Sunday, 25 September 2011

Are the theological colleges being phased out?

Are the theological colleges being phased out? I ask this because a correspondent has reported a situation where a potential ordination candidate has been told that anyone over 30 will not be allowed to go on a full-time residential training course as it is too expensive. Instead, candidates will have to undertake a part-time training, either on a regional course or at St Mellitus college.
Moreover, this person has been told that ‘in four to six years’ no one will be going to the traditional full-time colleges. Instead, all theological training will be part-time or ‘on the job’. The only people who will have undertaken a full-time theological degree in the Church of England will therefore eventually be people who did a course at a ‘secular’ University.
Now I was already under the impression that anyone over 30 would only be given a maximum two years residential training, and that even this would be curtailed if the candidate were substantially older, but I had not heard of this scheme to phase in the requirement for under thirties.
If this is happening, however, or even being considered, it is time to ask some serious and searching questions.
In the 1945 report Towards the Conversion of England, we find this consideration of the same topic:
During this acute post-war shortage the temptation will be for the laity to demand, and the Bishops to allow, a lower standard of training and of personal qualification, in order to save parish priests from breaking down under an impossible strain. We are convinced that were the Church to succumb, and to lower instead of raising the ordination standard, fatal and far reaching damage would be done to the cause of true religion: above all, to the cause nearest to our Saviour’s heart—evangelism. [107]
In other words, intensive training was seen not as a luxury but a necessity.
Now part of the problem, I suspect, is that there is too little correlation between training and ministry. Some of what goes on in the colleges has little bearing on what is required in the parishes.
Speaking for myself, however, I need every bit of the academic theology I have imbibed over the years, especially from my one-year post-graduate degree at Moore College. Indeed, on my return from Moore I wrote a short booklet called A Little Knowledge (pdf file) in which I confessed the error of my earlier ways in thinking that such intensive theological training was indeed unnecessary for the clergy. (Actually, looking at this again, I'd urge you to read it!)
Furthermore, as I explained to my correspondent, the current generation of 30-somethings in training for ordination are going to work at least five years longer than was the expectation when I was a 20-something in the same position. In all likelihood, they will be working until they are 70, not 65, and therefore a 35-year old graduate is facing a 35 year ministry.
In the present climate, will a two year course be enough, let alone a couple of years of part-time courses? On the matter of the biblical languages alone, it is instructive to compare what goes on now with what John Wesley required of his clergy:
Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, (as every Minister does,) not only to explain books which are written therein, but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of every one who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretence? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David's Psalms; or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face? (An Address to the Clergy, 1756)
And if this is true of the languages, how much is it also true already of the deep issues of theology which lie beneath so many of the issues we face in our ministry?
But there lies the rub, doesn’t it? For a lot of what passes for ministry is not a ‘theological’ ministry at all. ‘Pastoral’ ministry in the Church of England is ‘helping people with their problems’, not bringing people to the knowledge of God in Christ. And who needs in-depth theological education to be a listening ear and a practical help?
Still, there is one piece of good news. If the evangelicals resist this pressure and find the money to send their own people on full-time courses (however few this may be) then one day in the future they will be the theological elite of the Church. Whether there will be much of the Church left is a moot point.
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  1. The point about languages is particularly pertinent. The biblical languages ability of graduates from part-time courses is usually minimal or non-existent, meaning they have little aptitude for using better commentaries.
    One good thing of recent years is the explosion of excellent online courses in theology, e.g. Covenant Theological College or, many of them free, with which people can brush up (or acquire for the first time) their knowledge.
    A church serious about teaching its people should use these resources.

    Mark B., W. Kent

  2. Hi there,
    Very surprised to hear this. Australian dioceses still require a 4 year degree, although the subsidy for ordinands' fees is reducing. I think only Moore College requires residential study. Part-time study is becoming more common, although there is a 8 year time limit which means you have to average a half-time study load.

  3. "I think only Moore College requires residential study."

    And Sydney is growing.

    I think there is room for looking at other ways of delivering training than taking people out of parish life into an essentially 'academic' environment, as happened in my day at St John's Nottingham. But we need to ask very serious questions about what level of equipping is being delivered by our courses and how this relates to whatever we conceive to be the work of ministry.

