SELECTION procedures must change radically if the Church is to expand its priesthood beyond an “executive class”, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has said.
The current criteria deployed by those selecting ordinands “hugely favour eloquence and education and confidence, over authenticity and evangelistic gifts and genuine vocation,” he said last Friday. “It simply rewards those who have done professional jobs and have led teams.” There was “a widespread perception among northern DDOs [diocesan directors of ordinands] that candidates from working-class backgrounds with northern accents are victims of prejudice”.
He was speaking after the annual meeting, on Thursday of last week, of the National Estate Churches Network at which conversation about raising up local leadership dominated, the Revd Andy Delmege, Vicar of St Bede’s, Brandwood, who chairs the network, said.
“The Church of England has a dominant culture that is often very different from the cultures we find on estates,” Mr Delmege said on Tuesday. “This can be off-putting, especially for people who lack confidence. Putting people into a very middle-class setting can be really difficult, as well as our basic assumptions: 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.”
He had spoken to ordained colleagues from estate backgrounds who described having to “steel themselves before they enter diocesan offices or bishops’ palaces because they are so removed from what they have come from”.
“A key task for us is removing these cultural and structural barriers so that people from all backgrounds can answer God’s call to vocation and leadership,” he said. “How can we establish a culture within our parishes and within the wider Church that allows this to happen?” While on some estate parishes this culture already existed, others reported that it was “too difficult”. Yet, “often, for people on estates, the Church can be one of the key places where they can develop and flourish.”
A comment that had elicited cheers last week was the suggestion that “lots of clergy selected, trained, and deployed under the current system are a liability. I don’t see [that] local discernment and leadership development is any more of a risk.”
While recognising that the selection process was not the only factor (“it’s about the capacity of the wider Church to recognise leadership and call the right people”), Bishop North maintained his criticism that it was delivering “a white executive-class priesthood” (News, 11 August, 2017). It “feels to many people like three days of being inspected at a public school”, he said. Many DDOs and bishops were “nervous” about sponsoring candidates from working-class backgrounds, because it would involve subjecting them to this process.
His comments resonated with the DDO for the diocese of Manchester, Canon Nick Smeeton. “Candidates describe feeling out of place, and being ‘the only northerner’ at BAP [Bishops’ Advisory Panel],” he said on Saturday. “There is too often a sense that advisers don’t ‘get’ them. On occasion, candidates judged to be strong by our diocesan team have been non-recommended at BAP.
“More fundamentally, there seems to be a huge over-emphasis on lived experience over and against potential. Candidates from less affluent backgrounds are far less likely to have had the kind of life chances that enable them to evidence, for example, leadership skills. Likewise, expectations that candidates should have experience of the Church of England in a variety of contexts are often completely unrealistic for those who have not moved away from their home towns to go to university or for work.”
On Tuesday, the Revd Dr Beth Keith, a Curate at Sheffield Cathedral, said that, although training and selection had changed in recent years, “there is still a tendency that someone coming with a good academic record, who can talk quite confidently about mission and evangelism, will probably do much better at a BAP than someone who is less articulate, and has passed fewer exams, but can explain how they have shared their faith with people around them.” This was an “odd emphasis”.
Her doctoral research (News, 5 February, 2016), which explored how clergy understood mission and evangelism within their vocation, suggested that practical experience may be under-valued: “What tended to happen was that people who had come with a more grounded, practical knowledge, used their training to develop that further, and went on to lead churches in a range of settings that were growing.
“Those who had come with a more theoretical knowledge, or limited knowledge in terms of witness and evangelism, were allowed to go through the training process without that ever being really questioned and addressed, and then were leading churches that were either maintaining or declining.”
The Ministry Division is reviewing the selection process, and plans to collect more data on the socio-economic background of candidates in future.
On Monday, its director, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, said that there was “more to be done to improve. . . Changes in the style, culture, and format of the Bishops’ Advisory Panel are being considered to ensure that all kinds of candidates, including those from estates, feel able to participate, and are confident of a fair hearing.”
