Calling on deaf ears

July 12, 1996

As church congregations shrink and fewer people enter the ministry, some denominations are sharing the training of their clergy. Simon Midgley reports

One side of the cross that stands in the grounds of Queen's College, an ecumenical theological training establishment in Birmingham, is straight and intact, the other is broken and jagged.

The twisted half represents the fractured spirituality of new students entering the college to train for the ministry; the whole side the spiritual completeness of graduates when they leave to become ordained ministers.

The cross is a powerful visual metaphor for the aspirations of the college but it could be read differently - as an image of the uncertain state of the Christian church in contemporary Britain. Congregations in many of the mainstream denominations are dwindling, aspirants for ordination are few and far between and there is a growing shortage of ministers and priests.

For many of the established churches a crisis looms. How are they to halt the steady decline in their congregations? Who will offer spiritual leadership in the next century? The churches look to their training colleges to provide the footsoldiers of tomorrow. But what will happen to colleges like Queen's if student numbers continue to drop?

In 1970 2.7 million people attended mass in the United Kingdom but by 1994 this figure had dropped to two million. Comparable figures for Anglicans show a fall in active adult church members from 2.6 to 1.8 million. Presbyterian members dropped from 1.8 to 1.1 million and Methodists from 0.7 to 0.4 million. Simultaneously, however, there was a growth in new churches such as the house church movement on the evangelical wing of the church, the Pentecostal Church and in ethnic Muslim and Sikh religions. And despite its shrinking congregations, the Church of England is still predicting a 7 per cent shortfall of ministers in 2005.

In 1991 821 would-be ministers attended Church of England selection conferences and 450 were recommended for training. Last year just 661 candidates aspired for training and only 372 were recommended for training. The numbers of people wanting to become stipendiary (paid) ministers is, in short, steadily declining.

In 1993 the church withdrew recognition for ministerial training from Chichester College and Salisbury and Wells College and in 1995 it withdrew recognition from Lincoln College. Today only 13 residential Church of England colleges, all independent foundations, remain in England, Scotland and Wales. The derecognised colleges ceased to operate as theological training establishments in the wake of a growing surplus of residential places, caused by fewer candidates coming forward for the ministry and by the changing pattern of ministerial training. Over the past 20 years an increasing number of students have opted to train on part-time courses. This is partly because those coming forward for training are increasingly mid-life entrants who also work or are reluctant to uproot their families. But it is also because there has been a growth in the number of women aspiring to be non-stipendiary (unpaid) ministers.

The Rt Rev John Oliver, the Bishop of Hereford and chairman of the Church of England Advisory Board of Ministry that oversees training, admits some colleges are experiencing recruitment difficulties. He adds that it is not possible to rule out more closures but hopes that struggling colleges will avoid this by diversifying into training people for the lay ministry or by continuing theological training after ordination.

"The bishops are very anxious not to see further closures that would seriously reduce our ability to train people well and seriously unbalance the range of training that is available from different traditions within the church," he says.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is facing an even more acute crisis. Over the past 15 years the number of men entering the four wholly church-owned English seminaries, the two English seminaries in Rome and the seventh in Spain has declined dramatically. The church needs more than 100 new entrants each year to have any hope of servicing its existing parishes- this year just 67 came forward.

Lesley Husselbee, secretary for training in the United Reform Church, admits to having fewer stipendiary students than she would like. Sixteen started training in the church's wholly owned Westminster College in Cambridge and at independent foundations like Northern College in Manchester, Mansfield College in Oxford and Queen's College in Birmingham. This is 15 short of the church's target. "I don't know whether you could call it a crisis," she says. The number of candidates for stipendiary and non-stipendiary training has been declining steadily since the 1950s.

Why are fewer people coming forward? Husselbee says: "It's partly to do with the postmodern culture we are living in. Everyone believes what they want to believe. It's very much more difficult for people to deal with commitment." Meanwhile, in the Methodist Church the number aspiring to ministry is steadily increasing - next year 290 students will enter training compared with 260 this year - but the church is still experiencing a shortage of ministers. Moreover, the average age of the Methodist Church's students has risen in recent years - it now stands at 41. Financing the students through the four wholly owned training colleges in Cambridge, Manchester, Bristol and Durham and via Queen's College is becoming increasingly tricky as falling numbers of church members have to dig ever deeper into their pockets.

The Baptist Church, which is experiencing buoyant demand for ministerial training fuelled by the renewal movement, is reviewing training in its six independent colleges in England and Wales because of the impact of the recession on church finances. Malcolm Goodspeed, head of the church's ministry department, believes the future may lie in ecumenical cooperation, for example, sharing the teaching of, say, the New Testament between denominations.

The Church of England, Methodists and United Reform churches already use the same part-time courses and there is a growing movement to train ministers from other traditions within the same colleges -Queen's College being a prime example. There are also moves afoot to set up an ecumenical strategy group for planning future ministerial training across the denominations. This may not solve the problem of a growing shortage of clergy or dwindling congregations but it could at the very least enable churches to train ministers more cost effectively in future.

The Calling, a five-part series on the training of ministers at Queen's College, is being broadcast on BBC2.

ARTHUR WAKELIN, aged 50

Arthur Wakelin, aged 50, recently became a probationary minister on the Barnsley Methodist circuit after completing a two-year ministerial training course at Queen's College. He first heard God's call at 19 in the late 1960s when he was cycling home from the factory in Crewe where he worked as a lathe turner.

Initially, however, he was put off the idea of training for the ministry because he lacked the requisite four O levels.

For most of the next 20 years he worked as a bus driver in Stoke-on-Trent, until his wife encouraged him to enrol in Cliff Bay Bible College in Derbyshire where he studied for his O levels in 1991. Mr Wakelin, married with two grown-up children, spent two years at Queen's from 1993 to 1995 studying for a diploma in theology. "I feel that was what the call of God was on my life, even though I was rebuffed with the basic academic requirements. But it never went away. Even though I got the call then I had to wait for the right time.

"I have not wanted to go down a secular path. I have not wanted to do something in the world. I have just wanted to do something that is worthwhile."

LUCY WINKETT, aged 28

Lucy Winkett, aged 28, celebrated her first Eucharist as a priest last month in her church in Manor Park, a deprived area of East London.

Born in Wiltshire and brought up in south Buckinghamshire in a middle-class home, she went to church until her late teens when she started to question her faith.

After reading history at Cambridge University she embarked on a life as a professional early music soprano variously with the Cambridge Singers, Polyphony and as a solo singer. In 1989, however, her boyfriend of long standing was killed in a climbing accident. For 18 months she got on with her life but then in April 1991, she talked to a nun who specialised in comforting the bereaved. The nun said that she thought Lucy was very concerned about giving the "appearance of success", of appearing to be able to cope.

Shortly after Lucy went to an evensong in her parish church. It was during this service "like a bolt out of the blue" that it struck her that she wanted to become a priest and turn her back on the drive for worldly achievement. It was a huge release, she says, like "putting on a glove that fitted''.

She spent three years based at Queen's - from September 1992 to June 1995 - studying for a two-year bachelor of divinity degree at Birmingham University and then doing a one-year urban theology project in Handsworth, where she was attached to a mosque, a black-led Pentecostal church, an Anglican church and a house for people with learning difficulties.

Rev Winkett, who is now a curate representing the Anglo-Catholic Anglican tradition, does not regard her decision to go into the priesthood to be directly linked to the death of her boyfriend or to be an escape from reality.

"Going into the church for me has been about going towards the world and entering into the life of the world in a way that was not possible before.''

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments