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Where are the young women?

Today has been my last day of KIME. The photo (left) is a picture of my year group at their final meeting together.

For the uninitiated, when an Ordinand is ordained and becomes a Curate, the Church of England pushes those new, fresh-faced, eager new possessors of a clerical collar through a three year process called IME 4-7 .

You don’t finish training when you leave theological college. Much like a junior doctor, you are ‘on the wards’ now but you’re still learning and IME 4-7 is an important part of that process.

In Rochester, that means meeting up with the other Curates from this diocese and Canterbury (thus forming Kent IME or KIME) on a monthly basis for a lecture programme and series of group projects. There’s plenty I could say about what IME has been like but I’ll refrain for now.

The point of this post and a post title that could be wildly misinterpreted has been prompted by two aligning thoughts as my time on KIME comes to a close.

The first thought actually took place three years ago. As I looked around the room at my fellow Curates from these two dioceses at our very first meeting, I asked myself the question ‘who is going to be alongside me in thirty years time’? Quite selfishly, I admit, I was interested in working out which of these people who were now to be colleagues, and hopefully friends, would still be in ministry when I approach retirement age. Who would be here for the duration? Who would be a life-time colleague?

In answering that question, I was able to strike out more than 60% of the room. All of the women (bar one) and a few (but not many) of the blokes fell at this particular hurdle. At the time, I remember thinking that, firstly, hidden amongst the positive ordination statistics and rising number of ordinands that the CofE releases each year, there is still a long-term problem for the Anglican church in this country if less than half of any one year group has a shelf life of less than (say) 25 years.

The second thought was ‘where are the young women?’ With the exception of one colleague (who was also a colleague at Ridley Hall before ordination), there were no women in the room below the age of 45 (I am being slightly generous and trying to be gentlemenly about how old some of my female colleagues might be).

The second thing that got me onto this subject at this juncture was an article from The Ugley Vicar (h/t Maggi Dawn) published in the last week, where he talks about precisely the same subject from a statistical analysis of the latest figures.

The friendships that I’ve developed over the last three years with my fellow Curates have been a real blessing and, regardless of gender and age, I know that they are most definitely friends. Some of them will continue to be very important to me as I move forward and, even when some of those older lady colleagues retire, they will still be friends for a long time to come.

However, in this ordination season, I want to add my voice to Maggi’s and John’s. We still need to much, much better in our systems of discernment and training for ministry and ordination to address this hidden gap in the demography of our clergy. If we believe that it is God that can and does call to this ministry, then there ought to be at least as many younger women coming forward as younger men (and don’t even get me started on the fact that mentally I have been trained to think that people in their thirties are ‘young’).

Speaking to some female colleagues (some ‘younger’ and some who started young), the hurdles are considerable. You have to be pretty special, pretty bloody-minded to overcome all the prejudices they face; the most difficult of which seems, to me, to be childbirth where many parishes and dioceses don’t know how to cope with an ordained woman who decides to have children whilst in ministry.

This might be a bit of an unmentionable, but I wonder too about the influence of romance or the lack of it? This might sound a bit crass but if you are young or young-ish, female and single, does the prospect of an unsexy clerical shirt and collar make you think that you’re heading for spinsterhood? Might that mean you wait until your life is more where you wish it to be?

I’m sure there are many, many more reasons and I know too that I speak as an ignorant ‘bloke’ in all this so forgive my simplistic analysis. It doesn’t change the fact we have a problem.

Maggi rightly draws attention to the ‘glass ceiling’ that still exists and that ceiling isn’t just about the episcopate as Ugley Vicar’s statistics prove. I am sure such things remain an important factor as well. The latest news is that the dioceses are voting overwhelmingly to get on with the process of seeing women join the episcopate but even when all the barriers are cleared away and the first episcopal see is available to women and men, we’re going to have a long-term problem finding big numbers of suitable female candidates if we don’t ordain ‘younger’ women, enable them the time to build-up a level of experience in ministry and push them forward into more senior roles.

Comments

katymagdalene
Reply

I’ve noticed exactly the same. At my recent BAP there were several men in their twenties and thirties, but only one woman that age (me). The issue for me, as a married woman who hasn’t yet started a family, is that the process of discernment is so long and uncertain, and the ‘biological clock’ is ticking. If I hadn’t got through this year I would have gone away, had a family, and come back in many years if at all. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Really glad people are starting to spot this “gap” though – thanks!

David
Reply

Thanks for posting and congrats at getting through your BAP!

Tiffer
Reply

I do agree with most of this Dave, but I am hesitant about the “God is surely calling equal numbers of men and women, and at equal ages” kind of thinking. I heard WATCH using that kind of reasoning years ago and it worried me, because God calls who he will, and also because for me whether we are “called” to ordained ministry is still a big question anyway (I did feel called, but this concept is a very recent development in the church).

I completely agree that any prejudices and barriers that we have that put younger women off or effectively prohibit them from ordained ministry must be done away with, and the childbearing issue is to my mind the foremost. I think one way to make that situation a lot easier would be to have an effective secondment system for vacancies, paternal parental leave and long term sickness, as we used to. Not easy to do in a national financial crisis and with retirements outnumbering new ordinands, but a worthwhile goal nonetheless.

David
Reply

Hi Tiffer.

I’m not sure I can follow you on the subject of ‘calling’ without a much longer conversation. To answer your first point, of course you can’t say that God is calling people to some kind of quota system but the point surely holds that, all else being equal, we shouldn’t see major variations between men and women or different ages unless something is creating a barrier? The statistics would suggest a major variation when it comes to young women that would suggest it’s not just that the Holy Spirit isn’t talking to many of them.

Tiffer
Reply

I guess what I am saying is that all else isn’t equal, because God doesn’t necessarily fit into our ideas about fairness and equal opportunities. But I do concede the point that it is very likely that many women are not able to respond to that call for whatever reason. I am not arguing that God is not calling women until they are older, but I am uncomfortable saying the opposite too. Hope that makes sense!

Neil
Reply

As someone ordained at 24 and now clocking up 34 years in ministry, I recognise a lot of this. However, a couple of things need to be recognised.

First is that many of my contemporaries, aged about the same as me, have dropped out of ministry altogether, many in their early years. The overall dropout rate for the C of E is about 29% over a working lifetime and many who drop out do so early on, during the first ten years.

The second point is that when I was ordained there was a strong feeling that the Church needed men [no women in 1977] who had experience of the world [or “real life” as some rather quaintly called it] and that it was undesirable to be ordaining people in their mid-twenties. Today this means that ordained ministry has increasingly become a “second career” for people who become clergy aged around 40. All this has cumulative implications for the C of E [and other churches too] which no-one seems to be aware of, nor cares about.

Tiffer
Reply

Neil – where did you get that 29% figure? I am very surprised it is so high. I know a few, but not many, who have come out of full time Christian ministry – but often not permanently.

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