Fruitful Field – a response

A great deal of my time over the last week and a bit of this vacation has been taken up with producing responses to the Fruitful Field consultation that the Methodist Church is currently conducting into how we move forward in our learning and development and the Connexional resources related to such activities. The consultation documents and follow-up vodcasts can be found here. Much of my time has been taken up putting together the formal response from the student body here at Cambridge, which I finally emailed earlier today. I am clearly not at liberty to share that here as no authority has been given to do so. What follows is my own, personal response, which I wrote rapidly today, and which was emailed off just a few minutes ago. (At this point I direct you to my little introduction to the right, and especially the part about all views expressed here being entirely my own.)

23 December 2011

To the Ministries Committee:

Response to the Fruitful Field Consultation

 I write this response in a personal capacity as a Student Presbyter currently training for ordained ministry at Wesley House, Cambridge, and about to be stationed as a Probationer for September 2012. I make this personal capacity clear as I am also one of the authorised signatories to the formal New Common Room response and I do not wish the two to be confused.

Personal Background

I feel it is always important in such situations to give a bit of background so that some indication of where a response is coming from can be gained. I grew up in the Anglican church, living in Durham for the first two years of my life while my dad trained as an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, followed by living in several locations as my dad served his title and then became a Parish Priest. I was also brought up in a highly ecumenical environment, with strong links to the Iona Community, of which both my parents and I are now Full Members. Originally I began worshipping in a Methodist Church owing to my wife’s links with the particular church we worshipped at. It was genuinely a great surprise to receive the call to ministry in that context (indeed, to receive it all), but I have followed it, through Faith & Worship and Local Preachers’ Meeting interviews, through Candidate Portfolio writing and Selection Committees, through filling in allocation forms and degree application forms, through moving lock, stock and barrel, and through about 16 months of study at Wesley House.

Prior to working as a Circuit Pastoral Worker during the year I candidate, I had a previous career in Higher and Further Education as an administrator and manager, working primarily in marketing & communication with a focus on customer service and admissions, and on change management. By the time I left that work I was in the role of managing the course enquiry and admissions function for a large FE college.

What follows are just some of my thoughts, looking specifically at the three areas of the vision, but firstly I would wish to raise just a couple of general points.

 General

  1. As a consultation document both the vision presented, and the background given, does not seem to be clear enough. I understand the difficulty in trying to ensure a balance between providing something with which to engage whilst also not giving the impression of a fait accompli. We have a faith based in scriptures that resonate with many dreams and visions, such as the fruitful field in the wilderness (more of which in a moment). Yet I believe that one of the key ingredients of all those visions is that there is clarity to them – from visions such as Isaiah’s calling to St John the Divine’s revelation of the New Jerusalem what stands out is the detail. It seems to me that what is contained in the consultation document is not a vision, but an idea – an idea that may well bear fruit, but it still far from a vision. I wonder whether, in part, this might have been rectified through the publishing, separately from the consultation documents, the papers and minutes of conversations that lie behind the document (without, of course, breaking any agreed confidences).
  2. A further frustration for me is that the document does not seem to lay out very clearly what is good about what we have now. This gives a very negative impression of what we do now. Indeed, even the metaphor of a fruitful field from a wilderness gives such an impression – is training currently a wilderness? I am reminded of the story of the apocryphal farmer who, when asked for directions, replied “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.” We must start where we are, and I do not believe where we are is a wilderness – the report states regularly that we need excellence, which we do, but the failure to show where excellence is currently present, the failure to say, “Yes, we need to do things differently, but here is some of the current best practice that we want to keep, here is some of the nutritious soil we already have in which to grow our field” saddens me. In my so far brief journey with Methodism I have met with much excellence. Two examples: the opportunity I had to study Faith & Worship alongside folk from around the London District as part of the cohort who went through that District’s first attempt to find a new way to help people complete their Local Preacher studies; the experience I have had so far studying alongside those of my own and other denominations as part of the Cambridge Theological Federation in regards to my current academic track as part of my wider pre-ordination training (there are many parts of my time at Wesley House I have found to be excellent, but this one points to something I don’t think the report takes seriously enough – ecumenism).

