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Ordinands in ordinary places

13 March 2015

As mixed-mode or context-based training courses for ordination continue to increase, Huw Spanner asks whether context over residential training better equips for ministry


TEN years ago, there were essentially two ways to train for the Anglican ministry: either study full-time at a residential college; or do a part-time course. Now, however, there is a third option, usually refered to as either "mixed-mode" or "context-based" training.

There are many permutations, but, typically, students do not live on the college campus but instead "in context": in a small community in a parish, or in accommodation provided by the church in which they are placed. To meet the academic requirements of their course, students may come into college for intensive teaching one day a week, spend a day or two a week studying at home, and each year additionally attend several residential weekends and one residential week. The rest of their time is spent in the parish they are placed in, working alongside the clergy there.

In the vanguard of this new model of training is St Mellitus, the Church of England's first entirely non-residential theological college. It has grown rapidly since its establishment in 2007, and today it has 175 ordinands in training, on campuses in west London, Chelmsford, and Liverpool.

Its original Dean, now Principal, is the Revd Dr Graham Tomlin, who was previously Vice-Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Wycliffe, in his opinion, "had many strengths, including a strong community and all the resources of its libraries and a university faculty, and it was really good at teaching people theology; but we weren't that good at teaching them how to lead a church.

"It often struck me that most of what people learnt about ministry they learnt from the church they had come from. That's why I, and others, came up with what we call 'full-time church-based training', where students spend half their time learning on the job in ministry, and half their time doing academic study.

"This form of training enables people to learn to relate theology and the practice of ministry better. If you do theology on its own, followed by three years of a curacy, it's quite easy to allow them to take root in two separate sides of your brain; but, if you're doing them both at the same time, you learn to put the two in conversation."

Several other colleges are moving in a similar direction. St John's, Nottingham, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013, announced last year that it was taking the "bold step" of abandoning residential training altogether over the next few years, and remodelling the college "to meet the future training needs of the Church".

Its Principal, the Rev Dr David Hilborn - previously Assistant Dean at St Mellitus - says: "St John's pioneered mixed-mode training in the Church of England some years ago, but it's morphed since then to a pattern now familiar across the country, which is students 'in context' pretty much full-time travelling back into a centre to get their learning.

"In our case, we are now promoting the 'hub' we have at Lady Bay, five miles from our campus at Bramcote, where a member of our faculty is priest-in-charge of the parish there. At present, he has a pilot cohort of six students, who live in a community house partly funded by the diocese, experiencing a rhythm and rule of life based on an amalgam of Benedictine and Ignatian models - with Anglican elements, of course - and learning, as it were, on the job."

Context-based training is the norm in many countries outside northern Europe, Dr Hilborn says. He quotes thinking from North America which maps a historic movement of theological education from "the abbey" to "the academy", and now to an "apostolate" model, which is "more dispersed and more missionally intentional in terms of being out in context". It is also "authentic", he says, if one con-siders the way Jesus trained his disciples.

Dr Tomlin makes the same point. "Jesus took his disciples away to a secluded place, and then sent them out to the towns and villages to preach the gospel and heal the sick, and then they withdrew again, and so on. That rhythm of withdrawal and engagement, withdrawal and engagement, is actually quite similar to what we do at St Mellitus."

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson, says that a similar pattern of "doing and then reflecting, doing and then reflecting" will mark its own new mixed-mode course. From September 2015, the college will offer ordinands all three kinds of training: full-time residential, part-time courses, and full-time non-residential, where students come in one day a week for intensive teaching, and then return to a church "to put it all to work in daily ministry".

"Over the past ten years," Dr Ineson says, "we have moved away from the idea of the college as an ivory tower to which people come and study academic theology for three years, and then try to put that into practice in a curacy. The best training for ministers is real ministry with real people in real contexts."

None the less, full-time residential community-based training is, for her, "probably the gold standard". When people live and wor-ship together daily, and study and share life's joys and pains, she says, "it is an amazing opportunity to be formed, and to become more Christlike." That is still the mode of training which excites her most, she says.

At Trinity, that, too, involves each student in being "deeply engaged" with a church, she says. "We need to get away from this idea that study only happens academically, in a college. Learning can happen in all sorts of different ways."

Cranmer Hall, Durham, is likewise embracing mixed-mode training in the coming academic year. Its Warden, the Revd Mark Tanner, says: "I favour residential courses: I believe they are the best way to train people for a lifetime's ministry. But I think that context-based ones are a good addition to our portfolio.

"We recognise that people have different learning styles, and there are those whose primary learning environment needs to be one where they can have a go, have a bit of success, a bit of failure, and have someone alongside them who can help them reflect on both."

