A reading people

As I head to the Susanna Wesley Foundation office in Southlands College each week, I pass a large sign which reads:

A reading people will always be a knowing people.

It is a quote from John Wesley, a man often caricatured as a ‘man of one book’ when in fact he read and wrote many. It is no surprise that the Foundry, where he established the first Methodist headquarters, had a Book Room and that education was a central part of the Methodist revival.

Since Wesley, it is fair to say that British and Irish Methodism have had a complex relationship with learning. How many of us have heard that the longest journey in the world is the one between the head and the heart? For too many Methodists, the life of the mind is in direct contradiction to the faith of the heart.

I have spent most of my life in educational institutions, as student, chaplain, tutor, researcher or lecturer. I have experiences universities from the most ancient to the very modern, in this country and overseas and I am amazed at the transformation higher education has undergone in the last thirty years. Government’s of different parties have embraced a policy of expansion of undergraduate admissions leading to new universities being granted title. In Cambridge, Anglia Polytechnic eventually became Anglia Ruskin University and the number of universities in Birmingham has grown from two to five. University admissions increasingly resembles a market-place, with fee-paying students looking for the best value as well as a good education. Universities have also become more entrepreneurial and sought partnerships with bodies such as Churches as well as theological colleges. These partnerships are no longer confined to the UK, for Higher Education has definitely gone global.

One of the driving forces of these changes has been the internet, meaning that students can access libraries and research materials from across the globe whilst still in their pyjamas in bed! As time has gone on, the ability to study online has grown with universities recruiting students from other continents. The monastic model upon which European universities were been built was blown wide open. So rapid is the pace of change within higher education that each generation of students seems to have a completely different experience from the generation before or after.

Education in the Methodist Churches in Britain and Ireland over the last ten years has been deeply affected by these seismic shifts, along with having to handle a decrease in the number of candidates and reduction in the time given for initial formation. The optimism exhibited by the British Conference in expanding the number of places for training in 1980s and 1990s has not borne fruit in an increase in numbers seeking a formal theological education. Whereas previous decades had seen difficult decisions taken to rationalise theological education through the closure of colleges in London, Leeds, Manchester, etc, the need to provide part-time training saw a large number of Anglican courses authorised for Methodists. Other Methodist-led initiatives - UTU in Sheffield, York Institute for Theology, WSC in Durham - were also supported without much attention being given to the overall numbers of student ministers or lay students being recruited.

We have also seen a failure to invest in institutions or in the espoused policy of expanding our educational provision to include all members. By 2012, the three institutions for which Methodism had some responsibility (Durham, Birmingham and Cambridge) were all in need of serious investment to make them useable, accessible, or sometimes, safe. Whilst the Church has been good to throwing up edifices, it has rarely put aside enough money for upkeep.

There was also a move to have older, ‘experienced’ candidates in the 80s and 90s and many of us who had to fight our way through candidating simply because we were young will know that the Church has, for some time, prized ‘prior experience’ over the offer of life-long service. By the time it woke up to this mistake, the numbers of under 30s in our pews had significantly dwindled. Added to that, universities chaplaincies were now being bolted on to significant amounts of Circuit work, meaning that the Methodist Church’s engagement with those in Higher Education was being eroded. Most older candidates, naturally, had their focus on Circuit ministry and were often more reluctant to engage in programmes of purely academic theology.

This year about twenty probationers will be ordained at the Methodist Conference. When I was ordained in the year 2000, it was nearer 90. It is unlikely to return to those kinds of numbers anytime in the next two decades. If we continue with a two-year f/t, three-year p/t programme, that will mean finding places for approximately 40 Methodist students at any one time, only 20 of whom will be studying full-time courses.

But that is only part of the story, of course. The recruitment crisis for ordained ministry is being experienced alongside a growth of interest in various lay ministries. The Methodist Church prides itself on its long history of lay ministry and has long talked about seamless robes and blurred edges between lay and ordained. And yet, when we talk about ministerial formation, we are still obsessed with where the ordained are trained.

Before 2012, the Connexion was pouring millions of pounds into theological education, funding institutions that had one or even no Methodist students. That bill has now been reduced but is still a lot of money for 40 people a year. Meanwhile, investment in lay ministry formation has not matched the rhetoric. In the 1990s, all our theological colleges were supposed to turn themselves in ‘Regional Resource Centres’, opening their doors to lay students from their region. 20 years on, this is still a work in progress. I reckon most lay Methodists access their theology through non-Methodist institutions today and have to pay for it themselves. Whilst the creation of the Learning Network - a product of the Fruitful Field process - has meant more Methodists having access to theological education, it has not yet developed a coherent programme to support the burgeoning variety of local lay ministries. Good things are happening, but they are taking place on the fringes rather than at the centre.

British Methodism needs to embrace education once again as a key part of its mission and there are some strategic decisions that could be taken in order to steer the ship in the right direction:

  • Extend ordained ministerial formation to 3 years f/t or equivalent. Many have spoken about our loss of scholarship because of Fruitful Field. The truth is that there are still many Methodists working hard on their doctorates, often part-time and alongside busy lives or pastoral responsibilities. Many have to fund themselves or take unpaid leave to complete their research. But unless we allow at least some student ministers the time to complete at least one degree in college, we are storing up problems for the future.

  • Place an equal focus on Lay Ministry - for a Church that rejoices in being a lay-led movement, we have become obsessed with preparation for ordination. It looks likely that the pattern of ministry within CIrcuits will change significantly in the next two decades, with ministry teams made up of lay and ordained. The ordained will increasingly find themselves in the minority and Circuits will need well-formed lay ministers to work alongside presbyters and deacons. To facilitate this, we need serious work to be done to discern what ministries are required and what training is required to support it. It cannot be that individuals are asked to subsidise their own formation as they prepare to serve the Church. Given that lay and ordained ministers will be working together, then they should be trained together.

  • Abandon intellectual snobbery at one extreme and anti-intellectualism at the other - in order to do this, the Church must acknowledge and reinforce the need for good quality education and development for those in all sorts of ministry. We must challenge those who claim a calling is all that is needed in order to minister in the name of the Methodist Church. Still too many resist appropriate training or continuing development and yet occupy significant roles of leadership in the local Church.

We must also critique those forms of academic theology that come from a place of privilege. The rise of liberationist perspectives and contextual theologies has helped the scales to fall from our eyes about the nature of much theology taught in universities and theological colleges in the West. It is still the case, despite the shifts in Higher Education, that excellence often means privilege. Education in the Wesleyan spirit seeks to challenge that hegemony and open theological enquiry to all, which might mean distancing ourselves from certain institutions that reinforce inequalities.

  • Invest in scholarship - thank God that British and Irish Methodism still has significant numbers of people engaged in scholarship and research. The sad news is that most of them are self-funded and many operate under the radar. The Methodist Church has the means to use bursaries and sabbaticals to encourage more lay and ordained to see scholarship as part of their vocation. In the US, there is increasing talk too of bivocations, a formal recognition by the church that some are called a particular specialism alongside pastoral ministry. Could such appointments be created in our Connexion to allow more people to express a breadth as well as depth of vocation?

The next 10-15 years will see the British and Irish Methodist Churches significantly reshaped. My hope is that education in its various forms is returned to the heart of our identity and the offering we make to our communities.

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