Do we have enough vicars?

On 2nd June, Ian Paul published “Do we have enough vicars?” on his Psephizo blog, which has additional comments by Peter Ould. Ian has kindly permitted the following cross-posting.

Today the Ministry Statistics for 2015 are released (soon to be posted on the C of E stats web page) and they tell us the stark reality of decline in clergy numbers. On Radio 4 this morning, Rose Hudson-Wilkins suggested that this wasn’t too worrying, since we can dispense with the model of the ‘white, male, clericalised’ pattern of ministry. What she failed to highlight is that there are no sustainable models of church growth which don’t involve stipendiary (set aside, financially provided for) leadership, and the NT itself sees leadership as a gift to the Church which enables the ‘building up’ of the people of God. As a reflection of that, the Archbishops’ Council risk register sees a failure to ‘recruit’ sufficient ordinands as a major risk to the future of the Church.

There are some signs of encouragement in the figures, as highlighted by the comment of Julian Hubbard, Director of Ministry for the Archbishops’ Council (previously ‘Ministry Division’):

The overall picture confirms what is widely known about the challenges we face. While the number of stipendiary ordinations showed a welcome increase between 2012 and 2015, this is not sufficient to redress the gathering effect of clergy retirements predicted over the next ten years.

This can be seen most clearly in two diagrams in what I think is a very clear and helpful document. The first gives the overall age profile of stipendiary clergy each year from 2012 to 2015. What happens each year is that the curve moves to the right (since everyone gets a year older) but the gap that opens up from one year to the next might at points be closed by new ordinations.

First diagram

 There are two key things to note on this curve. The first is the plateau from around age 53 to 64 which represents that cohort arising from the disastrous decision to increase the age of those recommended for ministry during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In an ideal world, this area of the graph, and the region to the left of it, would be more level so that the curves in successive years matched one another. This region is the sign of the problem.

The second thing to note, though, is the left-hand tail, where the successive curves match one another. This region is the sign of hope: a greater focus on encouraging younger vocations has created a sustainable pattern at this end where the graphs match one another. The problem is that this on its own is not enough; in order to compensate for the future losses at the top end, the curve at the bottom end needs to be greater in successive years to make up for the loss at the older end of the graph.

The second helpful diagram splits this age profile into male and female stipendiary clergy.

Second diagram

What is fascinating to note here is that curve for female clergy has already reached stability; the problem is in the curve for the male clergy. This arises for two reasons. First, with the decision to ordain women around the same time as the increase in the age of ordinands, women were less affected by this. Secondly, there has been a significant rise in the number of young women ordinands. Contrary to the common assumption, if the curves are to both be balanced, it is young men ordinands we need to see growth in—unless, of course, the male-female proportions in the clergy are going to change significantly. This has not been a noticeable trend in recent years; the proportion of stipendiary clergy who are women has increased from 24% in 2012 to 27% in 2015.


Peter Ould, who is a trained statistician as well as being ordained, has done some helpful additional analysis of what this all means for overall clergy numbers projected into the future. He writes:

Third DiagramI took the data from the Church of England and produced a quick demographic model of stipended clergy. The model looks at each year in the future, reduces the current number of clergy by natural wastage (clergy leaving stipended ministry for non-retirement reasons) and retirement and then added in the new ordinands. Of course, some of those ordinands themselves will be retiring in the next twenty years, so that has to be factored in as well.

What does the model tell us? Despite the increase in recruitment in the past few years, if we continue attracting the same number of ordinands over the next twenty years we will still be almost 1,000 clergy down. If we factor in the statistically significant increase in younger ordinands for the next five years and then keep the number level, we just about manage to hold steady and this is assuming low levels of non-retirement “wastage”. The model makes some basic assumptions and doesn’t cover early retirements and other complexities, so the real numbers are likely to be much lower.

