Shaping vicars: a 'game of unreality' (Tim Thornton)

Monday, 29 April, 2013

Tim Thornton discusses how we shape vicars.

Anglicans live - and always have lived - with compromise and blurring of boundaries. There is definitely a theological conversation to be had about the place of compromise within the church and the world, especially at a time when individualism is rampant and each person appears to be the centre of their own universe, a place where rights rule and there is little or no talk of responsibilities.

There is no obvious way to mark the 'before' and 'after' of such prevalent ideas or trace where such ways of thinking come from – though it is often the case that several people in varying contexts come up with something very similar almost simultaneously.

But I think we have now reached a demarcation line. We have come to the end of an era – an era when we held a common understanding of the role and nature of the professional clergyperson. For the past century or so, there has been an implicit and tacit agreement that we have understood the nature and role of the profession we call 'clergy' and that the priorities and dominant characteristics were accepted by most people.

So it is that whether training to be stipendiary or self-supporting in the Church of England, in reality we have been shaping vicars. That is what we have understood ourselves to be doing and what the world, in turn, understands and expects us to provide.

But, in what is a long overdue move, I believe it's essential for us to deconstruct the understanding or definition of a vicar. Instead we need to reconstruct and permit new models of being deacons and priests so that they can be made 'real' and gain acceptance in the wider church and world.

At present we all participate in a game of unreality. We go through a process of discernment of vocation which is for the order of deacon and priest but, in fact, everyone really knows we are trying to find people who can be leaders of our churches. We are looking for vicars. If that is not the case then we ought to be honest and say so and challenge the perceptions of those in our churches for whom it does seem to be the case.

The confusion is now even greater than this due to the fact that many dioceses are struggling to create and allow new ways of leading churches and ministering to fresh expressions of church - as well as to inherited models of church. Yet there is no clarity about models of ministry so that theological institutions are left in a dilemma about what they should be doing and how they can best shape and form people for the ministry that lies ahead.

About the author: 

Tim Thornton is the Bishop of Truro.


Excellent article +Tim
Global issue in the 'Western' Anglican Church
Here in NZ a similar mindset prevails

First step is a reappropriation of Baptism as primary Vocation

Good thinking +Tim - so good to have you as a forward looking Bishop in Truro Diocese. Thank you.

Shaping up to the biblical principles of eldership would be a start.

How refreshing and biblical an article.
I have been trying to pursue this process for some years now and I am challenged that I do not see myself as a vicar. I firmly believe I am called to ordination to work with God's people, to help heal the wounds life inflicts on many, but not to be a parish manager.

I firmly believe we are meant to be with and alongside society. Making a difference by living out the gospel.

Maybe one day I will persuade others of my calling.

Many blessings.

This articulates much of my own struggle with the call to ordination. I have recently been accepted for training as a Locally Deployed non-stipendiary minister. I am hopeful of a degree of flexibility but know I am going to have to manage lots of different people's expectations of my role within the parish. Not least my own!

There are going to be more and more of us who will be ordained like this who will not be traditional parish priests - we will need to support each other as we work out what it means - for us and for those in more traditional ordained roles - and for congregations and Christians as they live out the whole of their lives at work , social and family lives etc.

My BAP advisers did actually recommend that I be provided the opportunity through my training to develop practical outworking of engagement with the world of work - A positive sign of a growing willingness to think outside the traditional 'vicar' box I hope.

I remember once at a (music) Worship Leaders conference the speaker telling the worship leaders that they first need to be 'lead worshippers'. This reversing of the title is helpful. Us vicars are called to be 'Lead Priests' amongst a priesthood of all believers. Therefore, based on this principle I can see myself as:

Lead Worshipper
Lead Pastor
Lead Missioner
Lead Teacher

In each of these areas it is my job to resource, equip, encourage, empower, train, and demonstrate good practice to the church community in my given context(s).

A good start - can we see a longer paper where you explore this vision? Especially as it affects rural clergy and the expectations on and of them.

I long to see the day when evangelists are ordained not as pastors - managers/ leaders of churches - but as evangelists in their own right. If that day ever comes I may pursue ordination again: years ago I felt a vocation to ordination but not as a vicar - as an evangelist. It was not possible to pursue it then. Maybe it will in the future, but probably when it is too late at least for me.

Hi John,

Have you ever thought of contacting Church Army? It might be worth at least looking them up.

