GOD AND THE CALL TO PRIESTHOOD

I am often asked by my more pragmatic friends why I don't just suck it up and get a job outside of the Church. Believe me, I fully understand the logic of this line of thought; it is the obvious and sensible course of action. The simple answer to the question is that I don't want to. The full answer would include stuff about who I believe myself to be and whether or not life is worth living if you are just treading water. But how did I get to the stage where I find it impossible to consider "moving on?"

A couple of days ago I received a pertinent comment from Pam over on Facebook.

I replied with the following comment which I don't think would have got my friend running to put on her tin hat.

I have known many people whose lives have been permanently damaged after being turned down for the priesthood. To be manipulated into truly believing that God has spoken to you and then told that you were just making it all up and that you were putting words into God's mouth, is a terrible thing to have to live with. In fact, putting someone into such a situation is downright cruel.

If I was to stop being a full time priest (which is what I was "called" to be) then I would be facing the same existential crisis that rejected ordinands have to deal with. My pain would be no worse than theirs but I do have the added problem of having been indoctrinated with the concept of the priesthood being a complete and irreversible calling for over twenty years. This concept is so embedded in my personality and thinking that to remove it would be like removing my heart and my fear (to be honest, my certain knowledge) is that there is no new heart available out there with which I could replace it.

There is a simple answer to this conundrum, if not for myself then for future candidates in the discernment process of the Church of England. Ditch God and the Spirit of God from the equation altogether. When asked why you are seeking ordination the answer, "Because I want to be a priest and I believe I could do the job well," should suffice. Of course, this would mean that both the candidate and the Church would have to accept that they are personally responsible for their own decisions and actions, no longer could either party dump the responsibility onto God if things went wrong. And no longer could they claim God's involvement if things went well. In my opinion that would be a definite change for the better. Being served by priests and bishops who did not believe they were God's gift to the laity would make the Church a much more pleasant, cooperative organisation to belong to for everybody.

Comments

GOD AND THE CALL TO PRIESTHOOD — 52 Comments

  1. They only allow God to speak with their voice and call people whose faces fit with them, so it’s pretty hollow when we look closely. We need to re-think our theology of ministry, but it’s not going to come from within the system; they’ve got too much of a vested interest in being able to take God’s name in vain.

  2. Hi Jon,
    I think you misunderstand the nature of the C of E. Recommendation is solely recommendation for training, and continuance of discerning vocation, and first curacies are now obstacle courses to see if the curate can clear the hurdles required to continue to incumbent responsibility posts.
    Being a priest and working as a vicar (or whatever else) are separate in the C of E now, and have been for some time. I know a few clergy who went to selection with no intention of ever working in parishes.. and they have done other things from the beginning.
    God is involved somewhere, but it is not a once and for all call, it is one step at a time, and each new post has to be made with a confirmation of that call.
    Doing any secular work does not remove that priestlyness, that ontological uniqueness, but it would bring in a few bob and could be regarded as a hobby not a vocation. Teaching, lecturing, social care, anything, all or nothing thinking is dangerous and limits your horizons.

    Best wishes,

    Rev John Smallwood
    orbistonparva@gmail.com

  3. Well I remember the question “Why do you think God is calling you to the priesthood,” at my selection conference. I remember the person who asked it and the room we were sitting in when he asked the question. I also remember that there was a definite distinction between being called to the stipendary ministry and being called to the non-stipendary ministry. I remember that is was regarded as very unusual for a NSM to become a stipendary priest and some bishops would never consider such a move. I had an NSM friend who had to move out of her diocese to get a full time position. So, if things are different now (and I don’t think that difference has been perceived and understood at the grass roots) it is of no help to me whatsoever. And the thought that one bishop, acting alone without any reference to due process and the laws that inform secular employers, with a thing about depression being a sign of weakness and incompetence, can decide that I should not be allowed to pursue a full time, paid ministry is almost as horrible to contemplate as a God who gets things wrong.