The full figures are below. It’s clear from the model that unless recruitment of younger stipended clergy increases the demographic time bomb that the clergy age profile is indicating will have a real impact on the ground. Clergy may well decide to draw their pension, but even in retirement they will be needed more and more to keep some Dioceses running.

2015 Stipended Clergy 8098
2035 Stipends Assuming Current Recruitment and 0% Wastage 7686 -5.1%
2035 Stipends Assuming Current Recruitment and 0.5% Wastage 7425 -8.3%
2035 Stipends Assuming Current Recruitment and 1% Wastage 7179 -11.3%
2035 Stipends Assuming Growing Recruitment and 0.5% Wastage 8181 1.0%
2035 Stipends Assuming Growing Recruitment and 1% Wastage 7902 -2.4%

Fourth diagram

That might all look sobering enough (writes Ian Paul) But the devil (as they say) is in the detail. All these figures are aggregated across all dioceses in the Church of England—but, of course, clergy are not aggregated or easily mobile, but are distributed unevenly across the country. Hidden in the detailed reports is information about the age profiles for stipendiary clergy in different dioceses, and these differences are marked and alarming.

Diocese Under 40 40 – 59 60+
Diocese of Bristol 14% 77% 9%
Diocese of Southwark 15% 67% 17%
Diocese of London 22% 60% 18%
Diocese of Coventry 15% 66% 18%
Diocese of Birmingham 16% 65% 19%
Diocese of Oxford 14% 65% 21%
Diocese of Salisbury 11% 68% 21%
Diocese of Guildford 14% 64% 22%
Diocese of Blackburn 12% 65% 22%
Diocese of Liverpool 14% 63% 23%
Diocese of Portsmouth 8% 68% 23%
Diocese of Leicester 10% 66% 23%
Diocese of Leeds 11% 64% 24%
Diocese of Chelmsford 15% 61% 24%
Diocese of St Albans 18% 57% 24%
Diocese of Ely 13% 63% 24%
Diocese of Chichester 14% 62% 25%
Diocese of Southwell 12% 64% 25%
Diocese of York 14% 61% 25%
Diocese of Lichfield 14% 60% 25%
Diocese of Derby 10% 64% 26%
Diocese of Worcester 9% 65% 26%
Diocese of Sheffield 11% 62% 27%
Diocese of Durham 11% 62% 27%
Diocese of Winchester 6% 66% 28%
Diocese of Chester 12% 60% 28%
Diocese of Gloucester 11% 60% 28%
Diocese of Rochester 13% 58% 29%
Diocese of Manchester 9% 61% 29%
Diocese of Bath and Wells 5% 65% 30%
Diocese of Carlisle 9% 61% 30%
Diocese of Hereford 8% 61% 31%
Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich 4% 65% 31%
Diocese of Newcastle 13% 56% 31%
Diocese of Lincoln 12% 56% 32%
Diocese of Peterborough 12% 55% 33%
Diocese of Exeter 9% 57% 33%
Diocese of Norwich 11% 55% 34%
Diocese of Truro 10% 49% 40%
Diocese of Canterbury 7% 52% 41%

(Detailed figures for Leeds, Wakefield, Sodor and Man and Europe were not available).

How the Diocese of Bristol have managed to have so few older clergy I have no idea! But it means that they will be largely protected from the impact of retirements. The same cannot be said for those at the bottom of the list, who will feel the decline of clergy numbers very painfully in the next ten years—or sooner. And, most interestingly, this list does not reveal a north/south divide as we might have expected.

In other words, clergy recruitment is in reality only half of the challenge. The other half is in clergy deployment. With the death of the Sheffield quota system for clergy numbers, this will most likely come down to an exercise in ecclesial marketing: which dioceses will clergy be drawn to in ministry?

Ian Paul

Cite this post as Ian Paul, “Do we have enough vicars?” in Law & Religion UK, 7 June 2016, www.lawandreligionuk.com/2016/06/07/do-we-have-enough-vicars/ .

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