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‘If people can’t see us, they can’t be us’: recruiting extraordinary people

11 November 2022

Clive Price looks at efforts to support a wider range of vocations

The Revd Kate Tupling

The Revd Kate Tupling

HOW do you make ministry reflect reality — in a land where one in five is disabled, and one in eight is from a minority-ethnic background? The Church of England is on a quest to find out.

Some have said that that road is already well travelled, and those following it are in danger of “survey stress”. But the Church continues to conduct new research, recruit mentors, and host gatherings for people from varied racial and social backgrounds.

People who care for ordinands in the UK Minority Ethnic (UKME) community acknowledge the challenges that persist, and still feel the shockwaves from recent events, recounted in Azariah France-Williams’s Ghost Ship (Feature, 10 July 2020; Books, 28 August 2020; Podcast, 25 September 2020), and last month’s report If It Wasn’t For God, by the researcher Dr Selina Stone (News, 21 October).

But renewed activity to encourage both UKME and disabled ordinands and those who sense other callings is showing signs of change. Champions are emerging for those who want to pursue priesthood.

THERE is a growing nationwide network of diocesan disability advisers in the C of E. These are mostly volunteer posts, in which advisers work to equip and encourage churches in their dioceses to become more accessible and inclusive of disabled people. “Barrier-free belonging” is the aim.

The Revd Katie Tupling chairs that network, besides being part-time disability adviser for Oxford diocese. Her work in Oxford applies across diocesan life, including vocations and the training of assistant curates and incumbents. She explained the first challenge for disabled people who feel a call from God.

“Anyone who sits in a pew — or wherever they first hear that nudge, whisper, or sense of call — the first thing they are going to ask themselves is: ‘Do I see anybody who looks like me in the thing I’m being called to, whether it’s Reader ministry or ordained ministry?’

“The old adage of ‘What you don’t see, you don’t think you can be’ absolutely applies. So, the more there are visibly disabled people in those ministry areas already, the more likely you are to draw people into vocations who think: ‘I have a call from God and, therefore, I can do it.’

“If you’re disabled and you think you have a call, but don’t see anybody in that kind of ministry already, then you’re more likely to doubt yourself and think: ‘Well, there’s no one like me doing that; so maybe the call isn’t real.’”

Mrs Tupling has cerebral palsy, yet believed from the age of seven that she had a calling to become a priest — a long time even before women were admitted into the priesthood. She realised that calling at her ordination in 2003. The diocese of Birmingham’s director of ordinands at the time, Canon Marlene Parsons, was a champion for her.

“She had absolute faith in me and in my calling. For her, being disabled was as much part of me as being from Yorkshire, as having the life story I have, as being the height I was. She said: ‘God called you, knowing you were disabled.’” Canon Parsons saw her, Mrs Tupling said, as “a completely whole person”.

Her own experience has encouraged her as she seeks to champion others, “particularly when disabled people come to me and say: ‘I really admire you for having a dog collar’ — whatever the opening gambit is — and you tease out and get to that point where they say: ‘I think I’ve got a call, but I’m not sure.’”

WHAT impact is being made by those who champion a barrier-free Church for people with disabilities? As director of ordinands and of vocations and formation for Peterborough diocese, the Revd Haydon Spenceley is seeing people from “a lot of different backgrounds and experiences” preparing for the priesthood.

The Revd Haydon Spenceley

That has meaning for him as a wheelchair-user. “I’m encouraged that, as a disabled person, I can see the Church of England is beginning to think strategically about putting in more attention and resource towards deliberately increasing the vocations of disabled people.”

Two people supported his journey to ordination in 2014. “The champion for me was a guy called David Bird, who was my vicar in Northampton. He saw the potential, but he also recognised that he wasn’t disabled, and so he didn’t know how challenging it would be, but raised the possibility that it might be challenging for me.

“And then there was a wheelchair-using clergyperson called John Naudé . . . who trailblazed before me as a wheelchair-user in our area. He knew what it was to be disabled, but cared more about the rest of what I was about: whether it was right for me as a person to be an incumbent.”

