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 😉

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Is there such a thing as a distinctive Benedictine spirituality?

Carving of St. Benedict in Alton Abbey
Carving of St. Benedict in Alton Abbey

Those who know of my regular visits to Alton Abbey won’t be overly surprised to discover my first portfolio, which has to be about prayer and ministerial formation, has a Benedictine focus.

The title of the main essay is:

How does Benedictine spirituality connect and contrast with my past practice, speak into my current prayer life, and inform my engagement in God’s mission?

In particular I’m going to be focusing on the ideas of community and hospitality expressed in the way the Rule of St Benedict can be applied, and also at the idea of obedience with is one of the vows that Benedictines make. If I was writing my dissertation I could have added more to the list, but I had to be selective… I ‘only’ have 5000 words to play with 😉

I am very aware that I am just dipping my toe in the deep water that is the Benedictine tradition, and am realising more what I don’t know, rather than what I do. Among the many questions I’ve got buzzing round my head at present, not all of which are directly related to the essay, are the following. You may have thoughts and wisdom in response to these that will contribute to my current ‘mind soup’, and if you’re prepared to share them, that would be wonderful.

  1. Is there actually such a thing as a distinctively Benedictine spirituality?
    I am reading a little about Ignatian spirituality (largely in its conversation with positive psychology), and believe there is a distinctly Franciscan spirituality, but I have heard it said at college that there isn’t anything distinctive about Benedictine spirituality, possibly because of its pragmatism. However, reading Joan Chittister’s preface to Thomas Merton‘s commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict I’m not convinced, but wondered what others think? If you think there is, how would you describe it?
  2. In what ways is the hospitality of Benedictine communities distinctive from that of other monastic communities, like e.g. the Franciscans’? Geography has dictated my association with Alton Abbey, but I suspect God’s got a plan in that, and I don’t currently have the time and finances to tour the monasteries of England, so I’m interested in what others think, either from their studies or involvement with Benedictine communities, or from simply having visited contrasting monastic communities.
  3. Why, when the Rule of St. Benedict includes something known as the ‘Ladder of Humility’ which includes the idea that one shouldn’t be “given to ready laughter” (RB7.59-60), are the Benedictines I know some of the funniest people I ever meet? I rarely leave their company without having shared a laugh and always have a bigger smile on my face than the one I arrived with! (That goes for the cloistered brethren, not just the oblates I know.)

So that’s where I am, at least on the surface. Underneath in the warren of MA-land, it’s rather more complicated than that, but perhaps I’ll leave the lumpy bits in the ‘mind soup’ for another day.

Any ideas, thoughts or reflections, gratefully received. If I ever refer them in writing they will be suitably referenced I assure you!

Will Diocesan Bishops meet their clergy before #HofB meet? #synod

What to me is now a rather poignant carving, in the choir of All Saints Church, Cuddesdon

At approximately 5.50pm last Tuesday night (27th Nov 2012), the Right Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, climbed into the pulpit at All Saints, Cuddesdon to preach to the massed ranks of ordinands and their newly resident community of nuns. He looked at his watch, and commented that it was a week, almost to the hour, since General Synod had made a big mistake.

Then, with Rt Revd Michael Perham the Bishop of Gloucester (who was presiding at Eucharist) looking on, Bishop John apologised. He apologised on behalf of the General Synod for making a mess of things over the issue of female bishops, and specifically for making our lives as ordinands, and our ministries in curacy, even more difficult than it is already.

He went on to explain that in the days immediately after the General Synod vote, he had met with 50+ of the 250ish female clergy of his diocese, to try to share their pain and hear their immediate responses.

With the news yesterday that the Archbishop’s Council have this week

recommended that the House of Bishops, during its meeting in a fortnight’s time, put in place a clear process for discussions in the New Year with a view to bringing legislative proposals before the Synod in July

I was set wondering as to whether all the Diocesan Bishop’s will be holding such meetings with their clergy before the House of Bishop gather to consider the next synodical steps in this painful journey.

So last night, with the help of Twitter, I discovered the details I list below.

