‘Underfunded’ theological training facing ‘collapse’

10 November 2017

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Theological colleges: “We are like the story of the donkey whose feed was reduced until he dropped down dead. We are almost in the position of the donkey every year”

Theological colleges: “We are like the story of the donkey whose feed was reduced until he dropped down dead. We are almost in the position of the don...

THE people responsible for training the next generation of Anglican clergy — the principals of theological colleges and courses — have said that the system is in crisis.

Just as the Church of England seeks to expand the number of ordinands by 50 per cent, the leaders of the theological education institutions (TEIs) have told this paper that the training process is “totally underfunded”, “starved of funds”, and “quite likely to collapse”.

The Principal of St Augustine’s College, Kent (until 2015, the South East Institute of Theological Education), the Revd Dr Alan Gregory, said in reply an enquiry: “I agree that the financial situation is a critical one. We are like the story of the donkey whose feed was reduced until he dropped down dead. We are almost in the position of the donkey every year.”

Finding funds for clergy training has never been easy, and there is a historical element to the crisis, as too many training institutions have chased too few candidates for ordination. But a new move this year has caused more uncertainty, handing funding decisions from the Archbishops’ Council to the dioceses.

Since September, £41,900 can be spent training candidates aged under 30. Those in their thirties receive £28,000; those aged between 40 and 55, £18,400; and those aged over 55, £12,300. During last year’s Synod debate on the reforms, the Bishops were warned that TEIs had a “hand-to-mouth existence” (News, 26 February 2016).

Charity Commission filings (completed before the reforms) show that several TEIs are running deficits, and reveal the degree to which finances are affected by fluctuating ordinand numbers. Dr Gregory remarked: “We operate on a very small margin. We are Micawberish. Three students fewer, and we are tearing our garments; a couple over, and we are dancing for joy.”

Two colleges — Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and St John’s, Nottingham — refer explicitly to inadequate levels of funding by the C of E in their Charity Commission filings, an accusation levelled by all the principals that we spoke to.

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The Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge, Canon Chris Chivers, said: “Every ordinand is under-funded in every form of training. Everyone knows that, and there is a promise that we will get a look at that issue, but I wonder how many institutions are going to struggle financially until we get to it?”

The Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, Canon Robin Ward, said: “We are all pretending we are in charge of this thrusting international organisation but we’re not. If you hope to fund training and work of this sort you are always going to have a deficit. Residential training is extraordinarily expensive and dioceses are extremely hard-pressed. It’s impossible to run these institutions without diversifying your income stream, and if you don’t own property then you can’t really do that. All aspects of our work are loss-leaders.”

Canon Ward said that the system was threatened  “not because the weakest will go to the wall as free market forces take effect, but because we will arrive at a point where dioceses can no longer function as financial units”.

Canon Chivers reckoned that Westcott House was subsidising every ordinand by about £2500 a year. Dr Gregory suggested that, to stay within budget, the standard of training was suffering. After 35 years’ experience, he said, “I have never seen such a high quality of students as we have at present.

Unfortunately that makes funding problems more agonising: the more committed, the more attentive to God, the more self-aware, are our students, the more ambitious we can be for their ministerial formation.”

The Principal of the Eastern Region Ministry Course, the Revd Dr Alex Jensen, said: “We are under very great financial pressure, running an extremely lean operation, and have had to reduce staffing. . .

“On the one hand, the Church speaks about the need to raise more vocations, but then the theological education sector is so starved of funds and locked into a system that sets TEIs into competition with one another — rather than encouraging co-operation and sharing of resources. . . One can say without exaggeration that the sector is in crisis.”

Several principals spoke of the lack of any central direction. Dr Jensen said that they were “locked into a system that sets TEIs into competition with one another — rather than encouraging co-operation and sharing of resources.” Canon Chivers said that the market economy “results in a pseudo-Darwinesque survival of the fittest”. 

The arrival of newer training institutions, most notably St Mellitus in central London, has increased competition, but also widened the methods of training.

The cost of residential training has long been an issue for the Church, and this is now generally restricted to candidates below the age of 40. Newer methods sacrifice concentrated academic theological training for greater pastoral experience, on the grounds that clerical in-service training is able to fill in any gaps. But non-residential courses are also struggling financially, and none can plan ahead because they do not know how many ordinands they will be training next year.

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson, believes that the funding challenge goes wider. “The concern is not just how we fund ministerial training, but how those people go on to be funded in curacies.”

Dr Gregory suggested that the confusion was widespread. “There are no villains in this scenario. I think the Bishops are all scratching their heads over so many gaps in funding. . .

“What alarms me is that I think many people who are practising, committed Christians, don’t understand what we are doing as theological educators: what our enterprise means for the Church and its health, or what it might mean for them. We need to bring our resources into closer contact with the parish.”

The director of the Ministry Division of the Church of England, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, said that it monitored the financial situation of all TEIs, and that staff were available to discuss any difficulties, but “none of them has currently informed us that they have a particular problem.

“Given the size of many such institutions, they are vulnerable to changes in their number of students if, in any given year, there is a large outgoing cohort of ordinands and these are not fully replaced,” he said. “The fees for ministerial education are reviewed annually to meet rising costs and are the same for all institutions in the same category of training.

