Education and/or Training: Theological Programming in the Church of England

Thirty years ago, most UK Polytechnics abandoned their name and identity in exchange for becoming a new University.  The government had opened several new universities during the 1960s (e.g., Bath, Sussex, etc.) and in addition had created thirty Polytechnics “in an attempt to ensure working-class communities benefited” from the expansion of higher education. Unlike universities “Polytechnics tended to serve their local communities and offered more vocational-oriented qualifications, accredited by professional bodies”.

There were notable differences in the approaches to education, training and professions. I can recall some of my peers opting for a four-degree at a Polytechnic, having their place sponsored by an employer, and the degree consisting of a ‘sandwich course’ which included an academic year spent working in an industry.  I went to a university, and read for a degree that could not, in any serious sense, have been said to be explicitly applied or practical.

However, the UK employment and labour market changed rapidly from the 1960s. A combination of globalisation and marketisation, and the switch from manufacturing and heavy industry to leisure and financial services, contributed to the blurring of the Polytechnic-University distinctions. By the early 1990s, the graduate employment market had compacted into a university degree being the best route to a good job. Furthermore, the rapid cultural shifts stemming from the 1960s onwards had seen the distinctions between working-class and middle-class dissolve. The ‘right to buy’ and the collapse of heavy industries in the 1980s had also underlined the cultural and political shifts in education. Whilst this can only be a characterisation, Polytechnics had “tended to serve their local communities and offered more vocational-oriented qualifications, accredited by professional bodies”.

The Thatcher government had other reasons to turn polytechnics into ‘new universities’, or tempt them to do so.  Polytechnics were under the control of Local Education Authorities (LEA), as were many Teacher Training Colleges and Colleges of Advanced Technologies (CATs). The vast majority of these were located in urban or inner-city conurbations, under the control of their (usually) left-leaning Labour-controlled Councils.  Just like the Greater London Council (GLC), or Liverpool City Council (LCC), with the labour party weak and in disarray, LEA’s represented front-line resistance to Tory cuts, changes and culture. Labour opposition was led by GLC-HQ, with ‘Red Ken’ on the southerly shores of the River Thames, glowering at the Tory majorities in Parliament.

In 1992 Universities were autonomous, and funded nationally. There was, therefore, more than a hint of political incentive for removing Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) from LEA control, and granting Polytechnics University status – replete with new branding, heraldic coasts of arms, governing councils and internal infrastructure. Most Polytechnics opted for the new identity and apparent freedoms now on offer. Those with reservations or inclined to resist were swept along by the tsunami of educational market forces.  In the eyes of most Tory ministers at the time, the post-1992 Universities’ main role was now to shake off their tiresome left-wing legacies and compete on a level playing-field with their older siblings, driven by market-force led educational consumerism. 

However, many educationalists – of all political stripes – will agree that as much as might have been gained by these changes, much was lost. For a start, the rapid decline of ‘business-facing’ HEIs producing graduates within vocational disciplines and applied research quickly collapsed, much as the industries had in the preceding decade. Furthermore, whatever distinctions that had demarcated between ‘vocational’, ‘applied’ and ‘pure’ degrees – as though such labels were ever straightforward – quickly evaporated.  Arguably, a distinctive role for higher vocational learning was silently terminated. Whereas teacher training had once been a four-year B.Ed qualification, with on-the-job learning in schools with distinctive education and formation in an HEI, that was now lost.

Today, almost half of school leavers go to University (or ‘Uni’, as it is usually dubbed). The concept of an HEI delivering training, apprenticeships, sandwich courses and vocational courses has almost entirely disappeared. Where it does exist, it is largely to be found in Further Education Colleges (FECs). Even here, some have obtained taught-degree-awarding powers, or are offering Foundation Degrees. The Polytechnics that were once regularly sniped at by the right-wing press for being hotbeds of unhinged Marxism are no more, and FECs are hardly in any financial or political position to argue for what might remain of the left-wing cause. HEIs and FECs are, for the most part, famished beasts in a land of scarce food and resources, and always fearful of some new famine.

