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Number of ordinands in contextual training increases by 142 per cent

06 December 2019

The number of ordinands starting residential training has fallen by almost a quarter

Huw Ryden

Exeter deacons during Michaelmas ordinations in October

Exeter deacons during Michaelmas ordinations in October

THE number of ordinands starting residential training has fallen by almost a quarter (22.7 per cent) since 2016, while the number on context-based pathways has increased by 142 per cent, new statistics from Ministry Division show.

The Ordained Vocations Statistics, completed in October, also show that, while the number of candidates starting training has increased by 15 per cent since 2016, this year’s number, 547, is seven per cent down on last year’s. The decrease, which puts the target of a 50-per-cent increase in ordinands by 2020 in doubt, was expected by the Ministry Division in September (News, 6 September).

The Ministry Division has previously denied that the decline in residential training is the result of diocesan concerns about money (News, 23 February 2018), despite the disparity in the cost of different pathways to ordination and warnings that reforms to the funding of ministerial training would threaten residential training (Letters, 12 February 2016).

Under the Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) reforms, part of the Renewal and Reform programme, dioceses receive block grants and responsibility for managing their own training budget. The size of grants for candidates depends on their age: it decreases in line with age.

Since 2016, the number of ordinands starting residential training has fallen from 220 to 170, while the number on full-time context-based pathways — whereby they train in a church setting, in addition to being taught on campus — has grown by 142 per cent.

An important development has been the growth of St Mellitus College, established in 2007 by the dioceses of London and Chelmsford, and offering this pathway. With strong relationships with dioceses, it now has five centres in London, Chelmsford, Liverpool, Plymouth, and, since September, Nottingham. It currently trains 25 per cent of Church of England ordinands. In the diocese of Leicester, 80 per cent of students now train on the context-based pathway.

Part-time regional courses remain the most popular pathway: 222 ordinands started training in this setting this year. The number has grown by 16 per cent since 2016.

This week’s announcement of the closure of St John’s, Nottingham, which moved from residential to context-based training in 2015, follows concerns within the Theological Education Institutions (TEI) sector about viability (News, 10 November 2017). There have been suggestions that St John’s failed to cultivate a good relationship with its local diocese, or respond to the competitive marketplace created by reforms in the sector, including RME.

Filings from the Charity Commission, however, highlight broader struggles. Westcott House reports full-time student residential numbers of 54: down from 67 the previous year, and “significantly below levels needed for long-term sustainability”. Oak Hill reports a 17-per-cent decrease since 2015.

Trinity College, Bristol, reports continued “significant” growth in its numbers of full-time ordinands, and Cuddesdon reports some growth in part-time training and the establishment of a new full-time, part-residential context-based pathway.

St John’s is the second theological college to close in recent years, after St Michael’s College, Cardiff (News, 15 April 2016). This week, the Principal of the Eastern Region Ministry Course, the Revd Dr Alex Jensen, pointed to central reforms to the sector, including RME, as having had “devastating unintended — although foreseeable — consequences”.

A review of RME was begun earlier this year by a team that included the Principals of two TEIs, and is due to report to the General Synod in 2021. This week, the Ministry Division declined to comment on whether it expected other TEIs to close, or whether it would ever intervene to prevent this.

A central plank of the Renewal and Reform agenda was to achieve an increase of at least 50 per cent in ordinations on 2013 figures, and sustain annually from 2020: an increase from an average of 500 to 750. The latest statistics show a fall-back on a range of measures after a period of growth.

The number of women starting training is up by 27 per cent since 2016, but fell by eight per cent this year. This year, 42 women under the age of 32 began training: up from 29 in 2016. They now make up 30 per cent of ordinands in this age group: up from 27 per cent but short of the 50 per cent target.

In total, 25 per cent of ordinands starting training are aged 32 — again, short of the 50 per cent target. The proportion of BAME ordinands starting training has increased from four to 8.4 per cent. Overall, the recommendation rate at BAP has increased from 81 to 89 per cent since 2016, while the number of Ordained Pioneer Ministers recommended has increased from six to 19.

For TEIs, the challenge of competing for a limited pool of ordinands and the rise of non-residential training are not new developments. The Hind report of 2003, which reorganised theological education, noted an increase in the number of candidates training part-time and a decline in the numbers in colleges, leaving four English colleges with 40 or fewer full-time students. At the time, St John’s, Nottingham, had the second largest number of candidates across all the colleges.

Since then, most of the regional courses have merged or been renamed, but the number of training institutions has increased. Several dioceses have also set up their own local training pathways, including Lincoln, Guildford, and Winchester.

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