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Ministry vocations rise again, though overall figures remain sobering

21 August 2018


Deacons ordained at Blackburn Cathedral in July

Deacons ordained at Blackburn Cathedral in July

EFFORTS to stabilise clergy numbers are on track, the Church of England’s Ministry Division has stated — though it suggests that incumbency is becoming both “more demanding” and “more clearly an option among several routes”.

Numbers released by the division last Friday show that the number of people recommended for ordination training in 2018 grew by seven per cent on the previous year: from 541 to 580. This follows a 14 per cent increase the year before, “putting the Church on course to achieving a key target of recruiting 50 per cent more candidates for ordination by 2020” (News, 7 October 2016).

There was another jump in the number of recommended people aged 32 or under: up 32 per cent from two years ago to 169. Twenty-nine per cent of those entering training for the priesthood this year are expected to be in this age bracket, slightly up on last year.

Behind the drive to increase vocations by 50 per cent is the knowledge that about 25 per cent of the clergy are due to retire in the next five to ten years. The number of stipendiary priests fell from 8006 in 2012 to 7740 in 2017, according to Ministry Statistics released this week and the average age of the clergy was 62.8 (52.4 for stipendiary), less than three years off the average age of retirement — which has increased for clergy from 64.1 in 2015 to 65.6.

Research has suggested that congregational growth is linked to higher clergy numbers (News, 5 August).

The secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, has warned that, even if the 50-per cent goal is achieved, the total number of stipendiary priests will continue to fall for a number of years before starting to rise again, and that “getting back up to the present 8000 . . . will depend not just on more vocations, but on the age profile of ordinands and of retirements.”

If the goal is achieved by 2023, it will only stabilise the pool at the level of 7600 full-time clergy, not enlarge it (News, 7 October, 2016).

The average age of recommended candidates rose from 34 in 1988 to 44 in 2004. The average age of those beginning training in 2017 had dropped a little, but still stood at 41.6.

A total of 330 stipendiary clergy retired in 2017 — four per cent of the total. Many are expected to continue serving in parishes, however, and the director of ministry, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, said in a release that the net loss of 50 stipendiary clergy in 2017 was less than one per cent: “probably less than is popularly assumed”.

Another target is an increase in the number of young women training for ordination. The Ministry Division projects that, if the age profile of female ordinands changes to mirror that of male ordinands, by 2035 the pool of stipendiary clergy could be 43 per cent female. It is currently 72 per cent male and, for the past four years, 61 per cent of clergy ordained to stipendiary posts have been male.

The target is for women to make up 50 per cent of the under-32s recommended for training. Although, for the second year running, (News, 29 September, 2017), more women than men have been recommended (54 per cent) they are outnumbered by men in the younger age groups. Almost two-thirds —62 per cent — of under-32s were men. After the age of 40, women ordinands outnumber men in every age bracket.

A higher proportion of women are training to become incumbents. Of the ordinands training for incumbency (76 per cent, up from 69 per cent in 2013), 35 per cent were women (up from 29 per cent). Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of paid clergy in senior posts — bishop, dean, or archdeacon — were women in 2017, compared to 12 per cent in 2012.

Data for the ethnicity of 2018 recommendations has not yet been published, but a total of 6.2 per cent of those beginning training last year were BAME, compared with 3.8 per cent in the current pool of stipendiary clergy. The overwhelming majority of stipendiary (96.2 per cent) and senior (94.8 per cent) posts are held by people who identify as White British. Mr Hubbard noted that “clergy data on diversity, and in particular on ethnicity, continue to provide concern”.

He also observed “some interesting shifts. . . As the number of stipendiary incumbents decreases, the proportion of assistant and especially trainee curates increases. As the number of paid chaplains remains stable, their proportion in relation to parochial clergy increases. These and other trends of increase, such as the number of pioneer leaders, will affect the shape of future ministry: being a vicar becomes more demanding and also more clearly an option among several routes for ministers, rather than necessarily the automatic choice.”

If the current batch of assistant curates become incumbents, the proportion will start to revert; but this is estimated to be at least five to seven years away. The Bishop of Guildford has been among those highlighting the financial impact of a rise in ordinands, on dioceses (News, 8 December, 2017).


MINISTRY statistics also highlight a decline in licensed lay ministers. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of Readers/licensed lay ministers in active ministry fell from just over 10,000 to just under 8500 in 2017. The number of readers in training fell by 32 per cent over the same period, from 950 to 650.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, who chairs the Central Readers Council, has recently announced proposals to change Reader training (News, 4 May).

Although graphs illustrating recent trends point to an increase in numbers, data beginning in 1949 shows significant variation over the decades: a rise in the 1950s to a peak in 1959 of more than 750 recommendations, followed by a steep decline in the 1960s. Although numbers have been rising in recent years, they are still below the 600 who were recommended as recently as 2007.


The Ministry Division contends that its projections suggest that, overall, if the target of a 50-per-cent increase in ordinands by 2020 is reached, “it is possible that there will be an increasing pool of nearing 8000 full-time-equivalent clergy, though if this rise in ordinations is a temporary peak, and ordinations fall again to current levels gradually after 2025, then the pattern of decline will return.”

Archdeacon Hubbard said that “more meaningful data” on lay ministries would be prepared next year, to give “a truer picture of the vitality and growth of the ministry of the Church of England as a whole, and maybe displace the tendency to be diffident and even pessimistic in the light of ministry statistics”. Earlier this year, the division also suggested that it would consider how to monitor the social class of ordinands (News, 27 April),


Hannah Barr, aged 26, will begin training for ordination, alongside doctoral studies, at Wycliffe, Oxford, in September. She first sense a calling at the age of 14, when she spoke at a youth service and was asked whether she had ever considered ordination.

“I responded like most 14-year -old girls would, and said: ‘What is ordination?’” she said this week. “I was really horrified by the idea.” But the sense of calling did not dissipate over the following decade, during which she found “people bringing it up, and sometimes strangers bringing it up, and God transforming my heart towards the idea.”HANNAH BARRHANNAH BARR

Two significant elements were a “really supportive incumbent” and preparing to lead the service at her grandmother’s funeral, when she sensed that “this makes my soul sing — I think this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life.”

She first met a Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) in September last year, the same time as she started a year with the St Anselm Community at Lambeth Palace. This time, she said, made her “fall even more in love with the C of E, and the priorities of unity and reconciliation just became even more important.

“I think, as a single person, discernment could be quite lonely and discombobulating, so getting to be part of such a close, intimate community is such a wonderful force to have.”

The fact that relatively few women under 32 are coming forward could be related to a lack of encouragement, she suggests. She grew up in Evangelical churches, including one that did not support women’s ministry, and believes: “There needs to be a rethink of how do we do discipleship to make sure we are raising up both men and women, and looking at who God is calling rather than who fits the pattern of what has gone before.”

Her Ph.D. will seek to construct a theology of sexual consent, and she is looking forward to exploring “more of the breadth of the C of E” in her placements, and “seeing the Kingdom now as well as to come”.




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