In any case, eggs can’t be unscrambled, and the cake cannot be deconstructed to its pre-mixed, un-baked state. Once Polytechnics became new Universities, the enlarged HEI sibling group has had to adjust to its new intake and size, and learn to share out the funding. Research and teaching, as well as student experience and assorted frameworks for establishing excellence, have become the new benchmarks of success. Training and vocations have been left trailing.

It is on these rather large tectonic plates – unsteady and shifting cultural ground – that theological colleges and training for ministry courses has been sitting for over thirty years. Like the proverbial frog in a boiling kettle, the Church of England has failed to notice the climes of global warming in the educational market sector. It has adapted, to be sure – but with little indication that it understands the environment and culture to which it is subject. But if it is true that there is no such thing as bad weather – only inappropriate or incorrect clothing – we might make some observations at this point.

First, the Church of England’s most ancient theological colleges (hereafter referred to as TEI’s – Theological Education Institutions) are less than 200 years old. Many denominations did not start to train or educate their clergy in separate institutions until the 19th century.  In many respects, the mere existence of TEI’s was a response to emergent modernity, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. Or to denominational schism, and to intra-confessional distinctiveness (e.g., catholic, evangelical, etc). Most of this no longer matters.

Second, the adaptiveness and pragmatism of the Church of England’s TEI’s began early.  Over sixty years ago Southwark Diocese offered one of the first non-residential and part-time courses that afforded a route to ordination, and generally trained older candidates who be ordained as auxiliary ministers. The Oxford Ministry Course was developed by Wilfrid Browning (a Canon of Christ Church), to train older candidates part-time with rotational formation using St. Stephen’s House, Ripon Hall, Cuddesdon College and Wycliffe Hall.

Third, and by the turn of the 21st century, more ordination candidates were trained on part-time and part-residential courses than in full-time colleges. With the average age of ordination now north of 40 years of age, and many dioceses ordaining more non-stipendiary clergy than full-time-paid, the paradigm has continued to evolve. The advent of Fresh Expressions and Pioneer Ministers, together with mixed-mode and blended learning, and a brief excursion with Ordained Local Ministry (OLM) training all point to a certain adeptness.

But there is a meta-question behind these histories and developments. Are TEIs for clergy training (i.e., skills, techniques, etc.)?  Or, are they, following Paulo Freire, institutions for theological education (i.e., questions of belief and praxis etc)? Furthermore, apart from collective worship and cohorts of learning, what is the ‘formation’ which is being offered, and about which many TEIs speak, yet few can ever define? Most Anglicans will opt for a via media here, and say ‘both’. But before settling on the middle ground, let us consider what is at stake.

Sometimes, vignettes and short conversations are the very best way to highlight the issue that needs addressing. I recall a meeting with the (then) Chair of the Archbishops’ Council Finance Committee, Canon John Spence, only a decade ago. A few of us were alarmed at the lack of funding for TEIs, and the growth in ‘practical training courses’ emerging as the preferred highway route to ordination. In our meeting, Canon Spence explained that the primary goal of ordination training and theological education was evangelism and church growth: “we don’t want to fund ordinands who just want read to books all the time” is how he expressed this.

We asked how ministers were going to be schooled in theological orthodoxy and learning without immersion in two thousand years’ worth of Christian writings and doctrine?  Canon Spence appeared to think this was an odd question, since he asserted evangelicals constituted the majority of ordinands and the future trajectory of the church, and they knew what they believed.  Their time in a TEI was, therefore, for honing practical skills, developing techniques and learning new proficiencies that led to growth. Time in a TEI wasn’t for falling into some patristic rabbit hole that debated the nature of Christ over several centuries.

A similar conversation with an Archbishop a few years later brought the same insight from a different angle. Over an informal lunch, somewhat to my surprise, the Prelate volunteered that they’d recently ordained a few dozen persons who had been “locally” selected and trained, so they could minister in their locality. The Archbishop seemed pleased that the training was relatively short and minimalist, and thereby highly cost-effective.

Naturally, I asked, how would this approach to theological education guard against heresy being preached? Somewhat stung by the question, it was conceded that a severely curtailed process of selection and training would not be able to guide congregations and guard against the newly-ordained from flirting with the subtleties of Pelagian or Arian heresies. But otherwise, job done – new clergy were ordained, and why was I being so negative about this? It was genuinely quite difficult to know how to respond to this, as I have never considered education to be an inherently cost-effective venture. Education is expensive. But trust me, ignorance and error are far more costly.

Lurking underneath the approaches taken by Canon Spence and the Archbishop lie a number of their unprocessed assumptions.  I list these in no particular order, since they constitute a cocktail of ingredients, the recipe for which will change according to perceived needs being addressed.

First, pragmatism.  If it looks like it works, it must be good. If we can’t see results quickly, it will almost certainly be time-consuming and expensive. This is not a helpful fundament to adhere to for valuing theology, which is a slow, slow discipline that takes decades for the seed to gestate into good fruit.

Second, mechanistic. The Bible itself is treated as a kind of instruction manual or guide book – there to fix matters when things go wrong, and to make sure other things work better. A vision for pedagogy founded on such assumptions will provide training and apprenticeships, but be suspicious of education.

Third, if the goal of TEIs is training for greater growth and effectiveness, then of course, education – a pedagogy schooling students in the art of constructive dissent – are unwelcome, as compliance is preferred to critical thinking. Sermons in training-based ecologies school congregations in compliance.

Fourth, sermons that flow from a revolutionary pedagogical model or dissenting educational ecology will challenge and disturb listeners. But hearers will learn to think, and engage in the tradition critically.  The mechanistic training model won’t do that; it would be like trying to argue with the instruction manual.

The balance between training and education is based on a characterisation. TEIs will offer both. That said, the training model will deliver mechanistic instructions and techniques, based on its assumptions of revelation and the relationship between divine and human agency. The educational model will see revelation as contested, requiring critical engagement and imagination in interpretation.

At present, the vast majority of Church of England bishops are locked into supporting the mechanistic training model. The long-term consequences for such short-termism are yet to be seen, but are likely to result in a thinner grasp of the richness of faith amongst congregations, and a sense amongst the laity that they are only being “equipped” with “tools and techniques” to achieve certain ends, which are nominated by bishops in strategies, plans and visions.

Whilst teaching that offers techniques that are orientated in mechanistic, pragmatic, restorative, overhauling and expansive aspirations for the faith, an enormous range of teaching is excluded by such prioritisation. Perhaps this is inevitable given the pragmatics. After all, many clergy are now ordained after studying for two years, which in fact turns out to be around twenty months. I might add they work very, very hard, and at considerable cost to them and their families/partners/supporters and friends. But this is hardly akin to the seven years of education and formation required of Jesuits.

The exclusions that will crop up in sermons and teachings that are the fruit of mechanistic-pragmatic training models would cover, but not be confined to, critical thinking, imagination, wisdom, desert spirituality, analogy and poetry, deeper journeys into contemplative prayer, loyal dissent and authentic revolutionary theologies that seek to resist oppression, confront oppressors, and transform the church with liberationist thinking. (Do check out the job advertisements in the Church Times, and see how many parishes are allowed to stress these charisms for their new Vicar. For the most part, the adverts always focus on maintenance and growth – these being the twin concerns of mechanistic-pragmatic training ecologies).

As someone who has spent many decades in theological training and/or education, I often wonder how the future might look.  Most bishops are university educated, and will also have been to TEIs that were more rooted in theological education than in the pragmatics of training. Yet I have an uneasy sense that they have turned against the very educational models that formed them, and are now over-invested in training, apprenticeship and other models that are designed to deliver results with a stress on training and techniques. At the same time, the bishops have become wary of thinkers (they can cause trouble!), and the kind of critical thinking and constructive dissent that comes through authentic pedagogy, including its liberationist expressions.

There are no bad foods – only bad diets.  The answer to this characterisation and conundrum is not exclusion or inclusion, but rather deeper reflection on the wisdom of God and its purposes. The art is in the blend. Some problems in the church need mechanistic and pragmatic responses. They are indeed Godly and right. But other issues will not be resolved by such solutions, and they will require ministers and theologians of deep learned faith and wisdom to help us think and act. The Church of England cannot afford the loss of either, and it must invest in TEIs, training and education that enables both.

In the Old Testament, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah record a parabolic saying: “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31: 29 & Ezk. 18: 2). In a country and culture where few schools teach the basics of Christianity, hymns are seldom sung, our reality is that levels of biblical literacy and Christian knowledge are rapidly depleting.  At our Universities, Christian Unions are less propositional, and more inclined to offer fellowship and a certain vibe in worship. A detailed knowledge of the Christian faith can no longer be assumed to be present in any tradition prior to selection for ordination.

So, what is happening to TEI’s in the Church of England? Increasingly, Bishops see themselves as ‘theological programmers’, with programmes to insert, impose…or be downloaded or uploaded into clergy, congregations and parishes. The analogy may seem unfortunate and unfair, but witness the average Diocesan Clergy Conference, and the agenda of theological-missional programming is very apparent and totally undisguised. Clergy, congregations and churches are already viewed in mechanistic terms by their dioceasan leaders, and therefore passive-receptive recipients of the latest initiative, scheme or its updates. In many respects, it is as though the ‘hardware’ of ecclesial life – people, places, buildings, relationships, cultures etc – are now to be the regular recipient of the latest ‘software update’ that comes from the bishop or diocesan HQ.

However, and to continue with this analogy, software updates become harder and harder to import, accept, run and utilise if the hardware cannot cope (e.g., lacks capacity, compatability, etc), or the recipient is unwilling or unable manage with the new updates. If the existing hardware and software still works well, few clergy and churches have either the time or any incentive to make the changes that may be asked for, or demanded. If the computer still works, why bother? Is it really necessary to update it? Yes and no. If tried and tested forms of ministry work well and are valued, does that need to be changed? Yes and no.

Our software-hardware analogy poses several further questions for us here. Does the author of the software really understand the coding required, and also the multiple uses and users of the hardware it is being put to? For many users, the hardware is public and open-access (as churches tend to be). If new software fails to take account of public use, public values and public ownership, then take-up will rapidly deplete. To be sure, ecclesial hardware is invariably old, and in need of constant ‘TLC’ (i.e., tender loving care; or time, labour cash; or both). Yet increasingly, new or revised software is not an appropriate fit for what most clergy and churches have to deal with.

The double bind here is that the bishops, with their own ‘programming skills’, are many, many years – probably decades – behind the times. So with each new software update announced, or overhaul imposed, the majority of laity and many clergy no will longer invest any enthusiasm, confidence and trust in these new programmes. They already know that the new software update is likely to fail on implementation, will become quickly obsolete…or perhaps not even work at all.

To complete this analogy, updates are essential for harmony between the hardware, software and the functioning of ecclesial body. But if the Church of England cannot take account of external changes in public life and values – equal marriage, trust, transparency and standards of truth and justice come to mind – then only adapting its own software for its own use and ends becomes rather pointless, and certainly futile, for wider usage. Whatever changes the Church of England comes up with internally (as coding), that must at the same time make sense – yes, compute – with all of the wider culturally engaged and outfacing public life to which the church also belongs. 

