Pavane for the Resurrected Lord – on my ordination as Priest

Newly minted priest (almost) dancing down the aisle of Winchester Cathedral, 4th July 2015
Newly minted priest (almost) dancing down the aisle of Winchester Cathedral, 4th July 2015

I was Priested at Winchester Cathedral on 4th July, and celebrated the Eucharist for the first time on Sunday 12th July. Momentous events in my life (so much has been working up to this point), and it transpires in the lives of some of those whom I serve. As the dust settles, it is time to take stock of a little of what has been said, done and started.

Last Saturday, the day of my priesting, started with a deep sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a ‘picture’ before we’d eaten breakfast! The night before +Tim had charged us to ‘yearn to burn’ with the Holy Spirit, referencing 1 Peter 1:13-16 and wanting us to imagine our finger tips burning. Yet as I sat there that morning, the image that came to me was of the coals in my father’s grate, flameless but glowing red hot, bringing far more heat to any room and for far longer, than the transient flames of kindling and wood. Here was the heat of the Holy Spirit I seek from God in my ministry as a priest – something that will transmit the burning love of God for and to those I seek to serve.

That image, and the attendant sense of peace stayed with me throughout a day that reminded me both of the fulfillment of my calling coming to pass, and my own inadequacy in fulfilling it – it will be nothing without God, and without the love that knits together in Christ as we grow to maturity. It was a privilege to read from Ephesians 4:7-16 at the service and voice this, and to be surrounded by so many very special people who have had key parts to play in my own journey of faith – some reading this will know, I hope that I am talking about them!

For a variety of reasons, not least the ordination and arrival of a new Deacon the next day to the parish in which I serve, it was to be a week before I presided for the first time at our weekly Sung Eucharist. Admittedly an incredibly nerve-racking occasion, I had been blessed by the gracious offer by my training incumbent of the opportunity to have a guest preach, and the willingness of a dear friend to fulfill that task, despite the Old Testament reference to David dancing, and the Gospel reading being that of the beheading of John the Baptist (2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Mark 6: 14-29)!

Dom Andrew, talked of our need, and my calling, to dance before the Lord, through the liturgical year in what he poetically described as a “Pavane for the Resurrected Lord”. It is the rituals that I have come to St. Mary’s to learn the steps of, and it is the richness of the liturgical year, the detail of which has been somewhat lost in previous churches in which I’ve worshipped and served, that I am coming to prize highly. It is a sermon I probably ought to read every time I am to preside at Eucharist, the sacrament which for so many is so incredibly important that I must learn the ‘steps’, both traditional and contemporary, often ritualised and sometimes something more raw, which reveal Christ to those present;

“…for it will reconcile to him all the broken and vulnerable children of God present in this place, enabling us to join together once more in the steps of the round dance of our love for him.”

A Triquetra (the symbol of the Holy Trinity) by whose power we live in the circle of life and love in this world.
A Triquetra (the symbol of the Holy Trinity) by whose power we live in the circle of life and love in this world.

The full text of Dom Andrew’s sermon can be viewed here on our parish website.

It transpired that my first, slightly flat (musically), slightly faltering, steps in the Eucharist dance were to be a special moment linking my mother, a ‘fighter’ for the ordination of women long-since gone to our Lord, to another mother, one who has helped nurture me through my diaconal year, and who until that moment, had never received Eucharist where a woman presided. Twenty and more years on from all that my mother was involved with locally, it is easy to forget that for some, this remains an incredible milestone.

There are a host of other special images of the day in my mind, not least the gift of a home communion set from the parish, and the most wonderful glass-work created by The Glass Maidens of the parish with the help of my husband and son. Again there were many friends that had come from a variety of churches to which I am linked, including Twitter! But, I think for now the important thing is to concentrate on learning and perfecting the steps of the dance that our Resurrected Lord wants to teach us all; the dance of love.

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Here endeth my Reader Ministry

Today, Pentecost 2013 marks the end of my Reader Ministry.

