FOR young people in a gap year who are looking to explore a sense of calling, whether to ordination or another vocation, the Church of England’s Ministry Experience Scheme (MES) is one place to start (Features, 13 November 2015, Comment, 7 July 2017).
The scheme, which was piloted in 2013 and has continued to expand with funding from the Allchurches Trust, is now running in 20 dioceses in both rural and urban settings.
Ben Brady, aged 21, now one of the youngest ordinands in the country, was sure that he had a vocation to ordained ministry, and felt that this was confirmed through taking part in the scheme.
“It gives you a taste of what a vicar does. I did everything — from sitting in mundane church meetings that have to be done to keep the church, deanery, and diocese ticking over, to meeting people, being with young people and children, and doing funeral, baptism, and hospital visits.”
There is plenty on offer from different dioceses, reflecting the breadth of traditions within the Church of England. Some offer a more chaplaincy-based focus, or have links to monastic communities. St Peter’s, South Shore, in Blackpool, the most deprived parish in the C of E, runs an outreach-orientated version of the scheme on a housing estate.
Although the ministry experience varies between parishes and dioceses, accommodation and basic living expenses are provided for everyone on the scheme, besides theological training, the opportunity to explore church life, and support from a placement mentor.
For 25-year-old Kate Tingle, the experience also helped her to clarify her calling, and she was able to explore her interest in chaplaincy ministry.
“A friend of mine told me about the scheme while I was a student. We both had a somewhat nebulous sense of calling. I applied to the St Albans scheme, because it combined parish ministry with chaplaincy, which was what I was most interested in.”
Similarly, Joanna Burden, aged 25, found that the scheme in Hereford helped her to discern her strengths and calling. “Everyone was supportive, and it gave me space to think through my motivations. And I wouldn’t have been able to go through the discernment process for ordination afterwards, without having had people around me saying: ‘I’ve seen you do this.’
“The scheme gave me a chance to do things, but it also gave me people to say, ‘This is what you do well.’ It gave me the strength to keep going.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, chairs the scheme’s steering group, and also used to run a scheme when he was a parish priest in Camden, in north London. “The primary aim of this scheme, whether they go on to ordination or not, is for these young people to go so much deeper with God and come alive to faith and God’s call,” he says. “And there’s a huge benefit to the parish. Having bright young things turn up, full of enthusiasm, ideas, and energy can really raise the morale of a church.”
The scheme also seeks to help meet the future missional needs of the Church of England by encouraging a broad range of people to explore their vocation. Growing numbers of people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are participating in the scheme, and 47 per cent of people on the scheme over the past three years have been women.
In a survey conducted with the 2017/18 cohort, 88 per cent of the respondents said that they were finishing the scheme with a clearer sense of God’s call. This did not necessarily mean ordination, although 61 per cent did feel called to this. Sixteen per cent said that they left with a clear calling to another area of ministry, such as being a Reader, a youth worker, or something similar.
“It’s a really useful year of forming,” Ms Tingle says. “Although, naturally, there are people attracted to these schemes as part of discernment for ordained ministry, I didn’t feel any pressure for that to be the case. There’s no set outcome. It’s not about churning out vicars. You could do a year, gain experience, and grow as a person. The focus is on making sure you have a sharper sense of calling, and that there’s honesty about that calling.”
The director of the Stepney MES in London for the past six years, the Revd Fiona Green, has so far seen 38 young participants and 21 parishes participate in the scheme. “Unequivocally, the presence of the participants has allowed parishes both to meet needs of which they were already aware, and to uncover the possibilities for mission that came from the specific talents of participants,” she says.
The Vicar of St Andrew’s, Whitehall Park, the Revd Steve Clarke, agrees. He has been involved in the Stepney MES Scheme for the past two years. One participant has stayed on as a youth worker, and another is exploring a call to ordained ministry.
“The scheme requires a healthy commitment from us as a church, but we’ve received so much more,” he says. “One of the strengths of the scheme is the care taken in linking participants with their placement church: matching their gifts and passions with the church’s vision. The increase in vocational awareness, missional capacity, and overall confidence has been most striking for us as a church.”
Bishop North also sees the impact of the scheme in broader terms: “Young people inspire and motivate other young people, including young adults in the parish. We’ve got nearly 90 people on the scheme this year. A few years ago, the Church of England had fewer than 100 ordinands under 30, altogether. If half each year go forward to ordination, that’s an awful lot, year on year.
“With parishes filled and fresh life being brought to parishes and deaneries, the impact of these people is much greater than their numbers.”