My stoles and stories: Ordination and Ordinary

My ordination stole,  made from my wedding dress, with a design by myself and Deborah Ireland who brought it to life.
My ordination stole, made from my wedding dress, with a design by myself and Deborah Ireland who brought it to life.

On Tuesday I collected a cardboard box that had been delivered to reception and took it to my room at college. There I tentatively unwrapped what will be my ordination (ivory/white) stole, and the green stole I might where when appropriate in ‘ordinary’ time.

Months before I had entrusted a series of scribbled ideas, my wedding dress, and a selection of photographs taken by myself, my husband and my father to the wonderful Deborah Ireland and given her, and her trusty sewing machine permission to create something wonderful.

My hands shook as I peeled back the tissue paper. Knowing my own story and being able to interpret it for others as I did in during the selection process is one thing. Giving my story, past and future, into the hands of another to re-present for me and for others in such a way that God might receive the glory, was quite another.

Deborah has done an amazing job, and now I await with excitement my purple (Lent and Advent) and red (Pentecost and Festivals) stoles. In the mean-time here are the first of my stoles and my stories:

Detail of the rams-head on my ordination stole - interpreted by Deborah Ireland from a photograph I took of a Swaledale lamb on a rain-soaked Swaledale last summer!
Detail of the rams-head on my ordination stole – interpreted by Deborah Ireland from a photograph I took of a Swaledale lamb on a rain-soaked Swaledale last summer!

My ivory silk wedding dress has been turned into my ordination stole. The image on the right (above) is one that I drew as part of my discernment process, and incorporates the silver St. David Cross (by Rhiannon of Tregaron) that my father gave me whilst I was at university, and a symbol of the Trinity. The ram lamb on the left, also makes reference to the sacrifice of Christ, but yes, there is also the a reminder of the sacrifices I must make, and a quirky nod in the direction of my lamb-like name and ‘handle’ or username 😉 The design incorporates wool from on old numnah from my mothers’ old riding tack! The wheat and the grapes speak of bread and wine, the celebration of Eucharist that I might one day celebrate as a priest.

The reverse of my ordination stole incorporates beadwork from my wedding dress and my prayers for each couple I might one day marry.
The reverse of my ordination stole incorporates beadwork from my wedding dress and my prayers for each couple I might one day marry.

But this ordination stole hides a secret. Clergy usually wear white stoles to officiate at weddings, and it was always my intention that this stole would include more than just the material of my wedding dress, and specifically make reference to my marriage and my hopes and prayers for those weddings I might celebrate with others. So on the reverse to be worn facing front when appropriate, is some of the bead-work from that same wedding dress, entwined rings for entwined lives, and a celtic cross emphasising Christ’s place within them.

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God’s creation represented in the wildlife that has formed part of my story

There is no such overt Christian imagery in my green stole, and yet I would say God is in everything represented there. Here is God’s creation as I have experienced and loved it throughout my life; each plant and animal represents an individual living organism with particular significance in my life. There is the oak that stands near the grave of my mother, aunt and grandparents; a Fallow buck, the animal that I have watched with my father from earliest memory; the Red Kite, the bird that has followed my life since my university years, inspired my poetry and frequents my theology college; the trout I’ve caught with my father and the badger that frequents his back garden; the thistle flower and  Common Blue butterfly that frequents my regular walks with my husband, and flag iris and Demoiselle damselfly that we seek on our more watery walks; there is cow parsley, another reference to Minstead churchyard and our wedding, and bluebells from my childhood walks with Dad near Fritham now reprised in the copse near my current home.

So those are the stories, here are the stoles, and my prayer is that I will be able to use both in the years to come for God’s greater glory.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get!? Ordination Training

This newly fledged squab (young Wood Pigeon) had to keep asking to get the care and food it needed! Photographed 15th Feb 2014 at a blustery dusk.
This newly fledged squab (young Wood Pigeon – right) had to keep asking to get the care and food it needed! Photographed 15th Feb 2014 at a blustery dusk.

I don’t know about you, but at times it seems that we’re always being expected to chase things up. It’s like we’re living in a culture of “if you don’t ask, you won’t get”.

