The future of the clergy

In this month’s Pelican, Rector Alan reports back on a recent Diocese of London conference on ordained ministry:

I attended a Diocesan conference in the first part of October on vocations to ordained ministry (‘London Calling’) about what we can do to increase their numbers. The Archbishop of Canterbury and various London Bishops and others sought to encourage us clerics present but, to provide some context, I thought I would get some of the awkward and scary numbers out of the way, courtesy of a recent report from the Director of Ministry for the Archbishops’ Council.

  • A quarter of stipendiary clergy are in their sixties or above, and, as they retire, so dioceses will ‘feel the pinch,’ as there are not enough new ordinands coming through yet.
  • While the number of stipendiary ordinations showed a welcome increase between 2012 and 2015, this will not be sufficient to redress the gathering effect of clergy retirements predicted over the years 2015 to 2015.
  • The average ages of stipendiary clergy are gradually rising, as the broader UK population ages. In 2012, more clergy were 55 than any other specific age, but by 2015 the commonest age was 58.
  • Only 13 per cent of parish priests are aged under 40, although this varies widely by diocese: in some areas, only four per cent of parochial clergy are under 40. One unnamed diocese reports that 41 per cent of its stipendiary parish clergy are over 60.
  • The proportion of stipendiary clergy from a black or minority-ethnic background rose slightly from 3 per cent in 2012 to 3.4 per cent in 2015, though among senior ministers, this figure fell to 2.2 per cent. Even so, these figures are far too low.
  • The trend for non-stipendiary posts has been in decline: 183 were ordained in 2005, down from 233 three years earlier.

Writing as one of those about to fall off the clerical cliff in the not too distant future (not yet . . . don’t worry, I will warn you) I began to feel apologetic, as though I should be able to do something about my age, but this is absurd I know. (You need not also be too worried, by the way, about finding priests to serve in the heart of London: the flesh pots of the capital have always had a great draw compared to the wilds of, say, Lincolnshire or Carlisle).


The former Bishop of London ordains deacons at St Paul’s Cathedral, 2015

Organisations like the Church of England are often twitchy about numbers. They never look good when they fall into the hands of the tabloids and consequently breed discouragement and despair among the worker bees. We have long prided ourselves on being ‘a church in every community and a community in every church’ (in fact I just made up the second bit of that, but it sounds right, don’t you think?) so any threat to the settled and historic status quo is, to say the least, unnerving. What will become to us? When the last Vicar leaves the last parish will she please turn out the light?

Fear not, for this will not happen and it is probably wrong of me to jest. The numbers of ordinands (prospective priests on a training course) has been increasing in recent years and this is a trend that is set to continue, certainly in our own Diocese; and of those being called to ordained ministry right now, I meet with many (in my capacity as a director of ordinands) who will make excellent priests and vicars, being faithful, energetic, visionary and missionary, the kind of people that any parish will be fortunate to have in the years to come. But even so, (numbers do not lie, so they say) there will still be shortages up and down the country, and smaller parishes will have to amalgamate with their neighbours, and the nature of public ministry, its strains and stresses, and the way in which it allows a priest to get to know the people of a place, will gradually and inevitably change. Those priests of the future will have their work cut out and will need to be imaginative and resourceful, and we can but pray that God will be with them and lead them.

The speakers at the conference were united in offering the assembled clergy whatever signs of hope and light they could glean from the dark thunder clouds of statistics, and extolled us to stand in our pulpits and look you, the people, in the eye and ask, ‘Is God calling you?’ Role models, they told us, are critical and transformative, particularly when it comes to increasing vocations from the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, as we desperately need to do.  Realism can sometimes crush, and sometimes breed, fresh hope and this appears to be a ‘breeding’ season, for the current crisis in moral and spiritual commitment does seem to have engendered a period of renewed and authentic hope. I like to tell prospective candidates that if their calling is true and becomes fruitful, then it will bring them a unique measure of fulfilment and reward. It will, of course, also wear them out a bit but, surely, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ holds as true in the kingdom of God as it does in the republic of mammon.