2013-05-17 14.23.56cw-x
Ramtopsrac: Church of England Reader – 3rd Oct 2009 – 19th May 2013

The different diocese of the Anglican church are not known for their consistency in approach to patterns of, or peoples development through, different ministries. But in the Diocese of Winchester the rule is normally that if you are a Reader selected for ordination training, then you are asked to surrender your license as you start college.

The idea is that this change of status marks and somehow enables the change in that slightly nebulous, unexplainable, but very important element of ordination training that goes by the name ‘formation’. I have to say that this has seem a rather odd idea which I really haven’t understood.

The observant or regular follower of this blog will note that I’ve completed nearly a year of my two-year ordination training, and yet I am only surrendering my Reader License today. The intention was that, agreed by my vicar and Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), by keeping my license I could continue to take funerals and therefore support that element of ministry within my parish; funerals were the only thing I couldn’t do as an ordinand that the Reader License enabled me to do. Except, I haven’t in fact taken a funeral since about last July – it’s just the way things worked out.

However, being asked to surrender my Reader License today, suddenly feels very significant.

Partly, it’s because I know how important my Reader ministry, and funerals in particular, were to my discerning my calling to the priesthood. I may have said before, but I had to be a Reader to understand my calling to the priesthood.

However, despite retaining my license till today, I have (at the request of my DDO) undertaken so little ‘ministerial’ practice in the parish (I’ve not preached since August last year) that when I led our Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter’s, some people were surprised because they thought I’d already left the parish!

And I’ve hated that. I’ve hated not being able to, or allowed to, do those things that were so important to me as minister, and so important to my discernment process. Not having the chance to preach has been like having a limb cut off – I’ve not engaged in-depth with individual chunks of Bible for months!

Equally I know that the advice was probably sound; I have struggled so much academically this year that the additional load of active parish ministry would probably have been the straw that broke the camels back. (I’ll try and explain that better in another blog post soon.)

What I’m wondering now is that, since this comes at the end of a week of sorting out with my tutors some academic niggles, and actually falls just a fortnight before I do at last preach again but as an ordinand, finally surrendering my Reader License will after all mark a significant turning point in my emotional engagement and the confidence I exhibit in myself, within in my ordination training.

When I wrote about my licensing in 2009 I talked about things feeling ‘right’, and in God’s timing, and about starting out on a fresh new journey, again. Possibly surrendering my Reader License is something I should have done months ago, but actually it’s something that feels ‘right’ for now, for a point where I’m finally getting some grip on what it is that I can realistically achieve academically in ordination training, and at last feel some sense of excitement as to what God has in store for me within that, and within the active ministry that will follow ordination next year.

Living Hermeneutically about Homosexuality (thanks to Steve Chalke)

Pink Primrose
I didn’t have a photo that seemed particularly appropriate to this item, so here’s a pink New Forest Primrose currently flowering against the odds in my garden.

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.

First, I came across this quite balanced article around New Year from the Independent ‘Evangelicals who say being gay is OK’.

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.

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!

Changes – Because God Calls

The village of Cuddesdon in Oxfordshire, where Ripon College Cuddesdon sits on it’s “Holy Hill”.

Today formally marked the significant changes that are happening in my life.

During a particularly God-filled Family Communion service this morning,  I was prayed for, (commissioned if you like), by trusted colleagues, friends and fellow members of St Peter’s, from my previous role here as a Reader, towards my formation through training for ordination at Ripon College Cuddesdon. That training starts in three weeks time, though I meet my ‘academic tutor’ for the first time this coming week!

It was incredibly moving to stand with my family as folk prayed for us, and each of those who came forward (along with many others) had played a significant part in the story of my recognising and testing my calling to ordination.

Although my Reader License isn’t being rescinded immediately, with the help of various folk, I have now laid down almost all of my commitments within the parish and Mothers’ Union. That process in itself has been hard work, emotionally as much as anything – something I may write about more another day.

