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Vocations: Called — but called to what?

12 November 2021

What is the vision for lay and ordained vocations, asks Tim Wyatt

Photos iStock 

SOMEHOW, earlier this year, the Church of England managed to unveil not one, but two, separate strategies to plant 10,000 new churches. Although their differing provenance and ambitions were furiously debated, what united them was how they saw the place of lay ministry in the emerging Church. Both were clear that they envisaged lay people, not priests, spearheading most of the 20,000 new communities that they expected to be born over the next ten years.

The Myriad programme by the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication said that its 10,000 would be “predominantly lay-led”. The official C of E Vision and Strategy went further on the consequences of its plan: “We sense we need a bold calling of lay leaders in their thousands to complement this movement.” (News, 16 July)

So, where are these thousands of lay people coming from? Does the Church have a vocations pathway for them to follow? How will they be trained, and who will pay for it all?


IN THE world of vocations, things have been changing. Led by the national lay-ministries officer, Carrie Myers, a new discernment framework for lay people has been set up and is being adopted by dioceses. It is reminiscent of the way in which prospective ordinands explore their callings. In many dioceses, there is now a single vocations team to work with those coming forward for both lay and ordained ministry.

Indeed, separating out those who have a calling to ordination is taking place later and later on the vocations journey, says Canon Wendy Robins, the director of discipleship, lay ministry, and continuing ministerial education in Southwark diocese. In the diocese of Leicester, open vocation days are held without any priority for either lay or ordained pathways.

The diocese of Manchester has, for ten years, had a Foundations for Ministry course, which most of those exploring a vocation of any kind take together. The diocesan local-ministry officer, Jamie Mackenzie, says that its vocations work is centred on building relationships and having open conversations: “Helping people discover their ministry and calling, and not necessarily seeing that as a vicar factory funnelling them through the sausage machine.”

This is not yet uniform practice, however. In Chelmsford diocese, despite licensed lay ministers’ (LLMs) being trained alongside ordinands in their partnership with St Mellitus College, vocations events still focus on ordination.

“I am not certain that vocations advisers know what to do with those of us who do not wish to be ordained,” the diocesan lay-ministry adviser, Caroline Harding, says. “The model of non-ordained leadership in the Church has a long way to go, and clergy and laity need re-educating on the matter.”


THE notion of breaking down a culture of clericalism comes up repeatedly. Many of those working in the lay-ministry environment declare this to be yesterday’s news; others disagree.

Among those still seeking to address this, with an air of exasperation, is the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, who leads the C of E’s work on lay ministry. Too often, he says, the situation is perceived as a zero-sum game: raising up lay leaders can come only at the expense of the ordained. “Whenever I talk about the importance of laity, I’m assumed to be playing down the importance of clergy, and vice versa. Well, actually, we all know we need both.”

In a “Vision for Lay Ministries” presented to the General Synod last year, the National Ministry Team suggested that the intrinsically collaborative quality of lay ministry was sometimes in conflict with a “clericalism” that was still present in the Church. “The challenge of power dynamics is nothing new for followers of Christ, yet [it] is deeply ingrained and a key barrier to flourishing lay ministries,” the report concluded.

Bishop Snow knows at first hand about the sensitivity over the divide. His diocese’s plans to reinvent its parish structure with larger “minster” areas, integrating lay ministers within teams of clergy, has been the target of criticism in recent months. Although he insists that Leicester’s plans have been misunderstood, and he still aspires for every parish to have its own cleric, it is, he says, evidence of a toxic culture war in the C of E.

Anxiety and exhaustion levels are through the roof for many priests, he suggests, which mean that anything that appears to undermine them (such as talk of a revolution in lay leadership) prompts an angry reaction.

The director of lay training for the diocese of Leeds, the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, agrees. She suggests that some clergy have been so worn down by the demands of ministry that they cannot even contemplate engaging with the ideas about collaborative lay ministry which are being floated. “To some clergy, who are really overwhelmed with work, the idea that they’ve then got half a dozen people to develop in their own ministries feels like a huge thing,” she says.

Martin Sheppard/Diocese of YorkAnnual Readers’ licensing service in York Minster at the end of last month, led by the Dean of York, the Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Frost

Others say that they still see an attiude of “them and us” or “The vicar knows best” among both priests and their congregations. Mr Mackenzie says that anyone hoping to respond to a calling to any of the many forms of lay ministry still needs, first and foremost, the approval of their incumbent to begin training. “Clergy are still very much the gatekeepers,” he says. The majority of those working as directors or deans of lay ministry throughout the dioceses are themselves ordained.

Other still, however, say that they rarely, if ever, encounter genuine opposition to the idea of lay leadership. Dr Nick Shepherd, who leads work on lay discipleship for the Archbishops’ Council, said that the emerging church structures were overwhelmingly not about swapping priests for lay leaders, but creating new kinds of positions for lay people to fill.

“We want to move, as a Church, to talk about vocation as being relational and social, [as well as] ministerial callings,” he explains. This dovetails, in his view, with similar developments that are changing how the priesthood was exercised, as in the moves towards “oversight ministry”.

It is clear, Mr Mackenzie says, that many lay people are being called to things beyond the traditional model of “one vicar, one church”; and the diocese of Manchester is being as flexible as possible to ensure that the new generation of lay ministers do not supplant their clergy, but forge new opportunities alongside them.


THIS kind of flexibility is also being extended into the world of training. Accelerated by the pandemic, many dioceses are pushing ahead with making their lay ministry courses partly online and expanding access.

