Late arrivals in the clerical vineyard

by
11 November 2016

Are people ever too old to have missed the boat on training for ordination? Huw Spanner finds the answer

Serving: the Revd Trevor Day (right), who was ordained aged 58, at St Mary’s, Lydiard Tregoze, Swindon, with the Area Chaplain Dr Andrew Schuman, being affirmed as District Chaplain for Avon District Sea Cadets

Serving: the Revd Trevor Day (right), who was ordained aged 58, at St Mary’s, Lydiard Tregoze, Swindon, with the Area Chaplain Dr Andrew Schuman, bein...

THE current drive by the Church of England to increase clergy numbers is placing particular emphasis on recruiting younger ordinands, “to make sure that the face of the ministry reflects the face of the wider community”.

Given the heavy weighting of funding towards youth — next year, the block grants given to each diocese will allow £41,900 per candidate aged under 30, but only £12,300 per candidate aged over 55 — this has prompted concern that, although dioceses will be allowed to allocate their grant as they see fit, the inevitable effect will be that older candidates will increasingly be channelled into part-time training and self-supporting ministry.

How might this affect people who hear God calling them to ordination in later life? At present, dioceses follow different guidelines and rules of thumb. London, for example, observes an upper age-limit of 55 for the start of stipendiary ministry, and 60 for self-supporting ministry (SSM). Not surprisingly, given its size, the diocese has some of the oldest ordinands, as well as some of the youngest. But it “treats each enquiry individually”, its director of ordinands, the Vicar General for the London College of Bishops, Prebendary Nick Mercer, says. He points out how often the word “usually” appears in its rationale for selection.

Exeter has “a generous policy on age”, its DDO, Prebendary Becky Totterdell, says. In a largely rural diocese, older ordinands are “hugely important”, she says, not least because they reflect the local demographics. For stipendiary ministry, she will consider candidates as old as 58, who can fit in a four-year curacy and a five-year incumbency before they turn 70. Self-supporting clergy need to be able to complete a four-year curacy by the age of 70.

Bristol “will generally consider anyone, regardless of age”, its DDO, Canon Derek Chedzey, says, although it would normally ordain people over 70 “only where there is a clear sense of call both in the individual, and from their parish”, and it would always direct them to ordained local ministry.

Chester has an effectual age-limit of “about 70”, its DDO, the Revd Magdalen Smith, says; and, “on the whole”, it tends to put older ordinands forward for part-time, non-residential training for SSM. The diocese takes “quite a person-centred approach”, however. Last year, for example, Mrs Smith sent a retired head-teacher to a residential college. She suggests that “the Church is making a mistake in focusing on younger ordinands if it ignores the large number of candidates in their fifties and sixties who have so much time and energy to give.”

 

ARGUABLY, people ordained late in life add value to their ministry because they bring to it experience of raising a family, or working in business or education. The Area Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, until recently Dean of St Mellitus (and author of The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God’s way of blessing the world, SPCK, 2014), points out that they also have the advantage of having been a layperson most of their lives, which can give them “a real insight into what is needed in priestly ministry that sometimes people who go into it younger don’t have”.

Mrs Smith, whose book Steel Angels: The personal qualities of a priest (SPCK, 2014) explored the Church’s criteria for discerning vocations, sees experience of a secular career as “a really positive thing”, as long as an ordinand uses it sensitively and responsibly. “Theological training will help them to reflect on their prior experience, and make links between their former life and their new life as a priest,” she says. “Someone who is able to connect the life of faith with the life of the world can offer something potentially really powerful to their congregation.”

A good example is the Revd Anne Futcher, who was ordained priest this year at the age of 59, and still feels “overwhelmed” that Exeter offered her weekly residential training for two years at Rippon College Cuddesdon, and a stipendiary post at the end of it. “My sense of vocation came very slowly,” she recalls. “Looking back, I recognise that God was calling me to the ministry a long time ago, but I wasn’t really listening — for one thing, I was very wedded to my career in children’s services. Eventually, the call became so insistent I felt I had to explore it.”

On balance, she says, she does not regret that she heeded God’s call so late. “I would have been a different priest if I had been ordained younger, and I bring a different skill set now. The experiences I’ve had — certainly in terms of parenting, and exercising leadership and management in secular work — I don’t think will ever be wasted.”

