WHEN the Revd Philip North's former parish on a large Hartlepool
estate fell vacant recently, it was two-and-a-half years before the
diocese could find anyone to fill the post.
"Compare that with a recent vacancy in a richly endowed parish
near Paddington, which attracted 123 firm applicants, and you will
see the true measure of the spiritual health of the Church of
England," he told the General Synod in November.
His speech, during a debate on evangelism, concluded that the
Church of England was "failing the poor". The loud and sustained
applause that followed suggested that the accusation had struck a
nerve. But how accurate was it?
The numbers tell part of the story. Between May and November
last year, there were 75 clergy on the "Lee List" (a confidential
document that contains the CVs of clergy looking for work). Of
these, there were 29 seeking work in the north and 54 looking in
the south-east (the dioceses of London, Southwark, Canterbury,
Rochester, Guildford, Chichester, Chelmsford, St Albans, and
In the last two months of 2012, the Church Times
collected data from 28 dioceses (ten of the 14 in the York
Province, and 18 of 29 in the Canterbury Province). Each was asked
about the length of time it took to fill vacancies, and the average
size of a shortlist. The data lends some weight to Fr North's
comments. In London, it takes, on average, 4.6 months to appoint to
a vacancy. The average shortlist contains three applicants. In
Guildford, it is five to six months, and a shortlist of four. In
contrast, in York, the average is a year, with an average shortlist
of two. In Wakefield, "shortlists are very rare". In Manchester,
there is often only one candidate, occasionally two.
There is often, nevertheless, a large variation within dioceses,
including those in the south, and there are many reasons why a post
might take time to fill. To shed further light on the figures,
interviews were conducted with archdeacons and bishops.
Those in the north did not hold back.
"Why is it that so many of our parishes people can so very
easily ignore, but when it comes to the attractive, middle-class,
White Highlands, there is a queue a mile long of people who want to
go there?" the Archdeacon of Pontefract, the Ven. Peter Townley,
said. "We have too many people who are in the business to be served
rather than to serve, and it is to service that Christ calls us
The Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, said that
vacancies there lasted "at least two years, because nobody
applies", and that shortlists were "very rare". He estimated that
no more than 25 per cent of people on the Lee List were willing to
consider coming to the dioceses of Durham and Newcastle.
Mission field: The Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant
Credit: KEITH BLUNDY
Mission field: The Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant
"If you look at what was going on at the beginning of the 20th
century, or the end of the 19th century, people went overseas and
they knew they might well not come back alive," he said. "I am
wondering whether we have lost some of that sense of adventure and
commitment. The reality is that, in the diocese of Durham, we have
some of the lowest churchgoing in the whole country, and some of
the areas of highest social deprivation, and I want to know, I
think, why that does not excite people to come and work in what is
a truly missionary situation. . . We are talking about communities
where 40 to 50 per cent of children are living in poverty, where it
is almost impossible to recruit."
At the end of last year, Bishop Bryant delivered the same
message to ordinands at St Mellitus College in London. The Dean,
the Revd Dr Graham Tomlin, reported that the Archbishop of
Canterbury, formerly Bishop of Durham, had also visited with a
Dr Tomlin said that Fr North's message to Synod was "quite true.
. . It's hard to think that God is calling people to the south-east
but not the rest of the country. So there is something which is not
quite working right there. In responding to a call to ordination,
we are, to a certain degree, giving up a certain amount of our own
independence, and that will often involve taking some quite risky
decisions and being open to be led to places which you did not
really anticipate being led to the in the first place."
The college has responded to the problem by setting up St
Mellitus North West, the St Aidan's Centre, at Liverpool Cathedral,
a partnership with the north-west dioceses of Blackburn, Carlisle,
Chester, Liverpool, and Manchester.
Its director, the Revd Dr Jillian Duff, said that there had been
no full-time college in the region for 44 years. She reported that,
last year, two ordinands had moved from southern dioceses to serve
curacies in Liverpool diocese precisely because of the partnership:
"They've met people from the north-west who have enthused them
about the mission need and potential in our region."
The Warden of Cranmer Hall, Durham, the Revd Mark Tanner, said
that about 90 per cent of ordinands from the north who trained at
Cranmer Hall served their curacy in the north. Those that went to
the south to train were much less likely to do so. He estimated
that, every year, two or three ordinands from the south chose to
serve their curacy in the north. Filling incumbencies in the region
could take an "awfully long time". It took two years to find a
replacement after he left his parish in Doncaster.
"I talk to students about the fact that we are called as people
to carry a cross; so if we are told to go, we go rather than
choosing how we are going to line our nests," he says.
The Archdeacon of Richmond, the Ven. Nicholas Henshall, was
among several interviewees who suggested that the introduction of
new recruitment processes in the interests of transparency and
openness had created challenges. "It makes it difficult for
discernment and call to be quite as visible. . . There are certain
parishes where I know the perfect person, but I am not allowed to
approach them." He also feared that clergy did not want to "blot
their copybook" by taking on difficult appointments that might not
produce obvious, numerical success.
He suggested, from experience, that a young family was not
incompatible with a tough post. From 1992 until 2002, he was the
Vicar of Scotswood, an area of multiple deprivation in the west end
of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. "I was not the vicar of a church, but the
vicar of a community, and that was extraordinary. . . We were
building something quite remarkable." He said that his children had
flourished during this time.
The Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann, said that the
average time that it took to appoint was about a year, although it
could be up to two or three years. "My sense is that it's got
something to do with the north and people's perceptions of the
north," she said. "There are lots of media stories about crime and
poverty, and they don't see the north for what it is, in my view,
which is a really vibrant and exciting and richly diverse place to
live. . . If people were to come up here on placement, or to do a
curacy, just to get a taste of it, their eyes would be opened."
Senior clergy in the south-east admitted that recruitment was
"We are very blessed where we sit geographically, in terms of
spouses' employment," the Archdeacon of Surrey, the Ven. Stuart
Beake, said. He was among several clerics who highlighted the
challenge for married clergy of moving to a location where their
spouse could also work. The Church of England was, he said, "too
heavily reliant on spouses' income. . . If you have a clergyperson
with a family, and the spouse is not working, more often than not
they are in quite significant financial difficulty."
He also spoke of two policies that, he believed, had had a
detrimental effect. The first was the Sheffield formula, which was
used to determine how the total number of stipendiary priests was
apportioned across the dioceses, taking into account congregation
size, population, area, and number of church buildings. The second
was the move from freehold and non-freehold to common tenure, which
meant that the majority of office-holders might remain in a
particular post until they resigned or retired.
The Archdeacon of Maidstone, the Ven. Stephen Taylor, reported
that, between April and the end of last year, every post had
attracted applicants and had been filled. He questioned, however,
whether all clerics were looking for a "comfortable" existence.
"There was one post in one of the more deprived parishes in our
diocese, and the successful appointment there could have easily
been appointable to somewhere far less deprived and far more
attractive in secular terms; but he felt called to serve in that
The Archdeacon of Exeter, the Ven. Christopher Futcher, agreed:
"I still find in many Anglican clergy a huge sense of sacrifical
self- offering," he said. "If a man or woman comes with a spouse
and family, they will have a vocation to priesthood - but also a
vocation to be husband or wife or mother or father. And to ask them
to put one at risk for sake of the other is not right."
The Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, expected
six to eight applicants for each post, although some have attracted
more than 20. He said that a "cultural change" had taken place in
other sectors, too: "People will just not follow a job because they
are told to go. If they are offered more money or promotion, they
won't necessarily go, as they hold very high things like family,
children, and parents - which are all quite good things to be
holding as important." There had also been a cultural shift in
which "everything is being sucked into the south-east," he
The Revd John Lee, the national Clergy Appointments Adviser,
whose list helped inform this story, said that "the drift to the
south-east is very clear." But his reseach suggested that the trend
reflected changes in the circumstances of those being ordained.
The average age at ordination is now 45. "The way in which
people have come to a decision about being ordained is very
different from 30 or 40 years ago. A person will consider their
family, particularly elderly relatives, the education of children,
the job of their spouse, and will put those as priorities."
With regard to shortlists, or the lack thereof, he said that
every parish should interview, even if only one candidate were
listed; and he drew parallels with the selection of David in the
Bible: "There is no real indication that a competitive interview
necessarily provides the candidate that is best for the
He defended the clergy against the charge of seeking comfort:
"Clergy are quite extraordinary: the vast majority are very
prepared to serve in adverse circumstances, and search for what God
calls them to do rather than just set criteria for domestic
satisfaction. Some want a rather comfortable life, but I do not see
Curates relish challenge of mission up
ALTHOUGH the numbers we uncovered reveal a general drift
south, some of the clergy are bucking the trend. The Revd Tom
Brazier is now Assistant Curate of Washington, Durham, but was sent
to Cranmer Hall from London. He was moved by the words of the
Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, during a visit to the
college: "Come and serve in my mission field."
"No other bishops said that," he recalled. Although sent
by the diocese of London, he felt called to serve in Durham, and he
praises the level of contact with people in the parish. "We do a
huge number of occasional offices. In London, there was really no
call from people who weren't already regular worshippers to be
married or have funerals at church. In Washington, it's very
common, and important to people still."
The Revd Andy Miller, Assistant Curate of Barnard Castle
with Whorlton, Durham, is another young priest with young children.
He came from Kent to train at Cranmer Hall, and within a year felt
called to stay.
"I think that sometimes there is an idea that it is grim
up north, and there are places where people are in great need but
that is true across the whole country. There are places of great
beauty up here, and the whole spiritual background of northern
saints. People are friendly, and you can really do what God's
mission is in this place. Don't be scared of it."
The Revd Catherine Mitchell is Assistant Curate of St
Bartholomew's, Croxdale, St David's, Tudhoe, and St John's, Kirk
Bellingham. She went to Cranmer Hall from Coventry diocese, and
intended to return, but felt called to stay. She describes the area
as "just amazing. I think people don't realise what amazing
countryside and coastline the north-east has, and the people have
been so friendly, welcoming, warm, and generous.
"On a human level, you are looking at moving 200 miles
away from family and friends; so that was a big factor. . .
However, I think the call from God was very strong, and you can't
As corrective against a geographical oversimplification,
we spoke to the Revd Tim Hall, who became Vicar of West Sheppey, in
the Thames Estuary, in 2012, after "God reminded me I said I would
go anywhere." The Isle of Sheppey contains some of the most
deprived neighbourhoods in England, and this produces challenges,
he says: "There's a sense of powerlessness. Sometimes people are
not treated that well by people in authority. It's a lovely place
to live: strong communities who work very well together, and
churches that work well together. . . If you follow God's call, you
end up in the right place."