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Letters to the Editor

20 December 2019

Theological education, Hartlepool politics, and abortion


Theological education in the light of college’s closure

From the Revd Charles Read

Sir, — In the movie Casino Royale, James Bond is explaining his plan for the mission that they are engaged on to his partner, Vesper Lynd. With eyes widening in incredulity, she asks: “Oh, there is a plan then?” Up to this point, there has been a lot of responding to developments and a fair amount of chaos. Anyone looking at the Church of England’s approach to the training of its clergy and Readers might well echo Vesper’s question.

In relation to previous indications that St John’s College, Nottingham, was in trouble, I asked a question about this at General Synod. I wanted to know how the precious resources of our theological-education institutions (TEIs) might be conserved if institutions become unviable. The answer that I received indicated that TEIs might be given advice in difficult circumstances, but there was no overarching plan. Like the Revd Dr Ian Paul (Letters, 13 December), I am a graduate of St John’s, and lament its probable passing. Unlike him, I think that there have been positive developments in ministerial training in recent years, especially the Common Awards programme. But I entirely agree with him about the lack of strategic planning.

St John’s has pioneered many elements in theological education that we now take for granted. It was, I think, the first college to engage students in extensive placement activities. It was early in making theological reflection a core component in students’ learning. It was the only college in the 1980s (when I was there) to take Charismatic renewal seriously. It was at St John’s that I learned to swing incense, that I was encouraged to have a spiritual director, and where I was introduced to the writings of Julian of Norwich. It was a male staff member who encouraged me to join the Movement for the Ordination of Women. St John’s has always thought outside the box, while being true to its Evangelical foundations and identity.

In another Bond movie, 007’s mission technique is described as being to go in, cause trouble, and see what happens. It would perhaps be disingenuous to describe the Church of England’s approach to theological education in these terms, but a previous generation of Ministry Division staff advocated market forces as the only policy to determine which TEIs stayed open. When I asked what theological principles underpinned this policy, a senior staff member replied: “We don’t do theology in the Ministry Division.”

Thus new providers were allowed to set up shop without any thought about the effect on the provision of training overall. This neo-Thatcherite approach has caused a very volatile arena to emerge. Without any steadying overall policy or strategy, chaos has indeed ensued, in that TEIs cannot weather storms very easily.

Fortunately, the current Ministry Division staff take a more theological approach to their work, and there are many new developments for which to be grateful. Ministry Division consultations are marked now by theological reflection.

But we still lack a strategy for TEI provision, and here we are, still driven by market forces, with no gospel critique of them. As for St John’s, I wonder whether there is still a chance for alumni and other supporters to fund some form of continuing life for the college and what it has stood for? If there are others who want to explore this, they are welcome to contact me to see if a plan can be formulated.

42 Heigham Road
Norwich NR2 3AU

From Canon Tim Herbert

Sir, — The Revd Dr Ian Paul raises important points. In particular, I wish to reiterate his point about the impact of the commodification of theological education. Dr Paul attributes this to the Hind report. This is somewhat unfair. Rather, the Hind report sought to place the Church of England in charge of theological education. Historically, theological education through the colleges existed in the form of independent trusts to whom the Church subcontracted the training of ministers. This was in turn regulated on behalf of the House of Bishops by the Ministry Division over the years in its various guises. In the 1960s, training changed radically with the emergence of self-supporting ministry and the emergence of non-residential training, which developed a pattern of training which was not dissimilar to the education emerging on offer through the Open University.

The Hind report, however, like many before (think, for example, of the Tiller report), while widely discussed, was robustly resisted, not least by the colleges and bishops. At the same time, bishops and others saw an opportunity to engage entrepreneurially and to promote new patterns of ministerial training, which were developed alongside and in competition with the existing structures, but without any overall strategy. An over-supplied market became such that institutions were weakened and eventually closed (East Midland, LCTP).

Dr Paul is correct to warn about divisions being emphasised (think of Wycliffe Hall some years ago), and the decline in biblical (and doctrinal) literacy. But this is not simply the failure of theological education, but cultural across the Church.