She says that, in Exeter diocese, she felt supported throughout the discernment and training process. “I went to the Bishops' advisory panel in 2013. There was a wide age-range of candidates, and I certainly didn’t sense any discrimination. I found it appropriately challenging; I was certainly put through my paces. And I remember thinking, when I left, that, even if I didn’t get through, it had been a very positive and valuable experience. Overall, I have a sense of massive privilege, actually, and I feel really affirmed in what I’m doing.”

 

THE Revd Trevor Day came to the ministry in his sixties because he “just wasn’t ready earlier. I hadn’t really got the experience of life.” He says that he had “always” gone to church — he was a chorister at the age of six — but it was only 12 years ago, when he found that he had nothing to read on holiday except a Bible, that the story of Jesus “really came alive” for him.

Within a few months, he had preached his first sermon; two years later, he was licensed in Bristol Cathedral as a lay minister; and, in 2009, at the age of 58, he was offered three years’ training to become an SSM. He is now serving as an associate minister in an ecumenical parish in Swindon, and is a Minor Canon of Bristol Cathedral.

He recalls his experience in project management over 37 years with BT: “My approach was that we were like beads on a necklace — I would take responsibility, but we would all be contributing our gifts — and that is a church model, a Jesus model. So, looking back, I wonder if perhaps the whole of my life has been preparing me for this time.

“I can continue until I’m 70; and thereafter, if I’ve still got my marbles, the Bishop has the power to licence me to continue. I’ll be up for that; I’ll go on till I die, that’s my wish.”

 

THE Revd Sarah Lenton had “entertained the idea of becoming a deaconess” in her thirties, but had not pursued it because a freelance career in theatre and broadcasting had made it impracticable. Three years ago, she says, “several things made me think I should revisit ordination, and I’ve never known the Church of England move so quickly.”

She already had a degree in theology from her youth; so she was “put through a morning a week at St Mellitus, and, within a year, was walking up the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral.” Now, in her sixties, she is a non-stipendiary curate in west London, but her vocation, she says, is still as much to the theatre as to the Church.

Are you ever too old to get ordained? “Not at all”, she says. “If you think of the holy women of scripture, there’s nothing but great role-models: Sarah, and Elizabeth, and so on. In fact, Anna the prophetess, along with Simeon, is the patron saint of the late ordained.”

There is an important caveat to this, however. “Part of the journey into priesthood is a kind of letting-go of all of your past brilliance, and just offering who you are and beginning again,” Mrs Smith says. Mrs Futcher agrees: “It was crucial for me to recognise that some of the things I had learnt on my secular journey were going to be relevant, and other things weren’t. In secular work, I had a senior leadership position and I had status, and coming into ministry you have to make a conscious decision to leave those things behind.”

SHE believes that the mere fact that the Church of England has trained her, and welcomed her ministry, at her age, makes an important statement to a world fixated on youth. “It says something really positive about older people being perceived as a gift rather than as a burden on society. The Church is saying that it’s never too late to learn, to try out new paths — even to take some risks.”

“If someone has something to give, and a real vocation, we should be encouraging them, young or old. It’s as simple as that,” Mrs Smith says. Her oldest recruit this year is the Revd Dr Bernard Moss, a self-supporting Assistant Curate in the parish of Odd Rode, who was ordained priest in Chester Cathedral at the age of 72. A former professor of social work at Staffordshire University, he was ordained in the Congregational Church in 1969, and was deemed to require no further training, and just a year as an assistant curate.

“I think it’s brilliant that this diocese recognises that people with gifts in the autumn of their days can enrich the Church, and can have a valuable role in supporting and encouraging the Church. I think it’s really good that they haven’t bought into this idea that, once you’re over a certain age, your shelf life is finished.

“The opposite has been my experience, and I feel very affirmed. I am just happy to offer whatever I can, with whatever energy I have, as long as I feel able to do it.”

The Church needs to value and honour everyone whom God is calling into ministry, the Principal of Rippon College, Cuddesdon, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, says. “And the Holy Spirit calls people of all conditions and ages.”

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