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New selection framework seeks ‘unseen-called’

25 June 2021

Criteria dropped after being deemed to be exclusive

Stephen Freeman

Chester diocese’s new priests outside the cathedral on Saturday

Chester diocese’s new priests outside the cathedral on Saturday

FROM this autumn, candidates for ordained ministry will be assessed against a new framework, in an effort to broaden the range of people exploring a ministerial vocation in the Church of England.

Instead of being evaluated against criteria, they will need to demonstrate six “qualities to be inhabited”. Candidates will now attend two national discernment events rather than one, and spend time preparing for both at diocesan level.

The changes have been made in response to concerns that the existing framework risks missing vocations of “the unseen-and-excluded called”. Diocesan bishops, diocesan directors of ordinands (DDOs), and others have warned that the existing framework favours middle-class candidates (News, 27 April 2018). The new approach also recognises that “multiple expressions of vocation” are being welcomed, as the Church moves towards a “mixed ecology” of ministry (News, 4 June, Comment, 18 June).

At the heart of the reforms is a move away from prescriptive criteria, set out in detail, to a briefer outline of six “qualities”. A background paper by the bishops who are leading the process explains: “Inhabiting a quality speaks more of a life-long process that is ever deepening and it might offer resonance with the ancient term ‘habitus’, which speaks of dispositions lived out through being immersed deeply in a wide variety of lived contexts and relationships, all of which shape our living and calling.”

The qualities — “grounded in the Church of England’s Ordinals” — are: “Love for God; Call to Ministry; Love for People; Wisdom; Fruitfulness; Potential”. During training, a seventh quality — “trustworthiness” — will be tested, “to reflect the commitments that ordained ministry requires of an individual in terms of safeguarding, professional conduct and living within the boundaries and values of the Church”.

A grid has been created as the basis for conversations between candidates and assessors, in which each quality is explored in the context of a candidate’s relationship to Christ, the Church, the world, and the self.

This will replace the present nine criteria against which candidates are assessed: Vocation; Ministry within the C of E; Spirituality; Personality and character; Relationships; Leadership and collaboration; Faith; Mission and evangelism; and Quality of mind.

The new approach was first formulated in the summer of 2018 with a working group including the Bishops of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich and Guilford, DDOs, staff from the National Ministry Team (formerly Ministry Division), and the Revd Lynne Cullens, chair of the National Estate Churches Network. It was led by the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner. It reported to the selection-criteria oversight group, which reports to the Ministry Council. Consultation took place with other groups, which included the House of Bishops, principals of theological-education institutions (TEIs), disability-forum members, and UK minority-ethnic clergy.

The working group has expressed particular concern for “the-unseen-called” — “those called by God but invisible to us in our current activity” — and “the-excluded-called” — “those deterred by our culture, systems, or practices”. The group wishes to “widen the access to our discernment processes to a wider range of candidates, expressing and exploring God’s call to them . . . we are particularly conscious of issues around ethnicity, socio-economic background, geography, and disability.”

In 2019, 7.8 per cent of ordinands were from BAME backgrounds (News, 19 June 2020). The socio-economic background of candidates will be recorded from this autumn. Four per cent of those sponsored for a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) declare a disability, but this is thought likely to be lower than the true number.

Currently, candidates start the discernment process in their diocese, before an interview with a sponsoring bishop which determines whether they progress to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP). The BAP then reports back to the sponsoring bishop with an advisory recommendation.

The process now includes two diocesan discernment phases and two national stages. At the first diocesan stage — described as “knowing and doing” — candidates will work with a vocations adviser. This is followed by an initial national stage: a non-residential day with six short interviews using “supportive interview techniques”. No decision will be made at this stage, but a short report will be created, highlighting areas to work on during the second stage, described as “being and growing”.

After more work at a diocesan level, the bishop will interview the candidate to decide whether to send the candidate to the second national stage: a two-day process of two interviews and one group exercise. At this point, one of five outcomes is possible. Candidates may be recommended for training with no conditions or “with advice” or “with conditions”. They may be “not yet recommended” or not recommended.

