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Living in Love and Faith: What Church awaits us, ask ordinands

23 February 2024

Ordinands and those in the discernment process in the C of E talk to Madeleine Davies of their fears about the impact of LLF decisions

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Bishops at the General Synod last November. Ordinands say that they should have a say in changes that affect their future ministry

Bishops at the General Synod last November. Ordinands say that they should have a say in changes that affect their future ministry

AMONG those closely following the forthcoming General Synod debate on Living in Love and Faith (LLF) will be ordinands and those in the discernment process in the Church of England, for whom the shape of the Church in which they hope to serve remains in the balance.

This week, several of them spoke to the Church Times about the impact that the decisions being made were having on their progress towards ordained ministry and on their personal lives.

They include a young woman who is waiting to learn whether her engagement to another woman can be followed by marriage; and an ordinand who, on requesting to defer their priesting, was told by their bishop that they would have to resign their orders.

Although the Church’s bishops have given a commitment that opponents of the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) will have “an honoured place within the Church”, members of the network Orthodox Ordinands tell of deep anxiety about their future.

The conversation is taking place in the context of a steep fall in the number of ordinands in the Church: from 591 in 2020 — the highest for 13 years — to 379 last year (News, 11 July 2023). While the principals of theological colleges and courses (TEIs) have cautioned against attributing the decline to LLF — and Church House, Westminster, cites the Covid-19 pandemic as the key factor — the Orthodox Ordinands group reports that potential candidates are questioning whether to pursue their calling in the Church. Of the total 379 recommended for ordination last year, only 342 began training: an unusually high deferral rate.

 

WHEN it comes to LLF, much has yet to be decided. While Parts One and Two of the Pastoral Guidance were published in December (News, 15 December 2023), Part Three, on ministry, has yet to be finalised. This includes work on replacing Issues in Human Sexuality, the document that candidates for ordained ministry are asked to read and assent to live in accordance with.

This third section of the Pastoral Guidance will also set out “whether ministers are able to enter into same-sex civil marriage without an expectation of celibacy”. The “Commitments” paper set to come before the General Synod this month refers to “exploring the process for clergy and lay ministers to enter same-sex civil marriages” (News, 9 February). It recognises that “not all bishops would be content to ordain or license such ministers”, and states that bishops “would need to commit to being transparent with candidates for ministry about their own personal approach and commit to exploring alternative national approaches for candidates who they, in conscience, could not sponsor”.

Voting figures illustrate that the House of Bishops is divided on the matter: a “narrow majority” are in favour of removing restrictions. The paper refers to the possibility of “uneven treatment of ministers in different parts of the country”.

Among the ten commitments set out in the paper is the appointment of an interim Independent Reviewer to “monitor the practical outworkings of the bishops’ commitment to value and respect different theological understandings”. It asserts: “We will do everything we can to ensure that no one feels pushed out of Church. We will seek a commitment to avoid using the civil courts to settle our disputes.”

 

FOR Sarah (all names have been changed), who is due to attend a bishops’ advisory panel (BAP) in June, the lack of clarity about whether the clergy would be permitted to enter into same-sex marriages had made it difficult for her and her fiancée to make plans since their engagement last year. “There were rumours that clergy marriage guidelines would change and we would be able to have a marriage followed by Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF); but now we are only planning for a civil partnership and PLF,” she said this week. “It is difficult to not feel as though I am entering an institution where my relationship status will be seen as second-class.”

Having an “affirming” bishop and diocesan director of ordinands (DDO), she had not been asked any “unusually probing questions”, she said. “However, in my first meeting with my DDO, upon asking about my relationship status, she stressed that, if I were to get married to my fiancée, I would never be able to go further with the discernment process.

“I have found that, in interviews and discussions in the discernment process, I keep being questioned repeatedly about my ability to work with people in the Church who hold different beliefs and viewpoints to me. Somehow, I doubt that straight candidates are asked similarly with such intensity.”

When it came to where to train, she had felt “very restricted”, she said. “I feel that I am being forced to consider colleges that may not suit my style of worship or theology, but are the only options because they are inclusive. Looking further ahead to the future, I’m anxious about finding a curacy, as I worry that an increasing number of churches won’t want to consider a queer woman as a curate — and that inclusive churches won’t have funds for a curate.”

Thomas, a youth worker in London who entered the discernment process in 2022, said this week that he had stepped back before his Stage Two BAP, as his bishop at the time was not willing to sponsor him unless he undertook to enter into a civil partnership. “My partner and I are longing for marriage, and neither he — nor I — would be willing to accept civil partnerships as the official recognition of our relationship,” he said this week. “I would prefer to wait to see what comes over the next 12 months. Otherwise, I fear I can’t continue to follow my calling and will, instead, marry my partner, which in itself is a calling to family life with someone whom, I believe, God has put into my life.”