In church life, experience tells me, that a personal challenge or request for assistance gets better results than general requests in the notices, and in the case of pew sheet and parish magazine articles, possibly the least said about the typical response rate the better! Or have I just had bad experiences over the years?

I remember many years ago in a church plant, we tried for months to get a second team together to lead the worship band on a rota basis, rather than doing it every week. It was only when my mother died, and we simply weren’t available for several weeks on the trot, that something happened; hey presto a second band had formed, and the result was a rotation of musicians/bands in the years that followed. Situations like this possibly contributed to the fact that, whatever the context I was in, in the years that followed I tended to ask lots of questions of people to try and get answers, get things done, move things forward, for me or for others. It didn’t always make me popular.

The young squab being well fed and cared for! We saw them both again next morning - the squab had made it through the night!
The young squab being well fed and cared for! We saw them both again next morning – the squab had made it through the night!

When I started ordination training I thought I’d try a different tack. I decided to be less pushy, and not to make myself into the total pain I feared I’d been in Reader Training. I’d wait to see what guidance, support etc I got, given that much was promised from various sources. Some things did quietly materialise in the background, but in other respects, nothing.

I’m not blaming anyone, because I think the cause was largely unrealistic workloads on those meant to be supporting us, but, for example, the building of a support network linking college, sending parish and student, didn’t materialise. I quietly got on with using the one I developed for myself. History is repeating itself though, as I know colleagues the year below me are also having to be self-reliant in this respect. If this is acceptable, perhaps the college ought not to create the expectation it’s needed in the first place?!

The same seems to be true of getting essays marked, at least at M-level. Because the few of us doing it are meant to pick and chose (with guidance) our portfolio subjects, we’re only ever an odd one or two people doing a subject and each to their own essay title or portfolio focus. Hand-in dates aren’t set in the same way, and getting marks back has never yet happened without me asking, nor within the two week period laid out in the course handbook.

At times colleagues have described to me how they don’t feel their Diocese, via their Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), is interested in them. They start college, residential or part-time, and have a sense of abandonment especially in the middle year (if they’re on a three year course). Decisions made at one point aren’t followed up with a “how’s it working out?” type conversations.

That is unless, like me, you get to a stage (in my first year of two) where you have to shout for help because for whatever reason, things have gone wrong, and you’re not coping. I am now very, very glad that curate friends made me go see my DDO and tutors last year when things were getting out of hand – they made it quite clear you had to ask for such such ‘pastoral’ support from your diocese. That was the point where I gave up being less pushy and as a result have received great support and encouragement from my DDO, but I know of others who have simply decided that their Diocese don’t care (which I don’t think is the case, or I don’t want to think is the case).

But it struck me the other day, reading Archbishop Welby’s speech to General Synod, that this doesn’t really balance with the God of abundant grace that we’re expected to model. The Archbishop was talking about the need for cultural change within the church, and the way in which different traditions/factions approach each other within the church. Specifically he identified the Church of England as

… an untidy church.  It has incoherence, inconsistency between dioceses and between different places.  It’s not a church that says we do this and we don’t do that.  It’s a church that says we do this and we do that and actually quite a lot of us don’t like that but we are still going to do it because of love.

Oh boy, is he so right with respect to how different diocese select, support and appoint clergy!

I know I’m a simple soul, but it strikes me that if we don’t model love, abundant grace, taking time for people, asking for and listening to their needs and points of view, etc… towards the ‘young’ newly fledging, church’s leaders of the future, how can they then be expected to model it onwards into their own ministry and relationships?

If the church doesn’t resource modelling the first steps on the ministerial journey with the appropriate staffing levels (be that at diocese or in colleges), then we fall back on the life-style of “if you don’t ask, you won’t get”, and we’ll never manage to show the counter-cultural, grace-filled, heroic and courageous ministers and churches that we are called to become.

Being sensible and realistic – ordination training

The Holy Hill (Ripon College Cuddesdon) photographed from long distance.
The Holy Hill (Ripon College Cuddesdon) photographed from long distance.

“It’s formational.”

Actually, I’m quite grateful that no-one has used those words to me recently. However true they might be. I might just have groaned in anguish (or worse) if they had – even though it’s probably true.