  4. There are – occasionally – under Common Tenure – posts which might be suitable for someone seeking to return to stipendiary ministry. One of which would be cover for maternity leave, or additional maternity leave.
    Another would be to cover a sabbatical (though those are rare as hens teeth).
    If you had PTO you could reasonably do funerals at the crem (in fact you can do so without but you might prefer not to). You could cover funerals for a vicar on his day off even.
    I am not saying this is possible for you, but the C of E relies on people to do the above and made provision for maternity cover in the Clergy Terms of Service regs.

    All good wishes,
    Rev John Smallwood
    orbistonparva@gmail.com

    ps they never asked me that question

  5. I do not have permission to officiate. Once one bishop has decided you should not be a priest all others follow suit no matter what their personal discernment of you might be. Even bishops who are supposedly your friends will not help you for fear of upsetting the collegial ethos of the episcopacy. Bear in mind that the first thing that a prospective bishop does is privately contact your former bishop for an “off the record” chat. This is not recorded anywhere and is against all sorts of laws, but the church is above the law. They stick together. I am alone.

  6. “Being served by priests and bishops who did not believe they were God’s gift to the laity would make the Church a much more pleasant, cooperative organisation to belong to for everybody.”

    Ain’t THAT the truth! 🙂

  7. I want to pitch in here as someone who has done 6 years of stipended ministry and then returned to secular employment (which I am enjoying very much thank you).

    Jonathan, where does your perspective (“If I was to stop being a full time priest (which is what I was “called” to be) then I would be facing the same existential crisis that rejected ordinands have to deal with”) leave those of us who have made the move out of stipended ministry? Is “priesthood” an ontological thing, merely a functional thing (which is the standard Evangelical error) or, as you seem to be intimating, both ontological AND at the same time functional? You seem to be implying that a call to full-time ministry IS integral to your call to priesthood, but nowhere in the ordinal is such an assertion validated. Yes, we are called as priests to *be* all kinds of things and to *do* all kinds of things, but we are not ordained to be paid. Our priesthood is entirely independent of, and not encompassed in any sense by, its out-working in stipendiary or non-stipendiary ministry. Are retired clergy (who draw no stipend) lesser priests then non-retired priests if they draw no stipend? Do half-time posts produce half-priests?

    One is a priest because one is called (and then ordained) to be a priest (or technically, ordained INTO the priesthood). That is an independent calling to one’s specific calling to a particular ministry, full-time or otherwise. You can lie in bed all day, do nothing and still be a priest. Your priesthood is not validated or invalidated by anything that you do.

    I have discovered that if doors close and if one trusts that God’s hand is sovereign, that other doors pushed will open and you will begin to understand God’s plan. But to not accept the simple truth that at times, for some of us, stipended ministry is NOT what God wants us to do is to limit God, to put him in a box. No-one doubts your general sense of calling to full-time ministry, but if you find yourself right at the moment unable to provide for yourself because such a position that you desire is unavailable (even though you deeply want to work in such a position), then perhaps it is time to drop that desire for a while and do something else. Plenty of us have done it and we have found that actually this was God’s plan for us all along, we just had to get over what WE thought God’s plan was for us first.

    It’s OK to be wrong. It’s OK to want something but to wrestle with God because he actually wants something different and doesn’t seem to be opening any doors to the thing we want. It’s OK to be angry with an institution that seems to discard clergy onto a scrapheap at a whim after we give ourselves over to it. And it’s OK to be a priest with a deep calling to full-time ministry who, for the moment, has to pay the bills by doing other things. Come and join us in that last category – there are plenty of us and there’s plenty of room for more.

  8. I’ve been a priest for over 10 years now. I went through the whole ordination process of trying to come up with good ways to explain why I thought God was calling me to the priesthood when all along I thought my best answer was, “I think I’d be good at it.” I still think that’s the best answer.

    The way the process is set now, it seems to work hard to reward those who are best able to dissemble, contort, and conform themselves to the expectations of the listeners. I cannot think that’s in the best interest of the church.

  9. Peter, if I was wrong then Bishop Martin Wharton was right. And if Bishop Martin was right then everybody who has ever suffered from mental illness should suck it up and accept the stigma and a future of unemployment.

