Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reflecting back


Now that the whole college experience is behind me I have been looking back in my journal at my thoughts and feelings as I got closer to starting.

Once I began to tell my friends that I was going to undertake ministry training I was surprised by their reaction. I had assumed that people would think I was joking or bonkers but there was none of that at all. My Christian friends were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and comments from other friends like Dick in the choir were quite common:

“Go for it. I think you’d make a good priest. (Pause) Only don’t expect me to start coming to church.”

Dick is a source of mystery to me in many ways. He is such a good musician that he is quite sought after and this has meant that as a choir member he has sat through more religious services than most people have had hot dinners but without noticeably absorbing any understanding of Christian teaching.

Gerard is another friend from the choir, a lapsed Roman Catholic with the unusual view that there is nothing wrong with the church, it is religion which has got it wrong. I still ponder that view from time to time. Gerard is my own personal agnostic and because, unlike Dick, he has an understanding of the issues and the language he has become a great sounding board. He was the first person outside the family I discussed my sense of calling with and I remember one long trip back from the BBC studios in Manchester when, in what seemed to me to be my heightened sense of sensory awareness, I filled him in with my news. I think I needed to hear myself say these things out loud and if I couldn’t explain myself to Gerard then I knew I would have problems elsewhere. It seemed to make sense to us both. Another small milestone passed.

I was told about a church committee who would want to meet with me at some stage. In the meantime we looked at training options.

As a consequence of these discussions I attended a taster evening at the ecumenical Northern Ordination Course in Mirfield, a course designed for part-time students. I went straight from school and the journey by car was about ten minutes. It really couldn’t be much more convenient. Every Wednesday evening for two years – two years because I am already a theology graduate, one week’s residential each Easter, seven residential weekends a year and fifteen hours of study a week. Am I completely mad?

It was a cold rainy evening when I arrived at the College of the Resurrection, the full-time theological college which hosts the Northern Ordination Course. This weather was not what we had been hoping for at this stage in the summer, and my spirits were low through lack of warmth and sunshine and as a result of a long hard term. The college grounds are beautiful and the place is a real haven of calm and tranquillity. I could envy the full-timers who studied here, but I have no desire to join them. The full-time route is not for me, nor the churchmanship of this full-time course.

I had a pleasant conversation with Revd. Stephen which I belatedly realised was an interview. Stephen told me that the course is pretty much for Anglicans and Methodists so it would be good to have my perspective which I though was most affirming. I filled in an application form with him and was then taken to the student’s common room where all three year groups were gathering before their teaching sessions started. I chatted with a very pleasant couple of students who put me at my ease and at about 6.45 we all went into a large room for notices and prayer and then split into teaching groups. The first year’s study of interpretation and use of scripture, and the second year’s study of Christian tradition did not particularly appeal much and I went with the final year students to their session on pastoral and practical theology. They were looking at counselling skills and how to give bad news. There was role play followed by discussion and analysis. As a qualified counsellor I felt on familiar ground. After half an hour I had lost the will to live and I mentally berated myself for this negativity.

At coffee, the point at which I had agreed with Stephen that I would leave, I sought out the session leader, thanked him and gave my apologies.

“Good.” he said. “We’re a bit short of seats.”

I went home deeply depressed.

That weekend Rachel and I were processing what happened at the college and my feelings about it. We looked at the course syllabus.

“I think my problem” I said “is that I have no great desire to duplicate theological study or skill development that I have already covered. At the same time I don’t want to appear like a know-all who thinks he doesn’t need to undertake further study.”

One of the big advantages of being married to a university careers advisor is that at times like these Rachel is very proactive. She was able to obtain a generic clergy job description from work and we went through that and the syllabus in a systematic way.

Something crystallised in my mind that had been bothering me since my interview. I had been told that I would only be required to take two years of the course in recognition of my theology degree. I could miss out either year one or year three. If I could drop either, what did that say about the nature of the content of both years – and indeed year two – in relation to my existing academic qualifications?