You may well be able to add to this, and if so, I would invite you to please ‘comment’ the details below, so that those who might not have such meetings planned in the near future, and/or whose Diocesan synods meet this weekend, can have a clear picture of where they fit into the pattern of communication and care provided by the Bishops of their Diocese, to those affected by and concerned about last weeks vote.

  • Durham, St. Albans, Oxford, Birmingham, Portsmouth and Southwark have met with clergy already, in some cases only with the female clergy, though in the case of St Albans all clergy/readers/laity have been asked to write with feedback
  • Bishops in Sheffield were meeting their clergy last night
  • Dover/Canterbury is holding a Eucharist and discussion on Saturday 1st Dec, which is open to all, not just clergy
  • Ely Bishops are hosting Eucharist, coffee and discussion on Saturday 1st Dec
  • Exeter are meeting Monday 3rd December
  • St Edmundsbury and Ipswich meet on 5th December
  • Southwell and Nottingham on 6th December
  • Liverpool meet (with only the female clergy) on 6th December
  • Chelmsford is hosting a Champagne breakfast (not sure when)
  • Gloucester is meeting all clergy next week for Eucharist, with lunch provided for discussions with female clergy aftewards
  • Coventry has planned a gathering for early December

Among the additional comments I received on Twitter last night were the following:

  • disappointment that not all these meetings are open to all clergy, some are just for the female ones
  • in those diocese that have already had meetings, the ‘diary clearing’ by Bishops that enabled them has been much appreciated.

How do you ‘find’ a spiritual director? A reflection on experience

Sound II by Anthony Gormley, in The Crypt of Winchester Cathedral, 23rd November 2012

I was asked recently (via Twitter) if I would be prepared to write about my experiences of seeking and finding a spiritual director. It would be for some work Revd Mark Godson, who is Director of the London Centre for Spirituality, is doing to write a guide for those new to spiritual direction.

The official route to a spiritual director in my diocese is via our Ministry Department who maintain and support a list of spiritual directors. If you ask them they will put you in touch with someone who has the space and time, with reference to any particular requirements or interests you have at the time of requesting direction.

But I’ve not yet managed to do it that way; trust me to be different.

When it was first suggested to me that I ought to have a spiritual director, it was as part of my rather ad hoc journey into Reader Training. To be honest I can’t remember who suggested it, but at the time I was a Trustee for Mothers’ Union in Winchester Diocese (MU), and my calling to a ministry that included preaching and teaching was growing out of that role.

I was fortunate to come by the wisdom of the wife of our Diocesan Bishop of the time, who suggested I spoke to one particular lady about spiritual direction. The lady in question was a long-standing MU member, but also one of the first women to have been licensed to Reader Ministry in the 1970s as a young mother – something I needed to juggle into the ministry equation.

Having a spiritual director who has some connecting points to my own journey in ministry became important, and is a pattern I have repeated since. It gave us some ‘touching points’ on which to build a growing relationship, a sense of empathy which bred respect (hopefully mutual), and gave me the confidence to take seriously and try the ‘new’ approaches to building and improving a pattern of prayer into my life.

Right from our first meeting, informally in a Debenham’s coffee shop, we agreed how our relationship was to work; the regularity with which we would meet, and the overall length of time she would ‘walk with me’.  This was important for her in her semi-retirement, and for me to know that as I progressed through to another stage in my own ministry I would require different expertise and insights to those I required through Reader Training.

It turned out this my first ‘director’ was actually on the ‘approved’ list maintained by the diocese, but I didn’t know that at the time. She was also very open about her own spiritual support, not that she wanted me to imitate her spirituality as a Third Order Franciscan, but so that I knew she had built in the support she required to help others, and was ‘practising what she preached’ as it were.

Ministry as a Reader took more than one unexpected turn for me, which is documented elsewhere on this blog. Part of that journey including a niggling sense of calling to the priesthood that I sort to ignore initially but which was highlighted through the circumstances of a parish vacancy in which I took responsibility for occasional offices. A brief lapse in my pattern of spiritual direction couldn’t possibly be allowed to continue.

As I finally took seriously the question of why on earth several priests of my acquaintance thought I was called to that ministry rather than continuing as a Reader, it was one of these priests that suggested another, as my companion for the next leg of my ministerial journey.