May I, therefore, endorse his call for “a new and coherent approach to ministerial training”; but add that, for this to be effective, it needs to be radical. The key issues that need to be addressed, I suggest, are:

First, the overall consolidation and reshaping of current patterns (e.g. fewer but larger and more financially stable institutions);

Second, the proper, structured relationship between residential and non-residential institutions, including shared teaching and learning, use of premises.

Third, mission to the whole nation, including the rural, the isolated, the post-industrial, etc., and not just middle-class suburbia.

Fourth, the development of radical patterns of learning. For example: should all residential learning be essentially practice-based with periods of central learning? Attempts to develop this were initiated by St John’s College in the 1990s but failed to take off, owing to perceived costs and lack of support.

Fifth, in all this we must not lose sight of the need to immerse learners in the Christian tradition of scripture, doctrine, history, and liturgy.

Finally, training must be rooted in faith, holiness, and the personal openness of the ordinand to learn and grow as members of the wider Christian community rather than as individual consumers of training.

While the Church is far more than the sum of its ordained ministry, none the less the resources devoted to theological education demand that it must be effective in providing the Church with Christians who can lead and inspire others to turn to Christ and to grow in faith and themselves become witnesses to that same faith.

Former Principal of the Lancashire and Cumbria Theological Partnership
The Vicarage, King Street
Aspatria, Wigton
Cumbria CA7 3AL


Election in Hartlepool and the C4 exposé 

From the Revd Dr Andrew Craig

Sir, — Readers of Paul Vallely’s account of goings-on in Hartlepool (Comment, 13 December) should be given more information for a balanced view.

The Leader of the Council, Shane Moore, is a good Christian, who was elected, and then became leader, as an Independent Councillor (he had previously belonged to UKIP). As leader, he has sought to reconcile different factions, inviting members from all the main parties to chair committees and participate in his cabinet, bringing the best of their experience to bear for the good of the town. When his time allows, he volunteers at the foodbank, championing the causes of relieving poverty and assisting asylum-seekers, in both of which the Council is beyond reproach.

Because a group of his fellow councillors decided to join the Brexit Party to show, as they saw it, their disappointment and frustration with how politicians in Westminster were deliberately undermining the Brexit process, he felt that he had little choice but to go with them; otherwise, he would have been replaced as leader at a critical point in the budget process. This would not have been good for the town.

He scarcely knew the councillor whose racist views were laid open in the Channel 4 News item. (This man was only elected in September, and they had had very little to do with each other until the General Election campaign was under way.) He was absolutely horrified when he received the letter from C4 on the Friday before the documentary was broadcast. Immediately, he removed the whip from this man and contacted his friends at Hartlepool’s mosque to warn them and apologise.

As far as he is concerned, there is now no reason for the Brexit Party to exist, and he is looking forward to being an Independent again, serving the town as he feels called to do.

On a point of accuracy, the Brexit Party does not control the Council. It has never had a majority on the Council, and it never will.

Incidentally, the Brexit Party’s well-resourced and energetic campaign to have Richard Tice elected as Hartlepool’s MP was so effective (“The Brexit Party is the only party that can stop Labour”) that it took votes away from the Conservatives as well as Labour, and ensured that Labour’s MP, Mike Hill, was re-elected with a relatively comfortable majority.

25 Egerton Road
Hartlepool TS26 0BW


Arguments about abortion need to be accurate  

From Mrs June Williams

Sir, — The letter from Mr Harry Marchant (13 December) is based on an incorrect premise.

He asserts that an unborn child “is not part of a woman’s body”. That is factually wrong. Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the several anti-abortion organisations would support such an anatomically incorrect statement. The fact that an unborn child is part of its mother’s body gives rise to many of the issues surrounding abortion.

Further, for the greater part of the 280 days of pregnancy, the unborn child cannot have an existence without its mother, and, regrettably, sometimes the baby’s presence in the mother’s womb can lead to serious illness of the mother, even, in extreme cases, death.

Mr Marchant’s approach is wholly unhelpful. Such statements as he makes play into the hands of those who advocate abortion on demand. He is a very bad advocate for his cause.

93 Croydon Road
Surrey SM6 7LU

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