Panel advisers were “well-trained and able to see beyond the surface impression, and are required to seek evidence from candidates to substantiate what they say”, he said. “It is right that selection panels are searching and personally demanding events for all who attend, given the vital importance of discerning God’s will. It is equally important that they do not put any candidates at a disadvantage in that process.”
The Church of England’s head of discipleship and vocation, Catherine Nancekievill, said that the Church wanted to see more candidates coming forward for ordination from working-class backgrounds. “We believe that work to achieve this should start well before the selection process,” she said. “There are important factors that influence who comes forward. These include the confidence of the individual, and their perception of what sort of person does ministry. It often relies on the incumbent starting the conversation about vocation.” She pointed to the different role-models used to illustrate vocations, and the “myth-busting” section of the website, as examples of work under way.
Being invited to sit on the Division’s Selection Oversight Group was an encouraging sign, the vice-chair of the National Estate Churches Network, the Revd Lynne Cullens, said on Tuesday. A “single-tier process, with the addition of an ‘estates pathway’ to run alongside, providing additional support, vehicles, and tools to broaden participation” was desirable, she suggested, in addition to “staged support and capacity enhancement, to accommodate and help level the playing field for those from estates and areas of urban deprivation”.
Bishop North hoped that the review would take a radical approach rather than “tinkering at the edges”. The language of class was “very, very slippery”, he said, “but we can’t use that as an excuse to run away from the issue. . . We just need ten times more imagination than we are showing at the moment.”
MALCOLM HALL, who will continue to work full-time as a vehicle-damage assessor in the motor trade when he is ordained in June, describes a positive experience of selection and training. When he began training at Lindisfarne Regional Training Partnership, he had not written an essay since his schooldays, 30 years before. “At first, it was very challenging,” he recalls. “I had never written an essay in a university style. But, over the years, with advice and guidance and support from tutors and peers, you build up that experience and confidence required to get through the training.”
Mr Hall, a member of the congregation at St Mark’s, Shiremoor, had had thoughts about ordination, but it was not until someone else suggested it, while he was on a church weekend away, that he went to see a vocations adviser.
The local panel was “more daunting” than the BAP, he says. “It felt very strange and alien to me, having one-on-one meetings with people, as I work in an environment where everyone is together.” Advised to “just be yourself” at the BAP, he came away feeling that he had given it his best effort, but expecting to be turned down.
Lindisfarne Regional Training Partnership has been “fantastic”, he says. “They are so supportive, and appreciate that a lot of people who do come to train for ministry work full-time; so they are quite flexible. The support is just tremendous.”
After his ordination on 30 June, he will serve his curacy at Christ Church, North Shields. His advice to others sensing a call is: “Just to be yourself. Don’t be afraid of the challenges that come towards you, because God will be there to support you.”
THE Ministry Experience Scheme, which offers young people aged 18-30 year-long placements in churches, has trebled in size over the past three years, a report confirmed this week. There will be 150 participants this year, compared with 47 in 2015. More than two-thirds of dioceses in the Church of England are now taking part in the scheme. In Blackpool, participants are a key part of outreach work by the Church of England in deprived outer-urban estates.
The scheme is supported by the Allchurches Trust, and has an equal number of women and men taking part. Nearly one in ten participants last year was from a black or ethnic minority background. To date, 46 per cent of those taking part in 2017 attended a BAP, and a further 21 per cent went on to work or train for lay ministry.
Lauren Simpson, 24, a graduate of Nottingham University, from Hertfordshire, is taking part in the scheme in Southwell and Nottingham Diocese, working with Bestwood Park Church, based on a council estate in the north of Nottingham.
“I am just over half-way through my placement, and I am being stretched and challenged more than ever before,” she said, this week.
CHURCH Of ENGLANDLauren Simpson, a Ministry Experience Scheme participant, who works in the Bestwood Park estate in Nottingham