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Vocations mountain still to be climbed

23 September 2016

Initiative: a Liverpool vocations leaflet

Initiative: a Liverpool vocations leaflet

THE scale of the challenge facing those charged with increasing the number of ordinands by 50 per cent is set out in new statistics published this week.

A central plank of the Renewal and Reform agenda, the goal is not only to raise the number of candidates for ordained ministry from an average of 500 every year to 750, but to lower the average age, and encourage vocations from younger women and those from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

Data published by the Research and Statistics department shows that ordinands under the age of 32 make up 26 per cent of those recommended for stipendiary ministry. The aim is to raise this to 50 per cent.

The current figures (for 2010-14) vary significantly across dioceses, from eight per cent in St Edmundsbury & Ipswich to 47 per cent in London. The authors of the report caution against creating an “unhelpful ‘league table’”, arguing that “It is not necessarily helpful to compare one diocese with another on a purely numerical basis.”

The data also shows a significant variation in the total number of candidates sent by dioceses. The dioceses with the highest number of candidates as a proportion of church attendance are Bristol, Ely, and Exeter.

Across the dioceses, the number of women recommended for training has almost reached parity with men: a ratio of seven men to six women. This varies, however, from equal numbers in Blackburn and Leeds to larger gaps in dioceses such as Chichester (15:8), and London (165:67).

Ordinands under the age of 32 are more likely to be men: the national ratio is three men for every one woman. Again, in some dioceses, the gap is much wider. Up to the age of 27, candidates are 3.5 times more likely to be male than female. The national goal is that half of ordinands under 32 should be women.

Another aspiration is to increase the proportion of candidates from BAME backgrounds, which is currently lower than the proportion of BAME people in congregations, and much lower than the proportion of BAME people in the general population (15 per cent). In London, for example, BAME people make up 42 per cent of the population, 24 per cent of congregations, and only eight per cent of candidates.

The statistics cover 1949-2014. Data on more recent increases in vocations is yet to be published. The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, who chairs the Ordained Vocations Working Group, said that it was “encouraging to see most of the dioceses really rising to this challenge”, and spoke of “early reports of an increase in the number of enquiries from potential candidates”.

Initiatives cited by dioceses include vocations events, new posts dedicated to vocations, and programmes for young vocations and programmes for young people. The Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) task group has requested a 50-per-cent increase in investment in vocations work: another £10 million per year.

The diocesan vocations officer for St Albans, Charles Burch, said that there was a “good deal of apprehension at the size of the task”. Clergy were “our best recruiters, and, sometimes, the biggest obstacles, if they themselves are disenchanted, or have simply lost touch with the original excitement of their own vocations.” Meeting the national goal would mean having to “think radically, to challenge assumptions, to rethink some long-held beliefs”.

The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, who is President of St Mellitus Theological College, said that, to attract more younger ordinands, “we have to work closely with the churches that tend to attract younger people, and offer them more flexible pathways for training”.

St Mellitus had found that “enabling ordinands to work within growing churches while they are doing their training helps attract many younger ordinands into training”. The “Beginning Theology” access course at St Mellitus had “proved a great way to attract those without a strong academic background, and has incidentally also been a route through which many BAME candidates have emerged”.

BAME ordinands were “likely to emerge in churches and go to colleges where BAME staff are present”, he suggested. “If all the staff are white, it’s harder for BAME Christians to see themselves in a leadership role.” Women-only sessions for those looking at ordination also worked, he said. This summer, he spoke at one such event where 190 younger women came to inquire about ordination.

“We have to be quite intentional about focusing attention on particular demographic groups if we want to open access to ordination,” he said.

Another report published this week, Ministry Statistics in Focus: Stipendiary clergy projections, suggests that, on current trends of clergy joining and leaving stipendiary ministry, there will be a “steady decline” in the pool. If the target of a 50-per-cent increase in ordinations by 2023 is achieved, there will be a “stable pool” of 7600 full-time clergy by 2023.

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