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Mixed Ecology Church: the shock of the new

09 July 2021

Dioceses are experimenting with new forms of curacy. Tim Wyatt investigates

Matthew Sheppard/Diocese of York

“A CHURCH where mixed ecology is the norm.” This is the latest catchphrase, coined by the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, last year, to describe the emerging Church of England, where traditional parish structures co-exist side by side with fresh expressions, church-plants, and pioneer ministries.

The mixed ecology is real in ordination training, where mixed-mode and part-time ordinands rub shoulders with (and probably now outnumber) traditional residential students. Dioceses are now expected to launch hundreds of new worshipping communities.

In the light of these innovations, is the curacy of today able to ensure that the next generation of priests is as flexible and creative as the changing Church demands?


THE most significant innovation is the church-planting curacy. This model sees a curate arrive in a well-established church charged with learning the ropes, building a team of volunteers, and then, at some point (either during the curacy or on its completion), moving on to lead a church-plant elsewhere.

In many ways, this model is not new, especially within the Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), church-planting network, says the Bishop of Islington, Dr Ric Thorpe, who leads the diocese of London’s work on church-planting. When leading a large HTB-affiliated church in east London, Dr Thorpe recruited new deacons with the express intention of preparing them, over three years, to take members of his congregation as church-planting teams into moribund parishes near by.

“As soon as you’ve done it once, you then start thinking: this was really amazing; we’d love to do it again,” he says. “And, as soon as you start doing that, you start thinking about your leadership pipeline.” Now, as the “church-planting bishop”, Dr Thorpe has worked this into the diocese: 18 churches have been designated resource churches and given additional funding to recruit church-planting curates.

In many places, the timeline is being accelerated even further: curates are being placed in a brand new church-plant from day one rather than first training for a year or two at the sending parish. The Revd Matt Southcombe is an example. His title post, St Nicholas’s, Bristol, was so new that, when his curacy began in the summer of 2018, the church had not yet held its first service.

St Nicholas’s is a nationally funded city-centre resource church, led by a team from HTB. Thus Mr Southcombe is working full-time as a de facto deputy rector at a nascent church-plant, supervised by a priest in his first incumbency.

This model is not unique to the HTB network, and is growing fast across the Church. As well as in London and Bristol, similar curacies have been formed in Lincoln, Oxford, Southwell & Nottingham, Coventry, and elsewhere. Experimentation is rife: some dioceses have also tried placing planting curates back at the church where they worshipped before ordination. These “stay-in-place” curacies contradict the long-established practice of giving new clergy wider experience.

Staying with a familiar church makes sense, however, if you intend to plant from that congregation, allowing you to build up a team of fellow planters , Dr Thorpe explains.


CHURCH-planting curacies differ from the traditional model in other ways, too. Rather than allowing three years to build up a panoply of priestly skills and experiences, they tend to offer more accelerated and specialised training.

The Revd Tom Murray, Curate and Leader of Cutteslowe Connected Church, a church-plant in the diocese of Oxford  

The Revd Tom Murray’s curacy is leading a church-plant on a council estate in north Oxford. Although attached, technically, to St Andrew’s parish near by (which started the estate plant a decade earlier), in reality he spends almost all his time as the sole minister on the estate, learning as he goes and in supervision with his incumbent, the Revd Dan Heyward.

Mr Murray has years of experience as a lay associate minister of a large church, and said that his church-planting curacy did not “waste time” going over what he was already good at. He felt that he had received as much training from Mr Heyward as a traditional curate would, just of a very different nature, discussing church multiplication and community leadership “rather than how to do the liturgy for a particular service”.

The Revd Lydia Holder, a planting curate at Christ Church W4 (Chiswick), in London, said much the same, even though she is yet to launch her own plant. Her incumbent wanted someone who could lead from the beginning without any hand-holding, and her training has focused on discerning how she will lead a plant in the future.

The Revd Lydia Holder, Assistant Curate of Christ Church W4

A repeated refrain among church-planting curates was that they had little time to take part in Initial Ministerial Education (IME) 2, the standard diocesan post-ordination training programme. The Revd Dr Sarah Lawrence, who runs IME2 for the diocese of Lincoln, said that she was able to be flexible with those curates who were leading church plants — as well as others serving curacies while in full-time secular employment — recognising that many could not take part in the programme as fully as others.

The “not desperately demanding” portfolio of evidence needed to complete IME2 was also skewed towards their experience, she said, meaning that planting curates were not penalised for being unable to find the time to pick up cathedral experience, for instance.

In a nutshell, “planting curates are trained to plant, while other curates are trained to do normal parish ministry”, Dr Thorpe says. Planting curacies are right only for those with a clear vocation to church-planting, and who have significant previous experience of church ministry and leadership already under their belt.

The Revd John White holding the first sweetcorn grown and harvested at Hazelnut Community Farm, BristolThe Archdeacon Missioner in Coventry diocese, the Ven. Barry Dugmore, said that he placed ordinands in planting curacies only if they had the right skills and experience. This was not just about age; some of Coventry’s younger ordinands had already been involved in church-planting; thus it was foolish to shoehorn them back into an orthodox parish curacy.

