Bible college under huge financial pressure, stops full time training

Rev Dr David Hilborn, principal of St John's College, Nottingham.

Financial pressures have contributed to the decision by St John's College in Nottingham, which trains ordinands for the Church of England, to announce that it is to cease full-time residential training.

In a statement released today, the college said that its council had agreed to a "radical reshaping" over the next two years. The statement said: "The Church of England is currently reviewing its patterns of ministerial education, and St John's recognises the call of this review to match the needs of the church with available resources."

Instead of recruiting full-time students, the college will focus on training in parish settings, youth and children's ministry, training lay people, and flexible part-time training for ordinands. The statement said: "The proportion of ordinands training part-time has risen significantly over the past 20 years, and the major current Church of England review of ministerial education suggests that clergy trained part-time can be as effective as those trained full-time."

The college stated that parts of its Nottingham campus would be sold. "All theological institutions are finding the current financial climate challenging, and St John's is no exception," it said, adding that "These plans have been drawn up with an eye to the long-term needs of the Church and a realistic assessment of the resources that are likely to be available."

It also hinted at potential redundancies, saying: "new models of training will require a different configuration of both faculty and support staff. No plans have yet been made for the future of specific posts, but over the coming months we will be talking to individuals to work out the best future for them and for the college."

The college's accounts have shown a deficit for the last four years, with income from its Extension Studies programme falling by a third last year. Last August the deficit on its unrestricted reserves had increased to more than £1,190,000. Its Trustees Report and financial statements last year said that funding pension deficits presented "significant challenges".

The Trustees Report also noted that "The Church of England fixes the fees for the majority of full-time students and has continued to fail to meet the full cost of training ordinands, with other operations within St John's seeking to subsidise the shortfall."

However, a spokesperson for the Ministry Division of the Archbishops' Council noted that the college was independently run by its own trustees. "All residential theological colleges in the Church of England receive central funding per student on the same basis," it said. "We are currently arranging a meeting with the Council Chair and Principal of the College to discuss the matter further. We welcome the College's statement about the continuing care of students who will be affected by the changes proposed and the commitment to ensure that these students will be able to complete their courses at St John's."

Principal David Hilborn said: "Over the past 150 years St John's has re-imagined theological education many times as it has served students from a wide range of educational backgrounds.

"Our calling is to equip Christians for mission in a world of change. This next reconfiguring of the college is consistent with our history and with the needs and resources of tomorrow's Church."

Chris Smith, chair of the St John's Council, added: "These present changes are a response to current demands in theological education. They reflect the continuing willingness of St John's to adjust and adapt as necessary to ensure its unique ministry is preserved and delivered in accordance with God's guiding will for us. The college will constantly review the need for different forms of theological education and will not shrink from making future changes and developments which enable its service to the Church."

Academic and blogger Ian Paul, a former Dean of Studies at St Johns, wrote of his regret at the decision to cease full-time residential training, which he said was crucial in laying a groundwork of ministerial formation and sound learning. He said that residential training "gives opportunities for intense formation and accountability" and allows for a deep immersion in scripture and theology.

A "transitional year" would mean that no new ordinands or independent students would be recruited for September 2015 but that recruitment of new full and part-time students on Midlands CYM and Extension Studies programmes would continue as normal. Existing students will complete their courses.

The college is in the evangelical tradition and began life as the London College of Divinity in 1863.