    But even on a mundane, less philosophical level, you are much younger than me. The fact that I was a priest does not make my chances of getting a worthwhile job easier or harder. I am up the same shit creek with all the oldies. B&Q or nought.

  10. Two comments from your reply to Pam got my attention: “I have never been deprogrammed,” and ” ‘If I am not a priest, then there is no God.’ “

    Joy Davidman Lewis, aka Mrs. C.S. Lewis, was married first to someone with an addiction. She left him and went back a number of times, until she realized that she had hit a wall. “I believe that there are marriages that God puts asunder, because they are so injurious to soul and body,” she wrote. This is a tough one for many of us to swallow, but I believe that she’s right. There are situations which are untenable, and which are not going to change, no matter how much we’d like or are willing to work to change them. The only options we have are to allow the facts to deprogram us, or to be crushed by the way things are. God is an able deprogrammer, I’ve learned from not-so-easy-or-pleasant experienced, and the scriptural evidence bears it out: “Go to Nineveh.” “Go to a land you do not know.” “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” God seems to be much less in favor of the comfort zone and much more inclined to make us think outside the box. I don’t enjoy the feel of the Holy Thumb and Index Finger on my neck, but I’ve had to respond to it more than once. Even though the eventual outcome was good, Ouch!

    About being a priest and there being God, I’ve been surprised more than once by God’s versatility in finding ways for us to do some good and get some satisfaction from it. I once had a job calling people who did not know that the doctor’s bill was separate from the hospital’s, and that it, along with lab fees and other charges, was due. I hated making these calls until I realized that I was the last person between the patients and the collection agency. Then I was occasionally able to be of some help. God had to turn my brain inside out to get the point across, but it worked, and I’ve been able to call up this memory when I’d really rather be doing something else.

    So consider giving yourself some options, and cut yourself a lot of slack.

  11. Jonathan, I think your theology of priesthood is not serving you well at this point. You should definitely consider trading it in on a more practical model.

    I don’t very often weigh in on this subject, but here goes. It seems to me that you want to have it both ways. On the one hand, you want the Church to be subject to employment legislation like any secular employer – in other words, you want the Church to treat you as an employee on the secular model. But on the other hand, you want your job to be unlike any other job – you want it to be some sort of ontological thing that stamps you for life and makes it impossible for you to do any other job.

    Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you want the Church to conform to the secular model, you have to realize that in the secular world no one is indelibly stamped for a job for life – or if they are, they’re condemned to poverty if they lose it. My daughter spent five years training to be a teacher. Being then unable to get a job as a teacher in Alberta she moved to the UK for two years and got temporary teaching jobs. After moving back to Alberta and trying unsuccessfully for another six months to get a teaching job (while at the same time upgrading other skills she had), she got a job as an administrative assistant with the City of Edmonton, a job she is surprised to find herself thoroughly enjoying. This is how the secular world works; if you can’t find a job in your field, you go into another field, if necessary taking the training you need to upgrade your skills. Dozens of people in my congregation have had to do this; it’s the nature of the modern economy.

    [It’s also, by the way, the nature of the modern church here in Alberta. Very few church jobs are secure any more, because our congregations are required to be self-supporting (we have no ‘central pot’), and if the church can no longer afford a full-time rector, then you go down to three quarter time, or half time – or, if you can’t do that, you find another job, either as a priest or, if there are none available, in some other field].

    If, on the other hand, you want to cling to your theology of priesthood as stamping you for life and making it impossible for you to follow any other profession without giving up your faith (since it would mean ‘God got it wrong’), then I think you are asking for a kind of job which does not exist in the secular world, so it’s no good trying to apply secular employment law to it. It would be like a monk or nun asking to be covered by secular employment law after taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

    And no, by the way, I’ve never been in your situation. My father, on the other hand, after living in Canada for three years, was fired in 1978 by the Bishop of Cariboo and blacklisted with every bishop in Canada. He then found work in another field for a year until he could afford to move back to England, where eventually he was able to find another parish.

  12. I think it is the church that wants it both ways. They want to hire and fire like a secular employer (and they can do so with those of us who don’t have incumbent status) but they refuse to be subject to employment legislation.

