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Alarm after Synod hears of dramatic fall in the number of ordinands

11 July 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The outgoing chair of the Archbishops’ Council’s finance committee, John Spence, addresses the Synod from the podium on Monday morning

The outgoing chair of the Archbishops’ Council’s finance committee, John Spence, addresses the Synod from the podium on Monday morning

FEARS that long-term clergy posts will not be available may lie behind the low numbers of ordinands coming through the discernment process, the General Synod heard on Monday.

Numbers recommended for ordination have fallen in recent years, from 591 in 2020 — the highest for 13 years — to 510 in 2021 and 378 in 2022 (News, 27 January).

In a written answer provided to the Synod, it was confirmed that, by the end of last month, 239 candidates had been recommended to begin training, while 156 candidates had yet to complete their Stage 2 panel. It was also confirmed that a much higher than usual number of recommended candidates had chosen to defer the start of their training. Both the Covid-19 pandemic and the implementation of a new discernment framework have been cited as factors.

Introducing the Archbishops’ Council budget on Monday, the chair of its finance committee, John Spence, said that he “deeply” regretted that in 2024 less would be spent on Vote 1 (training for ministry) than in 2023. Between 2019 and 2021, there were 1375 people going through ordination training but next year it would be between 1000 and 1100.

“We are hearing reports of a lack of confidence among candidates that there will be long-terms posts for them, and among dioceses about their ability to fund those long-term posts,” he said. There was a need for “a growing number of ordinands to refresh, renew, rejuvenate the priesthood, which is so critical to us”.

Last year, against a background of cuts to stipendiary posts across multiple dioceses, the then chair of the Ministry Council, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, spoke of the need to “overcome this discrepancy between our ambitious aspirations that require stipendiary clergy and our current short-term situation in relation to finance” (News, 11 February 2022).

In 2021, a paper — Perspectives on Money, People and Buildings — circulated to bishops and diocesan secretaries, noted “concern that, with a reduction in stipendiary posts, it will be more difficult for curates successfully completing their curacies to move into a first incumbency” (News, 5 February 2021).

It went on to warn: “If in any year there are insufficient curacies or first incumbencies, there will be two significant consequences: firstly, funds invested by the Church in training additional ordinands and curates may be perceived to have been wasted; and, secondly, the messaging/mood generated [may] deter candidates and lead to a shock contraction in the pipeline of new clergy. Exacerbated by recruitment freezes, or policies to recruit only from within, in some dioceses there is a real risk that this could occur in 2021.”

Last year, a new “interim funding stream” entitled “Posts of First Responsibility” was agreed by the Archbishops’ Council to help dioceses fund curates who had completed their ordination training but had been unable to secure a first post. A total of £4.3 million was allocated to 19 dioceses. It also spent £10.3 million helping 25 dioceses to fund an increased number of curacy posts.

A press release issued by Church House in February said that the Strategic Ministry Board had released £5.6 million in grants to dioceses in a “five-year arrangement to ensure that no suitably qualified curate is left without a post”.

This week, Synod members raised concerns about the impact of lower numbers of ordinands on Theological Education Institutions (TEIs). The Revd Jeremy Moodey (Oxford), a member of the board at Trinity College Bristol, noted that the Ministry Council had forecast that the Church needed 630 new ordained ministers a year to achieve the outcomes in the Vision and Strategy projections.

The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, who now chairs the Ministry Council, confirmed that both his council and the Archbishops’ Council “share the concerns around the low numbers of new ordinands starting training”. Work would begin in the Autumn on how to “renew the Church’s shared task in discovery and nurture of new ministerial vocations”, both lay and ordained.

The principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, warned that, with a second year of an “exceptionally low intake”, “considerable deficits” were forecast, given inflation and a rise of just three per cent in fees. He urged the Archbishops’ Council to increase the fees now, while reserves were available, rather than risk an “expensive bail-out” later.

Questions continue to be asked about whether the Church Commissioners — who have a £10.3-billion endowment fund — should release more funding to relieve the pressure on diocesan finances. Straitened finances have been cited by dioceses as one of the drivers of significant reorganisation, including reduced numbers of stipendiary posts.

During a presentation on the Archbishops’ Council budget, Mr Spence noted that the aggregate deficit of dioceses forecast for 2024-27 was £200 million. It had been £19 million in 2019. Parish share had fallen from £334 million in 2017 to £308 million in 2022, while the number of regular givers had fallen by 15 per cent between 2019 and 2021.

Given that 55 per cent of diocesan expenditure went on stipends, “there are only so many surplus houses and investments that can be realised without cutting into that stipendiary priest number — a real worry.”

He stressed that Apportionment had been “held flat” at £31.3 million, and that significant increases had been made in the amount of national church funding made available to dioceses (News, 11 May 2022; 31 March). He also highlighted the variation in giving across the dioceses. The number of church members who were regular givers varied from 30 per cent to 64 per cent across the dioceses, while the average weekly gift ranged from £8 to £26, with no correlation with deprivation.

Among those challenging funding flows was the new Archdeacon of Liverpool — the least wealthy diocese by historic assets — the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes. “The amount of staff time and energy that goes into constantly having to develop plans for bids for new things is a huge inefficiency built into this capitalist approach to funding,” she argued.

She observed that, “a large part of the Church Commissioners’ money for distribution comes from things like Queen Anne’s Bounty, which was designed to subsidise in perpetuity the incomes of poorer clergy”. She urged the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and “anyone else who might listen”, to rebalance the way that funding was distributed, to “give a long-term, sustainable, and stress-free stability to diocesan finances”.

While sharing Canon Spence’s diagnosis of the challenges facing the Church, Carl Hughes, his successor (News, 31 March), suggested that a “significant change in the basic funding flows across the Church” was coming.

He observed: “In my view, diocesan apportionment is no longer fit for purpose, and Lowest Income Communities Funding (News, 7 November 2019) is ripe for review. Accordingly, in the coming months we will be considering the best way forward for diocesan support in the context of a more detailed understanding of the financial condition of each diocese.”

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