My new spiritual director and I had spent a year as colleagues and friends in ministry, so much of my ‘back-plot’ didn’t need to be sketched in when we met to discuss the idea of changing a relationship of friendship. Some of our initial agreements were much the same as last time were repeated (frequency, and over-all length of direction) but we had to be clear about different things: particularly that I wasn’t going to be pushed into the priesthood, and that we would maintain our conversations of friendship each meeting over lunch, before making a specific ‘candle-lit’ change of focus to my spiritual journey. It was a relationship that works well; even now that period of our lives is now concluded, we have maintained and grown a friendship that is built to a large degree on mutual trust and the need for confidentiality regarding each other’s circumstances.

In the process of discernment of a vocation to the priesthood, I found it particularly helpful to have someone totally outside the process, and in fact the diocese through which that process was being managed, though she had experienced it elsewhere. It enabled my director to help me ask questions of the system and myself, that I’m not sure would have been asked if we had been closer to my diocesan staff and systems.

This year, that leg of my journey concluded, I have with the encouragement of both that spiritual companion and my DDO, started to build a relationship with a new spiritual companion, or ‘soul friend’ as he prefers to be called. Known to, suggested and approved by all concerned, and someone with whom I had already started a significant acquaintance through my developing pattern of retreat days, we again have a regular pattern of meeting, but with a more open-ended time-scale of involvement.  Conversations are less focused on the needs of ‘what I need to do next’ and have a more serendipitous nature, but at the moment as I struggle to engage with the highly academic context of my ordination training, they’re best focused on where the most difficulties are at the time, and so doing the job of keeping me moving forward in my spiritual life quiet nicely.

And it’s not escaped my notice that as my own journey moves on, I find I have others approaching me not yet for spiritual direction, but for insights I can offer from my experience into their own questions about faith and ministry. The one thing I have told them categorically from my own experience, is that if you are to support yourself, a ministry and a family of loved ones, all at the same time, then some regular pattern of spiritual direction and companionship is vital to keep your relationship with God grounded on common sense, as well as filled with the deep wells of spiritual resources you need to even attempt the journey!

A mother’s Biblical wisdom from beyond the grave

Mum’s working NRSV Bible. As you can see she was prone to ‘make do’ and has therefore adapted a different Bible cover to protect it!

Tomorrow, on Saturday 15th September 2012, I start ordination training at Ripon College Cuddesdon (also known as the Holy Hill, or the Holy Hogwarts and recently described by Revd Richard Coles as the CofE’s Sandhurst!)

In a box of my mother’s old theology books unearthed from the roof last weekend, among a heavily scribbled on copy of ‘Faith in the Countryside’ and much feminist and liberation theology, I found her ‘working’ copy of the Bible, an NRSV with Apocrypha.

So ended my search for a lighter NRSV to carry for college, having decided I didn’t really want to carry her Annotated Oxford NRSV which weighs in at 3.25lb an may yet be used as a door stop. This one weighs just less than 2.5lbs, but that’s not the only reason I’ll be using it during training.

My mother was a strong character who dominated my childhood, had a dangerous grasp of the English language, and was lethal in her use of a walking stick, wielded from the haven of her folding chair at anyone she wished to speak to – even Bishop’s could not withstand it’s knee numbing impact!

Mum worked hard at Deanery and Diocesan Synods in the late 1980s and early 1990s for a wider use of lay ministry, for a recognition of the difficulties faced by the church in rural communities, and for the ordination of women. Sponsored by the Diocese of Winchester, she studied Pastoral Theology at La Sainte Union in Southampton, though she never completed her degree because she died of cancer in January 1996. She owned the first computer in the family, but thankfully never met the internet, Facebook or Twitter – she’d have loved the idea of harnessing social media to share her faith and viewpoints!

Although we shared our Christian faith, and she’d actually found her faith journey encouraged by my church links at college in Aberystwyth, I didn’t want to follow through on her interests. But as I have deliberately sought to make my own path in faith and ministry, I have been increasingly aware how much all I have been enabled to do results from the work of people like her. And, here I am starting ordination training, wanting to concentrate particularly on (among other things) rural ministry! She will be laughing heartily right now, full of pride and sharing the joke with God!

I’ve never been particularly prone to emotional outbursts, even (or especially) about my mother. However, inside the Bible, among the snippets of paper (for which she was infamous) and quotations written into the blank cover pages, I found her words at her mothers’ funeral, and my words at hers (which I must have placed there shortly after).

I also found and the notes I reprint below. Sixteen years after her death and in light of my own prayers and fears at this point in time, I wanted to share them through my tears and laughter. I suspect that at this particular juncture in the life of people I’m about to meet, and in the history of the Church of England, they may speak to others as well as to myself:

On a blank page at the front of the Bible:

John Chrystostom to Olympias his deacon at Constantinople after his exile in 404:

“When the gale blows, a pilot controls his ship by adjusting the sail, and so steers the vessel safely. You already know this, my dear lady, most beloved of God, so don’t give yourself up to the tyranny of sadness, but be mistress of the storm, which you can do, if you use your reason; the waves are not too powerful for your skill.”

On a thin sheet of paper, in her neatest handwriting, unattributed to anyone else Mum wrote:

I believe in God.
I believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to die for us. For all of us.
How can we as Christians deny the right of any who are called to serve Christ, to test that call, regardless of gender.

Inside the Bible cover is written a quotation by Henry van Dyke:

He who planteth a tree is a servant of God.
He provideth a kindness for many generations,
And faces which he hath not seen shall bless him.

Finally, on a scrap of paper torn from a notebook, a reminder of my Mother’s sense of humour:

Middle Age is when it takes twice as long to rest and half as long to get tired.

At last, like never before, I can thank God for my Mother, her wisdom, and all that she gave me.

Thank you Mothers’ Union for being part of the adventure

Me (almost hidden behind the raised arm on the left) surrounded by Mothers’ Union members of Mfula, high in the Eastern Cape of South Africa (Diocese of Umtata) 2006

It is with some sadness, but also excitement about the future, that with effect from today Friday 20th July 2012, I am resigning my role as a Trustee of Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Winchester.

It’s been an amazing ten years adventure since I joined Mothers’ Union after taking on editorship of the Diocesan Mothers’ Union newsletter ‘Archway’, and being almost simultaneously co-opted on to Trustees. During that time I have learnt alot about myself, as well as Mothers’ Union. Along the way fellow members have, I hope, come to understand how important it is to ‘shout about’ Mothers’ Union, the huge impact it’s project work has on people’s lives at home and abroad, and discovered that we really can (and must) harness modern media to share the good news of faith in action that we achieve. Please keep using that website at www.muwinchester.org.uk!

My journey with Mothers’ Union started with a phonecall from the then Diocesan President that I instantly recognised as a case of ‘God on the phone’. That journey isn’t ending here. Both Graham and I have every intention of remaining Mothers’ Union members as family life and marriage must be championed, and our overseas workers supported.

However (and I would have said this publicly even had I remained a Trustee), I happen to think that for Mothers’ Union to continue to be supported so that its project work remains viable and as well respected as it is, will require some drastic structural changes to the overall organisation. I suspect that time has come when we seriously need to consider merging Diocese (each is currently an independent charity) or work on a Provincial basis. Part of the problem is that we must continue to work within Charity Law, but alternative ways must be found of remaining accountable whilst celebrating our active passion for marriage and family life. I’m not sure that any of the proposed changes to Charity Law will help this. Being accountable is important, and thus some local administration will always be a necessary burden, but something needs to be done quite radically to change the expectations of local people held by central management, else we will see enthusiastic younger members come, and then go, as I have.  Otherwise I fear that the passionate, pioneering and prayerful flames that Mary Sumner sparked all those years ago will be suffocated because the way we work stifles the creativity of those wanting to take projects forward in the name of Mothers’ Union.

Me (right) with Mothers’ Union and Diocese of Winchester colleagues who together had organised the Make Poverty History rally at Winchester Cathedral in 2005

The various adventures that Mothers’ Union has given me, including speaking in HMP Winchester, gathering round Winchester Cathedral during Make Poverty History, in my own and in various other parishes, have all contributed to the call that I am now responding to. Without them I would never have become a Reader, and it is through ministry as a Reader that I came to understand my calling to the priesthood, that I admit many others recognised long before I did.

