Sounding Board

Dumbing down the priesthood

Unless the Church reinstates rigorous college-based training for clerics, it will wither away

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Key limiting factors”. Two and a half years ago a firestorm engulfed the Church of England as Canon John McGinley, one of the driving forces behind the recent transformation of the Established Church, rhapsodised about a church set free from the “key limiting factors” of “a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church”.

Slowly but surely the national spotlight has focused on the plans to sell off the church’s physical treasures (a secret report by the disgraced Paula Vennells — leaked last month — revealed plans to dispose of 1,000 churches) and schemes in dioceses such as Truro and Leicester to scrap traditional parish ministry, replacing it with impossibly huge “minster communities” overseen by priests in a car pool-style management structure.

So schemes are well advanced to get rid of buildings and stipends, two of the three key limiting factors. But what about the third, the “long, costly college-based training”? It will come as no surprise to learn that theological education has been lined up for summary execution, too.

There are two dangerous developments working in tandem. The first is an anti-intellectualism which has crept into the church over the last few decades. Where once the scholarship of ordinary clerics was called the Stupor Mundi of the church, and we could brag there was a scholar in every parish, now the church actively downplays academic study in favour of “contextual learning” and an exercise of pointlessness called “theological reflection” — which, as its name suggests, can only work if you have enough theology to use during this reflection.

To give some meat to this, the Church’s Common Awards programme students are expected to spend ten hours working on “credits”, with ten or 20 credits making a module. Fully half of these credits can be earned by contextual experience, “on placement or in ministerial practice, in activities directly related to the module learning outcomes”.

The crisis of Christianity is a crisis of belief: fewer and fewer people believe in the God whom we worship

As one experienced tutor from an evangelical college said recently, “I can see that this would work well for practical theology subjects such as pastoral care, evangelism, leadership, worship and liturgy and even ethics. But how might we provide such linked learning in context when studying scripture, church history, patristics, trinitarian theology, or biblical languages?” The honest answer is you can’t. Not in a way that allows you to learn the subject.

And that presumes you are doing enough even theoretically to ground your ministry in scripture and the history and doctrine of the church. Many institutions do not give you that option. Where the old school residential colleges demand 40 credits in biblical studies, the new breed of theological institutions do not.

St Mellitus, now the largest such institution in the Church of England, and an offshoot of Holy Trinity Brompton, only demands 20 credits. That is a tiny amount of time to dedicate to knowing the foundations of our faith.

This ties into the second dangerous development: pushing students into non-residential part-time training. While it is important to offer this kind of training to candidates whose life and family situation prevent them from being uprooted, two essential safeguards should be in place.

First, the amount of theology that students are expected to study should be the same regardless of whether they train full-time or part-time, residentially or non-residentially. Second, nobody should be pushed into a cheaper model of training for any reason other than that this is best for them — most especially not because the diocese would benefit financially from this decision. Neither of these safeguards exist.

Although Durham University offers some academic assurance, the difference in quality between institutions and the lack of a common course against which all students can be assessed leaves many students short-changed.

As for financial incentives, the national church changed the funding structure in 2017, gifting dioceses any difference between the amount spent on a student’s training and the amount given for that training by the national church.

Numbers training residentially have crashed since: by 8 per cent in the first year, by a further 6 per cent in the year after, to a point where some colleges had only four students starting this year. “Long, costly college-based training” is being killed, just like the other key limiting factors.

This is a disaster. The crisis of Christianity in the twenty-first century is a crisis of belief: fewer and fewer people believe in the God whom we worship. If priests are unable to explain that God, unable to talk authoritatively of the God whom we meet in scripture and sacrament (and what that sentence even means and why it matters) then we are dead.

We might as well sell the buildings and stop paying the stipends. Contra Canon McGinley and the current leadership of the Church: if we don’t stop limiting long, costly college-based training, the Church which we all want to save will die as surely as if we killed it ourselves.

And in many ways we will have done.

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