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Church of Ireland General Synod: ‘Largest-ever project set to revitalise ministry’

19 May 2023

Church of Ireland

Canon Gillian Wharton

Canon Gillian Wharton

Pioneer ministry

THE evolving field of pioneer ministry was discussed by the Synod on Saturday. The Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh, the Rt Revd Ferran Glenfield, introduced a motion to cement the new approach for the Church by setting up a Pioneer Ministry Governing Council.

After playing a video that introduced the concept of pioneer ministry, Bishop Glenfield explained that the new council would exist to champion and oversee the ministry, supporting every diocese as it cultivated and grew new pioneering projects. The Representative Church Body was releasing money to fund pioneering; the council would also oversee this spending.

Seconding the motion, Canon Gillian Wharton (Dublin & Glendalough) said that this was the largest-ever project intended to revitalise and refresh ministry in the Church of Ireland. The pioneer initiative had emerged from the central church institutions, and they were fully behind it. “It is rooted in the Church of Ireland: it is not an appendage,” she said. Pioneer ministry would emerge from parishes and dioceses and not be imposed on them, and all projects would need the endorsement of the diocesan bishop.

In response to questions about how pioneer projects would be assessed for funding, Bishop Glenfield explained that the Pioneer Ministry Council would screen the funds going to dioceses and to training pioneers: “It will be a groundswell from local parishes and bishops wanting to produce pioneer ministries.” The council would then assess the need and decide if money would be given to establish a pioneer community and train a minister, he said.

The motion was carried.



THE burdens placed on the clergy were on the Synod’s mind as it debated the latest report from the Commission on Ministry. The Revd Emma Carson (Connor), proposing that the Synod receive the report, said that the Commission was increasingly aware of the burden of compliance on parishes and the pressures that this placed on clergy well-being. They were therefore recommending that the Representative Church Body employ a central compliance officer, and that the diocese also take on compliance officers on a voluntary basis to ease the burden on parishes.

The Church needed to also consider the sometimes unrealistic expectations placed on its clergy, and, in particular, those working part-time or in rural areas. The benefits of sabbaticals should be more widely promoted, Ms Carson said. The Commission recommended that each diocese create a sabbatical policy, and that bishops actively encourage their clergy to take time off for retreats or courses that could refresh them. There were also eight recommendations on clergy tenure, and an upcoming motion that the Commission was bringing to hear the mind of the Synod on different proposals for archdeacons’ tenure.

The Dean of Kilmore, the Very Revd Nigel Crossey (Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh), seconded the report, and said that the Church was undoubtedly going through a period of profound change, which was never comfortable. There was innovation, such as part-time stipendiary ministers and ordained local ministry, pioneers, and these were “practical responses to a wealth of opportunity”, he said: they should celebrate that people were answering God’s call in such diverse ways.

There were many, personally, who felt that their vocation had not been treasured and protected by the wider Church, Dean Crossey warned. Having clear policies on sabbatical leave, retreat, and mid-career refreshment was vital. These should “not just be permitted, but promoted”. The relationship with Ireland’s political authorities felt at times like an “abusive” one, Dean Crossey said, given the “unfair, unreasonable, unacceptable, and, at times, unworkable” demands placed on churches regarding legal compliance issues. Ministry must be more than just administration.

The Archdeacon of Raphoe, the Ven. David Huss (Derry & Raphoe), said that there were dozens of references to archdeacons in new church policies and guidelines. “I’m not expecting Synod to cry for poor overloaded archdeacons, but does any other group have their job description added to in so free a way?” He asked: had the Church drifted away from the constitutional understanding of archdeacons as officers who assisted bishops in the management of the diocese, seeing them instead as a layer of middle management in a corporation?

The Archdeacon of Elphin, the Ven. Patrick Bamber (Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh), had enjoyed a sabbatical last year of several months, which had been a hugely beneficial time for him. Public buses could keep driving for hundreds of thousands of kilometres because they were maintained regularly, he explained: maybe the Church should take note.

Canon Nicola Halford (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory), the director of ordinands for the diocese, raised the issue of the five-year wait for ordained local ministers before they could cross over to full-time stipendiary ministry. The discernment process for new candidates for traditional ordination was only two years, she said.

Gillian Purser (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) asked how many people in the Church were denied the chance to pursue their vocation because of the academic level now required: a Master’s degree in theology. Everyone knew people who would make excellent priests but would never manage a Master’s degree. Why were they being excluded, she asked.

Joan Bruton (Meath & Kildare) noted that 60 per cent of clergy were 51 or older, which should act as a wake-up call. Was the Church encouraging vocations enough, she asked. “One size does not fit all.”

Joc Sanders (Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe) said that being a rural incumbent with multiple churches was an impossible job. Far too many clergy had had to retire with ill health, physical or mental, owing to the burdens of this kind of ministry, he said. Team ministry should be part of the solution to these issues, but this required priests experienced in working in teams.

In response, Dean Crossey said that the Church’s hierarchy was examining opportunities for different kinds of ministry, and all understood that one size could not fit all.

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