John Edmonson on Regional Theological Courses
Since the first articles in this series were published, General Synod has committed itself more fully to the policy whereby in the future the new Regional Training Partnerships will deliver all ordination training, drawing on the continuing Theological Colleges and Regional Courses as part of that provision. Readers of the articles to date will have gathered that I am not persuaded that the Courses offer an equivalent to the Colleges. Whilst, in the past, many have championed the Courses because of their relative cheapness and geographical accessibility, surely the Ministry Division and the House of Bishops now need to take serious account of their weaknesses, as part of the current process of reorganisation. To do otherwise would be to let political correctness mode of training triumph over quality of content. What follows represents a selection of my conclusions as to the considerations that are required.
At the beginning of this research, the Church of England’s Director of Ministry posed the question as to whether three staff can ever be as good as eight staff in delivery of all aspects of the curriculum. The figures related to Ministry Division approved levels of staffing for a notional Course and College each with a student body of 80. Within the Courses there exists a variety of ways in which core staff and students relate, from being principal teachers to writers of distance-learning materials to be tutored by others. But in every case the core staff are those responsible for the overall delivery of the curriculum and it just cannot be the case, other factors being equal, that three staff can embody the same breadth and depth of academic and professional knowledge, wisdom and experience, as eight. One of the factors involved in the proliferation of Courses as an alternative to Colleges has been the lower costs of teaching provision, and this is because of the Ministry Division’s specification of what constitutes an adequate level of staffing. Of course factors such as fewer contact hours between staff and students on Regional Courses need to be taken account of, but at the heart of the matter is the central Church’s policy of providing a mode of training which is bound to be inferior. To paraphrase ACCM’s Board of Theological Education Secretary writing on 1970, ‘Of course, if it does not matter about staffing levels, then let us reduce the College provision of staffing too’!
The recommendation in regard to staffing levels is that the Church should not seek to save money at the cost of reducing the range and depth of expertise available to students, but should redefine staffing levels so as to remove the differentiation between Courses and Colleges. Removal of this artificial disparity would enable far better appreciation of the real advantages and disadvantages between the different modes of training.
Of course the Courses augment their core staff with others, usually either specialist academics or local tutors. The last are most frequently local clergy and may act principally in a pastoral role or alternatively act as tutor for distance-learning and is dispersed-learning materials. Most local tutors are employed by Courses in which geography dictates a wide dispersion in the student body and consequent difficulty in attending local centres. The quality (or lack of it) of the local tutor can be described as the ‘Achilles Heel’ of the Regional Courses. The Carlisle Course history has highlighted the possible strength of having tutors from among the local clergy, but the early ones had relatively low academic qualifications. In the early period of Southwark, the term ‘valueless’ was even used on one occasion. EAMTC history includes the warning of over-expectation of the abilities of the local-tutor figure. SWMTC illustrates in its history the failure also to recognise the time taken to prepare for tutorship duties as being time not available for parochial or other main responsibilities. Among the ranks of bought-in specialist academics, EMMTC history illustrates the use of agnostic staff and the St. Albans MTS a non-Christian. It is likely that the increased validation of Courses by independent academic institutions will result in greater consistency among local tutors. It is also inevitable that sometimes geographical factors may indicate the use of ‘the best available’ rather than ‘the best possible’ Nevertheless it is recommended that there should be a common standard of achievement and aptitude for all tutors undertaking teaching duties, whether local in nature or on a regional basis. In the past it has been possible to criticise certain staff, even in basic areas such as their lack of ability in straightforward adult education techniques and to control group discussion to contribute to the curriculum rather than diverge from it. Staff standards on Regional Courses is an issue for concern among certain Bishops and the student comment on the transition from the Oak Hill Course and College lecturers to NTMTC also sounds a warning No-one would want to make generalisations about overall standards of teaching staff on the Regional Courses, but nevertheless the evidence points to teaching standards as an issue requiring monitoring and possibly legislation.
Given the reputed strength of the Regional Courses in training in contextualised theology, it might be assumed that their staff possess particular experience or expertise in this discipline. But simple reference to ‘Crockfords’ shows that in fact the Principals have on average considerably less experience of being Vicar, Rector or Team Rector of parishes than is the case with their counterparts in the Theological Colleges. It seems that the modern day leaders of Regional Courses have on average a paucity of what to teach their students about effective local church leadership. Writing in GS583A, ‘Non-Stipendiary Ministry in the Church of England’, Mark Hodge quoted a then Director of Post Ordination Training as saying that Course staff had not worked and therefore did not know what they were talking about. Today it is not clear that the leaders of Courses are greatly more competent about the mainstream parish based ministries for which their students are destined. It is recommended that significant experience of leading a growing church or the ability to demonstrate effective ministry in a related field should be a sine qua non for eligibility for Regional Course Principalship. It is likely also, although not specifically an issue for Regional Courses, that many of the personnel involved at Ministry Division with validation of ‘Mission and Ministry’ submissions, and many of those comprising the House of Bishops Inspectorate are also lacking in the experience of leadership of growing churches. If the Church of England is to reverse the continuing decline now being experienced, it is vital that the education of the next generation of clergy should be strongly influenced by those who have personal experience of parameters which result in church growth rather than church decline. Indeed, it could be the case that ‘headhunting’ among the leadership of the most strongly growing churches of today when it comes to clergy training appointments could be the best investment in tomorrow, affecting personnel, that the Church of England could possibly make.
