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Fall in ordinands at theological colleges is not due to cost-cutting, says Ministry Division

21 February 2018

Westcott House, which has had a 28-per-cent fall in ordinands aged over 40

Westcott House, which has had a 28-per-cent fall in ordinands aged over 40

THIS year’s lower numbers of ordination candidates in residential training are not the result of diocesan concerns about money, the Archbishops’ Council’s Ministry Division said this week.

Although the Church of England had 14 per cent more theological students overall in 2017, more than eight per cent fewer were in residential training, a drop from 220 to 201, an annual report from the Division shows. The Division says that it is likely to issue guidance encouraging dioceses to spend their ministerial-training allocation, after research found that nine per cent of this money was not due to be spent.

The Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, Canon Robin Ward, said on Wednesday that the findings vindicated concerns expressed when the changes in funding had been first announced (News, 12 February, 2016).

“When the new funding scheme for ordination training was first proposed, it was obvious that it was going to be so complicated and ponderous that numbers in residential training would fall drastically, and that it would create random wasteful surpluses in some places and random unjust deficits in others,” he said. “Those who said this at the time were treated as naysayers, but this is exactly what has happened.”

Enrolment on regional part-time courses rose by 22 per cent last year, mainly because there were 46 per cent more 40- to 54-year-olds on this pathway. Residential training is being given to fewer in this and every age group, apart from the under-32s, of whom there were 30 per cent more. Overall, there were 69 per cent more ordinands in non-residential full-time training.

“Feedback from dioceses indicates that this has been a conscious decision on what form of training has been most appropriate for their ordinands, and is not linked to concerns about money,” the Ministry Division’s report says.

Under the Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) changes, which took effect in September, dioceses receive block grants and responsibility for managing their own training budgets. The size of grants for candidates depends on their age: £41,900 each can be spent training the under-30s; £28,000 on those in their thirties; £18,400 on the 40-to-55s; and £12,300 on the over-55s.

Principals of both residential and regional courses have raised concerns about underfunding (News, 10 November); and some dioceses are anxious about the financial implications of meeting the target of 50 per cent more ordinands in training by 2020 (News, 8 December).

As for training budgets, the report says, 31 dioceses are expected to be in surplus, and 12 in deficit.The head of resources, Ian Barnetson, writes that this is due to “caution, rather than from dioceses being constrained financially. We have not received any evidence that ordinands have been prevented through finance from following the appropriate pathway. . . We will . . . likely be issuing guidance to encourage dioceses to spend the money allocated to them on initial ministerial training.”

Across the three years of this cohort, the dioceses in aggregate are expected to have a surplus of £1.3 million: nine per cent of the total block-grant funds provided.

The Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge, Canon Chris Chivers, suggested on Wednesday that this finding was “the most concerning aspect” of the report. “Part of what people are contributing to the C of E is for training, and it would be a travesty if that wasn’t go to on what it had been promised it would go on,” he said. “Most dioceses did not really want this dispersed funding arrangement, and the difficulty is, how do you coerce 42 bodies to spend the money in the way in which it is meant to be spent?”

While some dioceses were behaving with “tremendous integrity” in choosing training pathways, he was aware of many under financial pressure. He was concerned that the Church was “moving in a much more utilitarian direction” with a focus on “skills and competencies” — which were “important and needed” — notwithstanding that many ordinands were not “cradle Christians” and required time and space for formation.

“I am wondering what is happening to the language of vocation and formation,” he said. “Are we ditching it by stealth, and moving to the point where we think this is simply a job? That is a very serious theological move to be making, without seemingly being that aware that we are making it.”

Westcott House has had a 28-per-cent fall in ordinands aged over 40, and Canon Chivers reiterated concerns that the new funding formula was “prejudicial” to women. Women enter ordination, on average, six years later than men, and their average age is 42.

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson, said that the effects of RME on residential training “need to be carefully monitored, over time”, and it was “probably too soon to make sweeping judgements about trends”. She was “delighted to see the overall increase in ordinands, especially in young vocations, and pray that this will be sustained”.

Trinity has had it highest ever intake over the past two years: more than 100 ordinands training across all three pathways, including a “steep rise” in younger candidates, especially younger women. “We hope that it continues to remain possible for candidates in the older age bands to train residentially, too, if that is the best option for them,” Dr Ineson said.

The Principal of the Eastern Region Ministry Course, the Revd Dr Alex Jensen, said that the report “shows that the Church is regaining confidence in vocations. . . That needs to be brought into the TEI [Theological Education Institutions’] sector, because at meetings I find that the sector is lacking confidence and feels under threat.” He hoped that conversations this year would explore collaboration within the sectorl, and that the TEIs would not be “pitched into competition”.

Overall, the greatest rise is in ordinands aged under 32 (News, 29 September). The report notes that five dioceses — Liverpool, Oxford, Bath & Wells, Chichester, and Gloucester — account for more than half the total increase; and that five — London, Oxford, Chelmsford, Southwark, and Chester — account for almost 30 per cent of all the intake. Hereford, with an increase of 600 per cent more ordinands, is among the dioceses with smaller numbers but large increases.

In some, new approaches are being tried. St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, for example, has launched a pilot scheme of diocesan discernment and formation for candidates who would not necessarily offer themselves for national selection, to be trained and supported to serve in their communities. It is led by the diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, a former Principal of Westcott House, and the Bishop of Dunwich, Dr Mike Harrison.

The Ministry Division’s director, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, looks forward, he writes, to “conversations on a shared vision for training and the ministerial education sector” this year, to “shape the future direction and priorities of the Ministry Council and its work on behalf of the House of Bishops and in refining the funding arrangements”.

He acknowledges that there are “challenges about forms of ministerial education, balance between local and national needs, the place of co-operation in the TEI sector, how dioceses and TEIs work together to improve training, and how the next stage of increase will be funded in the medium and long term”.

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