FOR a potential ordinand, the question “Have I truly been called by God to the priesthood?” may also be accompanied by another, more prosaic one: “What is it really like, being a vicar?”
Today, there are more young people being accepted for training by the Church of England than at any time for 25 years. In 2014, 116 men and women under the age of 30 — a quarter of the total — went forward.
Yet many of the younger generation who sense a strong call may have little idea what, in practical terms, is involved.
They might be new to faith, have no family church background, have only ever been a member of one congregation, and know personally just a handful of clergy. Inevitably, they will have many questions to ask when considering full-time ministry.
To find out more, young men and women can opt to get a “taste of ministry” in one of several ways. It might be by attending a day conference where they can hear directly from working clergy what parish life is like.
“Step Forward” days, for example, are designed to enable young people to learn more and ask questions with “no strings attached”, and are self-styled as “an opportunity to find out what being ordained is really like — its highs and lows”.
The days are designed for anyone considering ordination, aged from 18 to 30. They are a chance to meet both experienced clergy and those who have recently trained and been ordained.
The five main sessions are Calling, Discerning, Forming, Serving, and Worshipping, and cover the process of ordination from the first inkling of a vocation through to working as a priest.
The next Step Forward day will be in March 2016, at Bishopthorpe, and the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, will be attending.
Another possibility is to attend a “Young Vocations Evening”, run by the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) in partnership with theological colleges and dioceses.
The evenings are free, and offer an opportunity to explore the “what, why, and how” of ordination in the Church of England. Aimed at the same under-30 age group, the events include the chance to ask practical questions.
ALTERNATIVELY, a residential weekend might be the preferred option, when, besides hearing from those working at the coal face, enquirers have a chance to talk things over with other young men and women on the same vocation journey.
The CPAS has been organising “You and Ministry” weekends for 50 years. About 20 or 30 men and women attend each one; and James Lawrence of CPAS says that one of the most popular sessions is when “a jobbing vicar takes the lid off ministry”.
Since their inception, “You and Ministry” weekends have been attended by more than 10,000 young people. CPAS staff take the lead in looking at vocation, selection, training, and ministry, and those attending often come with their partner or spouse. The weekends are residential, and an all-inclusive charge is made.
Many of those who contemplate ordination, Mr Lawrence says, will come with ideas based on the TV series Rev, or see their own parish clergy as role-models. Their vision needs to be widened.
Currently, the events are attended in roughly equal numbers by men and women, and, although the CPAS has no formal follow-up, many go on to ordination.
“But the weekend is just as much a success for a young person if it helps them decide that the priesthood is not their calling, and that they are better suited to another form of ministry,” Mr Lawrence says.
Dan Hughes, aged 29, is now serving as a deacon in the Birmingham diocese. Four years ago, when he was working as an RE teacher, he went on a You and Ministry weekend in Yorkshire, to help him get his calling into focus.
He recalls the time as being “really helpful”. It provided practical information — even though it did, perhaps, dampen down some expectations, perhaps to forestall disappointment in those who thought that, when they had got so far in the process, being accepted for ordination would be automatic.
Of special value, he recalls, were the one-to-one sessions that ran over the weekend. He was guided in how best to phrase the questions that he needed to ask himself, to help him understand his own calling within the context of his life, work, and recent marriage.
The weekend helped him grow in “trusting God to know what he was doing”, and thereby trust the process of selection and training.
FOR those who prefer doing rather than talking, there are internships. Some large and thriving parishes have established programmes. St George’s, in Leeds, currently has eight young people taking part in its scheme.
Nationally, the Church now runs a ministry-experience scheme to extend the intern option. The Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme (CEMES) is a one-year programme of theological teaching, practical experience, and personal development, for young people aged 18 to 30.
Initially, it was piloted by four dioceses, and is now expanding as a co-operative venture between a number of individual dioceses and the Church’s Ministry Division.
After many years when potential ordinands were expected to have had some experience of life before taking on full-time ministry, there is now a national drive to encourage younger people to consider ordination.
One of the pioneering dioceses has been Peterborough. “A ministry-experience scheme is not rocket science,” the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, the Revd Steve Benoy, says. “Similar schemes have existed in many organisations and churches. The CEMES genuinely offers a broad space for young people to explore their sense of calling in ministry.”
Because each diocese shapes the scheme to its needs, CEMES nationally offers a wide choice of placements. In Stepney, the experience is of inner-city ministry; in Sodor & Man, the working environment is very different, and includes rural and seaside parishes.
What every diocese offers in common is a blend of parish life, study, and community living. Interns usually live together in a shared house, travelling out to their various parishes during the day.
Interns applying through CEMES are not restricted to applying to their own area, but funding arrangements will differ from diocese to diocese.
Sam Rylands, who is 25, heard about CEMES from his chaplain at university. He has recently completed a year as an intern at Stepney, and is staying on as a youth worker, hoping eventually to go to theological college.
He studied politics at university, and is interested in issues of social justice. Living and working in Finsbury Park was a steep learning-curve, he says. His work included preaching, teaching, youth work, and prison visiting.
“Being immersed in parish life is very humbling. I had great political ideas, but now see that it is through the Church that God chooses to call me to work. You can have all the best laws, but what really matters is a transformation in people’s hearts.”
Six weeks into her year at St John’s, Brownswood Park, Natasha Quinn-Thomas, who is 19, is running a Kids’ Café and a weekly soup kitchen, besides getting involved in the full range of parish life, including taking communion to housebound parishioners. “I take the host from the church in a pyx, and am very aware of the responsibility.
“Father Daniel first took me and introduced me to the parishioners I visit, and showed me what to do. I am not supposed to talk to anyone on my way, but inevitably people see me and start chatting.”
From Rhyl, in North Wales, she opted for an urban Anglo-Catholic parish as a contrast to what she knew at home, in order to gain a wide breadth of experience.
She first heard about church internships through Facebook, and is viewing her time in London as her “gap year” before continuing to university, and, eventually, she hopes, ordination.
She is living with two other interns who work in different parishes in the Stepney Area, under the spiritual care of a chaplain. They also attend St Mellitus College, and the Centre for Theology and Community.
BEING a church intern gives hands-on experience of almost every aspect of parish life, from hospital visiting to fixing an overhead projector. It can be an exciting and exhausting year and perhaps more fulfilling than back-packing around the world.
Yet, even when it is centrally subsidised, the year can be a financial strain. One intern wrote anonymously in the Church Times in July 2013 that, at the end, “I felt spiritually battered, and financially stunted. . . A young, able graduate, employed by a loving, well-to-do church, was living below the poverty line.”
By contrast, Mr Rylands said that, in some ways, he was the envy of his friends who worked in the City: “I had free accommodation in a central-London location; no rent, and a small but adequate allowance.”
The question “Is God calling me to be ordained?” is traditionally answered in prayer. Nevertheless, it has always been recommended that those who are contemplating this step talk things over with someone wise and experienced.
Ted Harrison is a former television producer, and a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent