For many years (how many?) the Church of England has had a standard pattern for ordination training, that starts with two or three years residential (or now, three years part-time course-based or two or three years contextual training), followed by a three- or four-year curacy. This is so standard that initial training is always considered to be in two parts, and has commonly been referred to as ‘IME 1 to 3’ and ‘IME 4 to 7’ giving a nominal seven-year period of initial training (for those under 32 when starting training) but often in practice 2 +3 years, a total of five. The crucial issue for this initial training is that the ordinand and then curate is, technically, on probation; although curates do have Common Tenure, this is time-limited under Regulation 29, and if the time period expires without finding another appointment, they are out of a job and out of their home. [Correction to previous comment.]
This pattern was standard when ordinands were almost uniformly in their 20s (and male) and unmarried. But why have we retained this pattern when the timing of training has changed and the situation of most ordinands is completely different? There are seven good reasons for scrapping the ‘curacy’ as the standard training route.
1. It originated in a different era
The pattern that we currently have originated in a era where just about every aspect of the practical organisation of ministry was different. When curates were young single men, then following a pattern of one—or quite often two—curacies, without any family ties to consider, was not unreasonable. It was not uncommon that the first curacy was expected to involve a specialist ministry, very often working with young people, a role that many entering ordination have already done in a lay capacity prior to entering ordination training. And in the days where most things ran on patronage (so, to be an incumbent, you needed to seek the patronage of the person who was the patron of the parish, a far cry from application and interview processes), it was probably no bad thing to run curacies in the same way. But neither mobility, ministry specialism, or patronage function in the same way today.
2. It demands a double uprooting.
When I completed my initial training, I embarked on PhD research. Others in same cohort were ordained and did their research whilst completing NSM curacies, but my diocesan bishop wouldn’t entertain that, so my ordination was delayed by three years. Then I met Maggie, and we married; she was already a partner in a GP practice, and it made no sense for her to move, knowing that we would likely have to move again in three or four years’ time. Therefore I looked for a curacy in the area she worked—which meant delaying ordination by yet another year as the see was vacant.
This kind of thing is a serious consideration for the majority who are entering training, not as single women or men, but married with families. I think one of the appeals of context-based training is that those entering training can avoid the first uprooting to begin initial training, knowing that they will have to uproot again at the end of the complete period of initial training—possibly already having moved more than once in relation to previous study and employment. (I have moved house 13 times in my adult life.) This particularly disadvantages married women, who consistently enter training later than married men because of their commitment to parenting.
3. The approach runs the serious risk of infantalising the newly ordained
The idea of being in a secure probationary period for five, six or seven years, with reduced autonomy and accountability, might well be appropriate for someone ordained in the early or mid twenties. But for someone in his or her thirties or forties, who might have run a business or a school, or held a senior position in an organisation, or raised a family? It can often be part of a pattern where those who are ordained simply don’t take seriously the maturity and responsibility of the laity, and undervalue the skills and expertise that they bring.
The head of a theological college once told me what a big job it was to head up this institution—and I find it hard to take them seriously, when someone I knew who had just entered training had, in a previous life, been given £150m and sent to South America to recruit a team and build a factory. How was running a college of 50 students a ‘big’ job compared with that? In some ways, leading a church is a ‘big’ job, in that you are at times dealing with questions of life and death, and the emotional demand in moving from one situation to another is considerable. You are giving yourself, not just your time or your skills. But at another level, we need to recognise the real responsibility that lay members of our congregations exercise, and the maturity that older ordinands bring to the task of ministry.
4. It creates insecurity
Clergy are increasingly concerned about their own security, in the face of division in the Church over key issues, if they are in dioceses where their bishop takes a different view, and where there is financial pressure to reduce numbers so that ministry is less secure than it was previously. (These are all the kinds of concerns that many people in ‘secular’ employment face from day to day.) But if you add to that the reality that, having given up secure employment and possibly moving house and home, you are dependent for two or three years on the favourable report from your tutor, and then dependent for another three or four years on the favourable report of your training incumbent, with whom you might have differences of view (assuming you are growing in your own understanding of ministry!) then you are being subject to a prolonged period of institutional and personal insecurity.
This is particular pertinent given the current situation of the Church. In order to reverse the decline in attendance, one of the major elements of the current narrative is that we are looking for ordained leaders who are willing to be pioneering, who will step out courageously and take risks, who will be entrepreneurial and innovative. That stands in some serious tension with the insecurity that the ‘curacy’ system creates.
5. There is an imbalance and concentration of power
Because curates’ Common Tenure is strictly time limited (under Regulation 29, and are in effect appointed by the incumbent, then if the incumbent leaves the curate has no long term security of tenure. (I am not aware, for example, that the PCC has a formal role in appointment—but I am open to correction here.) But even when this does not happen, the dependence of the curate on the commendation of the training incumbent before being signed off creates a serious imbalance of power which does not foster healthy relationships.
A highly competent friend of mine was completing research during his curacy. But the training incumbent appeared to feel threatened by his competence, and against the evidence refused to sign him off as having completed the necessary training after three years. This means he had to move—and in the end went to another diocese—in order to complete initial training, having already had ten years of ministry and church planting experience as a lay leader prior to ordination. Another highly competent friend had to move curacy after one year, since the relationship with the incumbent was difficult—despite being someone with years of lay ministry and leadership experience. The curacy system allows this kind of absurd situation to arise, largely because of the unhealthy concentration of power in the training incumbent.
6. It leads to breakdown of relationships
I am not sure that any one is monitoring the extent to which there is a breakdown of relationship between curates and their training incumbents, and I am fairly certain that no-one is monitoring how many curates drop out of ministry and never go on to be incumbents. But anecdotal evidence suggests that we should be. One young curate told me how many of her friends have dropped out, disillusioned with ministry that has not lived up to the possibilities that were talked about earlier in the training process. And in the past, people have told me that they think around 50% of curate/TI relationships have run into serious difficulties.
Starting a lifelong exercise of ministry in the context of poor relationships with colleagues which includes conflicts around the exercise of power is surely not the best foundation.
7. Change could address the clergy shortage
The main driver for increasing vocations to ordained ministry by 50% before 2025 is the anticipated decline in the number of stipendiary clergy. This could all be addressed in one fell swoop if half of the 1500 or so currently in curacy were instead in their own parishes.
Most other denominations that I know of do not have this kind of two-stage initial training. We might think that it is superior—but it has many disadvantages. Moving quickly into leadership of a parish might not work for some, and so I would not advocate that the present pattern is simply discontinued. But for many older and more experienced ordinands entering ministry, there must be a better way. An obvious way to do this would be to link the parish receiving someone newly ordained with a local parish where there is an experienced incumbent, and have a pattern of close supervision for the first year or two, with tapered patterns of meeting and accountability over an agreed period. And Continued Ministerial Education (CME) should continue as before, and be seen as something taken seriously throughout ministry and not just in curacy.
I am aware that, on the ground, this kind of pattern is actually happening—some are moving quickly into church plants, and others are having shortened curacies before becoming incumbents. But it is still seen as a breach of the normal pathway, and I am not sure that that is healthy, as it suggests that some individuals can buck the system, whilst others are still penned into it. Why not be honest, and offer two possible paths of ministry development? Some might say that making this kind of judgement amongst the newly ordained is invidious. But surely this is just the kind of judgement we should be making between, say, the 24-year-old graduate and the 43-year-old former head teacher at the point of their ordination!
Is there a good reason why we should not consider making this change?
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