04/22/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

British Priesthood Uptick

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Do you know what "wonga" is? I didn't, but my research assistant, Dr. Google, helped me learn. An Australian English word of aboriginal origin, "wonga" is slang for money in certain parts of Britain. Why care? Because the staid Economist (April 19, 2014) pictured cassock-clad, conga-dancing seminarians and the writers needed something cute to rhyme with "conga."

The associated article did not deal with a cute subject. The caption was "Revving Up: More Young Britons Are Joining the Priesthood." We read of no surge in seminary enrollments, but, still, "In 2013 the Church of England started training 113 20-somethings -- the most for two decades (although still too few to replace retirees)." Meanwhile, "the number of new trainees for the Roman Catholic priesthood in England and Wales has almost doubled since 2003...and their average age has fallen," a factor that church leaders regard as good news.

Such statistics would not impress assertive Southern Baptist and many independent evangelical seminary leaders in the United States, but, not relaxing, they also pay attention to trends in the number and quality of seminarians and clergy everywhere. The reason the trend among Britons is so closely watched is because the United Kingdom, along with nations in Western Europe, has seen the most drastic decline in clergy numbers. Any sign of life in such places is, let's call it, yes, a sign of life.

Today is "Easter Monday," a day after the Festival of the Resurrection, when Christians celebrate and seek signs of life in their worlds. Leaders among them may read the Economist story and others like it to find evidences and clues of "resurrection" in the ordinary elements of life. The magazine's writers report honestly on the plummeting number of Catholic priests, and Anglicans (and all the rest) join them in acknowledging that new thinking and new action are needed.

The journalist ponders problems: Pastoral and priestly work is long and hard, the pay is low, yet, in selective cases there are attractions. Many young recruits across the North Atlantic and in North America are "the idealistic young," some of whom look for projects among the homeless and desperate. Others see the ministry as a "'distinctive alternative' for people disillusioned with how much of modern Britain is run."

The Economist finds that many trainee priests will end up in country parishes (and, in North America, suburbs), where "pushy parishioners and local vagrants," people on the move, often misuse them. Many complain about their "seniors' foot-dragging on gay rights." The magazine account does not end on an un-Easterly downer.

The end of the story? "A government survey published in March found clergy happier than members of any other profession. Money can't buy that." Such surveyed ministerial men and women get to preach and teach and realize some realities, which signal to them those "signs of new life."

The Association of Theological Schools (see reference below) tracks trends in North America, where the "downs" are not as low as they are across the Atlantic. But these trackers and theological school leaders here are also recognizing that old patterns and reliances, e.g. on strong denominational support, are less reliable now. They can contend against many forbidding cultural trends, but they can't win all the battles.

Still, as the survey in Great Britain found, many of them are "happier" trying to serve in ministries than are their contemporaries in other professions. That's a strong sign of life.


The Economist. "Revving up: More young Britons are joining the priesthood." April 19, 2014.

The Association of Theological Schools.

Crosby, Robert. "The Changing Seminary Landscape: An Interview with Daniel Aleshire." Patheos, October 17, 2011, Evangelical Channel.

Ashford, Bruce. "Briefly Noted: Daniel Aleshire on the Future of Theological Education." Between the Times, March 14, 2012.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at