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Ordination Training and the Church of England

Revd Dr Simon Vibert

By Revd Dr Simon Vibert, 16 Feb 2015

Simon Vibert from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford briefs us on recent changes in Church of England Ordination training so that we can pray for Ordinands and tutors, and for what lies ahead.

First some assumptions: I take it that we believe that well-trained clergy are essential. Clergy need to be schooled in traditional disciplines such as biblical studies (so they have confidence to proclaim the gospel), biblical languages (in order to study the text in detail), Church History, Ethics, and Doctrine (to learn the lessons of the past and refute error). Alongside these subjects are the practical areas of Preaching, Leadership, Church Growth, and Apologetics, all of which are best learned from practitioners and by having the opportunity to hone skills and grow in godliness during the training experience. Academic Learning; Practical Training; Personal and Spiritual Formation can only be truly attained when sustained attention is given to the training experience of an Ordinand.


J. C. Ryle, one of the founders of Wycliffe Hall (opened in 1877), wrote the following in an essay entitled ‘The Importance of Dogma’:

‘The consequences of this widespread dislike of dogma are very serious in the present day. … It produces what I must venture to call, if I may coin a phrase, a jellyfish Christianity…: that is, Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power.

A jellyfish, as everyone knows who has been much by the seaside, is a pretty and graceful object when it floats in the sea, contracting and expanding like a little delicate transparent umbrella. Yet the same jellyfish, when cast on the shore, is a mere helpless lump, without capacity for movement, self-defence, or self-preservation.

[Such is] the religion of this day of which the leading principle is – No dogma, no distinctive tenets, no positive doctrine. We have hundreds of jellyfish clergymen who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have no definite opinions; they belong to no school or party; they are so afraid of extreme views that they have no views at all.

We have thousands of jellyfish sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge or a point or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint. We have legions of jellyfish young men annually turned out from our universities, armed with a few scraps of second hand philosophy, who think it a mark of cleverness and intellect to have no decided opinions about anything in religion, and to be utterly unable to make up their minds as to what is Christian truth….

Never was it more important for laymen to hold systematic views of truth, and for ordained ministers to enunciate dogma very clearly and distinctly in their teaching.’
Principles for Churchmen

We might add, whilst the jellyfish may look elegant, several species of jellyfish are capable of emitting a deadly sting, even without a backbone!


Ryle’s exhortation of the need for theological, doctrinal, equipped and godly religion remains as important today as it was 150 years ago. Wycliffe Hall alumnus, J. I. Packer put it well in A Passion for Holiness, using a rather different aquatic metaphor: we don’t want Tadpoles (those with stuffed heads and no body); nor do we want activists who are only focused on doing good and changing the world whilst neglecting the head (thinking) and the body (devotion and emotion).

Paul said ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:21) and we also read in 2 Peter 3:18 ‘… grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ Head, heart and hands all need to be engaged in ministry, so giving attention to all three must be part of theological education today. ‘We need to engage the mind in order to truly know God; we need to engage the heart to truly love God’ (John Piper, Think, IVP, page 36).

Theological college should avoid producing jellyfish clergy and tadpole clergy. Rather, we want godly, learned, and articulate practitioners of the true gospel of our Lord.

With this end in mind, how does the Church of England seek to train men and women for Ordination today?

What has been happening?

Following a report written by Stephen Croft (Bishop of Sheffield) entitled ‘Formation for Ministry’ approved by the House of Bishops in December 2011, the Church of England put out to tender the theological training of around 1,000 students per year (including Ordinands, Readers, and others) across courses and colleges via a Common Award. The bid was won by Durham University and in April 2013 a Common Award was approved with the first cohort of students, beginning in September 2014.

There were two key factors which motivated this change.

Cost is one clear constraint on theological education. Unlike many other denominations Ordinand training in the Church of England is funded from the ‘central pot’, although technically, of course, it comes out of the money given in the Parish Share of each Parish and put into a central fund known as ‘Vote One’. This pot of money has been put under considerable pressure in the last five years following Government changes to the allocation of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) money since 2010.