Well said John. It looks like if you want to be ordained as an evangelist, it might need to be outside of the Anglican/Methodist tradition. The Church of England does have its College of Evangelists, but it seems as if you need to be ordained already in order to be accepted. The Church Army is kind of like the Salvation Army of the Anglican tradition, and doesn't really fit the role of biblical evangelist. You would most likely be ushered down the 'vicar' route. Roger Carswell's book 'And Some Evangelists' takes up the lament of denominations not facilitating the role of evangelist. It's a tragedy and is forcing ministers of the gospel to move away from their own tradition into either parachurch ministries, misplaced vocations within their own tradition or independent ministry. Although if that's what it takes, I would say to follow the Holy Spirit on it. It wouldn't be the first time God raised an evangelist to work on the 'fringes'.

William, what is your experience of Church Army? Their focus is very much on sharing the good news of Jesus with people through word and action. Many church Army evangelists work on the fringes. There are a variety of ways to be an evangelist within the Church Army. What is your biblical model?

Hi William - thank you for your contribution here but I think you have been misled both about the College of Evangelists and about Church Army. Many of the members of the Church of England's College of Evangelists are not ordained (you can see the list of members on their website). Church Army is part of the formal ministry of the Church of England and allows those ordained and lay to exercise a ministry focused on evangelism and fresh expressions. Like the Bible model Jesus gave us evangelists now more often work in mission teams of two or more, going out beyond the traditional/inherited church models to connect with people.

most of the current forms of established church seem irrelevant -- what does these new story have as it boundaries, if we even suspect there is a need for clergy at all. People need jobs, the church needs money etc, people still look for sacred space, people are still broken and seek/ project onto other their need to feel whole. good question though?

In this part of the Anglican family, the term is rector rather than vicar, but the reality is the same. I've said for years that "rector is what the church does to someone who has a call to priesthood." I hope that as we follow God's call to be the Church today, in this very different world, we will also allow this who are called to the ordained ministry, be it deacon, priest, or bishop, to be deacon, priest, or bishop rather than requiring them to be chief administrator/executive director first, exercising their ordained ministry in the time left over.
Thanks for raising the issue Bishop.

As someone put it to me recently
"There is a disconnect between the expectations of those who are being trained for ordination and the posts that are available. In training we hear of pioneering new forms of church or developing missional communities. Yet the reality is that most jobs in the Church of England want a "Vicar" who will maintain what they have."

Eddie Gibbs a few years ago said that the Church of England needs fewer Pastor/Teachers (what seems to me to be the predominant expectation of clergy) and more Apostles Prophets and Evangelists. Unfortunately there is little space for such leadership in many diocese where declining clergy numbers force maintenance on clergy.

There are few clergy I meet who would not like to be developing new forms of church, serving the unreached and challenging predominant expectations. Yet after years of infighting, increasing workload paperwork and isolation their passion has been beaten out of them.

Another person said that there is increasingly little space for variety in ordained ministry as clergy are required to meet increasingly stringent criteria (for many good reasons) before during and after training.

We're actually putting reasonable effort into thinking about new models of being deacons and priests that we should permit. The problem is that on it's own, that will fail. We also need to think about new models of being the person who runs a parish.

Unless we do that as well, the church thinks it has an insatiable need for traditional vicars, and then they tell the vicars to do all the jobs that the church thinks need doing. The result is that there's no actual space in parishes for these new ministries to flourish.

So much here that I can identify with. Does the church really want us to minister to all God's people or mainly to those who turn up on Sundays? I'm a lay minister who has sought ordination but my vocation does not match church boundaries. My home parish support my application and two interviews have recognised that I have a vocation - but I'm not able to attend the local college weekly in term time and my Diocese does not support distance learning for those of us who are the 'wrong' side of 55. I can probably work for another fifteen years, with no calls to look after children or aging parents, so not a bad return on some investment in my training.

Now I work in my home parish every summer and winter and minister to Christians (and those wanting to learn about Christianity) in a predominantly Moslem country during the spring and autumn. The Archdeacon covering my non-Christian country knows I am here and that there is a need for Christian ministry, but I have to work outside the recognised church as distances are large and there is no ordained minister nearby. Even now, when I'm not in the UK, I'm doing work for my parish, via internet, email etc. And my experience abroad has real value in what I do in the UK, as here I meet Christians from a far wider range of backgrounds than at home and have to deal with crises that would go to the vicar in a traditional parish.

