How many priests make a church?
by Jonathan Wynne-Jones
There’s a huge disparity between the number of clergy in the Church of England and the Catholic Church even though the number of worshippers is similar. So why are the Anglicans ordaining so many priests and bishops?
For an organisation that is widely accepted to be suffering from inexorable decline, the Church of England is showing no signs of struggling to attract new recruits to boost its clergy.
This summer, around 1,000 men and women have been ordained in services from Carlisle to Truro, building on a similarly healthy intake last year. In stark contrast, only 48 priests were ordained in the Catholic Church last year, down from 53 the year before. Nearly a third of the Church’s 22 dioceses have not had a single ordination in the past couple of years.
Yet despite the strikingly different numbers choosing a life of ministry in the two Churches, the level of attendance in the pews every Sunday is surprisingly similar, meaning that Catholic priests tend to be far more stretched in their pastoral duties.
The same is true for its bishops. While there is nearly one bishop for every 8,000 worshippers in the Church of England, that figure is nearly four times higher for a Catholic bishop.
More bishops inflate the bill for stipends. Diocesan bishops in the Church of England earn up to £42,020 a year while the maximum for a full-time assistant bishop is £33,130. In the Catholic Church, bishops, like all clergy, are treated as office holders rather than employees and are supported by their communities. Bishops’ stipends therefore vary from diocese to diocese though they will almost certainly be lower than in the Church of England.
Critics accuse the Anglicans of having a bloated hierarchy but also question whether the Catholic model is sustainable.
“We are heading to a realm of managerialism,” says one member of the General Synod, the CofE’s parliament. “It is down to a failure of vision. The bishops think they can fight their way out of a crisis by appointing more generals but you don’t win a war with more generals,” he said.
Anglican sees that have remained dormant since David Lloyd George was Prime Minister have been filled in recent weeks by the appointments of Paul Butler and Ric Thorpe as the first bishops of Richmond and Islington respectively for more than 90 years. That lapse is nothing compared to another see that is likely to be revived. The Dioceses Commission is understood to be keen to create more suffragan bishops in Leicester and Newcastle, with Hexham set to have its first bishop since St John of Beverley in the eighth century.
“They’re appointing more managers to manage the decline,” bemoans the prominent Synod figure, arguing that “front-line clergy” are being taken away from parts of the country where congregations are dwindling.
Given the parallels between the closures of churches and local banks, it was perhaps apposite that Lord Green, the former chairman of HSBC, should oversee the Church’s review of its leadership.
Calling for a “culture change” in its management, his report demands that bishops attend development courses at a university or business school and recommends that future leaders undergo an intensive training course lasting up to five years.
Lord Green’s proposals are part of a new programme for “reform and renewal” introduced by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in an attempt to make the Church fit for purpose in modern society.
As the Church of England strives to become more professional, it is also aiming to become more streamlined and less bureaucratic, according to Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden, who chairs the Church’s Simplification Task Group.
“Bureaucracy stops mission,” he says. “If a parish wants to do something we need to be able to help it to do it. It’s a matter of winning hearts and minds.”
Bishop Broadbent points to church planting as a successful method of growth and stresses that this should not be hampered by the need for too much consultation.
The recent appointment of Ric Thorpe as Bishop of Islington isn’t a sign of the Church becoming too managerial, he argues, but actually a move to enhance the work of growing congregations with the aim of planting 100 new churches by 2020. He has been made the first “bishop for church plants”.
“Most people who say we have too many bishops don’t have a clue about what we do,” he says. “People complain about there being a huge, bloated bureaucracy but there isn’t.
“We’re trying to get away from a bureaucratic culture, and stop being risk averse and instead have a can-do attitude. There’s an energy behind this programme because people realise we’re in the last-chance saloon.”
That realisation is shared by his colleagues, from archbishops past and present to fellow bishops, with Julian Henderson, the Bishop of Blackburn, speaking of the need for the Church “to reinvent ourselves for the twenty-first century” and Tim Thornton, the Bishop of Truro, warning that it only has “10 years to do something”.
The situation facing the Catholic Church is no less perilous. Over the past decade, the number of people attending Mass in England and Wales has fallen by nearly 15 per cent from 985,000 in 2001 to 849,000 in 2012.
However, Gerry Stacey, research manager at Christian Research, believes that the Catholic Church is currently better suited to handle the decline because of its concentration in urban areas.
“The Church of England still maintains a structure that dates back centuries, having a presence in almost every village in the country. Catholics have a smaller number of churches but tend to have much larger congregation sizes.”
In the diocese of Leeds, churches with congregations of fewer than 200 people were closed by the previous bishop following a consultation that decided they were no longer viable. If such a policy was followed in the Church of England, hundreds of churches in rural areas would be forced to close.
But Stacey is concerned that these Anglican parishes are already being cast adrift. “There is a feeling that the rural churches have got left behind. They are much smaller and so tend to get neglected. Bishops are often out of touch with what is going on in the rural communities.”
He warns that the parish system is not sustainable as it currently operates, nor can the Catholic Church survive unless it addresses the lack of men entering the priesthood.
The Church of England is at least conscious of the size of the task facing it. Writing earlier this year, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York respectively, said “the urgency of the challenge facing us is not in doubt”. As encouraging as the ordination figures are, 40 per cent of parish clergy are due to retire over the next decade. To tackle this, they have called for an increase of at least 50 per cent in ordinations from 2020 and also a “rapid development of lay ministries”.
Meanwhile, in the Catholic Church, Clare Ward, the home missions adviser for the Bishops’ Conference, says lay people have a vital role to play in witnessing to their communities. Referring to this month’s Proclaim 15 event which brought together 900 leaders from across the country, she is optimistic that it represents an important step in “helping Catholics becoming more confident in sharing their faith”.
The Church may be struggling to attract more priests, but she says it’s important to remember that everyone has a role to play in mission. “There’s a call for lay people to evangelise. The mission of the Church isn’t dependent on one part.”
As far as the priests’ shortage is concerned, a number of bishops – most of them retired – have said that the ordination of married men should be considered.
The Bishop Emeritus of Portsmouth, Crispian Hollis, in a letter to The Tablet last month [July], says he is often struck by the difficulty posed today by lines in Our Father: “I fear we are in danger of becoming a Church in which the celebration of the Eucharist – the “daily bread” – and the Sacrament of Reconciliation – the “forgiveness of trespasses” – will become increasingly difficult because of the shortage of priests and the overstretching of those already engaged in their generous ministry.”
Dr Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, says the need for an upturn in ordinations cannot be underestimated. “If we don’t have priests, we don’t have the sacraments,” he says. “The laity can be as evangelical as they like but ultimately you need to get people into church and they need pastoral care.”
Bishops are becoming more empathetic to the issues facing priests, he believes, adding that crucially seminaries are finally providing the training needed to prepare men for the priesthood. Dr Shaw is hopeful that though the numbers coming forward for ordination may still be small, those making the sacrifice are motivated by a strong sense of vocation.
“These are young men of a different stamp,” he says. “They are fired by priestly service. They are interested in spirituality and they’re interested in converting the world.”
How many priests make a church?