Tuesday, September 27, 2016

More Thoughts on Extra Vicars

One of the stated aims of Renewal and Reform, the CofE's national vision and strategy* for the next generation, is to increase the number of people being ordained each year by 50%.

In their (our!) own wordsThe Church of England is seeking an increase of 50% in the number of candidates for ordained ministry. This means an increase in numbers per annum from around 500 to 750 in the overall annual cohort. The Church is seeking both numerical growth and an increase in diversity within the cohort of ordinands so that it reflects the communities in wider society where the Church is engaged in mission, in terms of age, gender and ethnic and social background.

Stats released last week give some background to what this might look like. I've not detected much response in the blogosphere as yet (Ian Paul, comments at Thinking Anglicans). I posted a few thoughts of my own the other day, and here are some more.
1. Firstly, great. Every time I come across someone who feels God is calling them into leadership in the CofE, I'm delighted. Not just because I know what a privilege it is, but also that it's a sign that God isn't quite done with us yet as a church. Whatever else is going on, God wouldn't be calling people into this ministry if we were making a complete pigs ear of it.

2. Increasing the number of ordinands by 50% will mean a rise of 150 in those ordained to paid full-time ministry to 450 per year. The average age at ordination is 41, add on 4 years for a curacy, and retirement at 65, and you have a long-term stipendiary workforce of 9000 clergy. That's 1300 more than we have at the moment. By the time we get to this figure, the UK population will have increased by another 10m to 75m, so there'll still be plenty to do. If the CofE succeeds in lowering the age profile, we may have closer to 10,000.

3. But.... there are several big issues, some practical and some theological, that we really need to deal with, and I'm not sure if we are doing:

a) At the moment we are ordaining almost exactly the same numbers as those retiring from ordination. so whilst the main narrative around the drop in clergy numbers is retirements (25% of those in my diocese are due to retire in the next 5 years), there is another major factor. On average we ordain 290 people a year, 280 clergy per year retire or die, and another 300 per year leave to do Something Else.

b) Something Else #1  2500 ordained clergy are in chaplaincies or other non-parish appointments. The CofE projections assume this will stay the same for the forseeable future. Why then do we train all clergy for parish ministry? Why is every curacy served in a parish setting? CofE training is front-loaded (2-3 years in college/theological course then 3-4 years in a curacy), and apart from the occasional specialist placement, the main focus of activity, training, and ministry models is the parish. This seems like a spectacular waste of resources on two fronts. Firstly that many of those thus trained will end up in a different setting to the one they were trained for, and secondly that the model is designed for a static society and ministry setting (what you learn when you're 25 will serve you well at 65). Spreading learning and training throughout ministry makes more sense, as it can be better tailored, and more responsive to context.

c) Something Else #2  About 100 clergy per year leave the role before retirement, and we have no idea where they go or what they do. In other words, for every 3 people ordained, one will drop out. We may have to revise that 9,000 figure down a bit. If the attrition rate remains the same, there'll be 150 clergy per year dropping out if the ordination targets are hit. Some of these clergy are dropping out for health reasons, others for stress, others because (often stress is a factor) they've done something that makes remaining a vicar untenable. There's evidence that we could support clergy much better than we do, and my own experience is consistent with that. On more than one occasion I haven't been very far from becoming a clergy casualty, and each time stress and lack of support have been key factors. This resignation statement is from a US church leader, but would probably find an echo amongst many CofE clergy.

d) We owe it to the future clergy we are praying for to look at what they are being called to do. There are attempts to simplify what the CofE does, but a do-able job description, realistic expectations from parishes, and greater sharing of ministry between lay and ordained are all vital. George Herbert may be long dead but his ghost still stalks the vestry of a thousand parishes, whispering of home communions and Morning and Evening Prayer, heard in echo every time someone complains 'the vicar hasn't visited'. I was stunned to hear the Herbert model advocated by a CofE college principal not that long ago.

e) Digging still deeper, what about 'ministry' itself? The CofE claims to follow the historic pattern of 'Bishops, Priests and Deacons'. Sure, and I use the Book of Common Prayer every day. The role of CofE bishop is a long way away from the bishop/overseers of the New Testament, who were in team leadership of local churches. Deacons, with a handful of exceptions, are a holding bay for apprentice priests, it's what you are for 12 months after initial ordination. We still have only 1 full-blown licensed lay ministry (lay Reader), despite having lay gifts in evangelism, pastoral care, discipleship, healing, preaching, worship leading, organisational leadership, children/youth/womens/mens/older persons ministry etc. And by restricting leadership at communion to priests, promoting communion itself as the be all and end all of worship, and amalgamating parishes, we have created a situation where every Sunday hundreds of vicars are driving from church to church to wave wafers at small groups of people, whilst never having the time to have a proper conversation with any of them.

There has to be a better way, and there has to be a better theology - of church leadership, of worship, of the church as the body of Christ and people of God.

f) Before we invest a lot of money finding, vetting, training and deploying new ordinands, we need to invest some energy in looking at the system we are putting then into. How much investment is needed to support 1 vicar in post, to keep them from that one mistake which will potentially destroy them, their family and their congregation, compared to the investment needed to train up their replacement? Not so long ago, some parishioners of a clergyman I know wrote a letter to his Archdeacon, complaining about something trivial. Because they'd had it in writing, the Archdeacon told this faithful vicar that the Diocese couldn't offer him support, as they were now involved in a complaints process. I'm sorry but that's disgraceful. We must do better.

I'm delighted that at last the CofE has woken up to the facts, and is doing something, I'm glad that before anything else we're being encouraged to pray. I hope that we let the dominoes keep falling - becoming a mission-shaped church will change our thinking about church, ministry, training, priesthood, and a whole host of other things. Historically, our thinking about church life hasn't been shaped by mission, so it shouldn't be a surprise if we have to rethink pretty much everything. Bring it on.

*5 years ago this phrase would have been a cartoon caption. I still have to pinch myself that it's a reality, after years of wittering on about the fact we don't have one. 


  1. As you know, Dave, I think you're right about pretty much everything - and I think that having all clergy working in teams (not necessarily Teams) would make a particularly big difference to all of this. Andy Gr, Essex

  2. David,

    What a brilliant and helpful post. Thank you.


  3. Helpful as ever David. (How's the foot doing?) One of the things that I'd add is that we haven't quite worked out how to have incumbent-status posts but without incumbent authority. We are inviting people into a system where they will have responsibility without authority. Teams is a good answer but the team leader may need to be independent of all individual parish situations. We should visit this at MEG sometime.

  4. Dunno about more vicars. I reckon it needs more Christians.

  5. I can't help but feel that the job description of "vicar" "Pastor" "Rev" "Father" etc is a problem for the recruitment of people called by God. The role of vicar or however you describe the leader of whichever denomination, has been somewhat secularized out of necessity i.e. to address abuse etc, not just from clergy to. Children or vulnerable people but from the church of those who feel called to serve. Also over the last two decades or so the Clergy are now seen as religious advisors.who facilitate others to do that that they used to i.e. praying with and effectively counselling those who ask for it. The clergy in most cases out of necessity have distanced themselves from the communities they serve and many are working flexible hours with some operating their phones from 9 till 5 with no one on hand to take any calls out of these hours even occasionally in emergencies especially if the phone is turned off or on answer phone not to mention the deaf or those with speech or learning impairments, the very people they are called to serve are 're referred to some other body! Of course this is not everywhere all the time but is increasingly the case. Spiritual enablers or facilitators or the good old fashioned now Spiritual director seems like a much more accurate description. It is possible that many more would recognise their ability to be a valuable resource to the church.