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The cost of discerning a call is too high for some

25 May 2018

Working-class candidates need more financial help during the discernment process, argues Emma Ash

WORKING-CLASS men and women who arrive at a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) are a gift to the Church of England. There is evidence, however, that the process leading up to a BAP subjects them to barriers and tasks that render them unable to follow God’s call through to ordained ministry.

The result, as the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said, is that the Church is delivering “a white executive-class priesthood” (News, 27 April).

Besides a middle-class culture that alienates working-class candidates, there is one particular factor that stops many working-class people from even reaching a BAP: finance. As the chair of the National Estate Churches Network, the Revd Andy Delmege, noted last month, the Church assumes that “people can afford to take time off work to attend things; that people have access to computers and the internet; even that people have credit on their phones”.

This rings true to my personal experience, and that of working-class friends. Exploring ordination can cost anything up to £1000. This might not seem that much to middle-class people, but to those who cannot afford phone credit it can be an insurmountable barrier. I have friends who, as a result of the financial costs involved, have either fallen behind or have had to walk away from the discernment process.

IF A candidate is in the process for a year, and has monthly meetings with a Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), a spiritual director, and then occasional meet-ups with other ordinands, travel expenses can be £150 p.a. Then there are placements and assessors to meet, which all cost money.

Candidates from my diocese are given a reading list of 20 books. If someone does not have access to a resource centre or a library, the cost of ordering these books is in the region of £180. My diocese also has a vocational reading group, which is worth while, but the books and travel can amount to £240 p.a.

Other expenses include nationwide college visits. A candidate might wish to visit up to three colleges, at a cost of between £50 and £100 each. College application fees are also required by some colleges, usually amounting to about £75. Then there are the vocation days, courses, and weekends that are recommended, but which can be expensive: a recent vocation weekend cost £100, not including travel and accommodation.

The C of E has taken steps to make it easier for candidates from lower-income backgrounds to explore ordination. For example, the Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme — a one-year programme of theological teaching, practical experience, and personal development, for people aged 18 to 30 — provides candidates with accommodation and basic living expenses (Features, 13 November 2015). Some schemes, however, although they provide accommodation, pay only a basic breadline sustenance of £250 p.m., which is lower than for a 25-year-old receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance.

The time-commitment needed to explore ordination can also alienate the working class. Many will not be able to afford time off work to attend meetings, or take a pay cut to complete one or two years on a Ministry Experience Scheme.

ONE thing that would help to enhance the diversity of those applying for ordination would be a dedicated trust fund to provide financial assistance to working-class people who are in the discernment process. As far as I know, of the 30 different trust funds that help priests, none invests in those exploring ordination who are not a part of a Ministry Experience Scheme.

The trust funds that I have come across invest only after someone has been recommended after a BAP. If such trust funds do exist, it would help if they were made more widely known. If not, the Church Commissioners should think about creating one.

The Archbishops’ Renewal and Reform programme has set an ambitious target of recruiting 50 per cent more candidates for ministry by 2020. If the C of E is serious about this, and wishes to get rid of the stigma that it is delivering “a white executive-class priesthood”, it must show generosity to working-class candidates, whose gifts and skills it desperately needs.

Emma Ash is a pastoral assistant at St James the Less, Pimlico, in London.

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