The grid has been adapted for licensed lay ministry and sent out to dioceses.

Bishop Tanner said on Wednesday: “The call of God is an astonishing and beautiful thing as it is made known in people’s lives: a gift both to the Church and the wider world. We are committed to work with all who experience that call, and to continue improving this work especially as we engage with groups and individuals that have felt excluded, overlooked, or ignored.

“There are two ways I am encouraged in this regard when it comes to the new process.

“Firstly, we have worked hard to listen carefully and work collaboratively. It has been really important to involve all sorts of groups in the design of this work as we pay attention to questions around disability, race, or educational background, among many other important aspects of diversity. A Church for the whole nation must be served by those who reflect that whole nation; difference is a gift, not an impediment.

“Secondly, we have tried to create a process which can continue to evolve. As with everything, I am sure we will find we still have much to learn, but this is an important step on that journey and we intend to keep improving it over the years. Collaboration, shared discernment, and faithful prayerfulness are at the centre of what we are trying to do as we co-operate with Christ in discerning his call for people to serve his church, world, and kingdom whether as lay or ordained ministers of his life-transforming good news.”



AMONG the guiding principles of the group’s work were simplicity and flexibility. The new grid is much shorter than the pages devoted to the nine criteria, and the terms are broader.

Previously, an entire set of criteria was dedicated to character, producing a detailed description of the sought-after candidate: one who was “relaxed and at ease with him/herself; and . . . able to reflect on him/herself with humour and a sense of perspective”; who had “a deep and robust faith which has been able to wrestle with doubt, disappointment and failure”; and who could “present themselves with self-confidence, tempered with humility, and to have the strength of character to stand up for what he/she perceives to be right, even if unpopular”.

The new framework is less prescriptive. It does not mention confidence, but asks whether candidates can “reflect with insight and humility on personal strengths, weaknesses, gifts and vulnerabilities”, and show evidence of “appropriate self-esteem especially in the face of criticism”. Because the emphasis is on qualities rather than criteria, certain expectations are left out, including “disciplined and regular pattern of corporate worship in the life of a church, including the regular receiving of Holy Communion”.

Perhaps what will immediately generate debate is the removal of “quality of mind” from the assessment. This criterion suggested that candidates should have “the necessary intellectual capacity and quality of mind to undertake satisfactorily a course of theological study and ministerial preparation and to cope with the intellectual demands of ministry”. This has been deemed to be off-putting to potential candidates. The new framework refers to “wisdom”, including “a desire to continue learning post-ordination”.

There are explicit references to safeguarding and to the “diversity of a mixed economy of traditional and fresh expressions of church”. During training, a seventh quality — “trustworthiness” — will be added, “to reflect the commitments that ordained ministry requires of an individual in terms of safeguarding, professional conduct and living within the boundaries and values of the Church”.

A word absent from the old criteria was “love”. This is prominent in the new framework, which will seek to assess love of God, people, and the Bible.



THE DDO for Manchester, Canon Nick Smeeton, has been using the new framework for three months. He said this week that the faces of candidates shown the grid had “lit up. . . People look at it and see ‘love for God’ and ‘love for people’ and the different ways in which that might be manifest and they understand that — it’s how they see themselves.” He said that he was “really optimistic” that it would “help us discern well, but also be a further step in reaching into communities that we haven’t reached well into before”.

The previous criteria “felt very much like a job spec”, he said. “That was quite difficult when you are working with people from a huge variety of backgrounds . . . when what we are talking about is a call from God. Those criteria were helping to show if that call was realistic and informed, but often I felt they were slightly squashing it in the process.”

The reference to “quality of mind” had been “really unhelpful” for candidates, he said. “If an individual and a DDO and their team and national Church discern that someone is being called into a ministry, then they are being called. To then say ‘But they are not clever enough, God has got it wrong,’ doesn’t play well with that.

“What we are talking about is if someone is going to be capable. There are different ways in which people can express and bring gifts to ministry, and not all are about being able to write essays.”


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