First, in 2012 most Ordinands found themselves designated as ‘ELQ students’ (those who had already received funding for an Equivalent or Lower Qualification) and thus were not eligible for Government assistance towards their training costs. Alongside this, the fee hike whereby almost every university now charges £9,000 per annum for tuition fees has meant that something had to change with respect to the rising cost of Ordinand training. The deal made with Durham University does involve some considerable cost-saving benefits, whilst still allowing students to be part of a rigorous Theology faculty.

Commonality is the other driving force behind Common Awards. What is the type of ministry for which we are training men and women today? What is the training which is best suited for this purpose? In seeking to answer these questions, Ministry Division has come up with common learning outcomes matched to new Initial Ministerial Education Outcomes (so-called, IME 1–3) which would extend across all who are training for ministry via a Common Award.

Some have expressed an anxiety that this means that the distinctiveness of evangelical institutions will be lost and that academic standards will be lowered.

I am less convinced that either of these things necessarily needs to follow. In the first place, Common Awards offers a much greater opportunity to integrate academic learning, ministerial training and spiritual formation. In my own area, preaching, students should view lectures in Homiletics, preaching classes, placements in local churches, writing essays, and plenty of hours of reading, as all working together towards being assessed in preaching. The practical and formational aspects are core to the training, not added on to an otherwise totally academic experience.

With respect to the ironing out of theological distinctiveness, students will still choose to come to Wycliffe Hall (for example) for similar reasons: evangelical conviction, calibre of Wycliffe Hall tutors, Oxford location, and relationship with Oxford churches. Common Awards allows for considerable flexibility as each Theological Educational Institution delivers them within the Trust Deed requirements of their College. Ordinands at Wycliffe Hall benefit from its status as a Permanent Private Hall of the University and will study alongside Ordinands who are pursuing Oxford University Courses (as exceptional routes, i.e. those who are on an approved pathway for a higher award in a University Theology Faculty).

Common Awards is not without its challenges but there is no need for academic standards to be dumbed down. There are opportunities to produce clergy who are growing ‘in grace and knowledge’ – neither tadpoles nor jellyfish.

What is on the horizon?

We consider that Residential Training is the pathway which is likely to be best for most Ordinands (certainly those under the age of 32). Three years’ full-time training for a lifetime’s ministry does not seem excessive! I anticipate that there will be challenges to retain well-funded residential training, but I remain committed to it.

As General Synod votes on the allocation for Vote One funding, an articulate case needs to be made for Residential Training. Plus, within the original Croft report there is provision for so-called ‘exceptional routes’, namely those who will benefit from a University Education taught across the historic faculties of Theology. It is from these higher degrees that we are likely to produce theological educators and senior church leaders for the future.

I also believe that there is benefit in developing a flexible approach to Ordinand Training. Students come to their training environment with a variety of church ministry experience, time spent in a career and a first degree usually in another discipline. Keeping these factors in mind when selecting the best training pathway for a given Ordinand is important. Wycliffe Hall has recently embarked on training students on a Mixed Mode Pathway. This means that they will spend half their time in the Hall (studying alongside other full-time Ordinands) and half their time in a Church-based context. For self-motivated learners who are keen to continue serving their sending church, this pathway offers many advantages.

Theological Education is a changing and complex scenario.

So, what can you do?

Be aware that Parishes may need to play a greater role in providing funding. This may be in the form of topping up funding for students’ fees so they can spend three rather than two years in training. It may be providing the context for Mixed Mode training, with local churches benefiting from the ministry of an Ordinand whilst covering their living costs.

Choose wisely. Even amidst the changes and challenges, students should look to the evangelical identity of their training colleges and make their choice on the basis of their teaching faculty, theological conviction, access to evangelical churches, and the gospel-focused shape to the Institution.

Pray for those of us involved in training the Church leaders of the future, and pray that God will raise up a new generation of Ordinands who have a vision for winning England for the Lord, and who are released and equipped for this role.

Simon Vibert is the Vice Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

Photo by Joerg Hackemann / 123RF


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