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.
About ten years ago my husband and I were delighted to become Godparents to the child of some old college friends, and co-Godparent with their close friend who happens to be a lesbian Christian. We had no problem with this, but I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t something I particularly advertised among my Christian friends back at home in our reasonably evangelical church.
There, at about the same era of our lives, I heard at least one sermon deliberately advertised as and preached against homosexuality. I still have the notes that went with it somewhere on file upstairs. I couldn’t agree with it, but somehow felt unable to argue against it, through lack of knowledge and lack of nerve.
Recently I mentioned on Facebook Sara Miles’ autobiographical ‘Take this bread’ as being ministry changing. A friend rang me some days later having bought and read the book. She commented that she kept expecting Sara to deny her lesbian sexuality as she came to understand more about Christ, and that this was one of the things she had found most challenging about the book, because it didn’t happen. I realised that this simply hadn’t been an issue for me, I was far more interested in the challenge of the hospitality of the Eucharist and Baptism! That’s for another day, but it showed me that perhaps I ought to share more openly what I think about homosexual relationships and how I hold my views as having integrity with my Christian faith.
Now seems an appropriate moment for asking forgiveness of my few homosexual acquaintances for my silence, but I admit I only do so, because someone else has done the hard work of expressing their thinking on the subject, far more eloquently and comprehensively than I would. Suddenly I don’t feel so alone, and can unashamedly and lazily quote them.
Then, this week, even better, was Steve Chalke’s excellent article ‘A Matter of Integrity’ which talks about responding hermeneutically ‘in thoughtful conformity to Christ’ to the matter of homosexuality and particularly homosexual relationships. I probably ought to find something to argue with him over, but I’m afraid I’ve failed. I’m either that bad, or he’s that good, you decide.
I have always disliked inconsistency, especially in myself, so hiding what I think hasn’t always been as comfortable as it might be. Before my BAP I was advised to work out what I thought about the ministry of homosexuals and homosexual relationships, in case I got quizzed on what I thought. I wasn’t, but the preparation was still useful.
Possibly Steve Chalke would see my thinking as a twisted exegesis, but looking back at my notes, my studies suggested that Leviticus 18 seems to be about not unthinkingly copying the behaviours of those people live among and keeping the purity of our relationship with God. Leviticus 20 asked people not to defile the sanctuary of God with any inappropriate behaviour, and I noted today we wouldn’t condone the death of anyone for the offences mentioned. In the New Testament, the use of the word translated ‘perverts’ in 1 Tim 1:10 comes from a Greek word the meaning of which is unclear, whilst there was a commonly used word for gay men that Paul hadn’t used (I can’t blog the Greek, sorry). Paul’s teaching here is directed at the goal of being pure in heart, of good conscience and sincere faith (1 Tim 1:15) which is what I was trying to work through to in this context!
So to have Steve Chalke articulate where his study (which includes these passages among others) has brought him to on this issue, has been very helpful. It has also finally made clear to me the difference between Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics – the former is just one tool among others for speaking about and living out the latter. Hermeneutics is basically what Sara Miles grapples with in her book, as in the midst of unexpectedly eating Christ she tries to grapple with what it means to try and live out God’s hospitality.
If doing hermeneutics means looking at the Biblical revelation of the nature of Christ, in a way that ‘encompasses verbal and non-verbal communication of the wider culture’ then and now, then that’s what I see myself called to do now, and in the future as a priest. Sharing truths that might challenge others in their faith, is going to have to be part of the deal. I might not like the arguments that result from this, but that’s the next challenge I have to live with I guess.
So, there’s me then, coming out all hermeneutical and proud of it.
Last week we had a small group of travellers take up residence in a field, which happens to be a public open space. As far as I can tell they caused no trouble, (unless you particularly dislike what I think was Elvis being played quite loudly), had no dogs loose that I encountered, and once they left, there remained only tyre tracks (though it is possible the Council may have cleared up, I don’t know).
I have been challenged personally over the last year or so in my pre-conceptions of, and reactions to travellers, gypsies and those of romany origin. I grew up in the 1980’s in Minstead, when my father was involved (through his work in the Forestry Commission) with the ‘Peace Convoy’ on Stoney Cross in 1986. I had also grown up with the stories of his previous work as a policeman in the same area, and the old encampment he used to visit on the edge of the village before I was born. There were other, less law abiding groups he encountered too! I knew these groups to be utterly different, but most had brought with them disruption (of different sorts) to the village, and inadvertently created division in the residential community.
