Monday, 25 January 2010

What future for the Anglican clergy?

A short while ago, I had a conversation with a friend who is going through ‘Continuing Ministerial Education’ —what use to be called Post-Ordination Training, or ‘Potty’ by some wit. He had phoned me to express his concern at what seemed to be the message coming from diocesan management about the future of Anglican ministry, which envisaged significant changes in the nature and deployment of clergy.
That conversation has left me musing on what the church might look like in a decade or two, but also on the whole approach of the church’s ‘managers’ —its leaders and policy makers —to issues which affect ministry at the ‘grass roots’.
Clergy cuts
Behind this current thinking is a recent diocesan report which confronts the declining numbers of stipendiary clergy with proposals for a decreasing deployment of full-time clergy in the parishes. (This, of course, is not being driven by money —it is simply a lack of people coming forward, let the reader understand.)
The clergyperson of the future will thus need to be, above all, a team leader, since he or she will be in no position to do personally the work that used to be presumed of clergy in the past. Only such team players will be affordable as stipendiary clergy. The individual ‘specialists’, apparently, will have to work on a self-supporting basis.
Clergy deployment
At the same time, therefore, clergy will have to be capable of being more widely deployed than is currently the case, ready (my friend was told) to work outside their ‘comfort zones’. What I think this means is that the old concepts of ‘churchmanship’ will no longer apply. Catholics will have to be able to slum it with the low church, and liberals to lead charismatic worship-fests —or something of that sort.
This also seems to imply, however, that the deploying will be done rather more actively than at present, with diocesan managers being more able to send clergy where they are ‘needed’ or ‘suited’.
The good side
Those of us brought up on the old understanding of parish ministry, who also happen to have an innate cynicism towards diocesan management, may react to these suggestions with instinctive hostility, but some of them do make sense.
It is a welcome suggestion, for example, that clergy need to be team leaders. Indeed, my last six months spent overseeing a Benefice of three parishes has not only demonstrated the importance of this, but shown what a great job was done by the previous two vicars.
The earlier of the two, for example, with the permission of the then diocesan bishop, set up a preaching team. This means that we can now draw on anything up to half a dozen laypeople who can, and do, preach on a regular basis. Most of them have learned to do this ‘on the job’, and they are not half bad!
Similarly, we have laypeople leading most of our services, so that the one regular service I do lead in its entirety is BCP Holy Communion, and that not at every venue where it is held.
However, I am painfully aware that so much lay involvement needs a level of input which is currently hard to provide. People need training and supervision, yet there is still the expectation that clergy will be hands-on with traditional parish ministry, especially visiting anyone and everyone who ‘needs a visit’. Deploying clergy as team leaders will need some explaining in a culture which does not understand the church as a team needing to be lead.
The down side
And then there is the down side of these proposals —or rather of the thinking behind them. I am especially suspicious of the emphasis on deployability and deployment. Of course there are potential advantages to clergy being deployed across a wider range of theological situations. In some cases, it will mean good, conservative, biblical preaching going places where it has never gone before. But I wonder if the desire for clergy to be deployable in the terms envisaged will mean in future recruiting only those with a ‘middle of the road’ theology which is inevitably quasi-liberal.
As to the deployment itself, does this mean bishops and archdeacons moving clergy around like those little markers on maps that they used to use in the Battle of Britain? This could only be done effectively if the bishops and archdeacons were themselves situationally aware in a way that I doubt is currently the case, given the lack of contact one has with them on a day-to-day basis. Given that my only two experiences of taking jobs on a bishop’s recommendation were both disastrous, I will need some convincing!
My biggest worry when I heard about these proposals, however, was how much consultation they reflected with the ordinary parish clergy. Have diocesan management been interviewing clergy to see what they think about the job, or what resources they wish they had? If so, it has rather passed me by, but that does not mean it is not happening.
My suspicion, however, is that most of the theorizing and planning is being done by those who move largely in the cloisters of power, rather than by those who face the daily challenges and demands of the typical parish.
Independence, authority and money
I am also concerned that the thinking behind these proposals will, almost by definition (given that it seems to be coming from our present managers), fail to allow those tasked with putting them into practice the tools they need for the job.
It is the natural tendency of management to want to manage. In an hierarchical church, this is exacerbated by the view those managers sometimes have of themselves as divinely ‘gifted’ with managing. I remember one bishop, now retired, who believed that at his consecration he was actually given by the Holy Spirit the ability to discern trends and movements.
Of course, some people do have greater gifts than others in such areas, but I am instinctively worried about someone who claims to have these gifts ‘because they are a bishop’. (I would be rather less worried if I could be persuaded that the system made people with such gifts into bishops, but I am not yet convinced.)
In fact, I would say that for quite some time leadership skills as such have hardly been a requirement for the English episcopate, where the motto seems to be ‘Moderation in All Things’ rather than ‘Who Dares Wins’.
This innate tendency to conservatism and control sometimes leads to bureaucratic farce. For example, everyone who administers at communion in our diocese (ie who gives out the bread or wine during a service) needs a ‘card of authorisation’ from the bishop and is to be given “careful instruction ... before they begin this ministry.”
For heaven’s sake! You’re giving people a piece of bread or a sip of wine. It isn’t bomb disposal. What could go wrong? Yet I have been in a church vestry where the wall is covered with such cards. Is it inconceivable that the incumbent just might be able to spot a good ‘un from a wrong ‘un in this ‘ministry’?
The fact is that if the clergy of the future are to be team leaders, they must also be allowed to be team managers, and this means being allowed independence to exercise local initiative, authority to commission local leadership and financial control to fund what they propose doing.
And that is where the problems will come, because I cannot see the Church of England’s current hierarchy allowing any such thing. What we will have instead, I fear, is centralized control, outside interference and fiscal starvation. In that case, for Anglican clergy, the future’s bleak, the future’s purple.
Revd John P Richardson
25 January 2010
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  1. This is an interesting conversation. I am a candidate for OLM, within a specific parish, but even before I have got near the DDO, there is talk of wider deployment of Clergy, even OLM perhaps ministering Deanery wide.

    I have no objection in principle to this, although my call to ministry is specific and local - but I feel that when I go to the DDO, that specific questions will be raised on this, and perhaps If I were to be inflexible in attitude, the discernment process might be drawn out or not even proceed.

    The loss of Stipendary Priests in our Deanery is happening now or in the next two years - so we have the issue to face. Changing patterns of Ministry with much more mobility seems the way forward - but makes it much harder for the Vicar in the traditional sense to be the Shepherd of his flock, as they now become the Shepherd of many flocks.

    OLM are unpaid, so I wonder how deployable they actually are? If they choose to be awkward and say no.

  2. UKviewer, I think you are spot on with your concerns, and the problem is that this is not being communicated 'down' from the top, and therefore cannot be at all clear to those coming into the process.

    In general, my feeling is that the least sign of 'awkwardness' immediately counts against a candidate.

    There are also very major questions to be asked about the whole nature of a congregation and the pastoring it requires.

  3. I think UKViewer's point about "awkwardness" cuts both ways. Ultimately an SSM/OLM will always have the freedom to be "awkward" (once ordained), whereas in a future world the residential powers of stipendiary priests will probably be less. A Stipendiary priest will be running the risk of losing his/her job if awkward - an SSM can always go to the URC or Rome (or Pentecostalism) according to preference.
    And yet SSM is going to be a lot of the way forward, and increasingly that's already being seen around the place.

  4. "For heaven’s sake! You’re giving people a piece of bread or a sip of wine. It isn’t bomb disposal. What could go wrong?"

    Well, you might have people in the congregation who labor under the illusion that it is more than a mere "piece of bread or a sip of wine" and they will need to be "managed" when they see the 14-year-old next to them palm the host and slink away with it.

  5. Anonymous, I'm not sure the 'highly trained' vicar would have any more (or less) idea what to do in the scenario you envisage, but whatever should be done, it doesn't need much by way of training. (Rugby tackle them?)

    As to what the bread and wine are, that is what they are. What Anglicans believe about this is laid out in the Prayer Book and the 39 Articles, and is very clear in its avoidance of 'superstitions'.

    We can be reverent, by all means, but we can surely lighten up a bit on this in terms of the bureaucracy.