Laura will be ordained this Petertide. Her discernment and selection process mostly took place online, because of the pandemic. This week, she recalled the “pregnant pause” that followed her telling the DDO that she was bisexual while married to a man. She was encouraged to emphasise this latter aspect and her belief in monogamy. There was, she said, some “quite nasty” language in Issues, which states that bisexuality “inevitably involves being unfaithful”. She considered it “just luck” that the person whom she fell in love with was a man rather than a woman.

The current climate felt “precarious”, with an “extra level of scrutiny”, she said. The bishops in her sending diocese, where she will begin a curacy this year, all hold a traditional position on sexuality, and some have questioned her decision to return there. Many gay clergy had already left, she reported.

But, she said, “It’s my home. I grew up here. I want to stay and help make it a safer, more welcoming church for LGBTQ+ Christians, not run away from it.”

There was also always a degree of flux in dioceses, she said: bishops retired and moved. “The tables turn, and everyone moves around; so a lot of it is what you can weather in the mean time.”

IN OCTOBER, Orthodox Ordinands wrote to the Archbishops to say that the PLF left them feeling “vulnerable and concerned” (News, 10 November 2023). The letter was signed by 161 ordinands, representing both Evangelical and Catholic traditions.

This month, the group raised concerns about a “postcode lottery for ordinations”: while some dioceses had made provision for people to be ordained by bishops who shared their theological convictions, others had not.

“Implementing a national scheme for alternative ordinations regardless of diocese would be one significant step to reshaping the narrative, and showing ordinands that they can move through the process and find a curacy at the end,” Matt Porter, a theological student in training at Oak Hill, said. He warned that, “if some leaving training cannot get ordained by a supportive bishop, then they will leave this summer.”

This month, a spokesperson for the diocese of London confirmed that, for those being ordained this year, the London College of Bishops and the Bishop of Ebbsfleet were “able to offer appropriate provision reflecting the range of perspectives consonant with Anglican teaching and tradition”.

John, an ordinand in his final year, who is due to begin a curacy in a diocese in which the bishops do not share his theological convictions, said this week that he praised God “for the kindness of my diocesan bishop in agreeing to an alternative ordination. . . It has provided a way for me to get ordained in the Church of England with my conscience and integrity intact, and has allowed me to go to a curacy where I think I will thrive.” But he was conscious of friends who had made a similar request and had been told by their diocese that it would not be possible.

For some other ordinands, the future looks uncertain. One seeking a curacy reported this week that two dioceses had been “unable to find anything which is orthodox. . . The instinct is to walk away, not get ordained, and serve God in some other way. This teaching is Jesus’s: it isn’t ours to change.”

Another related that a request to defer their priesting “to allow more time to process theology and to await November’s release of the Pastoral Guidance” had been met by “the demand to resign my orders if not ordained in 2024.

“The Bishop has questioned my integrity and discernment, and made this a moral issue. The impact has been a turmoil of grief, confusion, anxiety, and stress. I no longer feel safe in the C of E, and certainly not in my diocese.”

 

ORTHODOX ORDINANDS is in touch with people who are currently in the discernment process, as well as candidates in training. This month, it reported “very real uncertainty” among the former, concerning “whether they will be welcome, wanted, or supported when it is known that they hold to the traditional view — whether there will be appropriate theological training colleges to go to, and curacies provided. . .

“Potential candidates are telling us they are looking at the increasingly polarised and messy situation within the Church of England and wondering if that is the life they wish to enter into in ministry — whether they could do so with integrity, without feeling compromised.”

Max is currently in the discernment process. Despite the promise of “an honoured place within the Church”, he questions whether this will be possible, given the potential for traditionalists to be equated with racists and homophobes. “How can we say the Church won’t expel those people who describe themselves as ‘orthodox’?” he asked this week. “Who would work alongside a racist? I don’t see how this isn’t a debate of absolutes.”

Nevertheless, he remained calm about the future: “For either camp, our toil is to express God’s love and spread the gospel, LLF/PLF or not: the Great Commission isn’t affected.”

Stephen, who has recently begun training and holds a traditional view, is conscious of being in the minority in his theological college where, he said, “a vocal minority in the student body would rather not have us in the Church of England.” Teaching staff had been supportive, however, he said, and he was aware that some shared his convictions.

“In the discernment process and in conversations with my diocese, my sense is that these issues are entirely sidelined and treated as unimportant,” he said this week. “As a young ordinand seeking a stipendiary title post, my fear is that orthodox parishes will not be given curates and/or that orthodox candidates will be pressured into serving in contexts which have moved in a way that their conscience will not allow.

“Since my diocese is now in vacancy, there is also a sense of anxiety in relation to the appointment of a new diocesan bishop, given that the previous bishop was relatively sympathetic.”

 

ASKED about the slowdown in ordinand numbers, TEI principals sounded a note of caution about attributing it to LLF.

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, said that none of the college’s ordinands had deferred ordination because of the PLF, although several had expressed concern about the uncertainty of the situation. He was cautious about attributing the slowdown to this factor, saying that numbers “fluctuate year by year.”

But he agreed that a “national approach” needed to be developed to provide assurance to ordinands across the spectrum of theological convictions, and to encourage vocations. “I have heard from a number of DDOs that the new discernment process is taking longer,” he said this month. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if it means that people are more ready by the time they come through into training, but it’s also important not to put people off.”

The Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Helen Dawes, said that last year’s ordinand numbers indicated that the drop had been “felt across the board, which makes me think it’s not primarily driven by concerns about the implementation of the Prayers of Love and Faith”. Neither was it a matter of “residential v. non-residential training”, she suggested: the numbers entering full-time training on both pathways had fallen by similar amounts. It was the drop in part-time ordinands that had been “noticeably smaller”.

Most of Westcott’s ordinands were younger than the current average and often in a “quite precarious” financial situation, she said. “Whilst we are glad to support the formation of the younger and more diverse leaders that the Church is looking for, it does raise the possibility that their existing financial precarity is an issue for some potential ordinands.”

There was “very broad support” at the college for moving forward with the PLF, she said. But it was “important that we continue to be a community where people can form, develop, or change their views on complex issues — and where, if we disagree, we can do so thoughtfully and with one another’s humanity at the front of our minds”. The trustees had expressed their support for using the PLF for members of the college community in regular services.

In addition to the pandemic and the new selection process, uncertainty about the availability of long-term clergy posts has been cited as a possible cause of the fall in numbers (News, 14 July 2023).

But they have not fallen in all dioceses. The DDO in Manchester, Canon Nick Smeeton, reports that numbers remained high throughout the pandemic, and have remained steady: over the past five years, there has been a 40-per-cent increase in stipendiary candidates, 20 per cent of whom have a minority-ethnic background.

He remained “pretty positive” about the new selection process, but expressed “a slight concern that uncertainty around PLF may have led to some potential candidates holding back for a time, and this might mean that — nationally — there will be a shortage of curates from certain traditions in a few years’ time, potentially impacting planting plans. But I’m seeing early signs that we’re getting through to the other side of this.”

Helen Bryant is a first-year ordinand with the Eastern Region Ministry Course. She began discernment in Ely, for LLM training, and was recommended during the pandemic, but had to begin the process again after moving to Coventry, where she was eventually recommended for ordination. She suggests that the drop in ordinand numbers might be related to the heavy workload of DDOs, who are “often in huge demand from all areas”. A high level of turnover results in a discernment system that can become “overwhelmed”.

The long length of the discernment process is “right”, and it may be worth the Church’s being clearer about this with those exploring vocations, she suggests. “Although I often felt that I was going over the same ground, each time I did, I found new depths to what I was saying, and this ultimately meant that I was well prepared.”

This month, the Archbishops’ Council’s head of vocations and deputy director of ministry, the Revd Helen Fraser, said that the National Ministry Team was making plans to expand outreach and support.

“God has not stopped calling ministers to serve his Church,” she said. “With the number of retirements projected over the next few years, together with the missional task ahead of us of growing as a younger and more diverse Church, as much as ever we need faithful and godly people to step forward and serve our worshipping communities in ministry.”

 

WHEN the General Synod meets, those in training for ordination will be able to follow the debate online. A desire expressed this week across the spectrum of convictions was to see more work from the Bishops on the theological rationale of their proposals. Joshua Tomalin, who is in his second year at Oak Hill, suggested that, to date, ordinands had had to undertake “a lot of theological work personally on the issue without much guidance. . .

“So much of the crucial decision-making is done behind closed doors. Sometimes it is leaked out, and sometimes it is not,” he said. “This does not feel like a good system of leadership. Even when decisions are made, there is often very little — even no — rationale provided, which is deeply confusing at times, especially when they seem to contradict themselves.”

He expressed concern that, currently, theological students lacked “a seat at the table” in decisions that could affect the rest of their working lives. One option, he suggested, was to recognise them as a stakeholder group in the plans to be brought to the Synod next week. “For some of us, the choices made now will impact our ministry for 40 years or more, but we feel powerless in how these choices are made. Having some sort of representation would go some way to fixing this.”

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