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 Oxford).
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 all."
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.
"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 similar exhortation.
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 easier there.
"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 parish."
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 suggested.
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 church."
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 many."
Curates relish challenge of mission up north
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 ignore that."
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."