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Not enough boots on the ground

07 February 2014

The ranks of full-time, stipendiary clergy are ageing; the age profile of new recruits is older, and increasingly part-time. Soon, there will not be enough priests to go round, warns Linda Woodhead

ALTHOUGH the Roman Catholic Church has experienced a more dramatic collapse in the number of full-time stipendiary clergy, their numbers in the Church of England have also fallen. Until recently, however, the decline has been offset by a sharp rise in the number of clergy not paid by the Church, meaning that the problem has been masked - the overall number of licensed minsters has hardly declined at all.

Because this process has been gradual rather than planned, it has resulted in a proliferation of different categories of clergy and other types of minister. The Church's latest statistics on ministry begin with two pages of definitions of the various categories. Not all those who are ordained are licensed, but all those who are licensed (or have Permission To Officiate - whether lay or clerical) count as "ministers".

Leaving such complexities to one side, the overall result is that traditional full-time stipendiary clergy are now the exception rather than the rule. Today, there are more than 28,000 licensed minsters, of whom two-thirds receive no stipend. What the figures recently released by the Church's Statistics Department for the period 2002-2012 also suggest, however, is that this expedient can no longer cure the decline.

Between 2002 and 2012 the total number of full-time stipendiary clergy (see slideshow) fell to 7674. The fall was greatest among men, and was partially offset by a rise in the number of female full-time stipendiary clergy to 1767 - an increase of about 40 per cent over the decade.

The growing number of ordained women has not been enough, however, to halt the overall decline of full-time stipendiary clergy. The decline has been compensated for by a growth in the number of parochial clergy working without a stipend, which rose sharply between 2002 and 2007, but has started to decline since then (to 3148). The fall in the number of Readers is particularly sharp: more than 20 per cent, over the decade, to 6623.


THE age profile of ministers suggests that 2002-12 represents a hinge period in the Church's history. Massive change was deferred by a volunteer army of people who stepped in to offer their services free of charge. They shored up the existing structure.

But that army is ageing, and moving towards retirement, and there are much smaller ranks of people - paid and unpaid - coming up behind. This is hardly surprising, given the general decline in Anglican affiliation and attendance documented last week (Church Health Check, 31 January).

Figure 1 shows that, like lay Anglicans, the majority of full-time stipendiary clergy are now aged over 50. The largest age group of stipendiary clergy - 42 per cent of the total - are in their 50s, and the average age of full-time stipendiary clergy is rising. In contrast, there are fewer than 100 full-time stipendiary clergy under the age of 30, and only one in five of them is a woman.

Women are concentrated in non-stipendiary ministry. Almost a quarter of stipendiary clergy are now female, and more than half of NSMs are female. Women now account for 16 per cent of incumbents, compared with seven per cent in 2002. But ordained women's age-profile is rising at the same rate as men's, with women's average age of 52 the same as men's.

The number of women under the age of 35 being ordained is tiny, and it seems that younger women are either not coming forward for ordination, or are not being recommended for training. In 2012, 71 per cent of candidates under the age of 40 who were recommended for training were male.

The growth in the number of non-stipendiary clergy does nothing to alter the ageing profile of the clergy, because they tend to be even older than stipendiary clergy, who have an average age of 60. More than half of all NSMs and ordained local ministers (OLMs) are aged 60 or over, and of all non-stipendiary clergy, only three per cent are under 40, compared with 12 per cent of full-time stipendiary clergy. Similarly, 57 per cent of female Readers, and 61 per cent of male Readers are aged 60 or over; just two per cent of Readers are under the age of 40.


THE reality is that many of those who have been recruited and trained since the '80s are coming to ministry as a second or third career. They will exercise a correspondingly shorter spell of ministry. Although this brings the skills of mature people with a range of skills and experience into the Church's service, it does not help to recruit younger people.

Ministry in the Church has become increasingly a middle-aged or older person's calling, whereas the norm before was young men, often straight from university. "Now we have all grown old together,and simply recruited others of the same age or older," one incumbent, who was ordained in 1978, told me.

Figure 2 shows the breakdown of types of licensed ministers in the Church. Senior clergy make up about five per cent of all stipendiary clergy (this category includes bishops, archdeacons, deans, and other cathedral clergy; clergy working at Lambeth Palace are classified as extra-diocesan, and are not included in the statistics).

Of a total of 349 senior clergy in 2012, 39 were female, 24 more than in 2002. The average age of senior clergy is 52 - the same as other clergy. The average age of diocesan bishops is 62.

Chaplains account for five per cent of the ministerial pie. In 2012, there were 1018 chaplains, plus 315 non-stipendiary clergy, who work within dioceses but outside the parochial system, and 98 employed in theological and Bible colleges. This represents a decrease of seven per cent in the total number of chaplains over the decade. Army chaplains and hospital/health-care chaplains have experienced the larger decrease. A growing proportion of chaplains are female (241 in total).


THE number in religious orders is now small. It has fallen to 402 from 641 in 2002. The most marked decrease has been of professed lay women and female novices - there are currently seven female novices, and ten male novices. The number of Church Army evangelists has also fallen.

Although it offers only a snapshot, Figure 2 also helps us to see why the Church now faces a serious problem of staffing. It demonstrates clearly just how many ministers in the Church are now non-stipendiary: the two largest categories are Readers and active retired clergy. But of all types of ministers, it is these that are set to decline the fastest.

This is compounded by the fact that the loss of clergy significantly exceeds new recruitment. Retirements are high, and will continue to increase. The category labelled "Other losses" in the statistical tables is also very high. Indeed, in 2012, more clergy were "lost" (295, including 59 women) than retired (272). We do not know why so many clergy are leaving stipendiary ministry, or where they are going.

Ultimately, what the figures reveal is the end of a decade of respite for the Church of England - thanks to Anglicans' offering to minister without pay. This is a decade in which the Church could have been planning for the predictable changes that are now in train.

Put simply, the Church of England is soon going to have to operate with far fewer ministers, both stipendiary and non-stipendiary. Women's ordination has helped a little, but women continue to be disproportionately represented in unpaid, part-time, and low-status jobs in the Church. It is unlikely that this situation can be sustained - even if conscience allowed it.

To put it bluntly, there are no longer enough troupers left to keep the show on the road, and the show will have to change.


Linda Woodhead is the Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University.

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