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On hold — why?

14 November 2014

In the past, ordination of young adults in the Church of England was not encouraged. Six years on from its launch, Pat Ashworth considers the Call Waiting? initiative


FEW would dispute that the Church of England lost a generation of young clergy in the 1970s and '80s, when many who felt called to the ministry were metaphorically patted on the head and told to get a secular job first. As the age profile crept up, the prevalence of silver hair on the Petertide pictures continued to tell its own story.

Reversing the C of E's previous inclination towards a "career-change" profession - with more and more going into the ministry in their forties and fifties after careers elsewhere - is something that has been tackled with determination, not least by the initiative Call Waiting, launched in 2008. Its goal was to identify and encourage young people between the ages of 13 and 30 to consider ordained ministry.

The National Vocations Officer at the time, the Revd Jules Cave Bergquist, said: "Young people seeking ordination in the late '70s tended to be told: 'Go away and get some life experience, and then come back.' We are seeing some of them right now in their fifties. Some agree that it was right for them not to have gone forward earlier; but others say they have spent their whole adult life with an underlying sense of not doing what they were made for."

In 1996, some 20 per cent of the 453 people ordained in the C of E were aged under 30. By 2006, the figure was 15 per cent of the 594 ordinations. In 2013, 113 people under the age of 30 - 22.6 per cent of the total - were recommended for training, up from 74 in 2009.

Theological colleges could see the beginnings of a changing demographic: of the 40 ordinands starting at Cranmer Hall in 2012, for example, eight were under 25, 16 under 30, and more than half under 35, an average (mean) age of 36.

"There is a step-change upwards," the C of E's national adviser for young vocations, the Revd Liz Boughton, says. But she goes on: "We are not counting our chickens. There is a definite increase, but there is still a long way to go. If you look at a bar chart of the current ages of clergy, you are always going to get towards the top of the age range. We need a lot to come in young to get some kind of balance."

The website Call Waiting has a distinctly careers-orientated look and feel. It highlights a range of job opportunities, and has FAQs such as: "Do my grades matter?" The website tries to address the contrast of ordination, where a lifelong vow is made, to a secular world, where young people might expect to have six or seven careers in a lifetime. "We're trying to show that, just because you're going to be a priest, you're not going to be in the same job for 50 years; there would be opportunities to have several different ministries."

Of the early age of 13, Mrs Boughton says: "If you ask those who are ordained 'When did you first have a sense that God was calling you to ordained ministry?' more than half will say that it was as a teenager or younger, even though they may not be coming forward till 30, 40, or 50. If God is speaking to people at 13, or 17, or nine, we need to give them a language and comprehension of what that call might look like, and not leave them floundering around."

TWO candidates last year were recommended while they were still under 19. And while it is the case that the priesthood is intellectually demanding, and a majority of people will do a degree first, it is not regarded as a necessity, because theological training will incorporate it.

"You need to be an apologist for the Christian faith in the parish in which you are set; so you have to be able to speak credibly," Mrs Boughton confirms. "But, generally, if you're going to go somewhere deeply academic, that is going to require something different from . . . a less intellectually challenging parish that would require other skills."

Countering the argument that, at 20, aspiring priests have little life experience, she says: "I'd say: look at congregations, and see what taking out young clergy has done for them. . . Where are the people in their twenties and thirties? Outside London and the big urban centres, the Church is not generally engaging well with young people at all. We need clergy who can speak their language, and who can challenge the culture where it's wrong; help people make connections; see God in their particular circumstances.

"We need young people to be part of that mix. No, they won't have deep experience of what it's like to be married, or to have been bereaved, or to have worked nine to five in an office, but no one can have every experience, and there's nothing like ministry for getting it quickly."

Young ordinands in training speak on the website of feeling called from a very early age; Alex Wood says it was "ludicrously soon" after becoming a Christian in his teens; and, in the case of Luke Briggs, who had worries about leading people who were "older and wiser", it was 13. He says that a eureka moment came with the realisation that "we don't have to be the finished article. It's about gift and calling."

Charis Enga found herself walking forward at the Soul Survivor festival at the age of 15, when a speaker asked if anyone felt called to leadership in the Church. She chose a theology degree "not with any intention of becoming a vicar", and through it discovered a love of study. She took a successful job in publishing, but found that "God kept prodding me."

Soul Survivor runs a course, Called to Lead, in which young people can do an internship with the organisation; CPAS runs young-vocation days; and the Church of England's Ministry Experience scheme offers a year's placement in churches around the country, as a means of testing a calling.

Many other schemes, too, are on offer. Theological colleges hold vocations days and conferences, such as one hosted last month by Trinity College, Bristol, in partnership with the diocese of Bath & Wells (65 per cent of Trinity's intake this year is under 30).

CRUCIALLY, most dioceses now have a young-vocations champion - generally young clergy, youth leaders, or school chaplains, who work with diocesan directors of ordinands (DDOs) to support and encourage vocations. The first young-vocations day in Bath & Wells attracted 14 young people, predominantly women, who were thinking about ordination - something that had been really good to see, the Revd Jeremy Putnam, one of two young-vocations advisers in the diocese, said.

"I enjoy asking them what is their vision for the future; what do they see the Church looking like," he said. "And the kind of answers I get are exciting, and not governed by fear, or what has gone before, but, actually, a very creative view of what God might be doing in the Church and in the world. The C of E has too long been without that voice and language; so it's great to be able to include it."

He had been struck, he said, by the faithfulness shown by one young man, who struggled to weigh up the hopes and dreams his parents had had for him, and his own sense of calling: the two had not been congruent. "It is a privilege to go on the journey with these young people, and to see them hold God's intention for them at the heart of their faith and their life."

Vocations work in the diocese of Newcastle is shared between the young-vocations champion, the Revd Dr Benjamin Carter, and the DDO, Canon Ian Flintoft. The diocese is building on a strong base for young vocations, and, at any one time, has about 12 in the discernment process.

In Newcastle, they take a three-pronged approach to exploring vocation, which starts with the network God Calling? for young adults (aged 18-30) - a Facebook group of about 50 that has grown organically, Dr Carter says, and which offers "space and time to be together, and to discern what they are being called to do".

For some, that will lead to ordained ministry, he says; but its launch was also a recognition that "while making ordained ministry was a priority, making young people in the church full stop was a priority". The diocese has been successful in getting outside funding for retreats, film nights - even a visit to the link diocese of Botswana for network members. All of these are "activities that build confidence in the Church and in themselves," Dr Carter says.

Newcastle was one of the four pilot dioceses for the Church of Eng- land Ministry Experience Scheme (CEMES), and the three who took up the scheme in Newcastle last year, living together in an old vicarage and working in three parishes for a year, were all recommended for training.

Another recommendation came from a further group of about 12 people between the ages of 16 and 30 who are thinking, to some degree, in terms of ordination, and who meet twice a month with Canon Flintoft. The group has a changing membership: some are making first moves, others are at the selection board stage, and some are already recommended. Four from this group were also recommended last year - a big shift from earlier years.

Both Dr Carter and Canon Flintoft emphasise that the process in all three groups is not objective-led, nor is it about success or failure. It is "Christ clearing spaces for the Church to move into. By creating spaces, you allow what will flower in that space to flower. You don't have to push too hard at vocations. It is a Spirit-filled activity."

Young people frequently seek reassurance that they are not too young to be looking at a call to ordination, the diocesan youth officer in Blackburn, Kat Witham, says. Here, a Young Vocations team meets regularly with those who want to explore a sense of vocation. Subsequently, several have attended national and regional events, such as Step Forward, and the Young Vocations Conference, which they have found informative and encouraging, she says.

The diocese is about to launch a series of videos, Called?, which features member of the clergy and laity in a variety of professions. And a young-vocations schools event, "Follow Me", which took place recently, attracted about 60 young people from five schools.

Pupils heard something of the story of the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, among others, and had the opportunity to ask questions of people working in professions including teaching, medicine, overseas mission, youth work, and ordained ministry.

Of Call Waiting?'s future, Mrs Boughton says: "For the past two years we have had 113 people under 30 selected at a Bishops' Advisory Panel, and the Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme is now running in nine areas with 28 participants. We hope to see every diocese with a CEMES scheme, and 150 young people exploring a vocation to ordination each year.

"We also hope to see every diocese with a strategy to encourage and support young people who believe that God may be calling them to ordained ministry, through nurture groups, opportunities to learn more at conferences and events, and helping those already working with young people - such as youth leaders, university and school chaplains - to help them to discover what God is calling them to do and be."


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