Women in Ministry, the Church of England  and Statistics: A closer look

When the Church of England published its annual report on ministry in the Church of England last September, it was accompanied by an up beat press release beginning with the statements

“the number of female clergy continues to rise” and

“more women than men began training in the church of England in 2018.”.

As men are still the majority of the licensed clergy of the Church of England (70% in 2018) this is welcome news – but the press release only tells some of the story, and omits crucial information to the point of being misleading.

WATCH recently published its report on Women in Ministry, based on the national Church’s figures, which  demonstrated that the key information to accompany the statement about the proportion of women ordinands,  is that in 2018, only 41% of the ordinands under 40 were women. (Table 4) If we look at the group of ordinands under 30, the young ordinands the church is trying to attract, the proportion is even smaller – only 38%. The younger the cohort of ordinands, the smaller the proportion of women  it contains. This has been the pattern whenever data on age and gender of clergy has been collected, and although the gap was less in 2018 than the previous year, we have no evidence yet that the pattern of the majority of young ordinands being  male is changing significantly. The proportion of female ordinands under 40 who started training in 2019 was 40%: almost the same as in 2018. This information was given in answer to a question in General Synod in February 2020.

One  implication of this  continuing imbalance is that the proportion of women and men in licensed ordained ministry will be very slow to reach a gender balance, if it does so at all. The reason for this was pointed out after the publication of these figures by Bernard Silverman:

“It has (at least) the following consequences and implications:

  1. If this age pattern is continued, then it will be necessary to train more females than males to end up with equal numbers among serving clergy, because the younger trainees will presumably serve for longer once ordained.
  2. There will be a gender imbalance among long-serving clergy towards men for many decades into the future, and therefore we can expect to see a slowdown or even reverse in the improvement of gender ratio of those in “senior” roles. In other professions (medicine, academia) there’s a problem about women progressing into senior roles. Among the clergy this is a problem even at the training and recruitment stage.”

(comment on Thinking Anglicans  2 Sep 2019)

What is particularly concerning about the “official church view” based on the press release, is that the continuing gender imbalance is not being taken seriously enough even to merit comment, and therefore, is not being investigated effectively. Indeed, when discussing possible projections of future numbers of clergy (p 23 of the report)  one projection assumes that “the age distribution of female clergy ordained will match that of male clergy” with no evidence or strategy for achieving this target. The report itself says, when discussing projections of future clergy numbers: “ If the gender pattern remains the same, then in ten years’ time 64% of clergy will be male and 36% female.” Such a statement, with no strategy  to reduce the gender gap during these ten years, is shocking, and would be challenged in most other professions, including vocational ones such as medicine.

In 2018, only 33% of all women ordinands starting training were under 40, compared to 56% male ordinands. This is an increase from previous years, but is still a figure that should be concerning the whole church. Figures of  ordinands starting training in 2019 were recently published in answer to a question in General Synod, and show no significant difference to 2018 figures:  252 ordinands began in  2019, and 253 in 2018. The proportion of women was also the same: 40%.

This answer to this question also showed another imbalance,  which is in the sort of training pathways followed by men and women.  The data for this was only for one year (2019 entry) so no comparison with other years can be tracked. However, the  pattern is one that matches information both statistical and anecdotal. Ordinands are offered 3 possible pathways: full time residential, full time non-residential and part time non-residential. A typical male ordinand will train on a full time course, and it is more likely that he will be a residential student. In 2019, 64% male ordinands began full time training, with two thirds of these being residential students. However, 49% female ordinands began training full time and only half of them were residential students. Just over half the female ordinands started training on part time, regional courses.

The underlying reason for this disparity is almost certainly the age difference of male and female ordinands, noted above. The amount of central funding provided to a diocese to support training is provided at different rates for different ages of ordinand. Ordinands under 40 attract a grant sufficient to cover full time residential training for 3 or 2 years; ordinands over 40 attract a grant which will only cover the costs of part time training. A diocese can supplement the central grant, sometimes from funds received for younger ordinands who choose not to train full time, or it is possible that a student could pay the additional costs of full time training personally, but there is a gap in finance provided and finance needed for any ordinand over 40 who wishes to train full time. 60% of female ordinands are over 40 when they are selected for training and so are much less likely to be offered the option of full time or residential training, even if it is what they would prefer.

This does not seem to be an issue that is being monitored by Ministry Division. Another question in Synod asked how much was spent on training women and how much on men, and the answer was that the information could not be provided. While it is important that an ordinand and DDO discern the best mode of training for each individual, which might well be part-time, at the moment gender is clearly a very significant difference in how future clergy are trained, and the impact of this should be investigated much more thoroughly than it is at the moment. One simple way of testing whether finance is significant, would be to have different age boundaries for male and female ordinands, so that women could attract higher funding up to the age of 45 or 50, and then see if that affected the number of women training full time in this age group.

There are theories as to why the number of young women ordinands is consistently lower than the number of young male ordinands, but not enough work has been done to discover why this might be, and then put strategies in place to achieve  gender parity, nor is this a stated aim of those responsible for vocations and training.

One possible reason which the Church  of England does not like to admit, but is heard over and over again in groups of young women, is that the church is seen as an institution which undervalues women, is misogynistic and has embedded discrimination  against women in its structures, as well as in its culture. The exceptions to equalities legislation which would be illegal in most work places, shock most people who thought that in 2014 the church ended gender discrimination, and   convey an image of an institution that will not support women. This is a significant obstacle for many young women. We need to ask ourselves, as a church, whether this perception which is held by most young women, is closer to reality than the institution’s view of itself as tolerant and able to include a variety of competing theologies, and if it is, what the church could be doing about this.

Another possible reason is that the impression given by the Church of England to many young women testing their vocation or training for ministry, is that they are a problem, rather than a gift to the church. The continuing lack of an agreed, national maternity policy is one symptom of this, as is the lack of a policy on shared parental leave. Another is the lack of willingness to discuss ways of sharing an incumbency, or part time stipendiary parish posts. (young men might well welcome more flexibility too) . Too often, senior staff give the impression that it is the ordinand or young parish priest who has to adapt in order to fit in and is a “problem” , rather seeing each person as a gift to the church and looking at how the institution needs to change and adapt to be able to best use the gifts offered by young men and women.

A third possible reason is the lack of role models in some parts of the church.  Recent articles have highlighted the extent to which big “student” churches in university towns are frequently churches with a theology of male headship.  Young women will not see role models among their church’s leadership, nor see women leading worship or teaching (other than in segregated groups) If, despite this, they sense a vocation to ordained ministry, too often they are told that they are mistaken, rather than being referred to an adviser who can affirm them in their call.

Another priority of the Church of England is to increase the number of ordinands who identify as BAME. The number of such ordinands rose in 2018, and it is to be hoped that this  becomes a trend which continues. However, the numbers of BAME ordinands have not been broken down by gender. This may be because the numbers are still so small, but BAME women often meet particular blockages and difficulties as they seek to discern a vocation and then train. This is another area where focused research and monitoring would be helpful.

WATCH is glad that the number of female ordinands rose in 2018, and was maintained in 2019. However, the selective  information in  the press release which ignored the continuing gender imbalance  among young ordinands suppresses many of the questions which the C of E must start investigating, if the church is serious about  achieving an ordained ministry which is no longer  dominated by white men.

Data is taken from:

Ministry Statistics 2018: published by the Church of England in September Church of England Research and Statistics, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3AZ

 A Report on Developments in Women’s Ministry in 2019 (WATCH)


 General Synod Feb 2020 Monday: Questions (question 108)