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Ordinations: The generation game

06 July 2018

Are clergy within the C of E experiencing hostility between the generations in their ministry? Pat Ashworth investigates

Chris Dobson

The Revd Dr Helen Collins, Tutor in Pastoral and Ministerial Studies at Trinity College, Bristol, with a student

The Revd Dr Helen Collins, Tutor in Pastoral and Ministerial Studies at Trinity College, Bristol, with a student

IT IS a cause for rejoicing that young ordinands are back after the desert years when they were patted on the head and sent away to “get some life experience” before entering training — a policy that cost the priesthood the gifts of a whole generation.

As the younger ones come into a priesthood that is largely older, what are the relationships like?

The position in the Church of England is better, we might hope, than in the Episcopal Church of the United States, where a generation gap has been identified and a stand-off is said to be brewing between the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1963) and the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996).

Dr Hannah Matis, Assistant Professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary, described it in an article for the magazine The Living Church as “two armed camps: those 65 and older and those 35 and younger, facing off with mutual incomprehension and occasional hostility, the divide manifesting itself in a thousand micro-aggressions in Sunday-morning coffee hours across the country.”

She describes it as a changing of the guard, and finds “an instructive and frightening parallel” with the vacuum that the C of E faced in the 1980s and ’90s. When the hierarchy is dominated by a rapidly ageing population, there is a tendency for junior clergy to be treated as little better then staff, when they are not being infantilised, she contends. “When Millennial clergy bear the brunt of a demanding vocation, and receive no investment from their Church in them, they will just leave.”

The Leadership Principal at CPAS, James Lawrence, explores these issues in a Grove booklet, Engaging Gen Y: Leading well across the generations. Developing the next generation of leaders is critical to the long-term health of the Church, he argues, and so understanding generational differences is crucial. Using a chart developed by Bishop Graham Cray, he identifies four distinct groupings: Traditionalists (born between 1925 and 1945); Baby Boomers (1946 and 1963); Gen X (1964 and 1980); and Gen Y (1984 and 2000).

Gen Y — the generation brought up in the networked world — have a need for speed, expects things to be instant, blurs the boundaries between work and play, struggles with hierarchy, and have been brought up in a culture of choice rather than commitment to a brand. “For those who feel empowered, there is a sense of wanting to make a difference. They are looking for movements to join, not organisations to work for,” Mr Lawrence suggests.

Crucially, they know about leadership, and “have a confident belief that they should be given leadership responsibilities from day one. They desire to collaborate in leadership. . . They look for vulnerability in their senior leader. . . They look for authenticity, vulnerability, support, and feedback from their mentors. Gen Y are used to positive feedback, and plenty of it.”


SO, HOW is all this playing out in the Church? It is a sensitive issue, which some clergy contacted for this piece were not prepared to talk about, but a generation gap is not universally recognised. For the Revd Paul Zaphiriou, senior pastor at Hope Church, Islington, in London, there is no friction from age differences in the clergy team. He was born in 1949, and is 40 years older than the Revd Sarah McDonald, his associate pastor.

From left to right: the Revd Liz Clutterbuck from Christ Church, Highbury, with the Revd Paul Zaphiriou, the Revd Matt Way, and the Revd Sarah McDonald from Hope Church, Islington, ashing commuters on Ash Wednesday, outside Highbury & Islington Tube station  

Both are looking forward to the arrival of the equally young the Revd Matt Way, ordained this Petertide: he has been preparing for ordination with the team for the past three years, and “will bring balance to what both Sarah and I represent,” Mr Zaphiriou says. “Matt will always encourage us to open up our horizons when we have a bit of tunnel vision.”

His is a large church with six congregations on two sites. He has a staff of ten that includes a youth worker and a children’s and youth pastor, and he describes the arrangements at Hope — formerly St Mary Magdalene’s — as “a very flat hierarchical structure”. He does not spend much time in his study at the vicarage, preferring to be in close proximity to the team, but the last thing he would ever want to do, he says, is “breathe down the necks of leaders as they develop”.

He finds age difference helpful and energising, “a source of fun and encouragement and mutual affection, to be honest. It’s not a question of age, really: it’s more about personalities. We share the same passion for releasing people into leadership and ministry who might come from environments or groups that have been under-represented in the past in leadership in the Church, and we’re all really passionate about overturning that.”

He does know of situations in churches where age difference has caused friction, but thinks that it is a matter of being open, and talking it through when people don’t see eye to eye. “Sometimes it’ll go one way, and sometimes another. On the one hand, it’s not a vote — we’re not a congregationalist Church, and the staff themselves don’t form a caucus — but neither do we want to push things through because so-and-so says so. I think the Church — at least the bits I find myself in — has been moving forward in a very encouraging way.”


