I wrote this as an e-mail for the people at work when I was first going through the discernment process, and some of them found it a really helpful explanation of the steps to becoming the Rev. That was a couple of years ago, but it still basically holds true and relates to the Church of England.
There are three stages to pursuing your dream of wearing a cassock and dog collar.
Curacy (although technically you get your dog collar and cassock after the training stage)
Unfortunately, it is not possible simply to speak to your vicar and say “I really think the Lord might be saying I should be a vicar” and that’s that, although that would be the place to start. If your vicar agrees that the Lord might be saying you should join the ranks s/he will start you on the discernment process. What happens next varies from diocese to diocese, but essentially is a process of trying to hear from God and making sure that this is what he wants!
Typically, you have to meet with the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (no wonder everyone calls them the ‘DDO’) who is paid to listen to you and God and work out whether it’s right that you are called to ordained ministry. Usually you will be sent to see someone else too, usually not a vicar. In St Albans, for example, they like to make this person someone who is trained in psychotherapy, in Peterborough Dioecese a lay person who has experience of testing vocation. This is to get the perspective of someone who isn’t ordained on the process of listening to God.
Once the DDO is satisfied, they will send you to see the Bishop. The Bishop will chat to you for a while (usually not more than an hour, bishops are busy people!) and have read a report about you by the DDO. It is up to the Bishop to make the final decision as to whether you should be allowed to train for Revdom. If they think you are a likely candidate, they will send you to a Bishop’s Advisory Panel which is a 3 day event where you have 3 interviews, a group exercise and a pastoral letter to write amongst other things. The Bishop’s Advisory Panel then advise the bishop (strangely enough) as to whether you should be trained for a life of vicarage.
The Bishop then decides. He can accept the panel’s advice, or he can ignore it, it’s his choice. If he says yes, you will then start training. From the first conversation with your vicar to this point can (exceptionally) be a few months, is most often at least a year and in St Albans diocese they like to really really know you want to be a vicar, so the process usually takes around 2 years (although they have a new DDO now, who may do things differently).
Training takes either 2 or 3 years, depending on your age and whether you have done any formal academic theology in the past. As a rough guide, if you are 32 or older, or you have a degree in theology already you will do 2 years, otherwise it’s 3. Usually, training takes place at a Theological College (the Church of England does not call them bible colleges!), and is full time. It is possible to do the training part time, but if you’re training to be a full time vicar, it has always seemed sensible to me to do the training full time.
Once you have graduated Theological College or Course you will spend four years doing ‘on the job training’ as a ‘Curate’. Your dream of vicardom is close at hand. At the start of the first year you will be ordained by a Bishop in a Cathedral as a ‘deacon’, which allows you to take services, funerals and baptise people. Technically at this point you can marry people (conduct the service, not get married to them) although this is not generally encouraged). After you’ve completed your first year you’ll be ordained a second time, but as a ‘priest’ which means you can absolve people of their sins, take a service of holy communion and bless people and things. Then after the four years is up you can apply for a job running a church of your own!
So, from first thoughts to full on ‘Hi, My name’s Dave and I’m the vicar’ takes around 8 years, it’s not an easy process, but as someone who is now serving as a curate, it’s totally worth it!