At the same time I have been very aware that the title and subtitle of this blog (‘A Reader in Writing – The Ramblings of a Lay Minister’) wouldn’t really be accurate from today, and that it too must change. I have thought long and hard, come up with several ideas, including a pun “Pulled by a Dog Collar” which appealed to my sense of humour, but didn’t seem to express what this blog is about.

This continues to be a place to ramble and reflect on stuff I see around me (often on my regular dog walks), but since 2009 when I started blogging, it has mainly tracked my journey through ministry, sought answers to questions, and offered my thoughts on what the Bible teaches us (often expressed through sermons). This journey is an ongoing process which I guess will never really come to an end; it will simply change, because God always calls us onward into a deeper relationship with him, to new challenges and new ways of facilitating his mission in the world.

I decided therefore, that I needed to take the advice Fibre Fairy’s offered me on Twitter, and find a blog title that would last; something that would see me through life as an ordinand, into ministry in curacy as a deacon and priest, to whatever lies beyond. And suddenly this evening, it came to me that I should title the blog by the very reason I am here: because God calls.

 

Eavesdropping and entrapment – Jeremiah 20:1-13

Rather unusually for me, this was a rather more expository sermon than I normally deliver. 

I wonder how often we listen in on other people’s conversations, either inadvertently because we happen to be nearby, or deliberately to discover something of interest or importance to us. It’s not always advisable, but it’s actually quite easy to find ourselves doing it. But what if were able to eavesdrop on the conversations that some people have with God?

Let’s take Rowan Williams as an example. I wonder, hypothetically you understand, what Uncle Rowan might have said to God recently? Say, about 2 weeks ago, during General Synod perhaps? Because he the public eye, we don’t have to eavesdrop on what he actually said; things like “I long to see women bishops in the C of E” and also “I long for there to be … provision for those who continue to have theological reservations on this subject.” Yet, I wonder, as the deeply prayerful man he is known to be, whether in his private spaces with God, he allowed his frustration to show, and suggested that God placed a ‘plague on both their houses?!’

In this passage from Jeremiah we are being given quite deliberately, the opportunity to eavesdrop on two conversations. One between a prophet and his colleague priest, and the other between the same prophet and God.

We hear the first of these conversations in three ways:
● as a passer by watching an altercation between two priests by a Temple gate in Jerusalem;
● as a Jewish slave of the Babylonian empire denied a homeland and a place of worship by the actions of our forbears;
● and today, as the inheritor of this ancient text looking through the lens of a new covenant found in Christ.

If we were passing the Upper Gate of Benjamin shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, we would quite possibly have recognised both the characters who stood at odds with each other.

One was the outspoken critic of the nation’s greed and idolatry who called the people to reform and repent, and who prophesied in the name of God the destruction of not just their Holy of Holies but of their city and their nation.

The other, nominally a priestly colleague of the first, was the legal guardian of the Temple precincts, known probably for his placatory blindness to the greed and violence of the nation, and keen to protect his position and his family.

One was fresh from the stocks, derided, ignored, denounced and whispered against; the other maintained the status quo by denying the truth of God by force.

Seeing them confronting each other was probably no surprise, but perhaps as an eavesdropper we would have sensed the change of focus in the prophet’s words. For this priestly official of the temple, the word of God had suddenly got personal, very personal indeed. It was no longer words spoken against a nation with whom God had lost patience, but with a leader of the people, whose very family, wealth and person would be exiled and destroyed. To hear someone so exulted be confronted by news of their own death and burial anywhere outside of Jerusalem, as a result of their own jealousy and pride, must surely have shaken the idle listener if not the thick-skinned guardian of the Temple.

But would that eavesdropper really have considered that all that Jeremiah spoke affected them? Or, because nothing had actually happened to anyone since Jeremiah had first proclaimed God’s vengeance, would it have been dismissed as someone else’s problem, and simply become an incident to gossip round the next street corner?

