ARE we witnessing the death-throes of residential theological education? Ministry Division statistics reveal that the number of ordinands starting in residential training has dropped by a quarter since Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) was introduced, accompanied by a 142-per-cent rise in those beginning context-based training (News, 6 December), the vast majority of whom attend St Mellitus College.
It is easy to see why the Wunderkind of the theological education institution (TEI) sector appeals: its model has brought energy to regions culturally forgotten by the Church; it limits disruption for ordinands’ families; and it injects impressive theological resources into churches (often those that have arrived as part of Strategic Development Funding).
Many will argue, moreover, that this creative destruction in the theological educational sector is healthy and responsive to changing needs. The residential colleges, it is asserted, have failed to adapt to a missional landscape in which less time should be given to, for example, the redaction criticism of Isaiah and more time to learning pastoral and evangelistic ministry at the chalk-face. Many righteously proclaim that several residential institutions deserve to fail. God bless Adam Smith!
WHILE such complaints have been targeted at residential colleges since their foundation, the market is now saturated, and a misstep might now mean closure for some institutions. With 22 individual TEIs serving a student body roughly equivalent to a single university department, and the expansion of St Mellitus to Plymouth, Liverpool, and now Nottingham, residential principals are obliged to operate more like Mike Ashley than Michael Ramsey: pushing staff to their limits, frantically courting donors and lenders, and anxiously promoting their wares.
Given current trends, there will surely be further attrition at precisely the moment that the Church needs vigorous and hopeful TEIs that model healthy ministry. It is now not unrealistic that, owing to the expansion of St Mellitus and the fragility of certain colleges, the Church could, after more than 900 years, lose all meaningful theological engagement with Oxford and Cambridge within a generation. The appointment of Bishop Tim Stevens as Interim Principal of Westcott House is crucial in this respect.
Given the anti-academic atmosphere of the contemporary Church, that might not concern many bishops, but the collapse of residential training certainly should. When Cuddesdon College was founded in 1854, Samuel Wilberforce hoped to inculcate serious habits of reading and prayer among its ordinands, who otherwise had had little by way of formation in their universities.
Reading the correspondence and diaries of the first vice-principal, Henry Liddon, one notes how each ordinand’s growth in holiness was prized, and Liddon’s commitment to observing and conversing with them individually (usually by means of a weekly walk across the fields). If he could not attend to their hearts in this manner, what foundations had really been established for priestly ministry? Cuddesdon was not about gaining academic honours or learning pastoral skills; its daily life sought to shape something more intangible, yet more deeply rooted, and deemed essential for the health and flourishing of the whole Church.
Such patient formation has, of course, a long history in our tradition. “Blessed are they”, Psalm 1 tells us, “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, upon which they meditate day and night.” Yet how can full-time non-residential training embed the habit of reading deeply (something of a lost art in society at large) with just two days of study a week and the occasional residential?
Similarly, can contextual students meditate on the Bible with discipline, day and night, if their placement church has long since abandoned the Daily Office (sadly also true of many residential colleges)? And to what extent can either our understaffed residential colleges or the non-residential pathways provide ordinands with the time for considered and prayerful conversation with their tutors, helping them to discern God in their lives and the world in such a way as to enable them to discern the New Creation in their parishes?
SOME residential colleges still provide this with impressive results, and, certainly, there are excellent tutors offering such oversight with limited time in non-residential training.
If such formation as Liddon proposed and our bishops supposedly value is to survive, however, there must surely be a moratorium on further accreditation of new institutions. Moreover, TEI governing bodies must work together quickly to safeguard a sustainable residential TEI sector (perhaps by sharing more resources), even as bishops need to avoid choosing merely the cheapest pathways for their ordinands.
It is yet possible to imagine a TEI sector that offers the oversight to which Liddon aspired: less absorbed by financial anxiety and flashy initiatives, and more attentive to God and the movements of the heart. If so, there might yet be a new generation of clergy who are as “trees planted by streams of water, yielding their fruit in season and with leaves that do not wither”.
The Revd Dr Daniel Inman is Canon Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral, and the author of The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the academy at Oxford, 1833-1945 (Fortress Press, 2014). He was Chichester Diocesan Director of Ordinands last October.