THE new theological college for the north-west, commissioned by the region’s bishops last month, will seek to counter the narrative of decline sometimes applied to the area, its Dean has said.
“Sometimes, when people tell the story of the north-west, they tell the story of decline — the shipyard went in Liverpool, the factories went in Manchester and Lancashire, the farming industry, tourism,” the Dean of Emmanuel Theological College, Canon Michael Leyden, said last month. “We want to tell the story of hope for the region.”
On 11 September, staff, and some of the 170 students beginning their studies this year, were commissioned by the region’s bishops during a eucharist in Blackburn Cathedral. The college will serve the six dioceses of Blackburn, Chester, Liverpool, Manchester, Carlisle, and Sodor & Man, replacing the non-residential theological training provided by All Saints Centre for Mission and Ministry, Cumbria Christian Learning, and St Mellitus College, North-West (at Liverpool Cathedral).
It was announced last year, after a review of theological training in the region commissioned by the six diocesan bishops and conducted by a former Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James (News, 3 July 2020). At the time, bishops confirmed that they expected most ordination candidates in the region to attend — “They’ll want to go” — but said that they remained committed to residential training for certain students, and would still be sending them to existing colleges elsewhere in the country.
Most of the initial cohort of ordinands and students training to become licensed lay ministers are sponsored by their dioceses. Their education will be delivered by staff at teaching centres in Blackburn Cathedral, Liverpool Cathedral, Church House, Penrith, and Nazarene College, Manchester.
The bishops’ vision was to “equip people for the particular mission of the Church in the north-west”, Canon Leyden said, noting that the region was the most densely populated outside the south-east, and had “incredibly high levels of deprivation”, and great geographical diversity.
“The intent is not to be a parochial college,” he said — some of this year’s intake had come from outside the region. There are already plans to offer training in youth ministry, “because we recognise there is nowhere to train for Christian youth ministry in the north-west”.
Canon Leyden, the son of a miner and a dinner lady, grew up on council estates in Liverpool and Knowsley, and was the first person in his family to go to university. The college was committed to equipping those from all socio-economic and academic backgrounds, he said. “There is something about recognising that God calls people, and it’s not our job in theological education to say ‘Really sorry, God, you got that wrong; you shouldn’t have called those people.’
“It’s our job, I think, as theological educators, to say, how do we equip and enable folk to step into God’s call on their lives, to be able to inhabit that space with confidence in God, confidence in themselves and the gifts they have got, and also confidence that the Church wants them and loves them and values them?”
All students will undertake a contextual placement that lasts for the duration of their training, and careful thought had gone into the pedagogical approach of the teaching, Canon Leyden said. “The old-fashioned model of lectures and lecturing, that’s one way of teaching, but it’s not the only way, and actually adapting our pedagogy to problem-solving, ministry-focused teaching of theology, so we are equipping people for ministry, I think, does connect with folk perhaps for whom the standard university education isn’t their thing, it’s not in their DNA.”
The current intake reflected the diversity of the region, he said. Asked about the formation of community in a non-residential college, he noted that the onus would be on staff members rather than students to travel: he had driven the 105 miles to Penrith to teach the night before.
“But, also, we are a community that gathers and scatters as part of our rhythm,” he said, “which, I think, is quite healthy, because it means the principal place of formation isn’t simply the college. Formation for ministry happens in the context of ministry — that is why the placements are so important.”
Much had been learned from dispersed communities, he said. Students were encouraged to join a Rule of Life.
The college’s context-based approach reflects shifts in theological training in recent years. Since 2016, the number of ordinands in residential training has fallen by 22 per cent, while numbers on regional courses have increased by 30 per cent, and those on context-based courses by 147 per cent.
“This is a strategic move by the bishops to be a future-facing, forward-facing Church and be a bit nimbler, a bit lighter, sharing the resources across the region,” Canon Leyden said.