Mr Spenceley hopes, in turn, to be as supportive of others as they pursue priesthood, whatever their background.

“It’s good to talk about inclusion, welcome, hospitality, and diversity, and I’m glad to talk about it,” he said, “but, actually, it’s my job to see the potential in every candidate, whatever place or space they come from, and to try and encourage that as much as I can and hope we catch the ones God is sending.”

THE Church of England publishes a ministries mentor directory, where those in historically under-represented groups who are interested in exploring lay or ordained ministerial vocations can find a suitable mentor from a wide range of backgrounds. The directory started in 2018, with just 12 volunteers. Now there are more than 100 around the country, and they can be contacted online.

The directory exists to provide support for those “who might feel that they would like to have a knowledgeable friend, who is like them, to accompany them along the way”. It is categorised under headings that include disability and UKME — as well as “Women” and “LGBTQ+”, among others.

There is also a growing network of diocesan minority-ethnic champions, appointed by bishops in 34 out of the 42 dioceses.

There are regular UKME vocations gatherings, conducted online during the pandemic and more recently in person, in which people can meet others on the same journey.

Helping to develop much of this support is the national minority-ethnic vocations officer, Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed. Coming from the Baptist tradition, she has been working in this area for 30 years with various organisations, and with the Church of England since 2016.

At that time, fewer than five per cent of recommended ordinands identified themselves as being from UKME backgrounds. That is expected to rise to 13 per cent this year.

“There is some progress. Clearly, people are feeling they can step forward into this calling, and that there are people there to catch them. That’s got to be a positive thing. But, as we know, the experience is a mixed bag for folk,” Ms Davidson-Gotobed said.

“That’s just what it is: it’s not ideal. But you have to deal with what you’ve got. I feel that the things that are in place are there to help and resource people, and they just need to tap into it, and dioceses need to continue to signpost.”

Ms Davidson-Gotobed emphasises that it is important not to view everything through “rosy glasses”, but also to realise that the negative stories are not everybody’s experience.

The Head of Vocations at the Ministry Division, the Revd Helen Fraser, who is working to encourage vocations to ordained ministry, suggests that growth in recommended ordinands shows a “shift in culture” and an “increase in confidence”. Stronger networks have emerged — particularly during the pandemic — as people have found alignments with one another.

Sheila Akao-Okeng is exploring ministry, and is enjoying the chance to talk to a mentor, arranged through the directory

“That, in itself, has been quite a key change,” Ms Fraser said. “But we know full well it’s not ‘Job done,’ and there’s still a lot to be done. We’re painfully aware that we can’t promise everybody coming through this process that they won’t have a difficult encounter or situation. I really, firmly wish we could promise that, but we can’t.”

The Revd John Root is a retired priest who has ministered for 50 years in multi-ethnic parishes across London, planting two Asian-language congregations, and now writes a blog, “Out of Many, One People”. He does not believe that the first step is to look for UKME ordinands.

“The first step is to be concerned about mission and the ministry of the Church in every possible way, through all the opportunities you get. In that context, as people’s faith comes alive, people begin to serve God in different ways, and you find people from different backgrounds offering help. It’s out of that that people move forward into thinking about ordained ministry.”

He believes that much depends on the attitude of the clergy, who need to be aware of people’s different cultural backgrounds and alert to their gifts. “If you’re welcoming and friendly, people from different groups will feel at home in the Church,” he said, “and will very often move forward into leadership positions.”

It is about having a positive mindset, he says. “Believe that God is going to build a Church of people from every background,” and look for opportunities to make that happen.

One encounter sticks in his mind: “We approached an Afro-Caribbean lady to be a Reader, and she said: ‘Not if you’re just looking for a black leader. Yes, if you think I have something to offer, but no, if you’re just ticking a box.’”


Clive Price is communications manager for the Methodist Ministers’ Housing Society and runs his own media consultancy. He is also a committee member for the Irish music festival Iúr Cinn Fleadh.

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