Hearing the description of that incident read, several decades after the event, as a Jewish slave in a foreign land, knowing that all the prophet Jeremiah had spoken had come true, must have stung. The blame for your own situation could be laid fairly and squarely at the door of the Temple priest, and those like him who had ignored the word of God, for the sake of their own position and gain.

Living in the context of the exile that Jeremiah had foretold, perhaps contemplating the loosening grip of the Babylonian empire on your life, and the long dreamed-of return to Jerusalem, listening to that story could have inspire a waryness to the motives of your leaders, and a considerable motivation to be faithful to God in all things. And yet, and yet…

Today, we don’t eavesdrop on the prophet’s words from a nearby gateway, or read the account like a history book written in hindsight. Now, through the lens of the Gospels, we watch the persecution of Jeremiah by his fellow priests, and see in it a precursor of the persecution which Jesus suffered at the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees 600 years after these events, when once again God’s covenant people were not open to the word of God being proclaimed among them within the Temple Courts.

Is Jeremiah’s accusatory prophesy over Pashhur so far removed from Jesus’ condemning the money changers in the Temple within sight of the chief priests and teachers of the law, in Matthew 21? No, it isn’t.

Is it so far removed from those who speak out against tax avoidance and un-necessary brand dominance at the Olympics, or those that are concerned for injustices in milk prices, or the secularisation of our education system? No, it isn’t. But, do these contemporary voices speak in the name of God, or simply from a sense of general moral outrage?

Because, as I’m sure both our Archbishops are only too well aware from personal experience, like Jeremiah, if you are called to speak what you understand as God’s truth, in the public sphere today, you are likely to be derided, denounced and whispered against, ignored by many of those to whom you speak.

Little surprise then, if when Christian leaders have their personal time out for a private conversation with God, they get more than a little peevish, and lament their lot. Just like Jeremiah.

For the second part of the passage here is no piece of poetry or the account of a public display of weakness, but a written testimony to a “vocational crisis, caused by the prophet’s distress at being stuck between an insistent God and a resistant people”, designed perhaps to bring about the remorse or repentance of those still in exile for whom it was recounted.

Jeremiah, is not the only person in the world ever to have felt backed into a corner by God, with no way out but to fulfil a calling that they know will bring hardship, persecution and the reproach and misrepresentation of even those that should be their colleagues. It is perhaps a case of entrapment rather than deception, because Jeremiah 1 shows that no deception has been involved. For it is clear from the outset of Jeremiah’s calling that he recognised God as putting the words in his mouth, and that those to whom he proclaimed their own idolatry and wickedness, would fight against him, what he said, and the God he stood for.

If we look again through the lens of the Gospels, are the sufferings of Jeremiah really so very different to those that Jesus warns his disciples of in John 16, knowing as he did that the authorities would put them out of the synagogue, or ordinary people kill them thinking that by doing so they were offering a service to God? (John 16:2)

In fact is this lament of Jeremiah’s, condemned by some since as blasphemous, really so very different from Jesus’ cry from the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”! (Mark 15:34)

Yet, Jeremiah’s complaints do not stay focused on the God that placed him in this situation. He knows that he is in the service of God’s compelling truth, and that is why he must speak it, a truth that speaks out both against the violence and destruction of a nation against its own faith and people, and of the violence and destruction that will be ranged against them by external forces. Jeremiah cannot be true to his calling under God by being silent.

So Jeremiah’s sharpest complaints are against his persecutors, and his only request of God is against them, that God might judge them by their actions. It is not that God doesn’t know his cause, for we know it is the one to which God called him, but it is one that his own humanity requires him to lay before God so that he forces himself to acknowledge God’s ownership of the situation in which he feels trapped.
Tough though he is finding the ministry of prophet, he acknowledges God as a mighty warrior, fighting as foretold on the side of the truth Jeremiah proclaims. So even at this his lowest ebb, the prophet is able to silence his own complaints with thanksgiving, full of confidence in God’s deliverance.