    A church that took care of its own, not aping secular business models, or a church that was subject to employment legislation, would have been fine for me either way. A Church that will and does “Commit murder” without being subject to any law (Godly or earthly) is what
    I am railing against.

  13. “Peter, if I was wrong then Bishop Martin Wharton was right. And if Bishop Martin was right then everybody who has ever suffered from mental illness should suck it up and accept the stigma and a future of unemployment.”

    Non-sequitur. You can’t extrapolate your individual experience of one Bishop’s treatment of you and apply to every Bishop’s treatment of every clergyperson with mental health issues.

    But aren’t you in Durham Diocese now? Are +Justin and +Mark not sympathetic? Have you been refused PTO or have you turned it down?

  14. I am not applying my experience of one bishop to every other bishop. My situation is the result of one bishop and the fact that bishops talk amongst themselves and stick together even when personally they may want to do something different. Okay, they may stick their neck out over the big things (like female bishops) but they are not going to risk upsetting another bishop over an insignificant, non-publicity worthy, former priest like me. But it may be that if the system will allow one bishop to treat one person unjustly and without compassion then the whole system needs to be changed.

    The PTO thing is still under negotiation. It was fine until somebody spoke to somebody which resulted in somebody’s original, personal discernment of my ministry being replaced with suspicion.

  15. …they are not going to risk upsetting another bishop over an insignificant, non-publicity worthy, former priest like me

    Come on, Jonathan! You get thousands of hits a day on this blog; you are one of the best known priests in the Anglican Communion! No one knows who I am from a hole in the ground, but any Anglican with an Internet connection knows who you are! And that publicity is probably counting against you, since you can’t spend your life railing online against ‘The Grand Mufti’ and ‘The Lord Bishops’ on the one hand and then expect them to give you a job on the other. That’s not the way an episcopal church works. They have to have a reasonable expectation that you are not going to use your Internet pulpit to undermine them every time you have a disagreement with them. That’s how they understand the oath to pay them ‘true and canonical obedience’.

  16. “The way the process is set now, it seems to work hard to reward those who are best able to dissemble, contort, and conform themselves to the expectations of the listeners. I cannot think that’s in the best interest of the church.”

    I completely agree, LKT.

    I’ve seen it all too often. And, yes, I once served on a Commission on Ministry. For the most part, those on the Commission wanted each one selected to be exactly the same sort of person in all cases and would find some reason to turn down anyone who didn’t conform to that image. Needless to say, I was a bit of a thorn in the side of most of them. (No regrets…)

  17. You are, of course, right, Tim. But I’m far too Biblically based to accept that it is the way things should be. The problem is that, unlike party politicians, they fail to grasp that allowing one or two rebels would give them more credence with outsiders than always sticking with a bland front of conformity and agreement. Fortunately, the writers of the Bible were politicians of the highest acumen, otherwise nobody would read it.

  18. PLEASE NOTE: This is “Be Nice To Tim Chesterton Week” at OCICBW…. Anybody expecting a blazing row to erupt between us at at any moment will be disappointed. Come back next week, though, when normal hostilities will resume.

  19. Everything I say about bishops is for their own good and the good of the Church. I think that is being truly obedient 🙂

  20. I note your comments about being turned down by BAP and the pain which follows, which you describe very well. Been there, got the T Shirt.

    Perhaps the difference being that I fell back on the support network that had built up around me, both online and within my parish and family and friends. There was a fair bit of wisdom about that really helped me to put things into context and get a perspective on the process.

    One commentator reminded me that the NOT wasn’t a NO to ministry – in fact the BAP report affirmed that I had met the criteria for Ministry in the Church of England and that they had discerned a strong vocation to Ministry, just not ordained ministry.

    My spouse reminded me that the ‘SO WHAT’ factor that I had so often applied in my working military life applied to this. Always look at your actions and reactions and ask yourself SO WHAT? in other words the outcomes on the NOT not the consequences of the NOT were what was important.

