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Future of clergy: round table asks ‘difficult questions’

26 April 2012

by Madeleine Davies

‘Re-imagining’: bishops and other members of the round table, in Cambridge

‘Re-imagining’: bishops and other members of the round table, in Cambridge

THE Church needs clerics who are “gripped by the Good News”, serve as coaches rather than centre-forwards, and who show greater willingness to listen and learn from others in a rapidly changing society.

These were some of the central findings of a round table of bishops who had the task of “re-imagining” ministry last month. The round table, held at the end of last month in Cambridge, and spon­sored by both Ridley Hall and Westcott House, brought together 22 bishops and a group of theological educators.

Forty per cent of stipendiary clergy are set to retire in the next ten years, and in the face of “rapid change” in society, the colloquium asked “difficult questions” about the future of the clergy.

In a “post-secular” world, it was suggested, clergy need to “know what people are thinking” and be able to articulate the gospel in response. “This calls for clergy who are willing to participate in the world, and to listen and learn, more willingly, perhaps, than is sometimes the case.”

The round table described a “com­plex and potentially contra­dictory” attitude towards authority in society: more sceptical, but also in thrall to “heroic leadership”, which is “turned upon when it does not deliver”. This “places enormous pressures on the cleric”, leaving “little room for failure”.

It was suggested that clergy “need to discern and encourage the gifts and passions of the people rather than being threatened by them”. The round table advocated a shift from the idea of a cleric as “centre-forward” to “coach”.

Participants also expressed “major concern” about a “target-driven ap­proach” to ministry. They de­scribed clergy’s frequently receiving direct­ives from “the centre” that are perceived as “debilitating, burden­some and bureaucratic”, and that fail to reflect local contexts.

The group recognised that many clerics find their experience of church “unsatisfying”. The “preval­ence of isolation” was observed, as was a “crisis” in deployment, par­ticularly with the unwillingness of people to serve in the north. Or­dained min­istry needs to be “satis­fying in a way that is startling in con­trast to other secular occupa­tions”.

Discussing vocation, the group suggested that: “We have possibly lost something of the char­acter­fulness of the clergy in recent decades, seeking for a relatively limited kind of person.” This can “tend towards blandness in the company of priests taken as a whole”.

In attempting to define what kind of clergy the nation needs, many participants suggested that a priest must be “gripped by the Good News”, and sought to emphasise “inner qual­ities”, including “humble con­fidence”, “self-awareness”, and “won­der­ing curiosity”.

The Principal of Ridley Hall, Canon Andrew Norman, said on Tuesday: “There is a need to take an interest in society and the way it is changing, and to have a curiosity, an interest, and an alertness to the gifts and interests of members of congre­gations, wanting to see the gifts and potential of the whole people of God realised.”

Canon Norman said that this approach needed to be mirrored in the relationship between the central and local church. “If it is the case that they are mobilising the gifts of others and not being top-down but col­labor­ative and enabling and em­power­ing, then a similar thing needs to happen at a more national level.”

In his concluding sermon at the eucharist, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, who chairs the Wescott Council, said that clergy should “prepare to be surprised” and “be confident in the Church’s high calling”. These characteristics “sum up the tension between the certainty that we have in the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ, and the inevitable uncertainties of social and ecclesial futures.”

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