  4. Here in Chester diocese, there is no funding for anyone over 50 to go to theological college, although they are free to raise their own funds. I don't think it's any secret that the finances of training nationally are facing a crisis because of the cuts in higher education funding.

    What makes this particularly alarming is that many university "theology" courses may become "religous studies courses".

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  5. John, there is another angle to view this type of move. In many ways, it is part and parcel with what is beginning to happen in tertiary education more broadly - and in this, tertiary education is only just beginning to catch up with the education revolution. I have little doubt that tertiary education will look profoundly different in the next five to ten years, including universities. Two trends in particular are well established - a growing trend to PT study, whether entry level, or higher qualification professional qualifications (ie. MBA type awards). Secondly, the availability of information is profoundly changing the whole dynamic away from the 'come to us because we have the lecture theatres and library' mode, to 'go to them' to allow greater scope for context-related learning - not only for 'practical skills', but for 'real life' connections.

    Underlying all this is a significant equipping the learner with skills for greater self-directed and life-long learning, rather than the 'curriculum delivery' listen and absorb mode.

    Such changes have been mainstream in infants, primary and secondary education for decades, yet universities and colleges have been puzzled by the number of students who feel frustrated and switch off when they encounter the 'sage on the stage' tertiary mode.

    Universities that thrive on developing academics will continue to a certain extent as at present, but for the majority seeking training or formation with a vocational or professional focus will increasingly seek context integrated 'blended learning' modes of tertiary training.

    So to a certain extent, theological colleges may be no different in this - and indeed, I would suggest, are actually well placed to be more cutting edge when it comes to adopting such innovative context-related approaches, with some well established high quality educational outcomes.

    Tim Harris
    Nelson, NZ

  6. Thanks for your article "A Little Knowledge", John. A bit like learning to drive, I think the best long-term answer is both a good grounding and regular booster courses in theology. I agree that costs are driving the policy here, which is a disgrace. But every crisis is also an opportunity for evangelicals to differentiate ourselves.

  7. One thing that bugs me in all this is what has happened in the wider field of 'higher education'.

    Back in the early post-war years we had polytechnics which basically provided vocational training, whilst the universities aimed at a broader intellectual development.

    By and large the polys did a good job. But then in the 1990s the government decided that all the polys should become 'universities', which they did in name, but not in character.

    The change seemed to be a shift away from training, but not towards intellectual development. Instead, the 'outcome' became the qualification itself - an old poly gave you skills, an old university developed your intellect, a new university gave you a degree.

    It was rather like the scene in the Wizard of Oz, where the scarecrow, who wants a brain, is given a diploma instead, because that is what educated people have.

    How this impacts on theological training - which requires both skills and intellect - I'll have to save for another time.

  8. Well, we are staring into a big financial hole.. and the average age of people offering for ministry is still rising (I think - along with the average age of congregations). All that does need addressing.

    But that calls for better theological education and ministerial training to produce more effective ministry. Just finding ways to cut back is typically "institutional" response to decline, but it is really more like the counsel of despair, than a stategic response!

    However, it is a rather convenient solution to the "problem" that most of the money is spent on evangelical theological colleges (as the others are mostly in terminal decline), while the establishment of the CofE, and most of the cheap part-time courses, are still disproportionately controlled by liberals..

  9. Canon Andrew Godsall26 September 2011 at 11:02

    I think you will find that there is a particular problem in places like Wycliffe Hall and St Stephen's House, which are permanent private halls of Oxford University and will have to charge the £9,000 fees, which the C of E simply can't afford. Ripon College Cuddesdon, which is broad and positvely thriving, will not be in the same position.
    The polarisation between liberal and conservative is a recipe for disaster and will have to go.

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

  10. The C of E HQ published a report about the implications of higher HE fees earlier this year:

    This page is informative of what is in the works:

    (Name and address withheld - in a country that doesn't like us)

  11. John, I quite agree with you about the PolyTechs (and you would know as well as anyone), and it is undoubtedly the case that a political level the motivation is undoubtedly financial (as also with the church). However, it does provide a timely opportunity to rethink the whole educational and formational paradigm.

    My point is that in the midst of all this there is some excellent pedagogical thinking going on, much better suited to building on new global connectedness and modes of communication and interaction. I suspect we can barely begin to imagine what sort of infants, primary & secondary education will be experienced within the next 10 years. Why should theological education be locked into a 'bells and cells' approach? The church of all places has an interest in integrating ministry contexts with informed theological analysis, because it is out of this that profound interpretation, analysis and understanding occur.