Turning from who is doing the teaching on the Regional Courses, to what is taught, invites immediate attention to the widespread belief among both Bishops and Course Principals that Regional Theological Courses will never produce the next generation of theologians. One of the foundation axioms of EMMTC has been referred to in ‘abandonment of the myth of coverage’, and there is a widespread assumption that lack of coverage of the ground is balanced by the institution of a regime of lifelong learning. And yet still it is not believed that Courses can produce theologians. The seeming incongruency of these statements is explained by the fallacy of the argument. Colleges are also able to instil an attitude of lifelong learning and yet are able initially to provide an experience of learning which is so much more comprehensive than the Courses, simply through the long-recognised fact that three years’ part-time Course training gives about the same specific curriculum time as half a two-year full-time equivalent But why is it then thought that the Course regime is adequate for training ordinands? What is a parish minister if he is not a practitioner of theology? If a form of training is not capable of providing the basis for teaching pupils in a group, why is it thought that it will any better prepare people for the cure of souls in a parish?
When NOC still stood for ‘covering the ground’, it was branded as outmoded in attitude. But lack of coverage is exactly the problem for Regional Courses as a genre, and especially lack of coverage of central areas of knowledge such as Biblical Studies which are essential if anything like justice is to be done to areas of applied theology. The modern Principal of CBDTI is person who refers to ‘scratching the surface’ as describing the Regional Course endeavour. Inspectors of the St. Albans Course before its amalgamation into SAOMC were less kind when they observed what they described as ‘groping in the dark after theology’! There is a proven paucity of input on Regional Courses in the key core areas of the curriculum and the system ignores the simple advice of Michael Ramsey in The Christian Priest Today that there is no substitute in ordination training for depth of study of theology. Nor is there evidence that Bishops’ Inspectors give a high profile attention to the quality and quantity of basic theological studies.
Responsibility for the lack of basic theological content is not the direct responsibility of the Regional Courses themselves, but rather of those who specify curriculum parameters i.e. currently the Ministry Division. As long ago as 1982, the ACCM Annual Report highlighted the problem of new curricular requirements in the context of limited overall curriculum time on Courses. Not long after it was recorded that the Oak Hill Course had had to halve Biblical, doctrinal and ethics course components because of such new areas, which have elsewhere been described as ‘fashionable’ or ‘politically correct.’ Little wonder that one NOC Principal was moved to ask, ‘Could ministry become all pastoral studies and no Gospel?’ In the light of increasing competition for curricular time, the ACCM 22 decision to place primary responsibility for the shape of the curriculum with the individual training institutions can indeed be described as abrogation of responsibility. Although this has now in some measure been redressed by the introduction of training expectations, it is unsatisfactory that ‘Mission and Ministry’ is more centred on issues of personal growth in understanding of the various curricular areas by the ordinands, than in whether certain knowledge has been grasped or not. In an analogy with medicine, it is unlikely that becoming a surgeon will ever rest on progress rather than on actual knowledge and ability. Who can say that issues of eternal life and death, the area of practice of the minister, are deserving of lower standards? Although the early description of Southwark seminars as ‘exchange of opinions without much injection of knowledge’, are less likely today, lesser preparation for ‘day One’ of ordained ministry through the Regional Course route is still fact.
The recommendation in the light of the above is that Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology should be subject once again to a specific defined curriculum, and that Ministry Division and the House of Bishops should take responsibility for ensuring that this is accurately delivered. Furthermore, consideration should be given to increasing in initial training the proportion of curricular time that is given over to these areas. When proposals are received for the teaching of thematic or integrated studies, great care should be taken to ensure that no ‘shortchanging’ of the basic constituent disciplines takes place. To quote ACCM’s one-time Theological Education Secretary, accurately this time, ‘If it does not matter about quantity and length of time, then let us reduce the Theological Colleges’ courses’!
Other issues which require urgent attention in connection with the Regional Courses include those of churchmanship, relative standards between Courses, the narrowness of the home church as a training base, time for reflection and prayer, and secularisation in the sphere of training providers.It is not true that the Regional Courses offer equal but different training from the Theological Colleges. They offer training which is cheaper than the Colleges because of the lack of residence and the lack of content. The assertion in the early days of Southwark, that such a pattern saves money at the expense of both employer and student, is equally true today. Of course, in the case of the Non-Stipendiary Ministry, the Courses offer that part-time mode of training which is essential. The combination of lack of time and lack of content gives, as Mantle asserts, a different training which produces a different ministry. What the Church aspires to however is a training mode which is equivalent to that of the Colleges, with perhaps complementary strengths and weaknesses. Instead, one current Diocesan Bishop is correct when he says, ‘Residential training enables more in-depth focus on everything.’ Even allowing for certain strengths of the Courses and their success in geographical development, the Church needs to grasp the nettle of their non-equivalence with residential training.
Dr John Edmondson is Vicar of St Mark’s, Bexhill
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