Mr Southcombe worked in a church for eight years before beginning training for the priesthood, which meant that he was undaunted at the idea of using his curacy to plant a church. Others in his cohort, who had shifted careers from entirely secular employment, would not have been ready for such responsibility, he believed.

Mr Murray agreed that the role required the right experience. “I recognise this curacy is not going to be the nice three years in a sandbox, where you get to learn and play and discover new things about yourself. I feel the weight of leadership; the buck does stop with me.”


BESIDES church-planting, C of E dioceses are offering a huge range of curacy options. In Chelmsford, the Revd James Gilder is in the middle of a curacy that is split 50-50 between the parish and working as the diocesan environment officer.

Another curate in the same diocese — the Revd Matthew Simpkins — had spent half his week working as chaplain to the Bishop of Chelmsford.

The Revd Calum Burke, newly ordained, will split his curacy between a resource church in the diocese of Worcester, and ministry in the Gulf. Others are serving their curacies as prison, university, or school chaplains, while ministers in secular employment will fit their curacies in with their existing jobs.

In the diocese of Coventry, some curates are offered extended 18-month placements in another parish which is declining and in vacancy: in effect, becoming turnaround ministers only a year or so after deaconing.

Archdeacon Dugmore said that, in at least two cases, this had been a huge success,. The curates had been given formal interim-minister status, with the possibility of becoming incumbent.

Pioneering curacies are also seeing growth. Unlike planting curates, pioneer curates go through a separate discernment process. There is no exact blueprint for a pioneer curacy — indeed, part of the point is that they take on something new. Again, such curates are often given the responsibility and time to lead a new project.

The Revd John White, a pioneer curate in Bristol diocese, was one year into an otherwise traditional parish curacy when he felt called to a new worshipping community that met not in a church, but at a city farm, growing its own food as a response to the climate crisis.

Last September, he launched Hazelnut Community Farm, and was freed from his former parish responsibilities. His curacy has been “learning by doing”. He has had to study communion in depth to work out how canon law works in the novel context of a city farm.

“Actually, I have more knowledge about the Church of England because I’m not just doing it, but reflecting on it, thinking about it, and seeing where it fits.”

Mr Murray said much the same of his planting curacy: “I feel like I’ve been put in the deep end with a wonderful safety net, which is quite a hotbed of learning.”

In contrast with the high-profile, multi-million-pound city-centre resource churches that many planting curates serve in, Hazelnut is owned and run by its grass-roots community. “We’ve been able to plant a church with my curate’s wage plus a couple of thousand pounds,” Mr White said. “So it’s a model that is really affordable.”

But he questioned whether the broader Church was really committed to this kind of pioneering, and explained that his diocese would not pay him to continue Hazelnut once his curacy ends, forcing him into self-supporting ministry.

“When they say pioneering, they might mean ‘Start an Alpha course,’ but they don’t actually mean do something properly unique. I still think the church structures aren’t necessarily set up for that.”


DR THORPE acknowledges that his plans for rolling out more planting curacies have encountered resistance from those who saw it as unnecessary tinkering with a centuries-old system that still worked. Those with a higher view of priesthood had pushed back on theological grounds, arguing that leadership of any worshipping community must always reside in a priest.

Another criticism is that new models of curacy can seem exclusive. Unlike traditional curacies, which are organised by the bishop, in many planting curacies incumbents give posts to people they know from within their own networks.

Ms Holder admitted that this had happened in her case. Christ Church W4 had asked her to be their planting curate, because she had previously worked as an intern there: “To be honest, it was a little bit of ‘who you know’,” she said.

Mr Murray and his incumbent worked together before Mr Murray was ordained.

Then there are fears about creating a generation of specialists. Mr Simpkins said: “It seems to me that curacies are about providing fertile ground for God to work with what happens next. If we have too narrow, or specialised curacies, it’s a bit like an 11-plus for priests.”

The Revd Matthew Simpkins leading a Messy Church messy baptism at St Leonard’s, Lexden, Colchester, where he is Priest-in-Charge

Are such priests a less useful resource for the future Church to deploy across an ever-changing mixed ecology of ministry?

Mr Murray said that this was on his mind. “As much as it pains me, there are still some important boxes I need to tick. I am trying to do my BCP communions; get some of the more challenging crematorium funerals, because I recognise you want to make that person deployable wherever God is calling them.”

Others, however, question this orthodoxy. Mr White argued that, despite spending most of his curacy at his community farm, he had gained a huge breadth of relevant experience in fields such as safeguarding, website design, volunteer recruitment, charity structure, and more.

Clergy trained under traditional curacies had overseen decade after decade of failure, he said. “Do we really need more BCP? Or do we need more people that are able to step outside and engage people missionally?”

Mr Southcombe agreed. The Church needed “flexibility and change at all levels. . . It does need a whole sea change of thought; we can’t just keep doing what we’ve always done. It’s not easy, but it is, I think, what we’re called to do.”

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