    Third I could see that the whole process of discernment had been a huge period of growth and formation, something precious, driven by a vocation to the priesthood, but also a gift from God to bring a maturity to my faith, belief and the rocks that they are built on.

    Now, I’m still putting aside the pain – it still flairs up occasionally, but I’m also celebrating that the new process of discernment is opening a number of new doors, which have been ajar all along, I just haven’t opened the right one yet.

  21. Well, UKViewer, did the BAP offer any discernment about what sort of ministry you ARE called to – if not ordained?

    That’s what bothers me so much about “the process”. (And, by the way, I confronted the Commission on Ministry I served on about this.) If the powers-that-be do not select a person for ordained ministry, they typically take the position of “well, you’re on your own” in discerning the ministry to which a person IS called.

    And I call that disingenuous.

  22. Come back next week, though, when normal hostilities will resume.

    Hah – sorry, mate, but I’ll be camping in the mountains next week, far away from any Internet connection!!!

    • Tim & MP: a Bromance to Remember.

      [Wish I had something more worthwhile to contribute to this thread—except prayers.]

  23. So, what u r saying is that you r not going to accept any solution to your anger driven drive against Bishop Wharton? ever? And furthermore, you are not going to admit that u have already carved out another career for yourself on the internet? (albeit it does not come with desirable benefits) Does that mean that no one can possibly help u to be a happier person, no suggestion will help because u have decided that revenge is now your career goal? Has being unhappy become a trademark? Tim has hit the nail on the head, I think.

    I’m curious, what would you like to happen? Why do u think that incessant attack on the church as it is is going to get u a job in the church ad/or cause reform? THINK! What r u doing to your life!
    nij

  24. So, what u r saying is that you r not going to accept any solution to your anger driven drive against Bishop Wharton? ever? And furthermore, you are not going to admit that u have already carved out another career for yourself on the internet? (albeit it does not come with desirable benefits) Does that mean that no one can possibly help u to be a happier person, no suggestion will help because u have decided that revenge is now your career goal? Has being unhappy become a trademark? Tim has hit the nail on the head, I think.

    I’m curious, what would you like to happen? Why do u think that incessant attack on the church as it is is going to get u a job in the church ad/or cause reform? THINK! What r u doing to your life!
    nij

  25. I want to remain a full time priest. I would be happy if I earned enough money from the internet to be able to go to a bishop and offer my services for nothing. Nobody much would read my blog if I wasn’t controversial and I would have no money coming in whatsoever.

  26. Thank u for that honesty. Please think with me for a minute or two. (with me and an assortment of people who have sincerely tried to offer helpful suggestions) There are many things to be controversial about in this world. You alone know the stats of your internet business and so u know when donations are high and what brings them high. It can’t be just your anger re: the church/bishops that sparks reader involvement, try to sort out the winners in getting volume.
    However, building a solid wall against all suggestions that try to be helpful is not going to generate positive feedback forever because after a while readers learn that there is no point in coming up with suggestions that are going to be almost automatically rejected and ignored.
    I have been a reader of this blog for a couple of years now. I empathize with you because I was dumped from church employment at the age of 62, when I had a permanent disability from an injury that happened at work. Because of that disability I could not go back to nursing, which had been my prior occupation. It was (and in a way, still is) very hard and I have no pension from that church. I know that my dis-employment was because of a political war going on in the churches at that time (and still is) and after the harassment at the last parish, I realized (as did the diocese apparently) that it was no longer safe for me to defy the new masters of the church.
    When u cannot go further on your path, u have to stop your journey or find some way to get around the obstacle or find another way to go. Those r your choices. The only person who gets hurt if u choose to stand there and beat at the obstacle is yourself, and u will still be no further on your journey, with bruised hands and heart.
    Ever since I have been reading this blog, u have been hurling insults and anger at the church officials and many times I have asked myself why u do not see that they will not employ u for that reason, if no other. That is of your own making, and it does not help your cause or journey to your goal. You r an intelligent, witty, worthwhile man, but u seem to have a blind spot and ‘none are so blind as those who will not see’. U r spending your life stamping your foot and demanding something that probably will not happen. Do u want to continue your journey? The choice is yours alone, really.
    All best prayers and wishes ……
    nij

  27. For Ellie, Simple answer is NO!

    I met the DDO who went through the report with me, suggested that I took time for some reflection and than work with my Vicar and the Vocations Team to try to discern what form the ministry might take. Than it was good bye and out in the cold.