    Just reflect on this: the richness of New Testament theology was not generated out of the great academies, but in the context of the Christian communities exploring the big questions against the backdrop of very real life experiencing an engagement with the marketplace of world views, opinions and cultural issues.

    In my view we have made theology far too abstract, only the preserve of academics, and much too disconnected from the world of the local church. The current mess provides an opportunity to move quality theological education much closer to the people are, and make it available to a much greater number of students. Some of the new models such as St Mellitus are doing just this, as also the Westminster Theological Centre (working with 'hub' model at strategic locations throughout the UK, very similar to what we are developing here in NZ). Availability of high quality academics and educators on a far more accessible basis.

    In my view, these types of innovative models will be better placed and more fruitful the further we travel into the 21st century...

    Tim Harris,
    Nelson, NZ (soon to be Adelaide)

  12. I'm with you Tim, to some extent, that sending ordinands away to 'vicar factory' for two or three years is a mistake. As a WTC student, I think their model works well (at least for what I've seen of Certificate level - later years are rather shrouded in mystery to new students and don't work on the same hub model), especially at encouraging lay people to get some theological training.

    Looking at the problem raised in the original post, it looks like they either plan on making the full time colleges a lot smaller (and some are tiny already - from what I gather, there's a couple roughly the size of my WTC hub), or just winding most of them down and ending up with one or two. Given the small amount of under 30s who successfully become ordinands (through prejudice against young people, low amounts of candidates, etc), it is a radical shift in the way it's done.

    Si Hollett
    Amersham, Bucks

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  14. As one recently finished at Oak Hill and currently doing a Masters as part of my IME training part-time. The former was rigorous and allowed the time for some of the time-consuming reading and learning necessary. The latter is Mickey Mouse and an obstruction to both ministry and learning.

    Furthermore, it is depressing to see the lack of depth of understanding of those trained on the local courses, who I now "study" with.

    While in principle this need not be the case, it's hard to see in the present CoE how it would not be.

    Stephen Watkinson
    Blackburn, Lancashire

  15. "The polarization between liberal and conservative is a recipe for disaster and will have to go".

    Which, translated out of newspeak, means "everyone will have to become a liberal". Indeed, I suspect that is another motivation alongside the financial for undermining the colleges.

    Can I respectfully disagree with Tim and Si? Sending men off for three years of intensive study of scripture and Christian doctrine before ordination is exactly what we should be doing. They will never be able to do that once they are in active, full-time ministry- church life is simply too busy. Without that grounding, their ministry will not be intentional- they will simply respond to pressures and do whatever is demanded of them by parish/church/denomination. Three years reflection on God and what he calls them to spend the rest of their life doing is too precious to sacrifice.

    Stephen Walton

  16. Canon Andrew Godsall26 September 2011 at 15:19

    "The polarization between liberal and conservative is a recipe for disaster and will have to go".

    Which, translated out of newspeak, means "everyone will have to become a liberal".

    Not at all. It is much better translated as 'not what Jesus would do.' The polarisation is not working in the colleges either. The thriving courses and colleges are those that serve the very broad spectrum of Anglican ordinands that are emerging. We ordained a record number of ordinands in Exeter diocese this year and have even more lined up for next year. Our vocations strategy is broad and our course enables conservatives and liberals to study together without 'party' concerns. The same is true of St Mellitus.

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

  17. Andrew,

    Have you seen details on this fees business. I thought the £9,000 was for first degrees where student loans would be available. Does this also apply to Cambridge or Durham?

    West Yorkshire

  18. Andrew (Godsall), I note with interest your comments about 'broad' courses both thriving and enabling liberals and conservatives to study together "without 'party' concerns".

    As to their 'thriving', I wonder how much this has to do with administrative policies which are directing people to such courses, rather than to the traditional (and more 'party') colleges. In other words, the courses thrive not (simply) because of their particular qualities, but because people are not given a choice.

    Secondly, as to what I might call the 'Rodney King' model of the future, I see very little evidence of liberals 'just getting along' with conservatives (or even broad evangelicals) on the blogs and the discussion fora. Is this because the present educational 'entente cordiale' has yet to filter through?