I have not met directly, any of the travellers that pass through Yateley, and I don’t like fairground rides, so don’t visit that either.
I have however met several of our local settled Romany community through my work doing funerals, and baptism preparation at St Peter’s. They have without fail, been welcoming, both to me personally and to talking about their understanding of God. They feel very strongly about having a local Christian minister ‘do the honours’, and a loyalty to their local church that to be honest has surprised me. On each occasion, I sensed a strong link with God in the simple things of life: his creation which they value, and the family ties and traditions they keep so strong.
These points of recent contact and past memories, highlighted for me how easy it is to restrict who it is we regard as belonging to our community, who it is we offer a welcome to, who we are willing to recognise as fellow worshippers of God Almighty, who in fact our neighbour is.
It has also made me enquire into and research how the traveller and Romany communities relate to God, use a lot of Christian symbols in their home, and still are quite particular about returning to a parish church to mark the way-points in life.
As part of the selection process for ordination (Bishops Advisory Panel or BAP) that I have spoken about before, you have to give a short presentation on something that interests you, and which you can relate directly to your experiences of ministry so far. (You then have to lead a discussion about it with your fellow candidates!) I chose to do a presentation “How can the Gospel be ministered effectively and inclusively to our native Romany and traveller communities?” You can download and read it if you wish, but please be aware that I wrote it in a deliberately challenging fashion to provoke discussion: Gospel ministry with Romany and Travellers
In the process of putting that together, I discovered many links and a great book about the life and faith of these people, and I draw them together here in case they are of use to anyone else:
I was, and am, particularly indebted to Simon Martin, Training and Resources Officer at the Arthur Rank Centre (supporting rural communities and churches) and Revd Simon Cutmore (who blogs at Rectory Musings) for their help in pointing me in the direction of these resources as I prepared for BAP.
I think that (probably after ordination training) I will be challenged again in this area, so I would welcome your thoughts, reactions, and experiences.
Since announcing on Easter morning that I have been recommended for training for ordination, I have been meaning to explain a little of what happens at a Bishop’s Advisory Panel… known by it’s acronym of “BAP”.
Conversations suggest that this has become a verb. You spend months anticipating and planning “to BAP”. You then arrive for this two-day selection conference to discover you are “BAPping” and when you hit recovery mode, you “have BAPed”.
You only get to BAP if you have been recommended to do so by a panel of selectors in your own Diocese following, probably years, working with a Diocesan Director of Ordinands, and hopefully a spiritual director and other advisors, to discern whether God is calling you to ordination.
The BAP itself includes all those things outlined here, by the Ministry Division of the Church of England. But if you’re going to BAP, you’re probably wondering… what is it REALLY like, beyond all the assessments and interviews the paperwork outlines?
I found this post ‘So you’re going to a BAP’ by Liza Clutterbuck a really helpful place to start! [When I’d written this post I discovered Emma Goldby also makes a very helpful point here about your relationship with God being key to how you approach a BAP. Then Briony BAPed at Shallowford and her detailed reflections are here.]
I BAPed at Bishop Woodford House, the Diocesan Retreat Centre of the Diocese of Ely. (The other regular venue is Shallowford.) I travelled by train and would thoroughly recommend this. The selectors themselves encourage you to take extra-great care of yourself if you drive home, as you are more mentally tired than perhaps you should be for a long drive. The only downside of train-travel is crossing London from Kings Cross to wherever during the rush hour as I did on the way home… I loath the Tube at the best of times… but I wouldn’t have wanted to drive (especially via the M25 at the same time of day!)
Bishop Woodford House is almost in the centre of Ely (you turn left when you get to the roundabout at the top of the hill), close to Kings School (which appears to have taken over many of the buildings around Ely Cathedral and has the new buildings behind the house, which many rooms look out over.)
If you’re BAPing at Bishop Woodford House it’s well worth getting there at lunch-time and taking the time to go round the stunning Cathedral before proceedings start at 4pm-ish. As you will read in my sermon illustrations here my visit on a stunning spring day, had a profound effect on me. If you say you are attending a BAP at the Diocesan Retreat Centre the Cathedral staff will let you in for free! Take a small camera, as you see, it’s worth while!
