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Vocations: Training looks to wider horizons

04 March 2022

Ordinand numbers have reached a 30-year high. That and the pandemic mean that the training on offer has had to change. Susan Gray reports

St Stephen’s House, Oxford 

St Stephen’s House ordinands at the altar in St John’s, Iffley Road, Oxford

St Stephen’s House ordinands at the altar in St John’s, Iffley Road, Oxford

IN THE year when bishops’ advisory panels moved online, and theological colleges adapted to Zoom seminars, the number of candidates recommended to train for ordination reached a 30-year high.

Recent figures suggest that the average candidate is now a woman in her early forties. More than one in ten identifies as UKME. As theological-education institutions (TEIs) ushered in adjustments to meet the disruption of the pandemic, wider discussions rippled out about what further changes were needed to a system originally modelled on fresh-faced male graduates in order to meet the needs of today’s older and more socially and educationally diverse cohort.

The Europe diocesan director of ordinands (DDO), Canon William Gulliford, says that measures to make ordinands better reflect the parishioners whom they will serve is a process that has been going on since the 1920s, when the untapped clerical potential of older war veterans was sought. And northern bishops have historically tried to recruit ordinands from that province, so that parishes would receive priests who understood their area.

Having served as a DDO for 18 years, Canon Gulliford says that preparing candidates for priesthood is more art than science. He would like more attention given to the period either side of entering a TEI, the pre-training Ministry Experience Scheme (undertaken by some 18-30-year-olds) lengthened from one year to two, and greater support given to curates and their training incumbents.

“It’s in the pre-stage that people are most receptive to learning, while they’re discerning a vocation,” he says. “And the problem is that, once they get recommended for training, they’ve hardened their views. The most fertile period is in the discernment period.

“And it is sad how many curacies go wrong. I don’t know exactly why that is, other than that the intensity of the relationship between a curate and an incumbent is very like a marriage. And it’s easy for it to get unstuck, because of lack of clarity at the outset, or just human failure. Again, I wish there were more of a science to that. But curacies need a lot of careful setting up and support.”

Placements are a key part of ordination training. “The more variety of experience individuals have had a chance to have in different parishes, different pastoral settings, the more their imaginations and horizons are extended, the more their sense of what their vocation is is given shape. So, finding places of different tradition, different demography, different expectations, is really useful.”

During the pandemic, Zoom and YouTube have given windows into other communities. “I would never have imagined how easily I could direct people to look at different sorts of churches to get an initial sense.”

The episodic nature of online interactions gives ordinands a chance to pause and reflect, “and let stuff sink in”.

He refers to an online encounter between a hospital chaplain and a young academic theologian as particularly notable. “Just an hour and a half’s conversation has transformed their sense of ministry, because things are very acute in a hospital setting. It set them thinking about life and death, and the chaplain was able to speak about atonement and grace.”

That ordination training can be residential, or non-residential and context-based, is a strength. Attending a residential college gives ordinands the experience of building and being in a community, but candidates who live out for their studies enjoy an aspect of this community when they gather for residential weekends.

And while candidates with children, working spouses, and commitments, may feel that studying from home is the obvious fit, Canon Gulliford urges them to look at residential training as well. “Some candidates rule it out before they’ve been given a proper chance to think about it. And there are there are artful ways of doing it.”


FOR the Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, the Revd Andreas Wenzel, residential training and family responsibilities are nor an either/or but a both/and option. Drawing on his own experience of relocating from Germany, then welcoming his first baby, Miriam, while an ordinand, he says that balancing childcare and a full timetable are preparation for the priesthood.

“It prepares you well for ministry as a married clergyperson. Because residential training at St Stephen’s House is quite a committed pathway, where times of prayer, study, and placements are during the day, with an early start at 7.30 and a fairly late end at 6.30, with evening prayer. You’re well prepared for a parochial lifestyle that involves a committed routine to the life of the Church and the pastoral ministry of the priest.

The Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, the Revd Andreas Wenzel

“Of course, that brings quite a few tensions, and brings timetabling discussions to the forefront, because you need to negotiate as a family when you eat together, or when do you see the children, and when do you take them to school? And there is no clear answer to this. But these questions need to be addressed for anybody who is in that situation of family life and ministry. St Stephen’s House anticipates many of the tensions and challenges that future ministry will bring by including them in the training experience. Nothing is hidden.”

A perception of Oxford as a place of rowing, dining, and debating should not obscure pathways for candidates training in the birthplace of the Oxford Movement. By offering the Durham Common Awards, as well as Oxford University degrees, training is open to candidates from varied educational backgrounds.

