Sunday, December 13, 2009

A shrinking profession

Today, as is customary on the third Sunday of Advent, the Archbishop sent us a letter to read out at services, appealing for prayers and donations in support of the church's ministry candidates. You can read the letter here. It flags up a significant moment in the life of the contemporary church. For the first time in his sixteen years as a Bishop, no candidates have been presented for ordination to full-time ministry. Across the Church in Wales this means a shortfall of eighteen clerics available to supply a rapidly growing number of vacancies caused by the generation of clerics my age now retiring.

Decline in vocations, especially among younger people looking for a lifetime of service in ordained ministry, has been going on for several decades in churches all over Europe of all denominations. The average age of those offering themselves for ordination is now higher, leading to a reduction in average length of careers in full time ministry. While there are still a fair number of people offering themselves for self supporting ministry, earning their own livings, or early retirees, the lack of people available to take incumbencies as full-time ministers is leading to an urgent need to re-think the way in which parishes are led and managed.

There has been a drastic shrinkage in the number of people attending church and supporting its work financially, but this has not led to a parallel reduction in the number of churches and parishes. When there are vacancies, efforts are made to group churches and parishes to work together under remaining leadership to keep as many of them as possible open and functioning, even if on a reduced scale. Real closures, real mergers of parishes are a last resort.

Whilst rationalisation of resources for the sake of effective mission is a reasonable aim, it is all too easy not to recognise the real significance and social impact of closing churches or merging parishes. Church buildings are community assets, often undervalued by a wider population whose affiliation is either casual or minimal. A small number of committed faithful people struggle to keep them open in order that they can remain part of what I am now hearing called 'social infrastructure'. Only when church buildings are no longer available for their traditional function, or disappear altogether is the loss widely felt, and then it's too late. Having endured the closure of St James' church three years ago, and witnessed the impact of this locally, I am convinced that losing a church must remain a last resort wherever possible.

Awareness of this responsibility is a terrible burden, not least on the full time professional clerics, often unwillingly cast in the role of resources manager or entrepreneur. Not to succeed, not to be good at it, can damage a cleric's health and sanity. It can also deter vocations from those who may have sufficient piety, learning and interest in people to want to do the job, but fear they aren't up to the responsibility and challenge of both supporting the faithful few and tackling the role of the managing the church's material assets in a time of crisis.

So many lay people have been lost to the church who would at one time have relished the task of managing and developing every aspect of church life, with the result that the pastor could just do pastoral work. Nowadays the cleric must be a jack of all trades and know how everything is done, either to fill the gaps, or teach others how to. Far too many aspects of church management still have to be processed via the Vicar. Far too much communication and administration is centralised in the role of the office holder by the top down way the church is managed. Clergy are conditioned for this by training, by the expectations they meet, and by acquired habit. Delegation is a vital skill, but not every incumbent has this ability well developed. They can easily become a throttle to a church community running itself effectively.

I believe that nothing short of a complete re-design of the way the church runs, from Bishop downwards, is going to strengthen the capacity of lay people to take total responsibility for the life of parishes, pastoral, educational, administrative, and the management of their buildings. This has been happening in recent decades in places where priests are really scarce - across Europe and in rural tracts of third world countries. The few priests there are in such demand for liturgical and pastoral functions that everything else has to learn to run without them or die.

It's also worth noting that successful missionary evangelical church plants of the past quarter of a century often grew out of lay led initiatives, born of frustration with traditional church structures and methods. These have understood the danger of over dependency on 'professional' leadership, and the need to share responsibility for all aspects of running the church. These new communities grow their own pastoral leaders sometimes leading them to ordination if the community thinks this is needed, although this is not always the case.

Maybe traditional church members are being deterred from offering for ordination because of prospects which daunt all but the bravest or craziest. On the other hand, maybe God is also at work inspiring restraint and reluctance leading to a dearth of candidates, so that things cannot just continue as they always have done, so that Anglicanism, with its call to be church in and for all people in a locality, will reform itself rather than die.

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