If anyone knows of a route for becoming ordained via two Dioceses, attending a college that provides distance learning, please do post a reply!

I wish that people would stop referring to 'vicars', when it is obvious that what they mean is incumbents or parsons. Even the BBC finds it impossible to get this right , like their insistence to say, the Reverend (surname)...

A timely and useful article. I am training for the permanent Anglican diaconate - not because I don't think I could be or should be a priest but because I do want to be a deacon and 'take the love of God to the forgotten corners of the world' - working alongside priests, lay people and probably people from different faith traditions. I think that having more permanent deacons in the Anglican church would help us clarify our distinctive vocations and affirm a diversity of ministry among lay people - not everyone who wants to serve God in the Church wants to be a vicar or like a vicar!

A very interesting and well thought out concept of assumption that all churches are seeking leadership models and leaders with adequate resources. I am confusing many people in my own diocese by taking them on as a qualified laity with a three year course in theology and pastoral care, yet I am meant to be felt like I have not even a clue of how a church organization functions. The fact is Pioneer Mission Ministry is the new edge of leading faith, worship and community social programs and projects easily and with little need of a presbyter.

Maybe the time has come to realign how we do ministry, by going back to simple devotional reflections, regular support leaders with better training of fresh expressions. If you care enough about the people you serve and less about the cost of providing institutions that are not willing to give up the formality, for real time scripture reading, sharing traditions and offering reasons to attend faith daily more than yearly.


I am interested in priests and not vicars. See and read first publication. Biblical consideration read second publication
for the shaping see third publication.

About time someone raised these issues. So how and where do we have the conversation. The alternative is more money down the drain, wasted energy and ineffective mission. 37 years in ordained leadership (priest, minister, pastor, leader, servant, pioneer etc etc) 5 as a DDO and theological trainer. Now retired as simply keeping an institutional show on the road no longer worth the risk of body and soul.

I agree with your sentiments and would add another small rider to your comments; I am tired of the sheer grind of trying to encourage some church folk from club members to missioners

The irony of this article (for me) made me chuckle. I have just been inducted as a vicar, after being a pioneer curate for 5 years and a church army evangelist for 5 years before that. However, my presentation at interview was all about how I would want to lead the church out in mission. We probably do need new ways of being leaders but I'm not sure whether it matters what we call them. I have been called a vicar for the past 5 years because I wear a dog collar and I was even once called a 'common law vicar', when I was a Church Army evangelist. However, I will say that my training with Church Army stood me in good stead with regards to being outside the church. I've just read a great little book by Alan Roxburgh where he suggests we need more leaders as poets, prophets and apostles.

I have long struggled with the church, various denominations, struggling with the clergy, having them and finding more of them. There is a resource that is the gift of God to his church, they are called laity. This downtrodden group of God's faithful have long been less than 2nd class citizens in the kingdom tagging along behind the clergy waiting to be allowed to serve.

I used to be a 'called' layman with no intention of being ordained, but such a calling did not exist in the church, no wonder I felt that I did not fit in. I worked full time for a diocese in the CofE in the days when we could afford to have some laity working alongside clergy, but as the money began to run out, the good ship CofE looked around to find the stowaways (non clergy) and systematically made them walk the plank until there were few or none left who shouldn't have been there. Bishops conspired to appoint only clergy or make it impossible for non clergy to work in the CofE - except those working with children or youth a group of people who don't matter much either!

I left the CofE to go to a Free evangelical church and found it no better, they just had an in crowd of leaders called elders who operated as a conclave.

So after 8 years, back to the CofE who are still looking for clergy...
even though there are fewer of them, well real ones anyway so they allow pretend ones in to fill the gaps and still overlook the laity like they are some medieval illiterates - ah the good old days?

Meanwhile on the bridge of the good ship CofE, there is a new game, its called 'Last Bishop Standing'

This is a very important article. The people who still think in terms of the traditional Vicar are those in our pews. Their expectations are very powerful. An enormous task of re-education faces the Church of England. The received model of ministry is way out of touch with the kind of ministry necessary not only for the culture of today's Britain but our congregations. The traditional Vicar has been a figure who has not taught our churchgoers how to be active disciples, neither has he or she led the church into the counter cultural way of being found in the New Testament. Rather they have been chaplains to the culture and our churches have reinforced the prevailing culture.