The lovely managers at Bishop Woodford House let you drop your bags there even if your room isn’t ready, and will offer you a hot drink, before you go exploring the Cathedral. If you have a picnic with you, the open parkland through the arch to the south of the Cathedral (the footpath is marked to the riverside I think) has some benches and lovely views, but the Cathedral also has a Refectory.
I have to say that although I found my BAP tiring, I actually really enjoyed it. I’d encourage others to go with that aim in mind. It’s wonderful to meet new people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and of different ages and traditions. The regular worship gives the event a rhythm and spiritual space to receive from God, which is a good counterpoint to ‘giving out’ of yourself A LOT by way of written and aural conversation with the selectors. The two ‘sermons/reflections’ we were given by two of the selectors during the event, were brilliantly tailored to feed us, emotionally and spiritually.
You have to be aware that the selectors (three to each panel of eight candidates) will be asking as many unspoken questions of you during meal-times, as they do in interview. This could make meals a slightly edgy affair as you are meant to circulate around the different tables through the course of the conference (the selectors stay in the same seats each meal), but to be honest, it was just fun getting to know a bit about them, their ministries and hobbies, as well as your fellow candidates. The food is plentiful and lovely.
Many people suggested to me that it is good to make sure you have a drink at the (self-service) bar, as selectors like to see how you relate to fellow candidates (though they didn’t seem to use it themselves, so I’m not sure how!) I had a soft drink the first night, but departed early to my very comfortable room. It was good to have time to phone home and talk to the family, and get an early night – I didn’t look at the Pastoral Exercise that night, just made best use of the peace and quiet.
The presentations and discussions on the Tuesday morning are probably the most demanding part of the event – at least I found that to be the case. Yet, it was the candidates that made it that way; we all got so interested in what each other was presenting that discussions, though timed-out by selectors, were re-started and continued at all the break points during the morning.
Once you get into the pattern of interviews, there is plenty of time to prepare your Pastoral Exercise in between whiles and into the evening, as the interviews were well spaced. The second evening I focused on completing the exercise (which can be done electronically and printed out on site if you have a laptop and peg-drive with you) and didn’t use the bar. There weren’t tea/coffee making facilities in the rooms, but it was easily accessible at all times of day and night.
Making the effort to complete the Pastoral Exercise the second night, gave me copious freedom to rest between interviews the last day. Still blessed by brilliant spring sunshine, I took the chance through the late morning, to explore of the Cathedral Close, and can recommend the small garden at the Almonry Restaurant which appeared to be open for visitors to wander around.
Although once the BAP is finished you will probably be keen to return home, don’t feel you have to rush if you don’t have to; if you’re travelling a long distance, or have connections to flights (there were candidates from France and Italy on my panel) then make sure you allow plenty of time before you need to check in for planes.
Lastly, how much you feel you should make or are making friends with fellow candidates is a tricky one to judge, but I found it happened naturally – God seemed to have this in control as much as everything else! I had met one fellow candidate at my pre-BAP retreat & we had rapidly become Facebook friends! Though ‘accidental’ this meant there was at least one familiar face when we all gathered for tea the first afternoon. Four of us caught the same train home (at least as far as Kings Cross). This journey, marked by slight hysteria and long periods of silence as we wound down, added one further person to my network of friends (this time on Twitter). It has since transpired that we three were all recommended for selection, since when a fourth of our number has found me on Facebook – another recommended candidate! I think that if any of us thus connected had not been successful, we were all mature enough to have been pleased for those that did, and sought to encourage those that weren’t. At least I hope so.
So, that about rounds up my reflections on the actual process of a BAP. If you’ve been through the process yourself, and want to offer your own reflections (especially from experiences of Shallowford) please feel free to comment.
If you’ve read this anticipating your own BAP, know that God is with you, and that his will, WILL be done.
In the sermon that follows, you will find my personal testimony of Christ’s presence and peace, as I experienced it in Ely in the hours immediately before my recent Bishop’s Advisory Panel, the final stage in the process of selection for ordination to the priesthood.
Our mid-week services usually use the principle lectionary readings of the previous Sunday. This week I found myself focusing on Luke’s account of the Christ’s resurrection appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem as they gathered after the ‘Road to Emmaus’ incident, where Jesus’ presence and peace are two of what I see as four gifts of the resurrection.
