One of the most demanding aspects of being a church leader today is in helping the people of the parishes engage with the way in which the church is evolving. This isn’t about the headline issues of women and sex, but the reality that year-by-year there are fewer vicars in the church. In addition, there is also the challenging factor that a significant proportion of those who are currently vicars, are aged over 50. This means that there are going to be some further challenges ahead when these people come up to retirement in 10 or 15 years time.
The problem is that we have developed a model for being the church which is associated with the figure of ‘The Vicar’. So the generous and effective ministry of non-stipendiary priests and others offering ministry whilst still having jobs etc. is too often understood in terms of ‘filling gaps’ where we don’t have vicars, rather than being an authentic expression of the church’s ministry.
Much of our conversation as a church has been about individual vocation. In our diocese we have invested a significant amount into individual vocation, thus developing non-stipendiary ministry, licensed lay ministers (Readers) and lay people to undertake a aspects of pastoral ministry within the parish. This has been very fruitful and productive, but it continues to concentrate on the individual rather than developing the Christian community in its life together.
We have actually invested relatively little into discovering the vocation of the church in its local context. Yet I think that the most important question facing the church is what does God need from his church in our society and culture? So, an enormous amount of time and energy is put into continuing the existing model, without addressing this fundamental question about the vocation of the church. Indeed, I find that people can become quite grumpy when having to address the implications of there being fewer stipendiary priests (vicars) in the church – some even see it as a kind of Episcopal plot to “take away our vicar”.
If people are not feeling called to the full-time stipendiary ministry, then I believe that we have to respond to that reality – which is perhaps a God-given reality. There are still a good number of people offering themselves for the full-time ministry, but at a rate which does not match the resignations and retirements. So there will be fewer vicars to be shared out across the deaneries and benefice of the Church of England.
The mission and ministry of the church is, however, just as vital today as when we were blessed by an ability to have a priest in nearly every parish. If the local church is to adjust to a new context for its mission and ministry, then we need to rediscover the vocation for the church with in its community. I suspect that we will do this best if we engage with the realities of change, rather than I trying to avoid them.
If we invest in discovering our vocation as the people of God, then the patterns for our mission, ministry and worship won’t be better or worse than the past – but just authentic to our calling to be that people of God, serving the communities in which we are set. Being authentic is probably to be prized most about our ministry.
The CartoonChurch.com cartoon originally appeared in the Church Times and is taken from ‘The Dave Walker Guide to the Church’, published by Canterbury Press.