I will be starting ordination training at Ripon College Cuddesdon, through their part-time Oxford Ministry Course in September, where it is hoped I will achieve an MA in two years, with a view to being ordained in 2014 as a self-supporting minister. Because our son will be working through GCSEs and A-levels during this period, it is currently our intention to stay living in Yateley, though I will need to serve a curacy elsewhere in the Winchester Archdeaconry. Quite what the next leg of the adventure with God will be, only he knows, but be assured I will continue to shout about Mothers’ Union wherever and whenever I am given the opportunity. I hope you will to.

Thank you to everyone I’ve met through, and who has encouraged my involvement with, Mothers’ Union over these last ten years, regionally, nationally and internationally. May God inspire and bless us all as we continue to work together to support marriage and family life.

Book Review: ‘He Never Let Go’ by Lynda Alsford

Is your journey with God clear and straightforward, or has it vanished into the distance, overcome by parts of your life that you are fighting to deny are leading you into darkness?

I bought ‘He Never Let Go’ by Lynda Alsford because Lynda was one of my early Twitter friends, and quite simply the snatches of her story that she had shared as she wrote the book intrigued me. It was only my second e-book, but the format suits the book, which is VERY reasonably priced, but it is also available now in paper format for not much more.

Lynda is a Church Army Evangelist when the story opens, a professional lay minister with an active ministry, and a secret. She has stopped believing in God.

The book is not a work of literary genius, but is all the better for that! It might at some points seem muddled as Lynda tries to reason out in her own mind why she should believe in the God she eventually acknowledges she misses, but this muddle has integrity with the state of her mind at the time. The story, which loops from crisis of faith, through her initial journey of faith, back to the crisis and onwards into the future, is a difficult one, painfully and honestly told.

Reading this book will give Christian’s several challenges: it will help them admit and face their own doubts, remember times when perhaps they have condemned the doubts of others, and equip them with a tool to help themselves or others. For non-Christian’s it will unpack some of the ‘certainties’ that those who have come to share that faith have had to grapple with, as well as some of the nuances of different views on baptism. For those who have believed, but lost sight of Christ, this book will provide the comfort of knowing you are not alone. It is above all a story that should give everyone who reads it, hope.

That was what I wrote as an Amazon review, but that doesn’t say where it leaves me as a cradle Christian, heading from authorised lay ministry as a Reader, into ordination training.

I think I’ve reflected before that Reader Training was perhaps a time of blind faith; something I fell into because it felt right, and that involved survival. When I questioned things, it was the detail of the course content, not what I believed.

As I fearfully contemplate a two year, part-time MA at Cuddesdon, this book helped me realise that these studies need to be a place where I ask more questions, more deeply, of myself, what I believe and why I believe it; a place where I need to give doubt a place.

Lynda struggles to ‘reason’ God’s existence (or lack of it) because she could see both sides of a reasoned argument. Like her, I am easily swayed by someone’s point of view if it seems well thought out and evidenced. Part of theological reflection is to question things, and in many things I know I will need to question not only accepted practice, and a variety of theological viewpoints, but myself. Within that, I probably need to be honest about my doubts, when they arise (though not necessarily in academic submissions).

Another thought Lynda’s book caused me, was to wonder how much as ministers, we (should?) hide our vulnerabilities? It is possibly too easy to slip into the mode of simply acting on people’s expectations of us when we are ‘in role’. As an priest, being ‘in role’ will be a way of life that is much more recognisable to those around me – something that comes with the ‘dog collar’, but which I recognised as growing within me as I grew through discernment.

Other thoughts have flitted through my head as I’ve read this book: about faith ‘v’ works;  about those whose acceptance of their selves as single may need to form part of their journey to faith; about reason being a stumbling block to faith; and, about the need to give myself time to focus on God, and my acceptance and forgiveness by Jesus, when all else around me seems to be about the detail of theological arguments and acceptance by a congregation or community.

Thank you Lynda, for writing something to profoundly thought provoking and honest, and may God bless you richly in all that you do in his name in the future.

PS: the gallery of the artist Charlie Mackesy whose illustration adorns the book cover, and to which Lynda refers at the end of the book, is well worth a visit.