I wonder how many of us can say that we have a total and joyful understanding of Christ’s resurrection, without having ever experienced a single doubt or uncertainty?
The disciples in our Gospel reading were experiencing the emotional turmoil of daring to believe something that seemed impossible. Three among their number were saying that they had encountered Jesus, fully alive. Yet they were carrying with them the guilt of knowing they had kept their distance from his personal anguish in Gethsemene, protected themselves by hiding from his trial or lying about their friendship, and watched helplessly, if at all, at his execution.
Yet suddenly, here Jesus was among them, offering not the condemnation of the betrayed, but the peace of God. He had returned to give them faith, and a joyful understanding that would finally equip them to carry out the central task that Jesus had made complete: to preach repentance and proclaim the forgiveness of sins.
This passage offers us four key gifts that Christ gave those that gathered in Jerusalem after the crucifixion, which through the power from on high that they would receive a few weeks later at Pentecost, are now available to us all.
Firstly, Jesus came and stood among them. They were in the presence of their risen Lord, able to see the marks of crucifixion that testified to his suffering, but also to hear his voice, the voice of their King raised in glory. Jesus’ presence was the first of his resurrection gifts to those that follow him.
Very recently I had a most unexpected experience. The final stage of the selection process for ordination takes place over 48 hours, through a series of written, verbal and pastoral tests. I had the good fortune to be undertaking this on the most glorious week of early spring, in the historic city of Ely under the shadow of it’s Cathedral.
Having arrived deliberately, but excessively, early, I took the opportunity to visit this historic place of worship, and as I sat at the crossing below its central octagonal tower I was struck forcibly by two images of the risen Christ. (If you’ve ever visited Ely you will probably know them.)
One is a modern image of Christ in glory, made of driftwood covered in beaten metals. It hangs behind the pulpit and shows not only Christ’s arm raised in benediction but the wounds of crucifixion.
The other appears small, a painting central to images of apostles, saints and angels, that fill the octagonal tower space above the nave altar. Christ in Majesty, holds the spear wound in his side from which poured the blood and water of his humanity after his death. His other arm is raised again in blessing, as he looks down at those that receive the sacrament beneath him.
Never before have I been so aware of Christ’s presence. Not simply a crucified Jesus, nor a risen Lord evidenced by an empty cross; but a risen and glorified Messiah, in whose presence I was able to rest. If you are ever in Ely I can thoroughly recommend it.
The second gift Jesus gave the disciples in this room of tumultuous emotion, was the gift of peace. It was the peace of God that actually proclaimed their salvation – they were saved, released, forgiven for all the misunderstandings, disloyalty and doubts that filled them with tension and uncertainty.
If you read through the Gospel of Luke, you will see that Christ’s Messianic purpose is repeatedly revealed with peace:
Zechariah exults at John the Baptists’s birth and purpose with the knowledge that through it, the Lord will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79);
When angels proclaim the birth of Jesus it is to the “Glory of God” and for “peace on earth.” (Luke 2:14)
Jesus also taught that the salvation that comes through his resurrection is also to be proclaimed with peace, for as Jesus sent out the seventy-two, their first act on entering a persons’ home was to to proclaim “Peace on this house.” (Luke 10:5-6)
Christ’s grace-full blessing on us all is the offer of a peace which passes all understanding.
I don’t think I had ever truly understood what that meant until that day in Ely, shortly before Easter. As I became and odd mixture of tourist and pilgrim, moving around the Cathedral, I became profoundly aware that although I was hours from what should have been the most gruelling and nerve-wracking experience of my ministry, all I was aware of was a sense of utter calm; a knowledge that many people were holding me through prayer in God’s presence; a sense of joy and certainty that whatever the outcome of the selection process, God’s will was being done.
My prayer will always be that each person who places even a shaky trust in the resurrection of Christ, will experience themselves this gift of peace.
The third thing that Christ did in the presence of those gathered that Easter week in Jerusalem, was to ask for, and receive, what they had to hand, which was a simple meal of boiled fish. This shared meal, as with his breaking of bread with those he had journeyed with to Emmaus, is a way of affirming the physicality of his resurrection. Jesus eats as one fully flesh and blood yet is also able to appear and disappear, moving between heavenly and earthly realms at will – Christ’s humanity and divinity revealed in a fellowship meal.
