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Ordinands without higher-education qualifications can thrive, say principals of theological colleges

25 June 2021

Queen's Foundation

The Principal of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Professor Clive Marsh

The Principal of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Professor Clive Marsh

ORDINANDS without higher-education qualifications can thrive in their formation if the right support is in place, the heads of theological-education institutions said this week.

Under the Common Awards scheme (a partnership between TEIs, the Church of England, and Durham University), ordination is open to all, regardless of academic background. Ordinands can work towards a certificate, diploma, or degree in theology, mission, and ministry, and, while a minimum of one A level (or equivalent) is officially the threshold for acceptance, “relevant work experience” can be considered.

Nevertheless, most ordinands are graduates, and the discernment process has recently been reformed in response to concerns that it is excluding able candidates (News, 27 April 2018). The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has long criticised an “obsession with academic accreditation”. In England, one third of the working-age population have a degree, while 15 per cent do not have GCSEs at grades A to C.

The Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Helen Dawes, was among those who spoke of the value of a learning support officer: “The work she does is a brilliant piece of inclusion in practice and it transforms our students’ experience.”

The Principal of St Augustine’s College (formerly South East Institute of Theological Education), the Revd Dr Alan Gregory, estimates that as many as 30 per cent of its students do not have a higher-education qualification. He has spoken of those “badly let down by the school system or with minimal educational experience”, or those who have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning difficulties. Other categories are those who had a “traumatic” school experience or who are working in a second language.

St Augustine’s has a full-time tutor specialising in offering this help. “In all this,” Dr Gregory said, “it absolutely essential to recognise the fears and, often, feelings of acute vulnerability and shame that academic work triggers in students who, through no fault of their own, have internalised earlier judgements of stupidity or inadequacy, or the conviction that ‘This isn’t for the likes of me.’

“In short, this is not just ‘study skills’ or ‘additional tutoring’, but a profoundly formative intervention that is able to redeem lost potential and recreate confidence undermined by educational poverty, disadvantage, or neglect.”

The college now plans to launch an access course for people in the discernment process.

The Principal of Lindisfarne College of Theology (which has trained ordinands and Readers from the dioceses of Durham and Newcastle since 2009), the Revd Dr David Bryan, spoke of recent ordinands who had GCSEs as their highest qualification. “We did not create a special pathway for them, and I would be anxious not to in case that led to a sense of being a different kind of ordinand,” he said. The Principal of the South West Ministry Training Course, the Revd Dr Mark Butchers, reported that, of the current cohort, 15 ordinands had a degree and four did not, while, of the Readers, exactly half did not have a degree.

The Principal of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Professor Clive Marsh, cautioned against “equating background with ability — academic or otherwise — too easily. Cultural assumptions and practices may be more of a blockage than educational potential.

“We have found that, for some students from working-class backgrounds, the best way to help them thrive in ministerial formation is to take away — or hide — as much of the scary ‘formal academic’ apparatus as possible so that they don’t get distracted or intimidated by it, whilst recognising that the academic work within the formational process has to be done somehow.”

He was aware that this approach could be seen as “very patronising. For some candidates, the best way to help them thrive is to support them to achieve academically more than they could have dreamed. The issue is that ministerial formation is the first chance they’ve had, or been able to take, to blossom academically.”

The director of studies for the local-ministry programme in Guildford diocese, the Revd Pippa Ross-McCabe, noted that an alternative pathway might not adequately prepare candidates for their work environment after ordination, “which makes no concession to their area of weakness”, such as reading skills. Support could be offered, and, “if properly managed . . . the benefits to self-esteem of engaging alongside peers with higher entrance qualifications has proven to be a good thing, and beneficial for all concerned through having a mixed-ability learning group.”

At the Eastern Region Ministry Course, a Foundations for Ministry course is available as a partnership with the dioceses of St Albans and Ely, serving as a bridge between discipleship courses and the academic study of theology.

Lincoln School of Theology offers a stand-alone year, with no fees, in which people can explore their vocation, with academic support. Ridley Hall, Cambridge, has launched an award in Sports Ministry, the first in a series of fully online courses in theological education designed to “introduce individuals to theological education in a user-friendly fashion”, and give people confidence to progress further into formal education.

The director of innovation at Ridley Hall, Robin Barden, has no A levels, and was diagnosed with a learning difficulty only later in life. He said that “many people with few formal educational qualifications come to perceive themselves as not ‘academic’, and may resist any form of training that involves further formal education. Actively engaging with this fear, and exploring the purpose and processes of formal education beyond the achievement of a grade is critical.”

The number of ordinands starting in residential training has dropped by a quarter since funding reforms were introduced in 2017 (News, 6 December 2019). The Principal of Cranmer Hall, Durham, the Revd Dr Philip Plyming, said that “continuing to provide residential training is an important way for the Church of England to enable students who have never accessed higher education before to do so in a way where there is on-the-spot pastoral and academic support.”

Among the ordinands at the college is Jason Wratten, who, after spending some time at St Hild’s College, is pursuing his first degree while training. The fact that he did not already have one was “a worry of mine when I first started the process”, he said this week. He was diagnosed with dyslexia only as an adult, “which allowed me then to figure out I am not dim: I think differently.”

Cranmer Hall had offered “lots of support from staff and students”, he said. Academic training was not only about essay-writing, but about being able to “pick up those skills which will help with preaching and research around preaching”.

Selwyn’s dream 

IN 1837, the most fervent prayer of George Selwyn, a young tutor at Eton, was that the ordained ministry might be opened up to all classes.

At the time, the vast majority of ordinands were graduates, with the universities, dominated by Anglican clergy, providing a steady supply of recruits from the middle and upper classes. But, in subsequent years, demand from a growing Church began to outstrip supply. Theological colleges were established, with Lichfield theological college unique in accepting non-graduates.

By 1868, Selwyn was the Bishop of Lichfield, and was determined to “choose out of the fittest men — even from the humblest ranks — to serve God in the sacred Ministry of His Church”. He was concerned that a lack of finance and prior education was preventing able candidates from pursuing ordination.

As described by John Tomlinson in An innovation in nineteenth-century theological training: the Lichfield Probationers Scheme (Dutch History Review), Bishop Selwyn announced a plan for a Probationers’ Scheme. Participants, nominated by parish clergy, completed a probation of two years parish work. Bishop Selwyn, however, “strongly resisted calls to lower educational standards”, and this was followed by a year of rigorous full-time study at the theological college.

It was the fulfilment of a long-term dream. “If a question should arise, from what source is this additional demand for ordained ministers to be supplied? I answer, from the class from which Christ selected His apostles — from the poor,” he wrote in 1837.

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