Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Why so few younger women clergy?

Back in January I blogged about this question, but it's still there, and still needs an answer. There's a concern in the Church at the moment about the rising average age of clergy. We have been reaping the 'wisdom' of some years past, when young Christians who felt called by God to ordained ministry were told to go and 'get a life' first.

But now we're starting to see younger people coming forward, some of us have noted that there are distinctly fewer young women in training than young men. And looking round the church, there are not many young women in stipendiary ministry.

There are a whole variety of reason:
  • women don't get as much encourament as men do
  • there are fewer young women in churches
  • some of these younger women belong to more conservative churches which don't allow women to take on preaching or leadership roles
  • some women in their 20s and 30s have a young family and have chosen to keep their sense of call on hold.
But I was disturbed by a recent letter to the Church Times (13th August), which talked of the experience of one young woman at her first selection conference.

She was told when young, as many young men also used to be told, that she was 'inexperienced'. The subtext, according to the letter was 'go away, get a job, have babies, then come back.' This she did, and was finally accepted many years later.

The letter goes on to highlight other concerns which I've also noticed recently. When it came to a title parish, 'Ever present was the unspoken hint that a mature woman might be threatening to her training incumbent. And she had a family, all of whom had well-established ties to people and places,, which made things more "complicated" for the diocese. Would they have either of these concerns about a man?'

Some might, others would not. It is so hard to prove that anything like this is gender discrimination. The writer of the letter wonders why the Church seems so much more nervous about accepting inexperienced young women, when there are plenty of such men in training. A fair point. And then if those women return a few years later, they have other hurdles to overcome.

I believe that the discernment process is a good one, and that when the writer of the letter calls it 'secretive' and by implication, biassed, this is unfair. But that does not mean that it's not harder, often, for women than for men.

The Church of England needs more young women to offer themselves for a lifetime of ministry. I know some great young women who have been accepted for training at recent panels. But I think there is still more progress to be made in nurturing the vocations of women in their 20s.

And what is true for the Church of England is probably just as true in other denominations. I've read research which points to subtle or less subtle forms of discrimination in a variety of denominations. Where we are aware of barriers which make the selection process more difficult for women than for men, we need to keep raising concerns, until the process is truly equal for all.