Besides, he adds, the world is changing. "People no longer do three years of training, and then a couple of curacies. They are being turned around much more quickly between their selection for ordination and their first incumbency.

"Theological training is still basically predicated on the idea that you're a single male who can go and live in a pseudo-monastic community for three years; but lots of people are married, and have jobs and kids at school, and it's just far harder to uproot for two or three years and then uproot again to go and do a curacy."

As at St John's, Cranmer's mixed-mode students will live in a "hub" in a six-strong "formational" community - one of these will be based in East Durham and the other in Middlesborough. "One of the things I resist in the Church is formation through competence alone," Mr Tanner explains. "As I often say, we need to be training saints, not just scholars or scribes.

"You may make friends with the other students you journey through your training with; you may fall out with some of them; but there is a kind of bumping along together that is profoundly formational when it is held within an intentional formative Christian community."

For Dr Tomlin, this is not the only kind of formation that students can benefit from. "The disadvantage [of living in college or a hub] is that, sometimes, you may feel a little cloistered away from ordinary life - and ordinary church life in particular.

"At St Mellitus, there is still formation going on, but in two different communities: one is the cohort of students that goes through the college together - and some quite profound shaping goes on there; and the other is the local church. That combination is just as effective in formation for ministry in the local church, if not more so."

MIXED-MODE training has been criticised as lacking in academic rigour, not least in a blog written recently by the Revd Dr Ian Paul, the Dean of Studies at St John's from 2005 to 2012. "Loss of knowledge of scripture and theo-logy . . . is one of the major issues blighting the Church and its current debates," he wrote last November. "If you think [that learning] to read the New Testament . . . in an informed and critically reflective way is important for preaching, pastoral care, and ministry, this is only going to happen in initial training, and only going to happen in depth in a full-time course.

"I have much respect for fellow educators at St Mellitus, but is packing a full-time course into a schedule alongside significant part-time ministry going to give sufficient space for engaging in these issues in depth?"

Dr Tomlin responds: "Our students leave with exactly the same academic award as they would if they went to a residential college. Durham University was very happy to validate our form of training. It's probably true that our students get slightly less time to study than students at a traditional college, but then I would say: At the end of the day, what are you training for?

"If you're training to be a theologian, fine, spend most of your time doing theological study. If you're training to be a priest or a minister of the gospel, you need somehow to combine that with reflection on actual ministry, and so a combination of the two seems to me a very good and creative way."

Dr Ineson takes a different view: "I think we need to get away from this idea that theologians and ministers are two different things. I think we need ministers who are able to do theology as well as theologians who are able to do ministry. It's not an either/or."

She does see a danger that context-based training may not measure up academically. "We are going to have to work very hard at Trinity to make sure that those training in this mode don't lose out in that respect. My fear would be that, in future, contextual modes of training might become detached from really good centres of academic scholarship and research."

"This is the accusation often thrown at context-based training," Mr Tanner says. "If people are spending time elsewhere, what are they not doing in order to enable that to happen? The Church of England has always been committed to the highest-possible academic standards in its training, and certainly at Cranmer we have thought really hard about how we can keep high academic standards alongside excellent missional placements. Both of those are essential."

The guarantee of quality, he says, is that "Durham University, which validates most theological colleges' degrees, will have looked at what everyone is doing, and been satisfied. They are very rigorous, and they don't say yes to anything unless they are satisfied."

The director of ordinands at Guildford, Canon William Challis, comments: "Whatever sort of training you do, you're not going to get everything in it - that's why training continues after ordination, and is now a seven-year process. The three years before ordination is groundwork, and, for some people, it's more appropriate to do that 'in context'; and, for others, it's more appropriate when they're residen-tially based.

"At Guildford, we're happy with both kinds of courses: both work for different people, as long as they have explored the different options, and asked the right questions. It's good that there is variety."

From the vantage-point of the All Saints' Centre for Mission and Ministry, whose part-time non-residential courses have everybody on placement for the duration, the Course Principal, the Ven. Dr John Applegate, says: "Non-residential training has been around for half a century or more, and there is evid-ence to show that it is at least as effective as what used to be the traditional form of residential training. Certainly at All Saints' we are academically rigorous, but academic achievement is not the be-all and end-all of formation for ministry."

At present, Dr Tomlin says, there are still comparatively few ordinands getting context-based training. "It wouldn't surprise me if the number continued to grow over the coming years, and it's even possible that, eventually, the majority will train this way. The wind is certainly blowing in that direction, partly because a lot of students instinctively feel that it makes sense to train this way."

Mr Tanner takes a different view: "I don't think it is ever likely to be the path [that] the bulk of our students take, but it will be a permanent part of a healthy portfolio of options. I certainly hope there will be more crossover between these different modes of training, because all of them have their strengths."

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