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Review identifies ‘significant weaknesses’ in funding of ministry training

02 November 2021

Adrian Smith

Ordination of deacons in Canterbury Cathedral this Petertide

Ordination of deacons in Canterbury Cathedral this Petertide

THE system for funding ministerial education, as reformed in 2017, has “significant weaknesses” and hampers institutions’ efforts at financial management, a new report says. It recommends reverting to direct funding by the national Church.

Under the current Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) system (News, 26 February 2016), dioceses receive block grants for the training of ordinands and have responsibility for managing their own training budget.

The report of the Resourcing Ministerial Formation (RMF) review was published among the General Synod papers last week. Many of the weaknesses that the review identifies were foreseen when the current system was first proposed, and those working in the sector warned that theological-education institutions (TEIs) were already struggling with a “very hand-to-mouth existence”.

They also predicted that the reforms would undermine their efforts to plan ahead, and said that formation was a national concern. Principals objected that the changes could have a “disastrous effect on residential training” (News, 12 February 2016).

Since 2016, the number of ordinands in residential training has fallen by 22 per cent, while the number on regional courses has increased by 30 per cent, and on context-based courses by 147 per cent.

In 2017, principals spoke of a funding crisis. The Principal of the Eastern Region Ministry Course, the Revd Dr Alex Jensen, described a sector “starved of funds and locked into a system that sets TEIs into competition with one another — rather than encouraging co-operation and sharing of resources” (News, 10 November 2017). Last year, the Archbishops’ Council agreed to provide Westcott House, Cambridge with a loan to prevent its closure (News, 24 January 2020).

The RMF review says that RME “does not help good financial management in the TEI sector. TEIs do not know their income for the following academic year until the start of that year, and the relatively small numbers involved mean random fluctuations between years do not smooth out. This limits the ability of the TEI to plan and consumes energy in anxiety over each year’s forthcoming intake, thereby reducing confidence and creativity.

“Similarly, the pressure to recruit fosters TEIs relating to each other more as competitors than as potential collaborative partners in serving the church.” It adds that “This is not to deny that an element of competition may be good and healthy, nor that some collaboration does currently take place.”

The report also notes that the reforms have led to an accumulation of unspent money in dioceses: more than £1 million per year is being transferred to dioceses, which they are not, in practice, spending on the training of ordinands.

About half the accumulated surplus is held by eight dioceses, and nearly half of that by two. This will amount to a surplus of £4 million by the summer of 2022, unevenly spread across dioceses, which is increasing by £1 million per year. The Ministry Council has recommended that “much of this money be reclaimed so that it benefits all the dioceses”.

The report makes several recommendations for a new funding system, most significantly a return to the disbursement of money from the national system directly, not through dioceses. It warns that RME “limits the scope for national strategic decision-making in relation to this significant investment of funding”, arguing that the decisions made by dioceses may not align with national strategic goals, such as “the continued availability of residential training offered by a range of TEIs of different character and tradition”.

Speaking during the 2016 General Synod debate on RME, the Revd Dr Ian Paul, an NSM at St Nicholas’s, Nottingham, and formerly Dean of Studies at St John’s College, Nottingham, warned: “We are not a Church of dioceses: we are a Church of England, partners in mission, and not competitive rivals in experiments of church growth and shared understanding.”

The RMF report suggests multi-year block grants for TEIs, “to offer greater stability in their income, though still with some variation based on actual candidate numbers, accompanied by a Service Level Agreement for each TEI”, which would “provide a mechanism under which the TEI would make formal commitments to the church both in relation to the work done at present but also including areas such as diversity upon which its funding would be dependent”.

Other recommendations include the establishment of an “innovation fund to which bids can be made for funding to develop a new programme or resource in response to the church’s identification of its strategic needs” and, potentially, a diversity fund.

Noting the changing context engendered by the new Vision and Strategy for the C of E (News, 27 November 2020), with its emphasis on “missionary disciples” and an increased emphasis on lay leadership, the report recommends that the national system include funding for those training to be licensed lay ministers (Readers). The current approach, focusing on the training of the clergy, is an “unsustainable position for a church which affirms the equal esteem of lay and ordained vocations”, it says.

RME was part of the Renewal and Reform programme, which has also led to an increase in the numbers recommended to train for ordained ministry — 591 last year, a 13-year high (News, 2 July 2021).

The past five years have also brought the expansion of St Mellitus, which now has five centres in London, Chelmsford, Plymouth, Nottingham, and the north-west. In 2019, it was reported that it trained 25 per cent of Church of England ordinands and that, in the diocese of Leicester, 80 per cent of students were training on the context-based pathway.

There is also the backdrop of dioceses’ reviewing their finances and models of ministry. The diocese of Canterbury’s review Towards a Sustainable and Flourishing Future speaks of a “historical over-reliance on stipendiary clergy”, in which stipendiary ministry attracted “the lion’s share of training budgets”. The current model of “two and three years in a theological college followed by a three-year curacy” is “very expensive”, it says, before recommending “a review of alternative training models . . . to assess whether there are more effective ways to train priests — potentially at lower cost”.

Under RME, each diocese receives an annual grant from the “Vote 1 budget”, from which to pay TEI fees for ordinands, together with personal allowances and travel costs. The Vote 1 budget is primarily funded by the dioceses, with some contribution from the Church Commissioners. Last year, the Vote 1 budget was £17.1 million, of which £14.7 million came from dioceses.

The RMF report notes that dioceses are facing “significant financial challenges. The number of candidates we should expect going forward is also unclear. We do not believe there is significant scope for a reduction in TEI fees without changing expectations of what they will deliver and note that a reduction in total income for any TEI will also create a challenge.”

Maintenance costs have risen by 50 per cent in recent years, from £5.15 million paid to 633 ordinands in 2016/17 to £7.75 million for 716 ordinands in 2020/21. A review of the maintenance system is recommended by the RMF report.

The review group of 16 people is chaired by the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, and includes members of the Ministry Council, diocesan and TEI representatives, ordinands, and external education and formation specialists.

Among the successes of RME which the group identifies are better support for full-time non-residential training, greater freedom for dioceses in discerning the right training pathway for candidates, and greater financial transparency.

Read the report here

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