Or so says this report in the Independent:
Unemployed clergy are twice as likely to look for work in the South-East as in the North of England. In London, it takes on average just four months to fill a vacancy, with three vicars applying for every post, according to research by The Church Times…In Guildford, Surrey, there are an average of four vicars going for each job. But in York it takes a year to fill a vacancy, with just two vicars typically coming forward for each post. In Manchester, there is often only one candidate.
Thus far, we have some straightforward facts about the different challenges in appointing clergy to posts. But this is set within some confident interpretation:
Regional prejudice among vicars is seeing fierce competition for jobs in the South of England, while churches in the North struggle to find anyone willing to lead their congregations, senior religious figures have warned.
And this is backed up by comments from various clergy themselves.
“When a London parish comes free, clergy are queuing up to fill the vacancy. Compare that to my former parish on a Hartlepool housing estate, which was recently vacant for more than two years, and you see a rather frightening reflection of the spiritual health of the Church of England.”
“Christians are meant to believe in a Gospel that calls them to serve in the risky places and to express a bias to the poor, and the clergy who rise to that challenge find it to be incredibly rewarding.”
So the fact is that southern posts are easier to fill, and the interpretation is that clergy prefer a soft option. Does that stand up to scrutiny? Perhaps, to some degree, but it is worth reflecting on two other issues that are not mentioned.
First, to follow a call to ordination means, for many, giving up secure and well-paid jobs to do something which, frankly, no longer commands much respect in society. So there is always a sense of sacrifice, even if you are in an ‘easier’ area to minister.
Second, I find it fascinating that there is little practical analysis included in either the Independent article or, I think, the Church Times article on which it is based.
Here’s the thing. When I was thinking about training and ordination, I was single and in my twenties, but even then was mindful of my responsibilities to ageing parents. They lived in Kent, and I reckoned I shouldn’t be more than about two hours’ away from them, just in case. After all,
Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5.8)
So I drew a line two hours from Kent, which reached as far as Nottingham—and that’s where I went. Since then, by an act of what I can only describe as unbridled stupidity, someone decided that people should be ordained at an older age. That means that most entering training, and looking for posts, are likely to have an even more serious commitment to looking after parents. They are also more likely to be married and have children, which means that they have numerous other responsibilities to consider. I would treat with suspicion any church leader who is willing to risk his or her children’s future for the sake of God’s call in the present. I know that inner cities can be rich places of learning, but they don’t always feel like that if they are a culture alien to your background and values.
All this means that clergy are likely to want to stay in the region from which they came—not out of selfishness, but out of responsibility. (A little known fact: more than 50% of the UK population die in the local authority area in which they were born. We are not nearly as mobile as we think.)
Here’s another thing. Given that clergy are less mobile, where they are deployed is going to depend a lot more on where they come from. And where do they come from? It’s not well known, because nobody really asks. In fact, the information is available, but no-one seems to think it is important to do something with this information, since no-one appears to be thinking nationally and strategically about clergy training and deployment. If you don’t believe me, just consider this further comment from the Independent.
The problem is exacerbated by the lack of religious training colleges in the north of England, with newly trained vicars more likely to stay in areas where they have studied. In an attempt to redress the balance, St Mellitus College, London, opened a new campus in Liverpool last year.
Let me just go over that again: there is so little training provision in the Northern Province that there has to be a college ‘plant’ from some people in London? So let’s just ignore the three residential colleges in the North (St John’s, Nottingham, Cranmer Hall, Durham and not forgetting Mirfield near Leeds [thanks Peter!]) and all the regional training courses—which are offering part-time training just as St Mellitus is doing—and do something resourced from the south. I guess this is marginally less crazy than paying for weekly train fares from Liverpool to London, past all these other institutions, which is what happened previously!
(I need to make clear that I don’t hold this against my friend Graham Tomlin, Principal of St Mellitus, or other St Mellitus staff, many of whom I know well; they are just responding creatively to the unplanned market created by the Hind report more than ten years ago. But let’s be clear: this is no strategy. Rather, it is the negation of strategy.)
Well, I did do something with the information we have. I looked at Usual Sunday Attendances across the different dioceses, (which is the main measure of church attendance) and then I compared this with the number of people recommended for ordination training. And this is what I found:
London Diocese generates twice as many ordination candidates per church attender as the second most productive diocese.
Read that carefully: not twice the average, but twice the second most productive diocese. In other words, a significantly disproportionate number of the ordination candidates actually come from London and the South East. This being the case, it is perhaps not surprising that, with ordination happening at an older age, many feel tied to this region as time goes on.
What is more surprising, though, is that no-one stopped to consider this before declaring that clergy are self-interested southern softies! And to my knowledge, other dioceses have not explored what they could learn from London in the vocations process. I am sure a large part of it is that people living in London are more likely to be thinking about future options, if they are in mobile jobs. But there must be other factors we could learn from as well.
But there is another thing we might want to consider here. Can we learn to be more charitable with one another? Would it be worth thinking a little more before criticising the clergy? Is this what our nation needs to hear—that those whom we might think of as called to serve are in fact serving their own interests? Could we be more sensitive to the intrusive media presence? It seems to me that, quite often, we actually need to get together in a room to chat about these things. Instead we grab a megaphone and shout across the road, forgetting that the whole street is listening.