FOR the Revd Matthew Cashmore, born in 1980 and the assistant curate of four parishes in the largely rural diocese of Hereford, the picture is very different. He does find a growing sense of hostility between the generations in ministry, but emphasises that it is not coming from the older training incumbents, and pays tribute to his own training incumbent, Prebendary Robert North, born in 1954.

“He was someone so full of love that he was incapable of not seeing the whole person,” he says warmly. “He has just been the most wonderful, supportive man. He’s stood in front of me and said, ‘Look, that’s not a good thing to do, and here’s why’; he’s stood beside me and told me when I needed just to keep on, or to change direction; and he’s stood behind me and pushed me forward when I’ve done something really well.”

The difficulties generally arise, he considers, with the generation retired or heading into retirement. “They are a product of the ’60s and ’70s, and a very specific kind of mission that needed to be built at that time, but that I just don’t think connects to the Millennials at all,” he reflects.

“Trying to have that conversation with people who have dedicated their entire lives to the service of God and the Church is really tough. This generation have an enormous amount of experience, and have achieved an enormous amount, but are still a generation that were trained in the ‘You will do as I say’ way.”

Many rural parishes rely heavily on retired priests and the gifts that they offer, and it is here, he suggests, where the difficulties can lie. These priests may be ten years older than the outgoing generation, and accustomed to a very different model of curacy: one where “it is inappropriate for the curate to present any ideas they may have. You speak when you are spoken to, and tug your forelock.” But there are deeper things than that which can cause friction, he believes.

The Revd Matthew Cashmore outside St Michael’s, Breinton

“There is a degree of rediscovery of elements of orthodoxy that were around in the 1960s, post-Vatican II. Some of us younger people think the baby was maybe thrown out with the bathwater, and, because there was a fight to make those advances, any suggestion of rediscovering any of that stuff that was thrown out is greeted with hostility.

“What is really interesting is that, as Millennials, what we really respect is people standing in front of us and telling us, with honesty and passion, what they believe. That’s what we want. We might not agree with you, but we’ll tell you we don’t agree with you. We don’t want this ‘coming alongside’, where we have a gentle conversation. Tell us: ‘This is what I believe, and this is why I believe it — because it can change your life.’ It’s very different from the ministry we saw coming out of the ’60s, the ’70s, and the early ’80s.”

Hereford diocese, he says, “is a place that is not afraid to correct you when you go wrong, and that’s a gift. To hold you to account in a way that is constructive and helpful is really hard.” The diocese has seen big staff changes: the new secretary, financial director, and communications director are all under 40 and “thoroughly engaged and very enthusiastic”, Fr Cashmore says. “You are starting to see that played out in what the diocese is doing.”


THE Revd Dr Helen Collins is Tutor in Pastoral and Ministerial Studies at Trinity College, Bristol, where the age span of the residential cohort who have just left ranged from 18 to 63. She reflects that, while the temptations towards “mutual incomprehension and occasional hostility” between generations may be an experience in a number of churches, leading to tensions and difficulties, the picture is more complex than this.

“The church hierarchy currently champions young vocations, with the latest initiatives for increasing vocations and the provision and resourcing of the Church of England Ministerial Scheme,” she says. “Older church members recognise the need to reach young people, and are also often passionate champions for our ordinands in context. Generation Y also really want to be mentored and invested in by people with experience and wisdom.”

But, while she endorses and affirms the national initiative to raise up young vocations, she is not convinced that the whole Church has wrestled with the complex issues involved in having a 27-year-old incumbent in a multi-parish benefice with a predominantly ageing congregation.

“Consequently, unless, as a whole Church, we can create realistic roles for young people which sufficiently equip and enable them to fulfil their vocation that the Church has endorsed, there may be a problem of retaining the increase in candidates that we are delighted to see,” she warns.

Trinity is seeking to address these issues directly. Ordinands are on placement in a local-church context for the duration of their training, to experience the contemporary realities of ministry from the start, and to reflect on the challenges with a trained supervisor. “We are passionately committed to teaching our ordinands to interpret their Bibles faithfully and intelligently in ways which speak meaningfully across generations,” Dr Collins says.

“We think the model of training ordinands in community with people from a diverse age-range is foundational to developing relationships between generations and building mutual understanding. We have a training day this September on the spirituality of older people to equip ordinands to minister in this context.”

She concludes, “Whilst appropriate training is essential, it cannot exist in isolation, and needs to be part of the whole Church’s responsibility to nurture the multi-generational Church for the glory of God.”

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