Called, collared, and confident in co-working

12 February 2016

The Church needs a more flexible approach to vocation and training for ministry, says Andrew Watson

THE General Synod will gather in London next week, and the programme for Renewal and Reform will be high on the agenda (News, 5 February). Members will review several of the workstreams in the plans, principally those concerned with grants by the Church Commissioners to dioceses, and funding ministerial education to support a proposed increase in ordinand numbers.

These subjects seem unlikely to stiffen the sinews or stir the blood. Funding formulae and criteria for grants hardly promise high drama or pack the press gallery. And yet amid a mass of complex issues lurks a serious question about how we respond to growth and decline in the Church of England.

The statistics suggest that chronic concerns may soon become critical. Despite remarkable local stories of church growth, overall trends remain alarming. It is now eight times more likely for an 80-year-old to attend church than an eight-year-old. Ordinand numbers have remained constant for a decade at 65 per cent of the replacement rate.

These processes are incremental, but their compound effect erodes the Church’s capacity. Renewal and Reform has not come a moment too soon.

 

THE Synod contains a range of views on this. Effective synodical discussion should allow truth to prevail, wherever it is recognised. Binary “right-or-wrong” thinking will not help. Proponents of immediate action are right (as the matter is urgent), and so are those urging expectant waiting on God (as synods and committees are ultimately dependent on a power beyond ourselves).

To take an area with which I am involved, as chairman of the Ordained Vocations Working Group, we need a similar avoidance of the binary. On the one hand, there is a clear need to seek a 50-per-cent increase in the number of ordinands, if we are to provide clergy to serve across the communities of England; on the other hand, there is an equally clear imperative to release the contribution of lay leaders and ministers, and to develop the capacity of ordained ministers to be confident in working collaboratively.

So we need an integrated approach to how this increase can take place. Vocation arises in the mysterious process through which God guides, calls, and convinces, and yet there is a human element, too. Vocation comes through prayer to the Lord of the Harvest, but also through action: Christian people (clergy and lay) being attentive to the still, small voice of the Spirit, as we seek to inspire, encourage, and release the ministry of those around us.

Such attentiveness is alarmingly patchy at present, as vocations (of all kinds) pour out of some churches and dioceses, and trickle out of others. We need to learn from good practice rather than be threatened by it. And we have to learn how we might dismantle the all-too-human barriers that stand between godly individuals’ discerning their vocation, and being released into it.

 

THE new funding arrangements that the Synod will consider are designed to support this proactive approach to uncovering vocations. At present, the partnership between dioceses, training institutions, and the national bodies, such as the Ministry Division, is weak on encouraging growth and aspiration, and the funding processes lack transparency and accountability.

The new way of funding will give more control and flexibility to the dioceses to make intelligent decisions over the choice of training pathways for candidates, whereas now they are governed by regulations that are almost a century old.

If, for example, a candidate needs a longer form of training, or would benefit most from college training, or from learning on a context-based pathway, the diocese will be free to use its funds for these purposes. Apart from improving quality, this will open up forms of training to potentially new sources of candidates of the kind who are attracted to different ways of learning to minister.

In addition, the dioceses that fund the education will be brought into more direct relationship with the theological-education institutions, so as to forge a stronger partnership for developing ministerial education that meets current mission requirements. The aim here is to help the Church to grow, and to encourage flourishing ministry.

 

AMID all the questions, we need to include a healthy discipline of reflection in the unfolding of the Renewal and Reform programme, in order to build on its successes and learn from its setbacks. We should also capitalise on best intelligence about the situation of the Church of England and the unfolding narrative about the place of faith in 21st-century England, besides being willing to learn from other Christian cultures and traditions, especially in prayer, creativity in mission, and costly discipleship.

Renewal in the Church typically comes from places other than the institution — in, for example, prayer, wisdom, and the experience of people on the margins. Institutions can, however, remove unnecessary roadblocks.

The financial arrangements that are being considered by the Synod are designed to remove those roadblocks from the system, to enable dioceses to become more hopeful in planning for the future, and more fruitful in releasing candidates for ministry in Christ’s Church.

 

The Rt Revd Andrew Watson is the Bishop of Guildford, and chairman of the Ordained Vocations Working Group.

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