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Report examines needs of urban estates ministry

11 April 2024

Church of England should be bolder about theological training, college principal suggests

Church Army

Become (London)

Become (London)

THE Church of England needs to be “braver” about theological formation outside university-validated programmes, the Principal of Emmanuel Theological College, the Revd Dr Michael Leyden, argues.

He was speaking this week after the publication of a review of urban leadership formation and development schemes piloted in four Church of England dioceses.

The report, Growing Leaders on Urban Estates, was published by the Church Army Research Unit (CARU) in February, in partnership with the Estates Evangelism Task Group, the National Estate Churches Network (NECN), and the dioceses of Birmingham, Blackburn, London and York. It asks: “How can the Church of England identify, resource, and enable people who live on urban estates to be relationally effective in leadership, mission, and evangelism?”

It records that not all the courses evaluated involve formal assessment. Most are not academically accredited. It acknowledges that some would accuse them of “dumbing down”.

“I think when folk describe their concerns about ‘dumbing down’, it’s often a conflation of academic culture and intellectual capacity,” Dr Leyden said on Wednesday. “Many of the ordinands we teach come from urban estates in the north, like me, and have shown themselves to be super-bright and sparky, asking incisive theological questions and pursuing the answers with real passion.

“What they are sometimes less familiar with is the particularities of academic culture and the associated habits and practices that belong to universities. And of course, that should be OK — more than OK — because we’re not forming them for university life, but for priestly leadership in local churches. But stressing over ‘academic culture’ and how to fit in with it can detract from meaningful ministerial formation. Worrying about footnoting or correct referencing styles can eat away at confidence and self-possession, and the distance between those things and the concrete practices of ministry in context can feel enormous.”

He suggested that the Church needed to be “braver in recognising that quality, rigorous theological formation can happen outside of university-validated programmes”.

Emmanuel offers an Action Learning Pathway, a four-year pilot pathway approved by the Ministry Council. He described it as a “non-university validated pathway that employs problem-based learning and borrows from action-learning-style reflection groups to enable students to connect their learning to their own ministerial formation and practice.” It includes videos and podcasts alongside books and articles.

Last year, a National Ministry Team report on the well-being of working-class clergy, Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters, recommended that theological-education institutions (TEIs) adopt an approach that “values a wider variation of learning styles, rather than privileging particular forms of academic achievement” (News, 6 October 2023).

But it was also careful to avoid the implication that working-class clergy could not thrive in academic environments (News, 25 June 2021). “On the one hand, making theological training accessible and less narrowly focused on academia answers the need to loosen the dominance of elite education culture,” the authors wrote. “On the other hand, as participants point out, this must not be underpinned by the assumption that working-class people who have not had higher education opportunities cannot flourish, enjoy, and excel in academia.”

Church ArmyThe M:Power Team

The son of a miner and a canteen worker, Dr Leyden grew up on a council estate in Knowsley (News, 15 October 2021). On Wednesday, he emphasised that the Action Learning Pathway was “not for everyone . . . There are plenty of working class, non-university graduates who have come to Emmanuel and are training on Common Awards programmes because that’s good for them to do.”

The Church should have “greater regard for the cultural capital our ordinands bring”, he said. “Without greater diversity within the formational pathways we have, we will continue to give the impression that the Church of England prefers middle-class clergy — but that does and will continue to hinder our engagement with the communities we’re called to serve in Christ’s name.”

In February, the General Synod committed itself to “taking the necessary steps to raise up and support a new generation of lay and ordained leaders from estates and working-class backgrounds . . . at all levels in the Church, including a commitment to invest creatively in local and grassroots forms of ministry and leadership training” (News, 1 March 2024).

The CARU report includes a look at M:Power, a nine-month training programme in the diocese of Blackburn focused on lay leaders and aspiring lay leaders in urban contexts (News, 8 March 2019). To date, 70 people have participated.

The scheme has been funded by a grant from the Strategic Development Fund (SDF). The researchers write that the original funding bid expected that each M:Power participant would bring two or three people to Christ, post-training (leading to about 180 new disciples by 2023).

They reflect: “Measuring progress towards targets like this is difficult because Christians of different traditions will have different understandings of what constitutes a ‘new disciple’ or ‘bringing a person to Christ’. Assessing this also requires taking a long-term view because it relates to what happens some time after people have completed M:Power. . . Encouragingly though, many of the former M:Power participants we interviewed were able to give evidence of bringing at least two or three people to Christ.”

In the diocese of York, “Stepping Up” — a year-long “learning community” — is part of the Mustard Seed Programme, which received an SDF grant of £1.3 million in 2020 (News, 10 November 2023). At the end of Stepping Up, participants — 35 to date — are commissioned as Community Ministers in their parishes, to develop new or existing mission in the local community.

It has an SDF target of 785 new disciples by 2026. Two years on, the report says, “there are more than 250 new people attending worship, including at least 50 adult baptisms/confirmations.” Last year, the diocese of Southwark was awarded £6.5 million in Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment funding for work over six years, including training for 25 Estates Lay Pioneers, drawing on learning from the York programme (News, 31 March 2023)

In London, Become (previously the London Estates Course) is delivered in partnership with the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication, in monthly teaching sessions over an 18-month period. The report includes reflections from a course leader, the Revd Helen Shannon, which draws conclusons from ministry during the pandemic.

Many participants did not use Zoom, “because often they don’t have laptops or tablets or the data needed”, she reported. Nevertheless, “short WhatsApp videos could be downloaded with free WiFi from outside the community centre or at the shops and watched at any time.” One of the learning points was that “some element of face-to-face interaction in a course is essential.”

Course leaders have also learned that “asking people to attend a course one morning a month might not sound like a lot, but for people with precarious lives or unpredictable shift patterns it can be.”

Church ArmyM:Power network day

With reference to the Birmingham Local Ministry Pathway, designed to “help identify and form ordained or lay leaders — focal leaders — within churches where there were opportunities for new patterns of ministry” (News, 1 March 2019), the researchers observe: “In a context of stretched church finances, the Pathway’s emphasis on identifying, training and then ordaining or licensing existing local leaders as focal ministers, could be interpreted by some as an attempt at ‘ministry on the cheap’. In order for such suggestions to be refuted, it will be important to demonstrate that this model is not about ‘plugging the gaps’ or expecting unpaid leaders to do everything a stipendiary minister would do.”

This week, a co-leader of the Pathway, the Revd Dr Samuel Gibson, Vicar of St George’s, Edgbaston, said that it was “as intellectually demanding as a traditional TEI programme. We work hard to integrate doctrine, exegesis and riches from the Christian tradition into a more praxis-oriented curriculum.”

Theological learning was “not expected in a standard format”, he said. “So we accept that some candidates might express their learning through rigorous conversation rather than an essay. Often, local-ministry candidates demonstrate a profound grasp of Christian doctrine. Their emphasis will be on how this is lived in practice in their local community.”

Between 2019 and 2022, the Pathway was piloted with 17 people from inner-urban or outer-estate contexts. Five have been ordained, and two are LLMs.

Dr Gibson said this week that many candidates took part in the Pathway as part of a team: “We are working with them to enhance what is already there, and help it to flourish. . . There is a lot of wisdom and existing ministerial aptitude in local communities. The Pathway taps into this in a way that traditional programmes may find more challenging, where individuals are moved from one context to another.”

The Pathway was “not designed to produce nationally deployable incumbents or oversight ministers, nor is it to provide additional priests for parishes. Rather, our candidates are locally rooted leaders, lay and ordained. In other words, this is not the equivalent of college or course training on the cheap, because it is something fundamentally different and new.”

In the report, Dr Gibson’s co-leader, Canon Andy Delmege, reports “lots of stories of people in churches which were struggling and which, though still vulnerable, are now flourishing”. He said this week that the Pathway sought “to identify academic talent among people who have not had the opportunity to express or fulfil it”.

Among the report’s “lessons learned for the wider Church” is that “off the shelf’ models “rarely work in urban estate ministry”. The schemes should not be replicated, but explored as “potential models”. Another is that the schemes are not “low cost”, but that the “significant investment” is worth it.

The report acknowledges some limitations, concluding that: “Whilst affirming the value of the rich qualitative feedback gathered, it is acknowledged that the longer term ‘mainstreaming’ of initiatives like these into the wider life of the Church may also require further work on contextually appropriate measurement systems.”

It quotes from participants in the evaluated schemes. “Before M:Power I couldn’t even stand up in church and do a Bible reading without my heart feeling like it was coming out of my chest,” one participant, Rosie, said. “Now, I can lead a worship service and speak to people openly. Yes, I still get nervous, but my way of thinking has changed. I know that God is with me through the words I speak.”

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