Getting back to the apostolic model of ministry is going to be a monumental task.

Institutions by default are not empowering and flexibly dynamic. They become agents of systematisation, control (albeit benevolent) and survival oriented. Consequently their leaders and official representatives, however 'independently minded' they try to be still end up either conforming, leading an alternative power base, decide to quietly and doggedly, get on with their version of ministry, break down or engage in a deferred life plan. ( e.g When I retire I will do what I feel called to do... )That is why church cannot be institutionalised. People ask me if the new Archbishop will change things.... I expect he will but not in any substantial way because he is part of and heads up an established institution. Realize I am making generalsations but having seen the way Pioneer ministry has been subsumed, shaped and contained since its inception feel there is some truth in this.

I begin training in September. The thought of being a traditional 'vicar' terrifies me. The prospect of being a new sort of 'Priest' excites me hugely. I believe I am called to be the latter and called within the Anglican church to do so but I do nervously wonder if training will 'shape' me out of it or equally the reality of ministering in parishes with traditional expectations will make it nigh-on impossible.

Time will tell, but I do know of others who are also excited about ministering in a fresh and exciting way - I suppose the church just needs to do it's bit to ensure the fertile ground is there for us to exercise it, perhaps this article signals the beginning of that process.

Thank you for a thoughtful article which poses more questions than it answers. I am a fairly recent adult convert who is still surprised to find himself a churchgoer, much less working full time in church, much less supporting my wife through training for lay ministry, much less finding myself a candidate for ordination and exploring vocation in terms of new monasticism.

I am convinced that the established church is blind to the crisis it faces. There is a place for ministry that 'looks' traditional; and it is worth noting that that the only period of church growth since the 1850's was after WW2, when church offered a promise of community, stability and continuity in a world where everything else had been turned upside down. It didn't matter where you went, you more or less knew what you would get when you walked in to Mattins, Evensong or Communion. More than that, you knew that you were participating in something that had been largely unchanged for hundreds of years - and that seemed a good thing. As an old lady in my church says, 'if people have been coming here and doing this for all those years, it can't be wrong, can it?' But the modern church encourages us to think that it is.

Even though we still have parish churches, the Anglican 'identity' that our parents and grandparents knew no longer exists. The church has a pick-and-mix liturgy being put into action every week by people whose skills do not necessarily lay in that direction but have been taught in theology college that they need to keep worship 'fresh' and 'exciting' and 'relevant'.

Never mind that the very message of the Gospel is dangerous, counter-cultural and irrelevant to a Post-modernity in which community, responsibility and neighbourliness have been sacrificed on the altar of consumerism in order to exalt covetousness over generosity, aquisitiveness over compassion and to turn desire into need; while the widow and the orphan work to service that need at the expense of their own dignity and well being.

The parish system is in slow meltdown and that is only going to accelerate. The concept of 'a Christian presence in every community' is uncritically expounded without any consideration of what defines 'Christian presence' or 'community'. It may be that 'Christian presence' means 'the voice that says, "no more"'. At the moment, though, the church thinks that it can reverse the decline of numbers by chasing the current trends of consumerist society, not recognising that an essential 'quality' of every trend in consumerism is that of disposability. The more we align ourselves to the world as it is, the more disposable and unnecessary we become to it.

This is the great dilema we face. The church, in all its forms, must go through a time of trial while it works out how to bear true witness to the work of Christ in salvation. Somehow, I am convinced, it must retain the ability to speak of timeless truths. And it must regain the moral authority which it has long since lost in the eyes of the unchurched and de-churched but which it thinks it still retains. If we try to do that by playing 'catch up' with presentation styles to a culture that is changing faster than we can hope to respond to, then we will have failed before we start.

That is not to say that we should not explore every means at our disposal of spreading, and enacting, the gospel. But we need to do so remembering that everything under the sun has it's season while the Word that became flesh is eternal. Our mission is to be the visible presence of that Word in the world. Which means showing in our life as well as our doctrine that we are still true to that Word and not simply following the world.

It may be that we must hear the words of John the Baptist afresh and, in order to speak prophetically of the work of Christ in the world, allow ourselves to diminish so that we can be faithful witnesses to that work. It may be that the Bishop of Rome is right, that the church must allow itself to become poor in order that the world has a chance to hear afresh the Word of the richness of the forgiveness of God.

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