Discernment for priests needs to be ‘tweaked,’ says bishop

Bishop Bill Cliff discusses clergy training in the diocese of Brandon with the diocese of Toronto's Mary Conliffe at a recent gathering on theological education for priestly ministry. Photo: André Forget
Bishop Bill Cliff discusses clergy training in the diocese of Brandon with the diocese of Toronto's Mary Conliffe at a recent gathering on theological education for priestly ministry. Photo: André Forget
Published March 15, 2017

The Anglican Church of Canada should “retool” its methods for assessing candidates for the priesthood to make the process more sensitive to context, says Bishop Bill Cliff, of the diocese of Brandon.

During a recent national gathering to discuss the future of theological education for priestly ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada, Cliff publicly stated that he is not comfortable sending people who have not had a seminary education to participate in the church’s standard discernment process.

In an interview with the Anglican Journal following the conference, Cliff expanded on his comments, explaining that in his opinion, the process does not do enough take into account cultural differences within the church, especially between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans.

For most Anglicans hoping to become postulants to the priesthood in the Canadian church, the route to ordination involves discerning a call for ordination through a conference organized by the Advisory Committee for Postulants for Ordination (ACPO) of their ecclesiastical province.

Every year, candidates attend a weekend-long discernment gathering in which they are interviewed by a group of assessors about their readiness to serve as priests in the church.

But given the diversity of contexts candidates come from and hope to serve, Cliff does not think ACPO can always accurately perceive whether or not someone is ready for the priesthood.

For example, ACPO requires candidates to articulate why they believe they are called to the ministry, which is congruent with the general Western assumption that those seeking leadership in a community should put themselves forward, Cliff said.

In many Indigenous nations, however, it is the community that identify who the leaders should be. Cliff said this was driven home to him by comments National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald had made at the national gathering.

At the gathering, MacDonald said that in many Indigenous communities it would be seen as “presumptuous” for people to claim they were being called to the priesthood.

“Oftentimes, people will say that the elders say that I have a calling [instead],” said MacDonald, adding that assessors need to be sensitive to this cultural difference.

This rings true of Cliff’s experience in the predominantly Indigenous northern part of his own diocese, and has made him reluctant to put forward locally-trained Indigenous candidates in the same way he would seminary-trained candidates.

“I wouldn’t recommend Indigenous candidates at an ordinary ACPO,” said Cliff. “I think the cultural issues are different, and the sense of discernment is different.”

Cliff said the House of Bishops should take the lead in considering how ACPO could be made to better serve local churches.

An evolving process

Canon Sue House, who recently became ACPO secretary for the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon and serves at Christ Church Cathedral in the diocese of British Columbia, also thinks the discernment process could be updated.

House has been an assessor at nearly a dozen ACPO conferences since she first became involved in the process in 1990. In that time, she has seen significant changes in the way people come to the priesthood.

In particular, her province has seen a greater number of locally-trained (also sometimes called “locally-raised up”) people seeking ordination over the past 15 years.

“When I started, we didn’t have locally raised-up clergy,” she said. “We still had a church that could expect that their candidates were going to go to seminary, and that is just not a possibility anymore.”

With locally-trained clergy becoming increasingly common in the province of B.C. and Yukon, House said assessors have needed to change the kinds of questions they ask.

Many locally-trained candidates have been volunteering in their parishes for a long time, she said, and have both a practical sense of what leadership in the church involves and a deep knowledge of the needs of their own particular community.

This means they usually enter the process with a strong letter of reference from their community, but won’t necessarily be willing to move-which would ordinarily be a red flag, coming from a seminary-trained candidate.

For this reason, House said, assessors need to be sensitive to the fact that some candidates already know where they will be serving. But, this isn’t always the case. “I think what happens is we just, in my experience, assess [all candidates] on the same level,” she said. “And it is not that one is better, or one is worse, it’s just they are different.”

Furthermore, House said she is not aware of any locally-trained clergy who have served as assessors in her province, and would like to see this changed. She thinks assessors who know from experience what the local training process is like would have better questions to ask.

Though she has yet to organize her first ACPO conference as secretary, House said she plans on talking with the bishop responsible for ACPO in her province, Logan McMenamie, of the diocese of British Columbia, about how assessors could be better prepared for interviewing locally-trained candidates.

‘The conversation needs to continue’

Meanwhile, changes are already underway in the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land.

Archdeacon Catherine Harper, ACPO secretary for Rupert’s Land from 2010-2015 and co-ordinator of the Qu’Appelle School for Mission and Ministry, said her province has started to address concerns over cultural sensitivity.

“We’ve had to broaden our understanding, and to look beyond Western, European understandings of culture and context,” Harper said. She noted that during her time as secretary, training of assessors included a discussion about the need to take different cultural expectations and understandings into account when interviewing candidates.

When asked whether further changes are needed, Harper said she thinks so, but added that this should be seen as being part of ongoing debates about the Canadian Anglican theology of the priesthood in the 21st century.

“With our changing understanding [of the priesthood]… I think some significant conversations need to happen, which will affect ACPO-which should affect ACPO, in the way assessors are chosen and in the way assessors are prepared for the discernment that we do,” she said.

But despite the discussions taking place about ACPO, Cliff, House and Harper think it is still the best framework for helping future leaders of the church discern their call.

“I think ACPO is a tool that we can reform to do the job we need doing,” said Cliff. “I don’t think we should scrap it if it can be made to work in our various contexts.”


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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