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Disproportionate number of women in unpaid ministry raises equality questions, says WATCH

12 March 2021

At the age at which women become a majority of ordinands, many dioceses will not train them for stipendiary posts

Huw Ryden

Exeter deacons in 2019

Exeter deacons in 2019

THE disproportionately high number of female clerics in non-stipendiary (unpaid) ministry in the Church of England compared with male clerics, most of whom are in stipendiary (paid) posts, raises questions about how women priests are perceived and valued, the campaigning group Women and the Church (WATCH) has said.

In its annual analysis of data collected by the C of E Research and Statistics department, WATCH reports that, despite the slight increase in recent years in the proportion of women who are receive a stipend while serving in a parish post, and the fact that more women are currently being ordained than men (News, 19 June 2020), about 70 per cent of the stipendiary clergy are male.

There are thousands more male priests (13,680 in 2019) than female (6290), and yet more than half of all priests in self-supporting ministry (SSM, which includes NSMs and ordained local ministers) are women (51 per cent; 1460); in the diocese of Rochester, women made up 70 per cent of its SSMs but only 23 per cent of its stipendiaries.

“This raises a question about the culture of these dioceses, and whether women will be able to flourish in ministry there,” the report says. “SSM clergy are essential to the ministry of the C of E, but the Church needs to value this ministry fully, and ensure that women in such roles who are under pension age are not being exploited by lack of pension and NI contributions.”

In 2019, in half the dioceses, fewer than one third (29 per cent) of stipendiary clergy were women, compared with 23 per cent in 2013. Only in Ely diocese was this figure more than 40 per cent, in 2019. This has been the case since 2013. WATCH says: “We would not like to think that this is a natural ceiling for the proportion of women in stipendiary parish ministry.”

In these few years, some dioceses had consistently increased the proportion of women in stipendiary posts, including Liverpool diocese (from 25 to 34 per cent); Worcester diocese (from 23 to 33 per cent); and Bristol diocese (from 17 to 28 per cent). Others had decreased: Hereford diocese from 38 to 31 per cent, and Sheffield from 29 to 26 per cent. In 2019, the diocese in Europe had the lowest proportions (14 per cent), followed by the Channel Islands (15 per cent) and Exeter and Chichester dioceses (16 per cent).

WATCH also found a disparity between the number of men in incumbent posts (such as Team Rector, Rector, or Vicar) and the number of women in “incumbent status” posts, such as Team Vicar or Priest-in-Charge.

In 21 dioceses, the proportion of female clerics licensed as incumbents was 25 per cent or lower; in only three dioceses were more than one third of incumbents female; and no diocese did women make up more than 38 per cent of incumbents. This was compared with the proportion of women with “incumbent status” — more than 33 per cent in 29 dioceses, and more than 50 per cent in seven dioceses. “It is clear that a smaller proportion of women clergy are licensed to posts traditionally regarded as carrying more responsibility,” the report says.

This disparity was also apparent in the episcopate and other senior positions, too. In 2020, there were five female diocesan bishops, compared with 36 male; 20 female suffragan bishops, compared with 46 male; 38 female archdeacons, compared with 82 male; and seven female cathedral deans, compared with 35 male.

The rate of clergy turnover might also be reducing the number of positions available to women at any level. About 20,000 clergy serve in the C of E. Of the 7700 stipendiary clergy in 2019 (2350 female and 5350 male), only 310 (4.1 per cent) had retired by the end of the year.

One of the WATCH trustees who compiled the report, the Revd Rosalind Rutherford, said on Tuesday: “Even if no women retired and women were appointed to all the vacant posts each year, that would still take at least five years to reach parity.”

The latest Ministry Statistics report from the C of E projected that, based on data from 2017 to 2019, 30 per cent of male clergy and 23 per cent of female clergy aged 65 were likely to retire in 2020. Further estimates for 2020 suggested that a total of about 7130 clerics would retire at the age of 68, of whom 4900 would be men and 2220 would be women — similar to previous years.

WATCH also found, however, that, as in previous years, most men selected and trained in 2019 were under the age of 40, while for women the reverse was true. This meant that the female clergy were older, on average, than men, and therefore women would serve for less time than men before retiring.

Being older, as well as financially worse off owing to the lack of grants for residential training for ordinands aged over 40, female ordinands were also less likely to be selected for stipendiary ministry, WATCH said.

Ms Rutherford said that this would “build a bias towards men into the gender profile of clergy because each age cohort will have more men than women, and this is particularly noticeable in stipendiary clergy, because a majority of younger ordinands are training for stipendiary posts. At the age at which women become a majority of ordinands, many dioceses will not train them for stipendiary posts.”

The possibility that the pandemic might force a more rapid reduction of stipendiary posts than expected in some dioceses (News, 4 December 2020 and 5 February) was also a concern, she said. “Even if this is achieved by not filling the posts when someone retires, the unacknowledged assumptions in the C of E that women should be happy to be appointed to SSM posts, or that pressure might be put on them to accept house-for-duty posts, will mean that women of any age will find it harder to be appointed to stipendiary posts.”

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