The Church of England has just released two related reports on numbers in ordained ministry. These are not related to annual ministry figures; the last figures (from 2015) were released in June, and caught the headlines for a number of reasons. These reports are related more to the aims of the Renewal and Reform process, and look back at the historical context as well as projecting forwards. Although there is no new research data included, the reports do contain some important observations which have implications for both national and diocesan approaches.
The first thing to say is that these reports are really helpful, with relevant information, well presented, and with interesting narratives to complement the information. This is a reflection of two important changes, one in strengthening the analysis of what is happening through the Research and Statistics team (they are very impressive—do go and visit them if you are passing through Church House) and the other in focussing more clearly on vocations at a national level within Ministry Division, not least through the appointment of Catherine Nancekievill as Head of Discipleship and Vocation. Is it too optimistic to think that the C of E is actually getting its act together in this area…?
The reports themselves raise some interesting issues. The first one, looking at history, begins with a graph of the total numbers of recommendations to ordained ministry since 1949, which looks surprisingly consistent, varying from 400 to 700 whilst often hovering around 500. But the detailed analysis that follows reveals some key differences—that in the boom of the 1950s, these recommendations were to stipendiary ministry, whereas the recent numbers include NSM and OLM (or SSM). Since the 1970s, the numbers entering stipendiary ministry have been around half what they were in the 1950s—hence part of the reason for the challenge we now face.
This historical report then looks at two other issues: regional variation; and variation between the sexes. The regional analysis is very revealing; numbers recommended from different dioceses over the last five years shows massive differences, with London dominating, followed by Oxford, with Chelmsford, Leeds and Chichester leading the rest of the pack. Looking at this makes me think: how could we have gone so many years without a broad theological training resource in London, and is it any surprise that St Mellitus have grown so fast?
Following this is an analysis which I first did ten years ago, which I have mentioned on this blog, and which I am very pleased has been taken up: the number of candidates being recommended in relation to actual church attendance in a diocese. This removes the differences due to size that are present in the absolute numbers, and tells us what is happened proportionately in churches in these areas. As a result, Bristol, Ely and Exeter begin to stand out, and London drops back into the followers, with Carlisle, Liverpool and Sodor and Man at the back of the pack. It would be interesting to further sort this in number order, rather than just alphabetically, and analyse by province, to see whether there really is a north/south divide. Certainly in relation to absolute numbers, the fact that so many come from London means that many will end up staying in the south—not because they are ‘southern softies’ but because they will inevitably have commitments and connections which will tie them to an area. If a diocese or region wants to see renewal of ministry in its area, it either needs to be a ‘man of Macedonia’ (Acts 16) and ask for help, or start generating vocations to ordained ministry in its region.
The second issue raised is disparity between the sexes in type of ministry and age of recommendation, and this is the focus of Benny Hazelhurst’s opening reflection as Vocations Co-ordinator in Salisbury Diocese. Women come forwards later than men, and are much more likely to end up in non-stipendiary ministry. Benny wrestles briefly with the reasons for this, and make a comparison with other employers and careers, but of course ministry is not a ‘career’ and the Church of England is not an ’employer’, so any parallels here need to be treated with caution. There can be no doubt that considerations of marriage and family affect men and women quite differently, and that cannot be negligible in thinking about one’s life vocation. Men and women in dog collars are also viewed differently within church communities and society, and that is unlikely to be irrelevant. I also wonder whether the current narrative—that we need ambitious young people to be bold and pioneering, to take on the challenges of declining churches and declining ministry—might well also have a differential impact on men’s and women’s vocations.
The second report, looking at clergy numbers going forward, doesn’t really tell us anything that we did not know before. The moving cohort of clergy reveals the gap that opens up because of the changes in age of recommendation, and the cliff-edge of retirements (particularly amongst men) which results from the historic decision to raise the age of ordination in the 1980s and 90s. However, it does now include the analysis which Peter Ould suggested on this blog: what happens if we delay by one year the retirement of this group? The answer is striking: it fills fully one-third of the gap that will be addressed by the 50% increase sought in ordinations. This is not trivial! But this analysis raises one other, vital and unanswered, question.
On page 10, there is a chart of where people come from and go to in and out of stipendiary parochial ministry. Remarkably, fully one quarter of exits are to destinations ‘unknown’. What happens to this group? And how many are simply falling out of ministry without being tracked or traced? I have a hunch: there is a steady stream of experienced male clergy who are dropping out in their fifties or early sixties, some way short of retirement, and this makes a difference in ministry numbers. I say this only on the basis of anecdotal experience; many of my peers are wondering ‘what next?’ in ministry, facing another 10 or 15 years possibly doing something similar to what they have been doing for the last 20. When discussing differences in diocesan strategy, one good friend lamented the fact that, as someone in his late 50s with significant experience, he seemed to be of no interest to his bishop, who was much more focussed on energetic young people who could be pioneering church planters. I asked the statistics unit about data on those leaving ministry at this stage—and it turns out that we don’t have any. Is this another important area to do some analysis?
I am aware that clergy in their 50s might not be the easiest to work with. We have been thinking about ministry issues for a long time; we can be rather set in our ways; we might not be as pliable as younger clergy nor so easily won over by dynamic new diocesan plans; to be honest, we are a bit eccentric. But we might just have some wisdom to offer, even a sense of sagacious ballast which could help younger clergy from being blown off course by frustrations and disappointments, and perhaps a role as mentors, counsellors and encouragers. I hope that the right focus on younger ordinands and step changes in approaches to ministry does not contribute to a sense of marginalization for this important group.
When I wrote about the previous statistics, from the annual report in June, it prompted Jeremy Fletcher to write on just this issue, identifying himself as appearing to be ‘part of the problem’ of the Church of England’s ‘Middle Aged Spread’. He suggests some actions that might be taken to address the potential of this group:
Give me one of those whizzy health checks you give to Bishops and senior clergy as they are appointed. Give me active encouragement to invest all I can in my spiritual and physical well-being…
The next post I’m looking for is likely to be my last. So offer models of ministry and growth which go beyond getting a hipster millennial to plant something – fab though that is. Recognise that I am likely to be turned down in favour of a younger model, unless posts are identified where age and mileage will be an advantage, not a problem. Manage the expectations of those writing job descriptions and doing interviews.
Update my software. I can be a decent mentor to these young things whizzing through the processes. Yes, they are young enough to be my offspring. Get me excited about how I can foster vocations and mentor younger generations. I can be taught new tricks too, and they might need a wise head (if I’ve learnt anything…).
When I retire, think carefully about how my ministry can be continued. There are more clergy with PTO – the majority retired – than stipendiaries at present. Is House for Duty the only option for the deployment of the retired? Are there other models of focussed ministry in the years from 65 – 80? Invest in your officers for retired clergy – the numbers are worth it.
All this might actually more effective and cost-effective as a way of address at least some of the current challenge.
Overall, these reports set out the challenge clearly and helpfully. The need for stipendiary clergy is not, I think, descending into clericalism. The task group on this, headed up by Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford, talks of ‘ordained vocations’ and not simply ‘vocations’, as if lay people had no vocation, which is a welcome change. And we will soon have a fascinating report on lay leadership, whose preparation I have been involved in, which will offer some quite different and challenging insights.
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