Saturday, 25 June 2011

(Why) is God calling older women and younger men?

My nostalgic moment about Ember Lists yesterday got me thinking about the figures on the CofE website, which seem to confirm something which experience suggests, namely that when it comes to full-time stipendiary clergy in the Church of England, the women basically tend to be older than the men.
Now I would be the first to admit that statistics are tricky things and my analysis may be off. Nevertheless, several interesting things can be observed.
First, the actual number of male assistant curates peaks at 35-39 (206). This is also the point at which they are the greatest total percentage in their gender-group (3.5% of all male clergy, compared with 2.5% for those five years older and 2.9% for those five years younger). However, the balance of incumbent-status clergy and assistant-curates in this age group is about the same (52% and 48% respectively are incumbent-status or assistant curates).
By comparison, women assistant curates in this age group total 57 and represent 3.3% of all female clergy, which is not dissimilar to the men. However, the balance of incumbents to curates in the age group is strikingly different, being 43% and 57%, respectively. Moreover, whilst the percentage of those five years younger is lower (and is higher than that for the men) at 3.2%, the percentage of curates for those five years older is 4.4%, and for those aged 45-49 is 7.2% of the female total.
In fact, the number of female assistant curates peaks at 50-54 (116), at which point they represent 7.6% of all the female clergy. Moreover, the percentage of women incumbents in this age group is still only 67% of the total, whilst a third (33%) are assistant curates. By contrast, 92% of the men in this age group are incumbents and only 8% assistant curates. The same ratio amongst women is only reached at 60-64, although by this time the actual numbers are very small (200 incumbents compared with 14 assistant curates) and the statistics may be correspondingly less reliable.
Rather harder to show in a blog post, but just as telling, is the ‘quinquennial’ rate of percentage change in the clergy who are assistant curates in each age category.
Age                 % of Men        % of Women
                        in curacies      in curacies
25-29              92                    100
30-34              70                    67
35-39              48                    57
40-44              22                    46
45-49              12                    40
50-54              8                      33
54-59              4                      16

Similarly, we may compare the increasing percentage of incumbent-status clergy:

Age                 % of Men        % of Women
                        as incumbents as incumbents
25-29              8                      0
30-34              30                    33
35-39              52                    43
40-44              78                    54
45-49              88                    60
50-54              92                    67
54-59              96                    84

Just to reiterate, these are figures for stipendiary, parochial, clergy. They do not include non-parochial posts, part-time or self-supporting clergy, or ‘dignitaries’. Nevertheless, they seem to indicate two clear trends. One is that male and female clergy differ in their age profiles related to incumbent-status or assistant curate posts. The second is that a higher proportion of male clergy are in incumbent status posts at an earlier age than is the case for women. Conversely, a higher proportion of women clergy are in assistant curate posts at a later age than is the case for men.

To put this in plainer English, but slightly more tendentiously, it looks as if men get ordained younger than women, and therefore tend to become incumbents at an earlier age than do women.

Now my question is this — and it may not be the one people are expecting — but if it is true that (a) male clergy are typically younger than female clergy and (b) getting ordained is dependent on God’s call, why would God be calling older women and younger men?

And for what it is worth, here is my answer: God is far less involved in this process than we like to think. Actually, the age differences can be accounted for by issues of sociology at least as much as theology. My guess — and it is a guess — is that far more women feel the ‘call’ after their children have grown up and left home than do men, and that accounts for the key age difference and all the other phenomena we observe.

But this then raises a question in my mind, which has actually been there for some time, as to whether we have really got it right when it comes to ‘calling’.

The selection process, and indeed the Book of Common Prayer, lays a great deal of stress on the ‘inwardness’ of calling: “Do you think in your heart that you be truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the order of this Church of England, to the Order and Ministry of Priesthood?”
But what is a ‘true calling’? In my own day it was understood to be a special sense from God that this was what he wanted me to do. In Scripture, however, I find very little emphasis on inward feelings and an awful lot on outward, observable, competence and the decision of the Church to recognize that (eg Titus 1:6-9). Jesus’s ‘calling’ of the disciples, in particular, seemed to owe nothing to them feeling they should become apostles, and everything on his appointment of them (John 6:70).

Arguably, then, the Church should be fingering people and telling them they jolly well ought to be considering the ordained ministry, not waiting while they wait to see if they have ‘a call’. And that being the case, I would have thought we want to get people in their prime, when they are young enough, and free enough of other ties, to be able to give time to training, and then themselves to ministry wherever they might be needed. (That, at least, was something we were getting right forty years ago.)

But that being the case, ought we not to be seeing far more young, and doubtless single, women going into training — just as we currently see quite a high percentage of young, single men?

On the other hand, if we’ve got this ‘calling’ business right, I come back to my earlier question — what is it about God’s plans and purposes such that, if men and women are ‘equal’ in their endowment for ordained ministry, he seems to call them at such very different times in their lives?

John Richardson
25 June 2011

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  1. It would be nice to think of myself as a younger man, but I'm afraid that at 61, I would find it hard to defend.

    God has seen fit to call me. The church is currently discerning the validity of that call.

    May God's will be done.

  2. The question in the BCP came from Bucer I believe, John. Thinking along your lines was put forward in an ACCM report 17/18 years ago "Called to Order". Like most C of E reports it sank without trace.

  3. John. "On the other hand, if we’ve got this ‘calling’ business right.

    I don't think we have! Whilst the tradition of a personal "call" to ministry in the church is entrenched and powerful I do not see any justification for it in the New Testament (whether for male or female)

    Whilst both the prophet and priest were specifically and personally called by God under the Old Covenant, this gave way under the New Covenant to the important concept of the priesthood of all believers - as the Reformation in part rediscovered.
    Surely the principle comes out again and again in NT dicussions on ministry. With the coming of the Holy Spirit poured out on the first believers at Pentcost Peter declares that ALL believers have the potential to effect ministry (Acts 2:17,18).
    Likewise, Paul's fuller discussion of ministry in the church in 1 Corinthians 12- 14 centres on the potential for the WHOLE body of Christ, corporately to function for the edification of the rest of the congregation gathered.
    This corporate dimsnsion is not predicated on the "calling" of a particular class of 'ministers' , or a clergy class, but rather devolves upon each and every believer.
    The criteria is not a "call" to ministry, but rather ON the multiform spiritual gifts which Paul says are, in some measure at least, given to "all" without exception. (see in particular 1 Cor. 12: 7-11.
    The idea of a "call", much promoted by many godly Puritans, is simply not found in scripture and is a man made tradition which militates against a functioning priesthood of all believers. This of course militates against the concept of a "professional ministry" by those who believe they have received some special call (sheer mysticism!)
    In effect the whole body of Christ, (each particular congregation) is called, in order to edify the church. This is the whole point of Paul's 'body' discussion in 1 Cor. it not?

    Until clear NT orientated thinking is brought to bear on principles of ministry found in these Pauline passages there is little point in discussing gender roles. IMO.

  4. Interesting figures -- the babies have gone and, or, the second career beckons... After all, people want to find some sense of, er, 'meaning' in later life.

  5. John, there is surely a significant factor here which you have ignored - unless of course you want to marginalise your own conservative evangelical wing of the church. Your wing puts forward many young men for ordination. But it discourages women from ordination, or sometimes says that they can be ordained to be curates but not be incumbents. Perhaps some women who felt the "call" young but were not encouraged at that time (indeed some of these would have originally felt that call before they could be ordained) are now coming forward, as mature women less likely to accept discouragement from their leaders. I suspect that these factors taken together can explain at least a lot of the discrepancies in figures which you note.

  6. I've blogged some thoughts and linked to you
    vicars: old women and young men? -

  7. Just a quick reply to Peter Kirk.
    Actually, in my experience, conservative evangelical women don't put themselves foward for ordination because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that the authorities within the Church of England will not respect their integrity and will pressurize them to be ordained as presbyters and become incumbents. If we had a distinctive diaconate, we may see more conservative evangelical (and Anglo-Catholic) women coming forward for ordination (as deacons).

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth.

  8. Well, Ro, it might be interesting to see the figures on deacons, especially on those who have been deacons for more than one year. But what is the role of the diaconate in the modern C of E, except as a halfway house for women who (on no conceivable biblical basis) accept this but not priesthood?

  9. Peter, the problem is that since women are discouraged from being permanent deacons, the figures would not tell us anything significant.

    You say that there is "no conceivable biblical basis" for women deacons. But see 1 Timothy 3:11 which says that women can be deacons, which I take to be a formal office of church ministry, but not one of ultimate church leadership (for the exegetical workings see Kostenberger's essay in "Entrusted with the Gospel" p.24-25). Where is the biblical basis for the COE understanding that the diaconate is a halfway house?

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth

  10. Ro, perhaps I should have said "no conceivable biblical basis" for women being allowing themselves to be stuck permanently in this halfway house ministry. There is certainly a biblical basis for women being deacons - consider also Phoebe. But there is also a lack of biblical basis for women being excluded from the office of priest/presbyter. You can't use Titus 1:6 here as the same is said of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:12. If women choose to be deacons but not priests, and the office of deacon is a meaningful one, I see no problem. But I don't see any basis for anyone teaching a general rule that they can be one but not the other.

    Note that I am not talking about sole leadership here as in the NT there was always a group of presbyters. I would agree that a woman should not normally be the sole leader of a local church - because I would say just the same of a man.