Education is key here, for we cannot presume that the clergy, laity or churches have expressed any sort of wish to be programmed and endlessly reprogrammed. The numbers of churches demanding ‘equipping’, ‘training’, ‘enabling’ and ‘setting free’ (whatever these terms mean) are few and far between. The risk is that a pedagogy of mechanistic programming will destroy the very heart of what it is to belong to a body of Christian learning. If all sermons are to become a form of coded instruction that re-boots the laity and enables them to function better to serve mechanistic means and ends – and along the way, very much treating scripture as one might an instruction manual for a car engine or domestic boiler – then I suspect fewer and fewer will choose church in the future.

Who will want to belong to congregations that prioritise a pedagogical diet of equipping, training, fixing and productivity? Over and against a culture of rich education and learning that is immersed and saturated in wisdom, compassion, wonder, awe, inspiration, questions…and the restless, mindful wrestling with quests that have consumed all Christians throughout the ages, yet can never be fully resolved? The choice is stark.

There cannot be a better and more urgent time to invest in supporting rich, deep, intensive and extensive Christian theology. But the Church of England faced with this challenge is, if anything, sounding the weak bugle of retreat. It is a pity, as the people are hungry for God, and need depth, critical thinking, imagination and stirring. So, if the economics of education are the issue and the driver, what is to be done?

For several decades, the Church of England has been drifting away from intensive synergies and partnerships with universities. Departments of theology and religious studies face their own challenges, and they include funding and adapting to a new cultural climate. The market-driven interest in religious studies, social scientific approaches to studying religion and ethics has produced stress in the supply-demand chain. Few faculties or departments of theology in the UK are sufficiently nimble and well-resourced to adapt to the emerging themes and interests that might draw undergraduates to theology and religious studies as undergraduates. At the same time, universities that were once more intertwined and in symbiotic relationships with local TEIs – including some bible colleges – have found this to be economically and confessionally challenging.

Furthermore, the discipline of theology and religious studies itself can sit somewhat precariously on shifting cultural tectonic plates. For example, can the bible, as primary source-material, be ‘decolonised’ as a text? Or if not, read critically as a text that legitimates oppression, as it plainly has in respect of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and alterity? What would be left of the Old and New Testament if privileged models of hegemonic, oppressive and violent behaviour – national, tribal, etc – were redacted, or readings that ‘de-colonised’ the text became mandatory? These are real issues for universities. Indeed, at the time of writing, they are questions of law in the schooling of children in the USA, where one state is wrestling with the teachings, stories and testimonies that many today would find offensive, if not traumatic. How are we to offer the scriptures in public life, when some of what the bible condones is either illegal or immoral? Yet they have hardly surfaced on the agenda of most TEIs, since the traditions and texts are assumed to be normative, and mostly exempt from any hermeneutics of interrogation, let alone suspicion and suspension.

Yet even setting aside such caveats, few TEIs can match a university department for breadth and depth in theological education and exposure to methods and issues in the study of religion. If we assume that training (i.e., techniques, pragmatics, formation etc) remain important for ministerial training – and I do – then ‘Houses of Formation’ could be developed that are discrete cultures, yet also reliant on the excellence of all that a university can offer.

Such Houses of Formation require space and resources for denominational formation, but the theological education is heavy lifting provided by the university department. At Oxford and Cambridge, undergraduate theology degrees can be crammed in two years for ordinands or seminarians who already hold a degree in another subject, akin to the Rhodes Scholar model. 

Other precedents have been established (e.g., Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, etc), and it means an ordinand gets the best of all worlds: great education, training and formation. True, this might be expensive.  However, the Church of England’s near-200-year experiment in separatism (i.e., its own colleges, courses, etc) has turned out to be more expensive, and in many aspects, not necessarily superior.

The Church of England now needs is an honest conversation about what God might require of education, training and formation for future ministers. It was exactly this question the Anglo-American theologian Daniel Hardy asked of the Church of England over three decades ago.

We are still awaiting an answer. Not, what does the church want? Nor, what can we afford? Instead, what does God require?

Prof. Martyn Percy