Christ can only ask us for something, if we remain in his presence and hold on to our experiences of his peace. If we cannot acknowledge those, we will not be able to hear what it is that he asks us, and give freely and willingly in response.
What strikes me forcibly here is that when the disciples give Jesus what he asks for, the reality of his resurrection is reinforced. I wonder how often we make that the case in our lives? It’s relatively easy to pray for a friend, cook for a neighbour struggling with illness or a young family, or even set aside one God given task for another. But is our expectation that through our fulfilling God’s request, we will see for ourselves and reveal to others, Jesus Christ, risen and glorified?
To be asked by Christ to do something for him, is as much a gift of grace as his presence and his peace. We need to raise our expectations not just of how we experience the gifts of the risen Christ in our lives, but how our actions in the presence of a glorified Messiah, and as his representatives, can reveal the purposes of God to others.
Yet this passage also says we are not fully equipped to respond to Christ’s requests of us, with full faith and a joyful understanding of who Jesus was, unless and until we understand the scriptures. The fourth gift of the resurrection is therefore to understand it’s very fact in the light of scripture, particularly those that prophesied Jesus suffering, death and resurrection, such as that we read in Isaiah 53:13-15:
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; … for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Our willingness to respond to Jesus with actions that proclaim his resurrection, whist being in his presence and peace, should reflect what scripture has already said about the nature and purposes of Jesus activity in both heaven and earth. It is this combination of gifts that builds up our faith and authenticates who Christ was. In a world where nothing is true unless it is written down, and everything that is written must be true, the reality of our crucified Messiah risen in glory, can only be truly seen by others if we witness to the physical, written and spiritual reality of our faith in the integrity with which we live out lives.
Following on from my previous reflections (here and here) written in the last few weeks before my BAP, re-reading the following written some months earlier I find that there have been several echoes of my reflections on what Bishop Jonathan Frost (Bishop of Southampton) asked me to read during my Diocesan Panel Interview with him in November 2011.
It was a book called ‘Dare to Break Bread – Eucharist in Desert and City’ by Geoffrey Howard, that had been published in 1992. It focuses on the work of a priest (the author) in the light of the Eucharistic liturgy (the words Christians use at Holy Communion.) The following is a copy of my letter to Bishop Jonathan in January 2012 responding to the three tasks he gave me in connection with the book, and forms a review and reflection of it:
The first part of your charge to me I failed, as I did not achieve it before Christmas; the festive demands got in the way I’m afraid. Actually this confession of failure almost seems appropriate to the book. Within it the author shares so much of his burden of guilt for what he seems to feel is constant failure. I found myself wanting to hold him before God (as he does Harry at the start of the book) so that he might find absolution.
The second part of your task I have now accomplished. With shoes off and candle lit in a wonderfully silent room at Alton Abbey, I read the whole book in a day. Now I am returning to my notes and thoughts as I read it, I once again appreciate the gift of that space, indeed any quiet space, within ministry. Geoffrey Howard wrote the book in a space within his ministry. It is from these spaces with God that perhaps we see most vividly the true “colours” of how we connect with God in people and draw people to God.
This letter completes the third part of the challenge you set me, that I write to you with my reflections. The book emphasises that the role of a priest is not restricted to the Lord’s Table or any other sacramental liturgy. Blood is truly shed, and the body and soul broken in day-to-day contact with those in whom we recognise Christ. We come alongside people on God’s behalf, yet we must expect Christ to be revealed to us in every encounter – the Christ who holds the pain and sacrifice of our failures nailed with him to the cross.
The word that struck me as I concluded the book, and has stuck with me in the days since, is “vulnerability”. By offering to serve as priests we make ourselves vulnerable in several ways. In the simplest sense, and with our families, we make ourselves vulnerable to unwanted interruptions, ‘reduced circumstances’ and spiritual attack. We will also have repeated occasion to make practical and spiritual sacrifices and make ourselves vulnerable to acts of aggression – verbal, material and physical. It’s like in the very act of being “gospel” we offer people the right to metaphorically nail us to the cross next to Christ – whether they do so deliberately or we do it to ourselves in our responses, both visibly and invisibly.
If we understand the Eucharist as a sacrament of community (“sharing the bread of common experience”) then this book seems to emphasise its’ place as the culmination of all that proceeds it through the days or week of other “sacramental activity” that precedes it. Our connection with Christ in the Eucharist should therefore lie in what we bring to it, not that which we expect to receive from it.