    Luckily as I wrote earlier I had an excellent support network in place, which caught me and held me close – and are still there willing and praying me on.

    I have some idea’s of which other doors might be opening, but I need to get the baggage out of the way first. Working very hard with my SD on this, who has been totally wonderful.

    In September I will be involved in meetings and discussions on a way forward. My Vicar has something in mind, but is keeping it close to his chest at the moment – which I understand as it might come to nothing.

    The one thing that I’ve ruled out is trying BAP again – I was 62 for this one, after nearly 3 years of discernment. I’m just not prepared to be put through the whole process again in a couple of years just to be shot down again. Which shows how much trust I have in the assessors and process.

    MP, You have loads of prayers and empathy coming your way from all directions – I wish you could feel it surrounding you with love, peace and comfort.

  28. You are a priest, because God calls you. The church frequently gets it wrong. They don’t make you a priest, God does. It is what you are. They simply seek to employ priests – as such, they should be treated in the same way as secular employers. They are just a company, really, that packages and outlets pre-existing God and Faith in a way that appeals to a certain market share. God and the call are independent of the particular marketing agency.

  29. Yes, everyone needs a bit of sympathy now and then; and you certainly have it from me, dear friend.

    Yup, I get it. (I, too, wish I had a vicar/rector on the ground here. Oh well.)

    • I live in North Kent, my Parish is 54 miles away in Canterbury. I travel readily because it’s where I belong. We’re planning to move to our parish when my spouse retires next year.

      And our Vicar is incumbent, so no matter what happens, he is in a secure role.
      He is due a move, but due to impending Pastoral Reorganisation, when he adds 4 more churches to the 5 we have, he is unlikely to move until that is finished.

      He’s brilliant as are all in the parish. And our Bishop isn’t that bad either.

    • You know, he is responsible for me. He persuaded me (25 years ago) to train for the priesthood. As you say, he says the right things and does his job well, and that is good enough for me. Mind you, I wonder if he would have got as far as he has if others knew what he unleashed onto the world. Well, we all make mistakes 🙂

  30. So, now we know who was responsible 🙂

    His issue is perhaps moving in haste, and not taking people with him. But he has vision, which is rare and is trying to make things better.

    I can see a difference in the past two years or so since he arrived. We are being chased to expedite our pastoral reorganisation to go from 5 to 9 churches. But in reality, rushing it would be a mistake. We work closely with the other benefice, our Vicar is their Priest in Charge, but they have their own house for duty.

    It’s the legal niceties too get right that need care or we could be saddling ourselves with liabilities which would be a distraction from the primary reason for being there – attracting people to know Jesus Christ and to join his family.

  31. I didn’t pursue this on FB because we clearly have a different view of how God and the Church interact. One might put that down to me being a Methodist instead of an Anglican, but I’d put it down to being me: I do not think that the Church infallibly knows the mind of God and I think it’s dangerous to believe that anyone knows the mind of God infallibly, including me.

    I too was asked the question why God was calling me into ministry. My answer was the same as it has always been: I discern the mind of God by pushing on doors to see if they open. They opened for me in the British Methodist Church.

    When I came to the US, every single ecclesial door has been forcefully and rapidly slammed shut. The door that was opened was Chaplaincy and I know that I am doing the work that God is calling me to do now because people are eager to receive it.

    What do I make of the fact that people were eager to receive me as a circuit minister in the UK and that they seem utterly convinced in the US that I’m not called to this ministry? What I make of it is that God’s calling is not based solely on my ontology but also on the community in which I am a part. Chaplaincy is what I am being called to now.

    We all have pain, and yours might be worse than mine, but I have a lot of pain around feeling rejected as a “parish” minister – something that I loved. Yet I know that I came to the US for the right reasons and, in this place, I am called to do something else.