In Leeds, there is a well-established three-step pathway aimed at ensuring that anyone coming forward for any kind of lay ministry can get the right kind of training. Trainees first go on a one-day taster course, then progress on to a 12-week programme, should they feel their vocation confirmed, before finally completing a ten-month course in a specific form of lay ministry (whether worship-leading, environmental advocacy, or children’s work) to gain formal certification.

Bishop Snow says that most of those with a calling to lay ministry do not find a traditional three-year college-style course attractive; instead, they seek more innovative and flexible options.

Theological institutions are responding to this call. Ridley Hall, in Cambridge, has offered a range of lay courses for decades, but has recently expanded its provision. Those studying for specific forms of lay ministry follow the same theological teaching as Common Awards ordinands, but the teaching is broken up into six week-long blocks throughout the year. This allows lay students plenty of time in their on-the-ground placements without compromising on theological rigour, the college’s vice-principal and dean of lay ministry, the Revd Fiona Green, says.

Canon Robins says that Southwark diocese has a fruitful partnership with St Augustine’s College, sending its LLMs and lay pioneers to train there. She suggests that other colleges will soon respond to the call from dioceses for better lay options — for financial reasons, as well as ecclesiological: “With many of the changes in training that’s coming up, actually being involved in lay training will help with survival. So, you know, it’s a two-way street.”

Mr Mackenzie is concerned, however, that too much lay training is simply replicating old clerical models, and is focused on “getting bums on seats” for Sunday services. In Manchester diocese — which does almost all its lay training in-house — the focus is not on going deep into theology, but on practical mission and discipleship in the community.

Dr Matthews agrees. Leeds also does all its training locally, which is more cost-effective, she says. “But, also, there is something about contextual theology.  Now, if some lay people were free to go away and train if they are working, if they have dependents, they may not be able to do that but if they were, we would also need a broader range of offer from the theological colleges.”

Others go further, and suggest that there is too much focus on formal training of any kind. Dr Shepherd says that is vital not to recreate a kind of “clericalism of the lay” by bogging the new generation of leaders down with endless courses. Every-member ministry requires spontaneity, without being formally licensed, he argues. “When God’s Spirit moves, we’re looking for people to join in with that. We don’t flow into God’s mission because we’ve got a certificate.”

But Ms Green, whose own college is also pioneering podcast-based lay ministry courses that can be organised by local groups across the country, says that she would be disappointed if lay people ended up with second-class theological education in comparison with their ordained colleagues.

“Obviously, as a theologian, I do think rigour and depth are needed in all areas of Christian discipleship,” she says. “I would be very sorry if there was no longer provision to train people in lay ministry to the same depth that those being trained for ordination might have.”


BUT the perennial problem remains: how will this explosion of new lay ministries and training be paid for? Bishop Snow says that, while he is thrilled by the warm words about lay ministry in today’s Church, the finances tell a different story.

Central funding from the Archbishops’ Council for training is exclusively spent on ordinands, leaving each diocese to find the cash for its lay ministry programmes alone. “It’s when you look at the spreadsheet of how the Church spends its money that tells you what its real priorities are,” he laments. “And, at the moment, you’d have to conclude from that that lay ministry is hardly even in the picture.”

Almost everyone I have spoken to agrees that a better balance between spending on lay and ordained training is required to maintain a momentum towards the “mixed ecology” that has been set out as desirable for the Church’s future.

Mr Mackenzie and Dr Matthews both say that is simply not possible to expand lay vocations and ministry work in their dioceses with the “shoestring” budgets currently available: the current state of affairs amounts to “pot luck”, as some wealthier dioceses have decent provision, but others can barely afford anything. “We do need to be properly funded,” Dr Matthews said. “And, if ordinands are accessing Common Awards, then lay people should be able to access Common Awards — it should be equitable.”

Dr Shepherd and Canon Robins agree that more money should be funnelled towards lay people, but not at the expense of ordination training. Instead of cutting back from ordinands, new funding should be released to boost lay training. “It’s not just simply moving stuff from one column on the spreadsheet to another side of the spreadsheet: it’s actually about saying, ‘Let’s put a third column on the spreadsheet,’” Dr Shepherd argues.

But, while the dioceses wait to see whether the national Church will allocate lay ministry more money, other funding streams are also being explored. Ms Green recounts an innovative scheme in Gloucester diocese, which is enabling some students to come to Ridley Hall. There, a charity hired the lay students as part-time employees, which meant that they could spend the rest of the time training without drawing on diocesan funds.

In Manchester, the diocese is preparing a large bid for a grant from the Strategic Development Fund, part of which will go, not on planting city-centre resource churches and the like, but bolstering the diocese’s lay-ministry training. If it is successful, Mr Mackenzie expects other dioceses to follow suit.


SIGNIFICANT steps are clearly being taken in pursuit of the ambitions recently announced for lay ministry. Vocations work seems well on its way to dismantling early clergy-lay bifurcation in the process, and new training schemes are emerging. When asked to rate the C of E’s performance on lay vocations and ministry out of ten, scores among those I spoke to range from five to nine, depending on the diocese and perspective.

Concerns remain, however: not least that clericalism persists. And what hampers their excitement about the future most is the question of money. “If this really is a cultural shift in the Church, if it really is about empowering discipleship and lay ministry, then, you know, we need to put our money where our mouth is,” Dr Matthews says.

“The stat that’s often thrown around is 98 per cent of the Church of England spend 98 per cent of their time outside of church,” Mr Mackenzie concludes. “And I still think that’s where we’re falling down massively: empowering people to be disciples and ministers where they are.”

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