    I suppose what I'm really saying is to ask when you will show up here to agree with and applaud what is being said. Similarly, when will 'Thinking Anglicans' tone it down towards Anglican Mainstream, or Fulcrum welcome Reform with openness?

  19. Canon Andrew Godsall27 September 2011 at 09:36

    Agreeing with and applauding is not evidence of getting along with. Getting along with is about recognising that different points of view are possible. Once Anglican Mainstream and Reform recognise that vital point, I am sure TA and Fulcrum might tone it down.
    To understand the difference between agreeing and getting along with you could do no better than Richard Rohr.

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

  20. John,

    As you know I can’t comment on this subject from a neutral, dispassionate point of view. I head the theology, philosophy and ethics department of a theological college which remains steadfastly committed to full-time residential education as the best way of providing not just information or even information and skills, but the convictions and life-time habits which are part and parcel of faithful gospel ministry. At Moore College — which is not perfect, which theological institution is? — we don’t want to skimp on Bible, theology and church history but at the same time we don’t want to get trapped in a world where theologians are only talking to each other and are disconnected from the life of the churches.

    I’ll pass over the comments above on the conservative vs liberal divide — one needs only a little global perspective to see how the rhetoric of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ is so often used as part of a liberal program which will never tolerate or include evangelicalism of the type of evangelicalism exemplified by Stott or Packer etc. I really don’t see any genuine ‘entente cordiale’ worth speaking of. I’ll also pass over the merits or otherwise of the St Mellitus experiment.

    What I think is critically important in this discussion is the need for theological education to be oriented towards the exercise of gospel ministry in parish churches while at the same time being as rigorous as possible. Your Wesley quote is apt: the biblical languages are a litmus test in many ways. How serious are we about equipping people to teach the Scriptures and test every idea, proposal and program by the Scriptures? Do we want to leave our future pastors and others at the mercy of every new fad in scholarship, without the resources to weigh these ideas against the very words which God has given us in Scripture?

    It is a perennial danger facing theological education that engagement with the academic guild will overshadow commitment to resourcing the churches with faithful, loving and effective pastor-teachers. We in theological education need to be constantly alert to this danger and set in place approaches to the task that preserve its proper orientation to pastoral ministry in its various forms. To this end, I’m thrilled at the way Oak Hill has designed its new foundation degree. It combines an appropriate commitment to the highest standards in biblical, theological and pastoral studies with an equally appropriate preoccupation with the churches that the college serves.

    Gospel ministry in the next fifty years is most likely to be under more sustained public challenge than it has been for centuries. Much of this will be cloaked in apparently sophisticated intellectual argument and ministering in this context will require a more thorough theological education rather than less. Dawkins, Hitchens, may be on the way out but there will be others behind them. God’s people in our churches will still need help responding to the challenges presented through all kinds of communication media.

    So I am hoping that Christian men and women will keep insisting on pastors whose lives have been deeply impacted by their theological study. To this end, I am yet to be persuaded that the variety of alternatives proposed by those pursuing these questions — good though they may be — are really the best and most appropriate ways forward.

    Full-time residential theological education is expensive. (We need to work hard to find ways of making it less so, indeed.) But can we really afford to abandon it?

  21. Andrew Godsall is completely wrong about the unaffordable cost of degree courses at the Oxford PPHs. In fact we will end up as the cheapest Oxbridge option, because of the way in which the PPH arrangement distributes fee income to support teaching. As for the political point which he makes, simply pointing to the sort of people who are St Stephen's House alumni in his own diocese demonstrates that if we have a brief to make people narrow and polarised, then it isn't working.

  22. Robin
    You seem to misunderstand my posts. I was not aware that I was making a 'political point'. I was saying that the divide between liberal and conservative was not sustainable and pointing to an excellent article by a Roman Catholic priest to demonstrate why not. I agree that St Stephen's House Alumni in all dioceses are often very clearly from all kinds of different theological stables and often very liberal - we certainly recognise the great breadth at SSH. I don't recall suggesting that you had a brief to make people narrow or polarised. It is places like Anglican Mainstream and the like that seem to have such a brief and it is clearly not helpful.
    As to your fees: I had obviously misunderstood the situation and can only apologise if that is wrong. You are saying that students at SSH studying at the University will not have to pay the full University fees?

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter