*** DEBUG END ***

Time to ask ‘Are you called?’

13 March 2015

Moves are in hand to make the Church more proactive about vocations. Pat Ashworth reports


THE Church of England is hoping for a sustained increase of at least 50 per cent in ordinations by 2020; the streamlining of the vocations process; and for a younger and more diverse cohort for ministry. The recent report Resourcing Ministerial Education says that the Church as a whole "needs to make a significant shift from a passive approach to vocations work to a proactive approach to seeking the number and quality of candidates the Church requires".

The bald fact is that the number of people entering stipendiary ministry is not sufficient to replace those who are retiring or leaving it. The latest statistics, published in 2013, show that one in five of the clergy is aged 60 or over. In 2012, this was the average age of self-supporting clergy, who now make up 28 per cent of diocesan clergy.

"Assuming [that] previous rates of death, retirement, and other reasons for leaving remain constant, and given the known age of current clergy and known ordination plans, the fall in the number of stipendiary clergy since 2002 is projected to continue at a similar rate, with the net change over the period 2012-2016 estimated to be a fall of four per cent, from 7880 (full-time equivalent) stipendiary clergy in 2012 to 7530 in 2016," the statistics conclude.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Statistics also show that 22 per cent of ordination candidates in 2012 were under 30, compared with 15 per cent in both 2002 and 2007. Last year, the figure was 25 per cent. The initiative Call Waiting is praised for its proactive and fruitful approach to growing vocations, as is the work of young-vocations champions in the dioceses (Features, 14 November 2014).

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, who chaired the task force for the report, told the General Synod last month (News, 20 February) that the need for more vocations was "well past urgent". The report - which calls for the initiative to be held wholly and deeply in prayer by the whole Church - proposes "significant investment in vocations work, entrusting greater powers to the dioceses in making decisions about forms of training, a new stream of funding for lay ministry candidates, and measures to improve quality on selection and at all stages of ministerial education."

The problem is laid bare when it comes to the recruitment of incumbents, particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the north of England. Dr Croft says: "In Sheffield, we are always thankful to have one good appointable candidate in response to an advert, and it can be a wait for a suitable candidate to respond.

"For a number of years, the decline, due to retirement, matched the necessity to reduce budgets. Now all the dioceses are indicating that they don't want to see a reduction of posts over the next few years, and the gap between the clergy [that] dioceses want to have, and those available, will become wider as time goes on unless we take further action."

Significant areas of work include giving young women the resources to respond to the call; and continuing to counter - as the initiative Young Vocations has done - "the word that was out there, but never officially said: that people ought to go away and do something else before offering themselves for or-dained ministry. We want to say loud and clear that what people can offer in their twenties is very different from what those in their thirties and forties can offer, and we need many more of them in the years to come."

There are two parts to any vocation, Dr Croft says: "The kind of inner response and prompting to what God is calling them to do; and the Church making known what kind of ministers it needs, and what qualities they need to have. For that, we need more and better communication than has been done in many dioceses."

Dr Croft acknowledges that the vision that is articulated, and the target of sustained increase in numbers, is a "massive" change to look for, but believes that the target is realistic. Even with the looked-for numbers, however, a significant reduction overall is still likely in ten years' time.

But it is hoped that the aspiration will, he says, "help the whole Church make this a serious and urgent subject for prayer and imaginative action, breaking the pattern of what we have done in the past". And the shift to a proactive searching for vocations is very much allied to the emphasis of the report Developing Discipleship.

What churches with a good record of developing emerging vocations have in common, he says, is "fostering a culture of discipleship and encouragement, enabling people to grow in their expression of ministry locally, and then gradually to offer themselves for a wider ministry, lay or ordained".

SO, WHAT do Diocesan Directors of Ordinands (DDOs) themselves think of the proposals? Canon Faith Claringbull is DDO in Birmingham, where there has been an encour-aging rise in the numbers coming forward for ordination, including an increase in the number of young people. "This is the youngest city in Europe; so I'd be worried if we didn't," she says, commending the work of both the champions for young vocations and minority-ethnic vocations in the diocese, and concluding: "We're feeling quite buoyant and upbeat, though we wouldn't want to be over-confident."

She works closely with the university chaplain, in another fruitful partnership. The challenge in Birmingham, she says, is to look at vocations in a much broader way, and a way forward could be a team who considered both lay and ordained ministry together. Those aspects particularly excite her in a report that she broadly welcomes for its vision of a growing Church with a flourishing ministry; but it contains some proposals that she would want to qualify.

Her concerns are largely around the simplification and streamlining of the process towards a Bishops' Advisory Panel (BAP). The report suggests that "in the case of those candidates who need it, vocation and exploration can be begun and concluded in a year," which leads her to reflect: "I certainly wouldn't want to skimp on the quality of the work we do here, and that I know colleagues do elsewhere.

"We always have people who are anxious to move forward as soon as possible; but, in my view, I need to do more work with [candidates] now than I did ten years ago, especially with the young people coming forward.

"I don't want to hold them back; but it's important they understand the breadth of the C of E, and that they have some good, deep roots of prayer. So I put people on placements, and make sure they have a spiritual director; we do some equipping during the discernment process which, I think, puts them in good stead.

"When I see people going forward for a BAP, and then into ministry, I'm discerning people for the long haul. We need to lay some careful foundations, because people going into a BAP in their twenties have 40, even 50, years ahead of them, and are going to oversee tremendous change. So we need to be looking at issues of character and prayer and relationship in a very careful way, as well as whether they have energy and vision."

She says she has felt "massively resourced" by Ministry Division in her work as DDO, and commends the team for a "careful and consistent way of operating" which ensures consistent standards of selection. "That's really important, if we are still going to be recruiting, as it were, for a nationally deployable ministry," she says. "It's a very good partnership."

Canon Ann Turner, the DDO for the Bradford Episcopal Area of West Yorkshire & the Dales, has also been in this field for a decade, and currently combines the position with that of parish deacon and Rural Dean. A national assessor on Bishops' Advisory Panels, she, too, welcomes the proposals. "It's wonderful to know that there is hope for the C of E if we can get the increased numbers," she says; but she emphasises that the part played by a DDO would need to be a dedicated one for the increased workload.

The report encourages the development of new regional or diocesan training courses for incumbents on the development of vocations, recognising that, at present, "a large proportion of vocations arise from a small proportion of parishes." Referrals come only occasionally from incumbents, Canon Turner says: most come via the diocesan website, at the instigation of a spiritual director, or after a vocations day.

"The candidates are out there; we just have to identify them," she says. "I think there needs to be engendered a new sense of responsibility in incumbents, who should be the first people to recognise a vocation among one of their congregation.

"I don't get the feeling that parish priests are actually praying on vocations, or preaching to it. . . I welcome it when parishes say, 'Come and talk to us,' but that's maybe one a year, even though I write to them all every year before ordinations, and offer to preach, or lead a course, or whatever." More resources on the ground would help incumbents to tackle vocations, she says. "Those who do, get results."

The report recommends that candidates who will be under 50 at ordination will continue to attend a BAP; those over the age of 50 will be selected locally by their bishop, and the cost of their training will fall directly to the diocese.

The demographic in Bradford is changing, and Canon Turner is pleased to see an increased number of good candidates coming forward in their twenties. Several candidates in recent years have been in their late sixties, even early seventies, and the diocese now has an age cap of 60 at the time of ordination. "It has stimulated young people to know they can do it at their age: that it is not an older people's vocation," Canon Turner says.

Of the streamlining of the process, she acknowledges that there will always be candidates who will fly, "who will come to me in September, and start training 12 months later". But others may need working with for two or three years before they go to a BAP, she emphasises, particularly those who have left school with few qualifications, and are unused to academic study. These she sends to do a couple of modules on a foundation degree course in theology, to get them into the habit of reading, reflecting, and writing. Others may go through the process quite quickly, and then need to stop it for a while if circumstances change. "Every candidate is an individual, and must be treated so," she says.

It is a complex picture, Dr Croft acknowledges. But he senses a will to make the proposals happen, and, most important of all, describes it as "a moving picture. We are going in the right direction already."​

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)