Perhaps in this lies some of the differences and tensions between the Eucharistic worship of evangelical and catholic traditions. Is there any truth in the idea that for many of a more evangelical persuasion, the Eucharist can be a place from where people take the Gospel message out into the community, rather than the place of Resurrection to which those of a more catholic persuasion bring to Eucharist both the burdens and joys of the Gospel message in community? For if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would and could not share in the remembrance of the broken body and blood of Jesus; so we must first have shared in that sacrifice through our living and preparation for Eucharistic worship.
The thing that truck me as liturgically most significant, and something I’d like to know more about, was the question that Howard poses early on: where is the freedom of unconditional forgiveness in our Eucharistic liturgy? Beyond the reason of tradition, I don’t know why the liturgy maintains a stance of repeatedly seeking God’s mercy after the absolution, which seems on the face of it to conflict with a Gospel of abundant grace.
Thank you for making this book part of my journey to understanding a calling to ordination. It leaves many questions unresolved in the readers mind, but then I don’t think it set out to answer any, only to highlight that there is no black and white in our faith, and how we are called to live it out. Instead it highlights the many tensions that a priest draws from the community they are called to serve, and is required to hold as a humble offering before God.
With less than 5 weeks to go before my Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP), I came to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This year I had no real need to ask myself what I could do to make the next 40+ days special, for Lent was to form an almost exact parenthesis around my final preparations for for this national selection conference for those seeking ordination.
“We all stand before God and will be judged. Not on what we have amazzed, but on the content, quality and character of our lives… [I know I] will be weighed – and found wanting.”
Various thoughts flowed from this in relation to me offering myself for ordination:
The selectors will be looking at the content, quality and character of my life – that is why the two day selection conference is so daunting because they don’t want to know whether or not you look smart, or can real off good quotations from some books about the priesthood, but what you are like inside. They call it ‘quality of mind’, and much as my friends might make a joke of that phrase in my regard, its about integrity, whether what appears on the surface of my personality and in my application and supporting paperwork, is backed up by what I think and believe in the very core of my being – about my relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
I know before I even go to this selection conference that I will be found wanting. Who, when standing in the present of our glorious Lord, wont be! Yes, the selectors are real humans (lay and ordained) but I expect that the sense of ‘standing in God’s presence’ to be strong. But this idea of being ‘found wanting’ may not (and since I’ve published this, hasn’t) stopped them selecting me for training.
One of the many things I have come to understand better during the process of discernment, is that God calls us to whatever task he has for us, despite “our manifold sins and wickedness” (to quote what I guess is a remembered bit of 1662 liturgy). Being called towards ordination doesn’t make me any better a person than I was, or than anyone else!
I also come to this called ‘unformed’ for this role called “priesthood”, or perhaps as one of my advisor’s suggested ‘slightly formed’ by my experiences of the last couple of years! This is why so much of training for the priesthood is called “formation” because I will undergo a process of change and transformation from my current understandings and perceptions of ministry, to those I will have as a priest. A formation that I guess will last a lifetime.
That evening our evening Holy Communion for Ash Wednesday (shared this year at St Mary’s Eversley) the Old Testament reading was Isaiah 58:1-12, and two things struck me:
1) That I am called to a ministry that sees the things that fill people’s lives with darkness and a poverty of spirit, and seeks to shine Christ’s light into those places so that they can live transformed lives – what I describe as my desire to “come alongside people on God’s behalf.”
2) The vicar called us to live an authentic Lent; one that doesn’t cast aside our normal practices of work and worship with some hollow façade of repentance, but which builds on them so that we are enabled to bring light and transformation to people’s lives. We should be prepared by our Lent actions to live as an Easter people!
For me, this Lent feels like it will be the most “authentic” in this sense that I have ever experienced. It is full of reflections on who I am in the light of both the life of our glorious Saviour, and of my understanding of God’s calling on my life. I will rightly be measured and found wanting, and will need to repent of my sins. But this is part of the preparation I have committed to by following the process of discernment through – and sometime around Easter it will have reached some sort of conclusion as to the way I am called to live out that penitent life.
[Yes, looking back now, a week after having heard on Maundy Thursday that I am indeed recommended for training for ordination, I can say that the match up between Lent and my studies and reflections prior to BAP was a helpful one, but also very special. I know it will never be repeated, but that each Lent will have it’s own distinct flavour as I move through different stages in my ministry among different people.]
