LONDON (RNS) — Responding to growing concern about the kinds of priests the Church of England is attracting, Anglican leaders are considering expanding its assessments of clergy candidates to include more rigorous psychological testing.
Anxiety about the quality of those who aspire to become clergy is rooted in the series of child sex abuse scandals that have emerged from Anglicanism’s mother church over the past 20 years. In testimony given last March to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse — the public body set up to investigate abuse in many organizations, including churches — Bishop of Chichester Martin Warner said his diocese could use psychological testing of ordinands to assess whether they are suitable. He said the testing is “something we will be starting later this year.”
Last week, Julian Hubbard, director of the Church of England’s Ministry Division, said in a statement, “This has been given added focus by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the requirement to provide greater assurance on the effectiveness of the selection process. So we are examining its potential as a means to identify candidates who might pose a risk to others.”
“But this is not only about safeguarding,” Hubbard added. “It is vital to use all means available to find people with the right skills and aptitudes for this unique, but very challenging, calling.”
The Church of England currently uses a variety of assessment methods for prospective ordinands, including lengthy interviews, written exercises, questionnaires, group discussions and detailed references.
But Leslie Francis, a canon professor of religions and education at Warwick University and an expert on psychological profiling of clergy, said more intensive testing can help spot pathologies such as narcissism.
“Both introversion and extroversion can reflect the divine image,” said Francis, “but it is also very wise for the church to consider pathologies.”
In the book “Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do about It,” researchers R. Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls estimate, based on their 2015 study, that about a third of ministers in one mainline Protestant denomination in Canada showed signs of a narcissistic personality. Narcissists often come to apprehend God as a rival, not a loving presence, and eventually may see themselves as God.
Francis said narcissism can give pastors “a confidence in their own ability to the disparagement of others,” and a tendency to see “the black side of others rather than the contribution people make to the church. There is a temptation to bully and demean.”
In extreme cases, Francis said, clergy can display what psychologists call “the dark triad”: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. But he also warned that more rigorous testing could exacerbate a trend in the Church of England to recruit conventional clergy who do not rock the boat.
A study that Francis conducted with Greg Smith, published recently in the journal Theology, compared the psychological type and temperament of curates ordained in 2009 and 2010 to more than 700 clergy who had been similarly profiled in 2007. They found that increasing numbers of clergy in Church of England pulpits are conventional and less inclined to take an innovative approach to ministry.
“There is a nervousness in the Church of England about its economic security, and some managing types are thought to keep the show on the road. But then some creativity is overlooked,” he said.
Catherine Pepinster is an RNS correspondent based in London.