and hard’2 with the contemporary problems surrounding formation for ministry, it can fairly be asserted that information has subsequently come to light which must invite some re-evaluation of the evidence. In particular, it now seems urgent that the church authorities should reconsider the effectiveness of non-residential training as a part of their present exercise of developing Regional Training Partnerships. Later in the Synod debate, one member of the Working Party presenting the Report wondered where more consultation and ideas could come from outside the 400 or so responses they had had.3 Subsequent to the Synod, survey responses have become available from 1,007 past students of regional courses and 210 rural deans and training incumbents, thereby providing an answer.

One of the core issues of the Hind Report is that of diverting certain ordinands from residential to non-residential training in order to save £1,000,000 per annum on family maintenance, which can be then spent on other aspects of training. Canon Thistleton’s arguments at Synod resulted in an amendment to attempt to obtain a less drastic reduction of residential places than the 75 proposed.4 The extra evidence now available concerning the strengths and weaknesses of the Regional Courses adds further weight to his concerns.

In recommending the formation of the new Regional Training Partnerships, the Hind Report does consider strengths and weaknesses of the different types of training institution, which obviously reflect carefully researched views. But an overview of the assessment reveals an analysis of colleges and courses as being different but equivalent. It could even be asserted that the Report implies a greater element of weakness on the part of the colleges. When thinking about proposed future pathways for the training of ordinands, paragraph 8.34, ‘Criteria to inform decisions about training pathways’, may talk about ‘educational potential and need’. But this refers to the candidate. There is no mention of any converse consideration such as ‘potential in providing training needs’ Surely in any new overall rationale for the planning of Initial Ministerial Education, the needs of candidates and the capabilities of institutions are the two sides of the new coin that is being minted? Yet if one looks back in the same chapter, to paragraphs 8.3 – 8.4, ‘The college experience’, and 8.5 – 8.7, ‘The regional course experience’, a clear bias in favour of courses can be discerned. Both colleges and courses are said to offer a range of positive opportunities, but the nature of the caveats described could easily leave the reader feeling that colleges must be the institutions of which to be wary By contrast, the identified weaknesses of courses are dispatched in less than two sentences, mentioned within a paragraph which starts ‘For some candidates the course model offers a highly appropriate and challenging opportunity.’

From reading the abovementioned paragraphs, as most General Synod members have no doubt done, one could be forgiven for forming the impression that it is a very good thing to be reconfiguring the church’s training of its ministers in a way which will offer both educational advantages relative to contemporary needs, and a welcome cash saving to be reinvested. But the extra evidence which has now become available calls for a great deal of careful thought and prayer before the implementation groups reach a point of ‘no return’ in their work to implement the Regional Training Partnerships. The survey of rural deans and training incumbents yielded the indication that there are a variety of standards between the different courses, and also a variety of standards between different areas of their curricula. Examples of observations which led to a low assessment of the capability of courses to develop student aptitude in distinct areas of the curriculum were:

Some 68% of rural deans reported a clear difference between course and college training in terms of suitability as preparation for posts of senior responsibility within the Church. Typical reservations included:

The most frequently discerned problems discerned in course-trained clergy, by the whole field of supervisory clergy, including those who were enthusiastic for courses was as follows:

On a similar basis the principal weaknesses of regional course training as a genre were cited as:

The lack of depth possible on the courses when it comes to the tackling of doctrine and biblical studies is worthy of special note. If more and more ordinands are trained in this way in the future, it is arguable that the Church will possess an ever decreasing pool of clergy able to grasp the breadth and depth of these disciplines necessary for the discharge of their duties. Rural deans are generally widely respected both among their peers and among the senior hierarchy. Their observations should not be taken lightly when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of training in connection with the practical discharge of duties.

The contrasting strengths of regional course training, taken from all the rural deans and training incumbents taken together, were as follows:

The complementary notable competences in course-trained individuals were as follows:

Taken together, these can seem to represent the absolute antithesis of one of the caricatures of theological colleges, that they can encourage students to become out of touch with the real world. But that analysis would belie other significant concerns.

If for a moment we were to accept a false antithesis of one pattern of training which could deliver a body of academic theological knowledge and understanding but little facility in practical application, and another pattern which could deliver good skills in practical application, but little academic theological substance, which would be better? Put this way the answer becomes more clear. Since after ordination all clergy will be continuing their training in practical settings, the benefit of developing as large a store as possible of theological knowledge and understanding, which can subsequently be applied, is the better option. The argument that inculcation of a pattern of lifelong learning can make up for lack of initial facility in theology is weak. It is frequently the case that if one has not been confronted with an area of study, one will not tend to make a beeline for it later and therefore one will tend to ignore that area when it comes to thinking what to apply in a particular pastoral situation. As an example, the area of Patristic Theology cannot be said to have any significant profile on the curricula of regional theological courses, yet what riches are to be gained from studying the developing thought of the early Christians for explaining the person of Jesus to people today.

Even the purported strengths of the regional courses need unpacking and re-evaluating, for instance the area of encounter with a wide range of churchmanship / background. What can seem a strength can also represent a weakness-in-waiting. Increasingly, as the Church of England contracts, it is becoming necessary (as well as being healthy) for ordained ministers to understand colleagues from different backgrounds of churchmanship and tradition in order to work together more effectively and bear witness to one Gospel. One of the great strengths of the Church of England is that safeguarding of truth which occurs through dialogue between the different traditions. But what a course cannot do is to provide positive training within a tradition. For this, individuals on courses are usually driven back to learning from their local church. But much as most of us like to think that our own churches are good, one church can never provide as good a training in a tradition as a college with a breath and depth of experience in that same tradition. Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and Liberals need to meet one-another and to understand one-another, but they also need to be challenged to grow within their own traditions if the next generation of ministers is to be able to continue to dialogue from positions of distinctive theological understanding rather than adopt a sort of ‘lowest common denominator’ ministry.

As I wrote in my first article, nothing I have written should be taken as a personal criticism of any individual involved with the Regional Courses either as staff or student. They are all doing their best. For some individuals the Regional Courses represent the better, or only, training option. But it is important for General Synod members to realise that in voting to reallocate the training of substantial numbers of ordinands from residential to non-residential training, they have voted not to redirect candidates between equal opportunities, but to withhold better training for many people who would have benefited from it. In due course this will damage the whole Church. May we not call upon General Synod and the House of Bishops to re-evaluate their current activities, before it is too late?

Dr John Edmondson is Vicar of St Mark's, Bexhill-on-Sea

Endnotes:

  1. Report of Proceedings, Volume 34 No. 2 (London, Church House Publishing, 2003) pp 282–83

  2. Proceedings, volume 34, No. 2 p285.

  3. Proceedings, volume 34, No. 2 p291.

  4. Proceedings, volume 34, No. 2 p312.

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