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Changes in training prompt resignation and protest letter

27 March 2015


Envisaging problems: Dr Sarah Coakley 

Envisaging problems: Dr Sarah Coakley 

A PROPOSAL to devolve decision-making about ministerial training to the dioceses, opposed by 17 theological educators in a letter to the Church Times today, prompted one member to resign from the task group behind it, it emerged this week.

The Revd Dr Sarah Coakley, professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge, sent a resignation letter to the group four days before the report - Resourcing Ministerial Education - was published (News, 16 January). In it, she lists several reservations about the report, warning that it is "anodyne and misleading". She describes the devolution to the dioceses as "the most disturbing part . . . I must be blunt: I simply do not believe there is sufficient qualitative theological understanding in most of the dioceses to protect the sort of aspirations that this report promotes."

Resourcing Ministerial Education, presented to the General Synod in February (News, 20 February), proposes that "decisions about training pathways for individuals should be made in the diocese, in consultation with the candidate." A "standard level of grant for tuition" will be given to each recommended candidate from a central fund, to which all dioceses contribute. This grant "may be used in a range of ways as the diocese sees fit, providing the training is from an approved provider".

In her letter, Dr Coakley writes that she agrees "wholeheartedly with all the goals and aspirations" of the report, which envisions a 50 per cent increase in ordinations by 2020.

But she goes on to warn that devolution to the dioceses will be "profoundly undermining of all these good goals. . . Indeed, since there is no theology of ministry articulated in the report itself, one can hardly expect one to emerge in the course of individual bishops making decisions about 'flexible pathways', or taking on over-50s candidates without a BAP.

"Further, as the report itself acknowledges (but does not resolve), a huge set of problems can be envisaged about how to deploy clergy around the country in places of greatest need or effective pastoral abandonment, given the new plan for the financial support of clergy training."

She warns that "Synod is likely to sign on to this report without realising what its fuller implications are . . . Why is the threat to the future of some residential colleges, often voiced openly in the committee, hidden in the actual report?"

Dr Coakley's concerns echo those outlined in a letter to the Church Times today, with which she agrees "wholeheartedly". The letter warns that, if the devolution to the dioceses goes ahead, "a casualty will be the strong links built up over many years with university theology and religious studies departments" and that "the public, intellectual engagement of the Church of England with pressing contemporary issues will suffer accordingly".

The signatories call for safeguards against cost being "the most important factor in determining an ordinand's pathway of training and formation for ministry", and warn that diocesan boards of finance will be discouraged from "investing in what will inevitably look like a higher-cost training route."

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, who chaired the task group, welcomed the letter. Previous reports had, he said, "affirmed the high value the Church places both on some ordinands engaging with university departments of theology and with the resourcing of future theological educators".

He drew attention to a proposal in the current report for "special national funds" to "continue to resource gifted individuals", including in "foundational theological work leading to teaching or research". He also offered reassurance that "decisions made by dioceses about training pathways will not be made simply on the grounds of cost but will prioritise the formational needs of the candidate and the wider church expressed through the new Bishops' Guidelines."

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, one of the letter's signatories, said on Wednesday that there remained a lack of clarity about cost determining the pathway, or safeguards for the future of residential training: "That is why we feel it is very important to make this stand now."

The chair of the northern DDO group, the Revd Peter Clement, said on Tuesday that "quite a lot of concern" had been expressed at a recent meeting about "losing central expertise if things are devolved to the dioceses". He pointed out that "people are sponsored to be ordained in the Church of England as a whole, not just for one diocese."

Alex Irving, an ordinand and DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, said: "Preserving the traditional form of residential learning in collaboration with academic institutions will go a long way to ensuring the stability of focused learning and research through which the Church of England can contribute to, and be shaped by, contemporary theological scholarship.

"Moreover, the established links between the training of clergy and universities provides the necessary context for the development of those who will educate clergy in the future across the global Anglican Communion."

Consultation on the report is under way, involving both the dioceses and theolgical educatoinal institutions. Dr Croft said that he envisaged there being "firmed-up proposals" by early Autumn, and synodical scrutiny in February 2016.

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