“The cost of training is met from giving in parishes, and so we are very aware of the need to ensure that there is value for money in the use of funds which are voluntarily and generously given. Equally, we recognise our responsibility to the institutions as partners in the work of ministerial education, and that we need to ensure that they are adequately funded for the work that they do.”

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Principals’ statements

The Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge, Canon Chris Chivers:

“The current system is driven by a market economy and the Church needs to ask whether this is the correct approach. It results in a pseudo-Darwinesque survival of the fittest. Currently, we receive about £2500 per candidate, and a small fluctuation in numbers has a big impact on our finances. If we want a flourishing Church we need a degree of Benedictine stability at variance with the competitive model, and a commitment to the diversity that exists. Often the narrative is ‘if something closes, that is the way it is’, and I’m not sure that is helpful.

“Every ordinand is under-funded in every form of training. Everyone knows that, and there is a promise that we will get a look at that issue, but I wonder how many institutions are going to struggle financially until we get to it? I am subsidising every ordinand here by about £500 a year. Opening this box is difficult because with it will come the realisation that everything is totally underfunded, but if we are serious about the C of E remaining a national institution we need to do it.

“By the end of Justin Welby’s archepiscopacy, we could have ceased to be a national institution, because we simply won’t have the people-power on the ground to sustain it. Some people may think that’s a great thing; I am not one of them. If we want clergy to be more missional — and I’m passionate that we do — then we are going to have to invest more in their training.”

 

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson:

We are in a changing situation, waiting to see how it pans out. The Church has done an amazing job of increasing vocations; our numbers have skyrocketed. The concern is not just how we fund ministerial training but how those people go on to be funded in curacies. But I sense a real appetite in the Church generally to make this work.

“The question of whether what we get given for each ordinand adequately covers their training depends on the number who choose to train at each TEI. If you are just on or below your optimum capacity it is difficult. Thankfully we are blessed with very good numbers this year, but like lots of colleges we have other things going on to help raise funds. We have all become business managers as well as theologians. It’s a very rapidly shifting scene, with great hope and great excitement but I share the concerns of other principals.”

 

The Principal of the Eastern Region Ministry Course, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Alex Jensen:

“On the one hand, the Church speaks about the need to raise more vocations; but then the theological education sector is so starved of funds and locked into a system that sets TEIs into competition with one another — rather than encouraging co-operation and sharing of resources — that one can say without exaggeration that the sector is in crisis.

“We are under very great financial pressure, running an extremely lean operation, and have had to reduce staffing. I see the changes in the sector being left to market forces rather than active deliberation on the part of the Church.

“As a residential course, we are not able to recruit nationally, and our partner dioceses have fluctuations in ordinand numbers. It makes planning very, very difficult. The Church needs to decide what it wants rather than letting the market decide.”

 

The Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, the Revd Dr Robin Ward:

“We are all pretending we are in charge of this thrusting international organisation but we’re not. If you hope to fund training and work of this sort you are always going to have a deficit. Residential training is extraordinarily expensive and dioceses are extremely hard-pressed. It’s impossible to run these institutions without diversifying your income stream and if you don’t own property then can’t really do that. All aspects of our work are loss-leaders.

“My view is that the entire system is quite likely to collapse, not because the weakest will go to the wall as free market forces take effect, but because we will arrive at a point where dioceses can no longer function a financial units. Contracting this all out to St Mellitus is not some magic charm. Under the RME scheme — a ridiculously over-complicated system — people have been lost to residential training, not through malice, but because dioceses are confused, particularly regarding arrangements for candidates in their 40s.”

 

The Principal of St Augustine’s College, Kent, the Revd Dr Alan Gregory:

“The financial squeeze persists for us, as it does for many, despite the expansion of our programmes some years ago. It is ordained ministry students that provide the kind of fees that can keep us afloat but those are lower than they should be. We operate on a very small margin; we are Micawberish. Three students fewer and we are tearing our garments; a couple over and we are dancing for joy! Competitiveness is very painful. It breeds suspicion among the TEIs and means we don’t share best practice.

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“There are no villains in this scenario. I think the Bishops are all scratching their heads over so many gaps in funding. There are a host of goods to be sought after and everybody is trying to realise them with very little resources. What alarms me is that I think many people who are practising, committed Christians, don’t understand what we are doing as theological educators: what our enterprise means for the Church and its health or what it might mean for them. We need to bring our resources into closer contact with the parish.

“What is heartening is that I have been in theological education for over 35 years and I have never seen such a high quality of students as we have at present. Unfortunately that makes funding problems more agonising: the more committed, the more attentive to God, the more self-aware, are our students, the more we more ambitious we can be for their ministerial formation.

“I agree that there is the financial situation is a critical one. We are like the story of the donkey whose feed was reduced until he dropped down dead. We are almost in the position of the donkey every year. You do wonder just how much leaner we can get without shrivelling up and dying and not being able to give the quality of education that the Church needs. What amazes me about principals and staff is the level of morale and commitment. It’s not the education that is in crisis, but when it comes to steady financial resources, there is a savage problem.”

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