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.