It is the first of at least two reflections that cover some of the thoughts and emotions I went through during the final stages of discernment of my calling to ordination (a process that my fellow parishioners at St Peter’s Yateley were unaware of). I’m not sure how useful they are to anyone else, but they might give an insight into the mixture of thoughts and emotions that people going through the process may have to contend with.
Last Sunday (19th Feb – Seventh of Ordinary Time) was the last before Lent and the reading about the Transfiguration was the focus of the All Age Service I attended at St Peter’s.
We were posed a question about what thing/s in our lives had caused us both tremendous excitement, but also fear. My face obviously betrayed my instant reaction because it was commented on by the preacher! Thankfully I was not pressed to reveal what it was that had come to mind, as that would have required a lie in the circumstances!
What my face betrayed was not the flippant answer ‘marriage’ that would have been my ‘cover story’, but of course my offering myself for selection to the priesthood. With 5 weeks to go before the selection conference (BAP) I am full of both a tremendous excitement and fear.
The fears revolve around being ‘found out’; shown for what I am in a negative way that highlights my weaknesses, and found to be wanting in my faithfulness to the gospel. These may well show up at BAP in a way that has not been revealed to my advisers up until now – despite my best efforts!
And that of course, is where the tremendous excitement lies. If I did not believe, with others who endorse the idea, that I am indeed called by God to be ordained as a priest, then believe me I would not be in these final stages of preparation to exhibit that belief to those with the authority to decide my future one way or the other.
The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9) is a passage that (among other things) shows the confusion and fear, as well as the excitement and awe, that the disciples felt when God revealed before their eyes the true glory and position of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Today, responding to this tremendous call on my life that God has revealed and confirmed to me already in so many ways, I stand in awe at God’s grace and love that he should wish to use me in this way. I know that my unworthyness to fulfil the task I understand to be before me, will only be overcome by that grace and the strength (emotional, spiritual and physical) that God wants to give me, if I listen to Jesus words as the disciples were commanded in Mark 9:7.
At the end of that All Age service someone shared a picture that had been given by one of the members of the youth housegroup earlier in the week. It was of an arrow being sighted on its target (hence the illustrations to this blog-post): only if the archer keeps the line of sight fixed firmly on target will the arrow fly true and hit its mark. As she explained I thought: only if I keep my eyes truly focused on Jesus, his example and words, will I be able to be faithful in my obedience to this calling to ordination.
[Having been recommended for training as a priest, and reflected a little further with friends, it seems that this tension between certainty as to one’s calling, and a sense of inadequacy as to the ability to fulfil it, is what you learn to hold in balance during what is called ‘formation’ as an ordinand and through curacy. All thanks to God’s grace and guidance! You’re welcome to remind me of this in the future!]
The last few weeks have proved to be the culmination of an eighteen month journey which has changed the whole focus of my future ministry. The final stages of this journey have taken place through Lent, and therefore it seems only right to share my news on Easter Morning!
Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!!
For many years (preceding my training and licensing as a Reader in October 2009), various friends and associates have encouraged me to consider ordination, and I have tried hard to ignore it, taking the whole idea as a bit of a joke.
Becoming a Reader was, I now realise, part of the process God put me through to help me take the idea a little more seriously; a time too when I could focus on learning to preach and teach. In the final year of training various people, including some at my placement parish at All Saints Basingstoke, wondered if one day in the future I’d get ordained. Even as I was licensed I was aware that I didn’t quite ‘fit’ Reader ministry, but I thought this was due to my own inadequacies, rather than anything else; still I refused to take the idea of ordination seriously.
Before Paul, our previous vicar at St Peter’s Yateley left in July 2010, he challenged me to seriously consider whether I was in fact called to be ordained. [He actually pinned me up against a wall, in front of my husband, and said he’d had a vision of me taking my first wedding… “and you know what that means!” were his exact words!]
Paul was fond of telling us to test if ‘words of knowledge’ could be put down to “too much cheese” or were really ‘of God’. I promised him I would take the idea seriously, but hoped I could put that off till after the summer. Yet, his challenge was unwittingly echoed by the Royal Navy Padre (now Archdeacon to the Royal Navy) that I worked with on the Royal Marine funeral I assisted with a couple of weeks later. Why, this gentleman asked, was I a Reader and not a Priest?
