Monday, 24 October 2011

Fruitful Field - some initial thoughts

'Fruitful Field' is a paper produced by the Methodist Church's Ministries Committee, looking at the future shape of training in all its aspects within the Methodist Church. Essentially a consultation document, the paper outlines the provision that has been and is being made by the Methodist Church, and looks at possible future directions.

The first thing that struck me about the paper was that it read more as a management document that a theological reflection, which isn't to say that there is no theological reflection within it, nor that a management document is per se a bad thing. But it did grate a bit to read of such 'jargon' concepts as 'hubs' and 'pathways', which seem to be mindless bureau-speak rather than the terminology of normal, everyday thought and conversation.

Once I'd cleared this hurdle, I looked for some concrete proposals in the report, but my search proved in vain. There are proposals towards the end of the report, but I'm yet to be convinced that they are 'concrete', though that may be the intention of the document at this stage. The report states:
  • We should seek to establish high quality, flexible connexional pathways, which can be delivered in a number of different communities and contexts, and which meet the needs of a discipleship movement shaped for mission and the needs of the ministries of the whole people of God.
  • We should seek to establish a single connexional network of skilled and knowledgeable staff, including both regional staff (coordinated and resourced within regional teams) and tutorial staff based in a learning hub.
  • We should seek to establish a single connexional hub on one site.
I have very few issues with the first of these proposals, and on the whole would support them. Contextual training is vital, and in a changing world and a changing church the ways in which we discern the calling of, select and train 'ministers', both lay and ordained, needs to be as flexible as possible whilst retaining a discernible identity (and I would want to say, in these Ecumenical times, a discernible Methodist identity). The high quality of that training goes without saying. The second proposal seems sensible, linking those responsible for the provision of training in all its forms, and it seems right to me that this should be equally well resourced both regionally and connexionally, thus enabling the consistency and contextuality mentioned above.

It's the third proposal that I have the most concern about. The training that is offered currently, particularly in institutional settings, has a necessary and welcome diversity to it, based not only on the content and context of the training being offered but also on the geographical location of the institution. The implication of this proposal would be that the work of Cliff College - a centre of specific lay training in evangelism and related disciplines - would be separated from the site in Derbyshire and located, along with that of Presbyteral & Diaconal formation, in some other place yet to be determined.

As a former student of Cliff - twice-over: as a 'certificate' student in the 1980s and as a Postgraduate student in the early 2000s - I may be seen to have something of a vested interest, but those who have been associated with Cliff know the importance of the College as a place of learning, discipleship and pilgrimage for many thousands of people over its 100+-year history. The work is so closely associated with the location that it would, I believe, change the whole nature of the establishment to separate the two.

What particularly worries me about the report and the final proposal is an underlying concern that this is driven as much by the financial constraints that the Methodist Church finds itself in as by the (I believe genuine) desire to provide the best training possible for the Methodist people. Establishing 'a single connexional hub on one site' would free up much valuable real estate across the Connexion, as has already been done through the closure of Wesley College Bristol. I hope that this is just my cynical mind at work, and not the primary factor in bringing these proposals.