Ageism, also called age discrimination, is when someone treats you unfairly because of your age. In our current climate, we are all too quick to diagnose an “ism” or an “ia” to something, but the subject of age, certainly in relation to the Church in Wales, is one which is being highlighted in a number of areas.
In September 2016, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales was faced with a motion that sought to abolish the age limit of 75 for Church Wardens. After “lively” debate, the motion was defeated. You can read about it in more detail here. What this essentially meant was that the Governing Body committed itself afresh to trying to find Church Wardens who were under 75 to take on the positions. What has been quickly realised is that in many churches, this has been an impossible quest. In many churches up and down the province, there are simply no people in the local parish church under 75, never mind people who are suitable to take on the role of Church Warden.
We are faced with two issues here; firstly, this commitment to the age limit has barred gifted and spiritual people from undertaking the role of Church Warden due to their age. The second issue is that there’s a temptation to see the eligibility for the role of Church Warden as being one which is solely age related. If there are twenty parishioners in a congregation, and only one under 75, then that under-75 is the one who is most likely to get the job, no matter what their spiritual discipline is or otherwise.
Of course, the bigger question to seek answers to is why we are in such a state of affairs in the first place. Why are there not people under 75 years of age in our congregations who are spiritually mature enough to take on such a prominent role within the local parish church?
This reality is indicative of our situation as a province: at the moment, we are in decline. And by the very nature of the subject of “age”, the decline is, at the moment, terminal. The Governing Body’s intention in defeating the motion was to encourage growth and to enable young people into leadership positions. But what’s needed first and foremost is evangelism and mission to young people. They need to be invested in and mentored. Is it surprising that, in a province in which the majority (and I use this word cautiously – there are not many jobs about for this work in the Church in Wales) of posts for children’s workers and youth workers are either voluntary or paid-part time, the province is experiencing such absence of the younger generations? I don’t think so. Despite our depleting resources for the numbers of stipendiary clergy many were used to in the past, we still have quite a few! The same cannot be said of children and youth workers. In fact, I don’t think it could have ever been said that the Anglican Church in Wales has invested significant amounts of money in order to employ children’s and youth workers. To be fair, we do have children/youth/families advisors at diocesan level, but they’re certainly not the same thing as workers at grassroots level.
In the Diocese of Monmouth, the bishop has started a “Bishop’s Audit” – a process whereby the bishop and senior staff of the diocese visit the different ministry areas to look at the sustainability of the area and offer recommendations for action. Certainly an empowering initiative for clergy if the recommendations are heeded. In our area, we’re still waiting for the audit to happen, but I believe one of the questions in the survey is about whether we have been able to appoint Church Wardens. In some of our parishes, we haven’t been able to.
As to the age limit conundrum, I have no answer or solution. The commitment to the age limit is to force parishes to consider their commitment to younger people, and the realisation that there’s been a lack of commitment on their part has been, and will continue to be a painful reality check. No doubt it will eventually lead to parishes being asked to take stock of their situation and question whether there is a future for them. It is clear to me, however, that if we say that we are committed to young people, then we need to put our money where our mouth is. And even more so if congregations are saying that they’d love to invest in young people but they’re too old and can’t do the work involved. Then we must employ gifted people and invest in them with our support and finances to work for us.
But there is another way in which the Church faces ageism and that’s towards young clergy. At the time of writing I am the youngest minister in the Church in Wales (and have been since 2016), and will continue to be the youngest priest for the next 12 months or so. Thankfully, I’m not on my own in being young and it’s been a privilege to serve alongside other clergy who are of a similar age bracket to me. But one thing we do face on occasion is patronising behaviour shown towards us by older members of the clergy.
Generally speaking, when young people want to get involved in Church at higher levels (specifically at the Governing Body and at Diocesan level) they are given a platform to do so. Whilst I think we must be careful about doing things simply because “the young people said…”, I do believe that giving young people a voice in the life of the Church, provided that they are committed disciples, is a good thing.
However, young clergy at Governing Body do not always get the same support. My last blog post was about my reflections on the Governing Body meeting about children being admitted to Holy Communion. I detailed in that post some of the rebuttal I received after making a case for better preparation of those seeking to have their children baptised. What I didn’t mention in that post was that one person started their rebuttal in the following way:
“When I was a young curate…”
and I immediately knew what was going to follow. The line of argument was that this person, as a young curate, thought that they had it all sussed and believed that they had all the right ideas but as they’d gotten older, they’d mellowed and matured. Those may not have been the exact words used, but the inference was clear. The notion that as I’d get older, I wouldn’t be as strong in my view about the absolute necessity for good, consistent, and considered teaching and preparation is absolutely ludicrous. The person in question has served on the Governing Body for longer than I have been alive. During that time, the Church has accelerated in rate of decline in ways in which I genuinely believe a majority of people who find themselves in the Church in Wales today could have never imagined – not that I put the decline down to that particular individual alone, of course.
This is the legacy that has been left to the younger generation of clergy coming through today – and there’s not many of us who, by God’s grace, have been tasked with turning the ship around. Is there any wonder that our ideas about teaching, preparation, discipleship and evangelism are so strong? Is there any wonder that a majority of younger clergy are demanding more of their parishioners and of the Church structures in terms of commitment and explicit teaching of the faith in these days of seemingly small things? And that’s before I mention Jesus’ age and that a good number of his disciples and early apostles would have been in their 20s and 30s.
So perhaps the problem isn’t age related at all.