To broaden access still further, St Stephen’s House launched the Edward King Centre in December, an online portal for people exploring vocation and theology.

“It will definitely take off pressure in their academic timetable. Whatever pathway they’re on, whether they are embarking on part-time or full-time training, in the end, the credits available accumulated over the course of a year will benefit them towards their degree. It might help them to consider . . . a route that is then potentially a bit shorter or less stressful. It makes their respective academic pathway much more manageable.”

The Principal of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, in Birmingham, Professor Clive Marsh, says that one of the strengths of the Common Awards is their flexibility in assessing ordinands entering training with different educational experiences.

“Durham actually gives us flexibility as institutions to really be creative in providing appropriate forms of assessment for people who may struggle academically. That doesn’t mean it reduces the requirements, but it means that people can actually find ways of being assessed for what they do know rather than for what they don’t.”

Queen’s also offers both full-time and part-time residential — or part-time non-residential — course routes for Anglican ordinands. “We try as best as we can to work with the student, given the life stage they’re at and their personal circumstances, and where they are geographically. The past two years, and the expansion of what we’ve been forced to do online, has also opened up rich new possibilities of hybrid teaching and learning, a mixture of face-to-face and online encounter.”

The college is also celebrated for its Centre for Black Theology, and its ethnically diverse intake.

The Principal of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Professor Clive Marsh

“We’re a very ethnically diverse community. So that’s instantly an advantage for us as an educational institution. People who come and look at us can see that we’re an example of the range of people that make up British society. And we have as part of our life a very lively, active, and growing Centre for Black Theology, which feeds important things into our life as a whole. Anglicans who come for open days can see that we are a diverse community, in a way that makes us, as an institution, more of a safe space and a comfortable space for someone who then sees that they won’t be the only UKME person in the dining hall or in the group.”

Professor Marsh continues: “We encourage the dialogues that must go on between those of us in historic denominations. I speak as a lay Methodist that has to accept the colonialism that is implicit within our traditions, and the denominations we need to be challenged by, that are much more attuned to the post-colonial experience of Christians from elsewhere in the world. We have to enable those dialogues to go on, because that’s part of the life of Christianity — not just in this country, but across the world.”


PROVIDING clerics for posts closer to home, whether rural or inner-city, while capitalising on the life experience of ordinands, is another trend in clergy training.

St Mellitus College, in London, is pioneering a “Caleb Stream” and a “Peter Stream” for candidates who do not fit the young-undergraduate model. The Caleb Stream prepares older candidates who have church and leadership experience to take on a church position after a year’s training, reasoning that previous career experience will already have equipped them with requisite leadership skills.

Candidates on the Peter Stream may not have had a traditional academic education; so they take their BAP after the first year of training, when they will have had a chance to learn more about the Church of England. Holy Trinity, Brompton, supports 20 to 30 clergy a year, offering the church’s 100-plus different groups as placement opportunities. Supporting candidates in this way creates a more level playing field between those who know the ropes about the timing of BAPs and academic start dates, and those who are newer to the Church.

But, as Professor Marsh points out, clergy formation is not necessarily something that can be accelerated. “Even though people might have, sometimes, seemingly extensive experience in a particular church tradition, actually, there’s work to be done on finding out more about their own their own denomination, including the Church of England.”

And, while placements and extended studies are challenging, they give a liturgical and sacramental perspective that it is impossible to acquire in a rush.

Anastasia JobsonFinal-year students at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, in a “Preparing for Denominational Ministry” session

“Their primary identity is very much as somebody training for ministry,” the McDonald Professor in Christian Theology at St Mellitus College, Dr Jane Williams, says of her students who are on placement from day one of their course. But this does not mean that the academic side of formation is neglected.

“I am 100 per cent convinced that academic theology is necessary. If you’re going to be a leader in mission, and a priest, in your community, I think you need to know what God is like. You need to do doctrine, you need to be able to really resource yourself and others on the Bible. You need to be able to understand where the Church has come from, and church history. You need to understand liturgical choices.

“I think you need to be grounded in classroom academics, so that you can actually help to give vision to the communities that you’re working in. But I also think that you don’t find out how to be a priest to people if you don’t engage with people who are calling you to do that.

“So, I think you do need proper exposure to ministry, parish ministry, co-operation ministry, which often teaches you things about yourself that there’s no other way to find out.”

Fr Wenzel concludes: “There’s an important aspect of academic formation, I think, that can’t be lost, and can’t be replaced by simply saying: ‘Oh, well, he learned that from the job — all a priest does really is stretch out their hands and say a few words, and then that’s the eucharist, and that’s fine.’

“That would be robo-priests. So we don’t want that.”

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