Surely that was a word of hope to those in exile in Babylon. God can be trusted, and will fulfil the prophesy they were to read about later in the account of their exile that “When seventy years are completed in Babylon, God would come to them and fulfil his good promise to bring them back to Jerusalem.” (Jer 29:10)

Again through the lens of the Gospel, Christ prophesies that he will die but rise again (Mark 8:31) but then be taken from from his people so that the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth (John 16:12) can bring God’s people back to a place of relationship with him, a new Jerusalem. God’s word of truth, through prophets like Jeremiah down the ages to Christ’s own teaching, can be trusted.

So, where does all that leave us today?

Firstly, it poses us questions about whether our private conversations with God have integrity.

Do they really reflect the anguish of serving God faithfully, and if they don’t, why don’t they?

Is it because we are like the unfaithful idolaters ignoring the truth that God is speaking into our hearts, directly or through the mouths of others, and we can’t therefore look God squarely in the face and pour out our hearts to him?

Or is it because when we have been obedient to his calling, and found that true to his word, God has placed us in some darn tight uncomfortable corner where we are forced to say things that make us unpopular or do things that cause us emotional pain or turmoil, we feel we shouldn’t lay it all before him and cry out in our distress: “Lord, you got me into this mess; now get me out again!”?

Secondly, we are being posed questions about the level to which we embody the word of God.

We proclaim in our creed that we believe in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that by those means we live in a relationship as close to God as the one that Jeremiah witnessed to. Yet, is our faith in God visible as something which burns within us in such a way that it drives our behaviour and our thinking in every waking moment, both the public ones, and the private ones?

For all the torture, the gloomy prophesy, the sense of being trapped in a God-given situation over which a mere human has no control, the frustration at man’s inhumanity to man and unfaithfulness to God, this passage should give us hope!

We have a God who is with us, and though he sees us for who we are, we live in that new covenant relationship of forgiveness through Christ for what is past. With utter honesty we can lay before God our fears and frustrations, and we can always start afresh each day to witness to God’s faithfulness and sing the praises of the one who upholds in all we do in his name and for his glory.

To BAP, BAPing, I BAPed – encountering the verb of selection for ordination!

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.]

Bishop Woodford House, Ely (it’s the low building that lies behind the Diocesan Offices through the double gate)

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.)

Ely Cathedral from the park benches to the south

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.

The East end of Ely Cathedral viewed from the Almonry garden! I wish I could photograph the sound of the bees in the cherry blossom!

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.

Dare to Break Bread – a reflection from discernment

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.

"Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom." Luke 23:42 (Painting by Kari Juhani Hintikka by permission of Alton Abbey)

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.


An authentic Lent – a reflection from discernment

St Mary's Eversley

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.

This year I decided to use ‘Reflections for Lent’ (Church House Publishing) as my Bible reading notes (on my Kindle), to keep me grounded in the lectionary in conjunction with the pattern of Common Worship Morning Prayer (via a wonderful little android app called Pocket Common Worship Prayer also available as a googlechrome app).

The Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday was Daniel 9:3-6 and 17-19 and seemed to start almost where my reflections on the Transfiguration had left off a couple of days earlier:

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands,… we do not make requests of you because we are righteous.” (Daniel 9:5 and 18)

Martin Percy‘s notes said this:

“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.]

The Faith and the Fear – a reflection from discernment

Ready? Preparing to take aim (My first ever go at archery - in a friends vicarage garden August 2005)

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. 

Taking aim! (The husband having a go - it's OK the church beyond the hedge isn't in any danger!)

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!

If this has been posted on my blog, these fears have (once again – they’re hardly new, or likely to go away) proved un-necessary. The Church of England must believe I am called to the priesthood, warts and all.

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.

Shoot! (A proper longbowman with arrow in flight - Stokesay Castle moat - Aug 2005)

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!]