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New funding model announced by Ministry Council as sector prepares for more ordinands

24 January 2023

Principals at theological education institutions have broadly welcomed the proposals

Diocese of Chelmsford

Deacons in the diocese of Chelmsford during Michaelmas ordinations, in October (Gazette, 7 October 2022)

Deacons in the diocese of Chelmsford during Michaelmas ordinations, in October (Gazette, 7 October 2022)

PRINCIPALS at theological education institutions (TEIs) have broadly welcomed proposals to reform the funding of ministerial education, as the Church of England’s Ministry Council confirms a goal of 630 new ordained ministers a year.

The proposals, which the General Synod will be asked to endorse next month, are designed to bring greater financial stability to the sector, which in recent years has raised the alarm about potential collapse (News, 10 November 2017). TEIs will once again be paid by the Archbishops’ Council, rather than dioceses, through annual block grants. It is hoped that this will enable them to “focus on formational excellence rather than having their energies consumed by annual concerns about their intake”.

The plans are also designed to increase alignment between the sector and Vision and Strategy, with TEIs expected to promote the official roadmap for the Church in the 2020s.

The proposals come against a backdrop of anxiety about reductions in stipendiary posts, with national ambitions for an increase in ordinands set against diocesan cuts. The paper setting out the plans, written by the former and current chairs of the Ministry Council, reinforces the message of the Rt Revd Martin Seeley (a former chairman) that the aspirations of Vision and Strategy will not be fulfilled without “sufficient, equipped, and capable ministers” (News, 11 February 2022). The Church needs “at least 630 new ordained ministers per year, with 430 of those to serve in stipendiary ministry”, the paper states.

A key target of the Renewal and Reform programme was a 50-per-cent increase in vocations to ordained ministry by 2020, compared with the 2013 figure, from an average of 500 every year to 750 (News, 23 May 2016). In 2020, numbers reached 591, the highest for 13 years, of whom 431 were recommended for stipendiary ministry, the highest for 34 years (News, 2 July 2021).

Numbers have dropped in the past two years, to 510 in 2021 and 378 in 2022, but the paper states that “there are signs that the number exploring an ordained vocation is now increasing again”. It notes the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year was also the first year of a new approach to selection — the Shared Discernment Process — which was designed to broaden the range of people exploring a ministerial vocation (News, 25 June 2021).

Renewal and Reform also made changes to the funding of ministerial education (News, 26 February 2016). Since 2017, TEI’s fees have been paid for by dioceses, out of block grants provided by the Archbishops’ Council. The grants are determined by the number and age of ordinands, with younger ordinands allocated higher sums. Dioceses choose the training pathway for each ordinand.

In 2021, a review of this system identified “significant weaknesses”, concluding that it had hampered institutions’ efforts at financial planning, and that pressure to recruit ordinands left TEIs “relating to each other more as competitors than as potential collaborative partners in serving the church” (News, 5 November 2021).

It also identified tensions between dioceses and the centre, noting that 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”. Since 2016, the number of ordinands in residential training — a more expensive pathway — had fallen by 22 per cent, while the number on regional courses increased by 30 per cent, and on context-based courses by 147 per cent. In 2020, the Archbishops’ Council agreed to provide Westcott House, Cambridge, with a loan to prevent its closure (News, 21 January 2020).

Under the new system to be put before Synod, dioceses will continue to decide on the pathway for each ordinand, but TEIs will receive an annual block grant directly from the Archbishops’ Council. This will be a six-year funding agreement — with a review halfway through — based on a “core range of expected ordinand ministers”, with revision if those numbers are “consistently significantly above or below expectations”. In effect, TEIs will be guaranteed a “floor” of funding. They will also be expected to sign Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with the Archbishops’ Council. A sample SLA included in the paper includes a commitment to promoting Vision and Strategy.

The 2021 review noted that the 2017 reforms had led to an accumulation of unspent money in dioceses, totalling £4.5 million. The new proposals state that this money will be reclaimed.

Many of the weaknesses identified in the 2021 review had been foreseen by Principals when the 2017 reforms were proposed (News, 12 February 2016). On Monday, a number of them welcomed the latest changes.

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, said that the proposals would provide “much-needed greater predictability and stability”. He was “delighted by the ongoing desire for an increase in the number of people in training”, and welcomed “contingency for candidates to train on more expensive pathways later in life where there is good reason. . . This is important as a matter of equity, to ensure that, for example, women candidates are not disadvantaged.”

The Principal of the Eastern Region Ministry Course, the Revd Dr Alex Jensen, described the proposals as “a big step in the right direction”. But his preference was “a move away from funding per student altogether . . . The proposed funding model still incentivises competition instead of collaboration.”

Missing from the proposals was “any notion that the fees cover the cost of training ordinands or a proportion of that cost”, with the result an “unfair and unjustifiable” difference in tuition fees for  residential and full-time non-residential students had been maintained. The paper states: “We have not seen convincing accounting evidence relating to the relative costs of provision in each mode of training. Work done to seek to establish this was inconclusive.”

The Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, the Revd Dr Robin Ward, said that the new system “recognises the circumstances in which we find ourselves, in which the numbers in residential training are not increasing and colleges need more smoothing from year to year”. Colleges all had to rely on diverse funding streams, he noted: “It is not realistic to just assume that you can run institutions on the grant that the Church of England gives.” Two positive developments that had enabled colleges to “expand their offer” were the Common Awards, and the expansion of online learning during the pandemic.

Two large areas of work remain to be done. Proposals on reform to the maintenance system and national funding for lay ministry — something “enthusiastically endorsed” by the General Synod — are yet to be completed. The latter is expected to be funded to the tune of £1 million a year. An initial proposal to set up a system of grants was queried by dioceses, who raised questions about how it would relate to other funding streams. In the interim, it has been agreed that the additional funding for ordinands with a disability is to be extended to those training for licensed lay ministry with a disability.

Mentioned in the paper is the establishment of a new Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment Board, whose members are due to be announced shortly. This will replace the Strategic Investment Board, which to date has overseen the distribution of Strategic Development Fund grants, and the Strategic Ministry Board, which has recently provided funding for curacies (News, 19 November 2021).

The new 12-member Board, chaired by Canon John Spence, will have large sums at its disposal: in 2023-2025 the Archbishops’ Council and Church Commissioners have agreed to release £390 million for “strategic mission and ministry investment”, to help achieve the goals of Vision and Strategy. This is set to increased to a total of £1.3 billion by 2031. Most will go to dioceses.

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