Then again, before the end of August that summer, our friend (and previous curate at St Peter’s) challenged me over lunch at her house one Sunday: “When are you going to do something about the priesthood?”
It seemed like God was shouting at me to find out why it was that so many people I respected and trusted where saying this to me so vehemently, because I simply didn’t get what they saw in me that said ‘priest’.
To cut a long story short, in the months that followed, with the help and guidance of various people and books, I quickly came to understand that my passion for the church’s place in the community, the more sacramental forms of worship (in its widest sense), and the wider mission of the church (like those I have worked with through Mothers’ Union and my involvement preparing people for ‘occasional offices‘), were all elements of “me” that marked me out as a potential candidate for priesthood. I ached to ‘bless’ people, to come alongside them on God’s behalf in a way that I’m not totally able to as a Reader. It is like wearing a straight-jacket – Reader Ministry fits, but doesn’t give the freedom to really minister in the way I believe God is truly calling me to do.
I now realise that for me, I had to be a Reader to recognise for myself the call to priesthood that others had already identified as the pattern of my future ministry.
Part of the process has also included the setting aside of other foci in my life, including some of the things that had contributed to me reaching this point. For example, before my final selection conference I told fellow Mothers’ Union Trustees in the Diocese of Winchester that I wouldn’t be standing for election at the next triennial (having already set aside editing the MU Diocesan Newsletter ‘Archway’ last year.)
I understand that for me, the process of discernment and selection has been relatively swift at 18 months. Every advisor and interviewer I have seen, has whole-heartedly endorsed the view that I am called to ordination and this has, I understand, been fully confirmed by the reports that Bishop Jonathan Frost has apparently received following my Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP) in Ely in the week before Holy Week. The most important thing about this final part of selection, was the overwhelming sense of God’s peace I experienced, particularly on the first day but throughout this three day selection conference, and also the fact that I enjoyed what was three days of jolly hard work in a stressful situation – especially the three, hour-long interviews!
Bishop Jonathan phoned me with the news that I have been recommended for training for ordination following the Chrism Mass at which he preached in Winchester Cathedral on Maundy Thursday 5th April 2012.
I am so pleased that after being able to share the news with the parish in which I grew up (All Saints, Minstead in the New Forest) on Good Friday; the news will become completely public in St. Peter’s Yateley after Holy Communion on Easter Morning. As I write on Holy Saturday, it feels like someone is finally taking the cork out of a well-shaken bottle of champagne! Finally I can share all the important things that God has been saying to me over the last year or so 😉
So in the coming months I will become what is known as an ‘ordinand’. Since I have already completed a Foundation Degree in Christian Ministry and Theology as part of my Reader Training, I have been asked to complete only two years further part-time studies (rather than three.) This will be at Ripon College Cuddesdon, through a variation of their Oxford Ministry Course. The college is South-East of Oxford and just over an hour’s drive from Yateley. I shall visit college weekly, with two additional weekends training per term, and a summer school. The really scary bit for me is that though registered initially for a Post-Graduate Diploma, this may actually lead to an MA at the end of those two years.
My responsibilities and involvement in St Peter’s will also change, the details of which will probably become clearer over time. What I know at this stage is that with a new vicar in place, those advising me in our Diocesan Discipleship and Ministry Department are content to let me continue worshipping in Yateley as an ordinand. After I have been ordained – likely to be the summer of 2014, I will need to serve a curacy elsewhere in the Diocese; all that lies in the future.
I seem to have said so much, yet know it also is so little of what I have thought and wanted to share over the months. For those that are interested, or want to know more about how one person experienced the process of discernment and selection for ordination in the Church of England, I will write more in the coming weeks.
To those who have been part of and prayed for this ‘hidden’ journey, to my colleagues and our new vicar Andy who has encouraged me on the final leg of the journey, to my spiritual director who has helped more than I can ever really reveal, to the DDOs and advisors, and to the monks of Alton Abbey who give me space to think, my particular thanks and praise for all their love and encouragement.
To my family who have cheered me on, and are sharing this journey for the long-haul, I am unendingly grateful – I love them all massively.
And to God, for making himself heard through the babble of my disbelief and inadequate understanding of who he has called me to be, in Jesus name and in the power of the Holy Spirit: To God, be the Glory, Great things He has done!