 Pathways

  1. I commend the report on its desire for flexibility. I spent a good deal of my previous career working with folk to help them work out what was the best course for them, fully recognising that even folk with the same interests and goals may need to study and be assessed in different ways. It was one of my concerns with Faith & Worship when I studied it that it seemed to adopt a one-size-fits-all model – I noticed in part because the model did not entirely suit me. I therefore hope that this commitment to flexibility remains throughout the whole process.
  2. This leads me to a point regarding levels of study. While flexibility in pathways is important, we must also be clear about what level of study is recommended or required for various roles. It may well be that the person being given training related to being the Church Treasurer or a Pastoral Visitor does not need an A-Level or NVQ2, let alone a degree or HND, in Accountancy or Social Care, but the appropriate level does need to be considered. I think it right that our Local Preachers are expected to reach a level equivalent to the first year of Higher Education standard (and it should be noted I say HE, not degree – I truly believe that part of the problem with Faith & Worship is not the level required of people but the model used – it should be possible to train people to an equivalent level using a variety of models – for example, A-levels, BTEC National Diploma, and NVQ 3). I also believe that it is vital that those training for ordination are expected to study at HE level 2 and above. Actually, my preference would be that some study to HE Level 3 (final year of degree) be done by all pre-ordination students before entering Circuit, but with 2-year full-time training unlike to be re-increased to 3, I fear that this unlikely to be possible.
  3. The point above leads to my next one: Methodism must maintain strong links with world-class, research-led academic theology. It concerns me that academic excellence is not dwelt upon in the document. Not everyone is suited to, nor wishes to, be involved in the very highest levels of academic study (indeed, most aren’t or don’t) yet the work of the academy inevitably helps shape our faith. Flexible and varied pathways may well mean that the vast majority of what is offered is not academic, but where folk are able and willing the church must look to support that. It must also make sure that any theology training it offers which is not academic (which, again, may well be the vast majority) makes use of the very latest academic thinking and study of God, the Bible, and human thoughts regarding both.
  4. I am also aware that flexibility and diversity in pathways means more than simply what kind of courses may be offered. It relates, too, to the modes of study that people undertake. The document clearly recognises that much of the learning and training that happens within Methodism happens in the local context – this is, I believe, right and should continue to be the case. Modern technology should make it much more possible to efficiently offer ways of studying that mean people can study at home, or in a local group, but still be studying the same material, in a similar way, to the same time-scales as others many miles away. However, I do not believe that such study is necessarily ideal in all situations. One thing that is not clear from the document is what happen re: residential training, both for those moving towards ordination and those who are not. I strongly believe residential training is a positive, worthwhile activity. I believe we should offer more of it, not less. I realise that given the financial considerations this may be difficult, especially in the short term, but the ongoing success of Cliff College, and the fact that more candidates than anticipated opted to study full-time residentially suggests that there is strong demand for it. There are many challenges involved in living in community, but there are vastly more positives. I also believe residential communities work best when they are not too large.
  5. I also wonder where the ecumenical part of these pathways might be. At Wesley House we are part of the Cambridge Theological Federation, whose motto is “Roots down, walls down”. No-one staying with the community here for more than a few days would leave thinking we were anything but Methodist. Our study programmes, attachments and placements ensure we are grounded, fully rooted, in Methodism. Yet we also spend much time learning with those of other traditions. If we genuinely believe that we are part of a Body of Christ that is wider than simply Methodism then surely deepening our discipleship must involve doing so alongside those of other denominations. There are, as the document makes clear, different ways of doing this, but I believe the Federation model, certainly in relation to pre-ordination and residential training, is a strong one that should be borne in mind for any future developments.

People

  1. I am not sure I have a great deal to say on this other than to comment, once again, that the nature of the document gives the impression that we do not, as the Methodist Church, currently have access to excellent people, who are gifted in knowledge, skills, awareness and the ability to share these things effectively with others. This is, of course, not the case. I know from experience that the Connexion has at its disposal some truly excellent educators, trainers and developers. I hope that their input will be fully sought and listened to as the process moves forward.

Place

  1. I am not completely opposed to the idea of a single hub, as long as it meets certain criteria:
    1. That it allows for a significant residential learning community, structured so that students and staff are expected to spend time regularly with a small yet diverse group (Boarding School houses may be one way of picturing this) – this is important to ensure that people are required to learn to live alongside those of diverse views and experiences rather than simply to congregate with those who are similar;
    2. That it is able to make use of strong links with the academy – as mentioned above, many learning the majority of pathways may not themselves be academics, but the work of the academy is of vital ongoing interest to our faith, and we need to ensure we are able to make good use of it through direct, personal connection to it.
    3. That it is able to make use of strong links with our brothers and sisters in other denominations – many may disagree with me, but I believe the future of Methodism is to the future of the other denominations. After all, we are one Body. It is therefore important that our discipleship and development is linked with that of other traditions, while still ensuring a Methodist emphasis for those that desire it. As mentioned above, I believe the Cambridge model is a good one but I do not believe it is the only way of working ecumenically.
    4. It must ensure that its community culture is representative of the diverse nature of Methodism – Primitive and Wesleyan, evangelical and sacramental, rooted in our traditions and looking to the future. The development of a single hub must not allow parts of our church culture to become dominant and thereby distance those who value other parts of it.
    5. It must be rooted – I can see no benefit in completely uprooting all of our current institutions and building a new one, which will take many years to develop the strength of relationship our current institutions have with both the academy and our ecumenical partners.
    6. Were a single hub not able to visibly manifest those criteria above, and while I am not against the idea I am not convinced  that it could, then I would argue that a multi-hub would be a better idea, with a significantly greater level of Connexional co-ordination between them than is currently the case.
    7. I suggest that Cambridge would make a good location for the single hub or one of multiple hubs. It might be suggested that I would say that since I currently study there, which is a fair critique of the situation. I do, however believe that with some investment and development, it could easily meet the above criteria. However, as long as any developed hub does meet those criteria laid out above its exact location does not worry me particularly.

Conclusion

I am pleased that the issue of learning and development of all the people called Methodists is being taken seriously. Furthermore, I believe that the direction being travelled is not entirely wrong, but it is difficult to be certain on this as I find the vision far too blurred in its current condition. I do, however, have concerns that Methodist engagement with the academy, ecumenical learning, and the great benefits of residential training are at risk as the vision is currently laid out. I believe that this can be rectified without changing the whole direction of travel. I look forward to seeing what further developments are put forward once the response to this consultation period has been fully considered, and I commend to God in prayer the ongoing work of the committee in discerning the way forward for the  whole people called Methodists in relation to our learning and development on our journey of discipleship and mission.

Shalom,

Tom Osborne

Student Presbyter

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About MendipNomad

I'm a nomad both physically and denominationally, but I'll always call the Mendips home. Currently a Methodist Presbyter (Minister) in Cornwall. I love sport, film, tv, socialising, politics (both US and British), and, yes, being part of the church.
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