The best email I’ve had recently was when my Pastoral Tutor wrote to me saying I was being “sensible and realistic”. I like sensible and realistic, I can do them. They’re what I’m good at. It’s the deep analysis and criticism of a theological idea that I’m struggling with, as another tutor recently pointed out, quite accurately – though I could have told him that too!

Although I know I couldn’t have recognised my calling to ordained ministry without being a Reader first, having the Foundation Degree in Ministry and Theology, taught through practical skills and excellent in worship leading and preaching skills we really don’t get in ordination training (that comes in Initial Ministerial Education 4-7 for curates I think) has meant I had to go on a post-grad course part-time, with the original intention of getting an MA. But that requires a huge leap of academic skills, especially for a practical learner like me. Though I’ve not failed a portfolio yet – progress has been excruciatingly painful and SSSSSLLLLLOOOOOWWWWW.

There have been additional factors. Last academic year my initial Academic Supervisor left, and my new one, though lovely, wasn’t in college the days I was. Then there was a bit of a squabble between my Diocese and Min Div over funding me as a mixed-mode student which left the college short of money and which I eventually had to be told about so I could write supporting material and avoid attending a Candidates Panel.

This year, and particularly since December, my health has been the issue. Nothing earth shattering, but being a lady of increasing age… Medical intervention has proved less than helpful, at least in the short-term. I’ve been really grateful for the support of all sorts of folk, on-line and in person. I’m working on a blog post about that too, so you have been warned.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’m academically only half-way through what I need to achieve for a PGDip after three-quarters of the course. The aim is now to do another two portfolios by ordination day, leaving the last to be completed by the end of August; one Old Testament, one Mission and Evangelism, before a final Theological Reflection.

What have a learnt from all this?  

Firstly, that I actually knew myself quite well – I was always unconvinced I could do an MA, but at the time there wasn’t an alternative (I’m told that Cuddesdon hope to offer an alternative under the new Common Awards) and lots of people thought I could, including my DDO and husband! They’ve both been right before, so obedient to a fault, and with little choice, I went with the idea. The sense of relief that people are actually now starting to believe that I’m not designed for such an academic task is great – even if means giving up on a great research idea. I may go back to the idea later – though not via an academic qualification, that I can assure you.

Secondly, I’ve learnt that we change. Women that is (men may do too, in other ways, I don’t know). Our abilities are altered it seems, at least temporarily, by the changes that start for some women rather earlier than they would really wish. I’ve not been the same woman, with the same focus and concentration, that I was during Reader Training (2006-9). If you read some of my posts since Christmas you might realise that a little black dog takes hold occasionally too. It’s taken till this month to realise that the hormonal changes I’m probably experiencing could be the cause, rather than me having some sort of mental health problem, which is what I’d started to fear was the case. Now, I’m trying medical and less proven techniques for getting on with life as I know it can be lived.

Thirdly, my placements, news of my title post, and brief forays into the pulpit and service leading, have kept the light of my calling alive. It’s still there. I believe God still wants to use me in parish ministry. That’s the one thing that’s kept me going… and needs to continue to do so in the coming months.

How might my experiences help others? Well I’d say (now) be willing to try what others think is best, but don’t bottle your fears and concerns too long when they look like they’re not working out. You have to be willing to go, cap in hand if necessary, to the appropriate people, and say you’re not coping – WHATEVER the reason. If that means talking about gynaecological issues with a monk, so be it! Talking helps, I promise you, and it means people will be praying, even when you’re feeling like you can’t.

Lots of stuff going on then, lots that is… oh darn it, let’s call it formational 😉

For those wrestling with vocation and discernment (Phil 2:1-13)

Bishop Edward King Chapel, Ripon College Cuddesdon (photo credit to my husband)
Bishop Edward King Chapel, Ripon College Cuddesdon (photo credit to my husband)

This week I had the opportunity to lead worship in my college group. I used the reading for Morning Prayer that day which was Philippians 2:1-13 and adapted some worship from Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbrian Community themed for those struggling with vocation, discernment and obedience.

As I said at the time, the fact that this reading resonated in this way with me, might suggest some of the issues I’ve been facing myself of recent weeks. However, thinking that there are others out there, facing discernment interviews of various sorts with Diocesan advisors or at Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP), I offer it as a companion for your journey.

Celtic Worship for Vocation and Discernment (Feb 2014)