The Bishop subsequently met with me and told me that the committee did not now want to meet with me. However it would be helpful if I submitted a copy of the training needs analysis Rachel and I had done. “You know, I don’t think you need to do that course.” He told me. “Not with your experience and background. You can do a correspondence programme through Westfield House, the Lutheran College in Cambridge, and we can find a tutor at the university here to meet with you from time to time. I’ll put it to the committee”

This was the best news imaginable. I’m not James. I’m not thirty. This is a late vocation and two years duplicated study before ordination did not seem a good use of my time. Nor did it seem good for the church with its chronic shortage of ordained ministers. I was impressed that the Lutheran Church was prepared to be so flexible in its approach to training. Certainly the Anglicans don’t do such a tailor made individual programme to take the needs of each candidate into consideration.

What do they say about not counting your chickens?

The committee met and that evening I waited by the phone for the Bishop’s call. He didn’t ring. It must have been a long day.

The next evening I rang him.

“Hello, what can I do for you?” This surprised me. Had I made a calendar mistake?

“I was wondering if you had any news about the committee meeting.”

“Ah, yes. They found your documentation helpful and they want you to go on the Northern Ordination Course. I argued against that but they were adamant. They want to meet you at their next meeting in November.”

“I’ll already have been on the course for two months by then.”

“Yes. They will write to you about it formally”

It was odd to be thinking of undertaking training at this stage in my life after so long out of the practice of formal study and even odder trying to rationalise what was going on in my head so that I could discuss it sensibly with other people. I have to say that the innate laziness in me baulked at the idea of fitting any part-time study around my already busy life and the prospect of joining a course did not appeal at all but the church has systems and processes and won’t ordain any Tom, Dick or Harry just because he or she thinks they have God’s call. Ordination is not a right. It is both a calling and a gift and the churches must be as sure as they can that someone who believes they have that calling actually does have it.

I have heard many accounts of people who have firmly believed they have that call and the church has not recognised it. This is such a difficult area and I suppose in the end all we can say is that for all the checks and balances the selection processes are not foolproof and mistakes are made in both directions. There have been occasions when I have met clergy – only a small number, fortunately – when I have wondered how on earth they got through selection and I have met other people who have been turned down who seemed to me to be ideal candidates for the priesthood. Some of their personal testimonies of rejection are terribly moving and often show the church at its most pastorally inept. Of course rejection is not a concept we are encouraged to dwell on in these circumstances but it is absolutely clear that this is the reality for many folk and it is corrosive and destructive, working away as it does at an individual’s sense of self-worth and their understanding of themselves and their place in God’s scheme of things.

I have heard people talk of the freedom that came with the Bishop’s letter to put aside ideas of priesthood and be enabled to look instead at what else God might be calling them to in a real anticipation of a different kind of Christian service. Many such folk talk about a sense of a release as if from a burden and the discussion is often couched in terms of a test of faithfulness to God that they have come through with the Bishop’s “no” and that “no” is often a cause of quiet relief.

I have no statistics, merely anecdotal evidence over a long period but it seems to me that for everyone who felt positive about not being selected to go on to training and who was able to move on quickly there were many more who were devastated by the decision and who were paralysed emotionally and spiritually by the experience. For some it was so destructive that they were never fully able to recover. It is also my observation that the churches are very bad at the pastoral care and follow-up of such people: sometimes it hasn’t been the decision itself which has been so damaging but the way the decision was couched in terms of the feedback from the selectors. As one person told me: “I was quite sanguine about the decision that I should not proceed to training until I heard the selection panel’s feedback on me. I could not accept it. That was not me they were talking about. In fact to start with I thought there had been some awful administrative mistake and they had sent someone else’s report. Then it occurred to me that if I couldn’t accept the rationale on which the decision was made where did that leave me with the decision itself? I’d gone from being reasonably reconciled about it to being completely screwed up.”

I also had a friend, a senior civil servant, who told me of his period as an assessor on Anglican selection panels some years before. “I haven't got time to go in to what I thought of the procedures, but they were truly appalling and unprofessional. In a nutshell, they just did not want anyone "outside the box". They actually used that expression and then could not, or would not, explain to me what that meant - "you just know"! I asked them what professional advice they would expect from me, and basically it was to ensure the legality of their procedures (which was not surprising giving that they were breaking just about every employment law for fair selection).”

It was with this in mind that I had my conversations with the Bishop and the Pastors and subsequently with the committee who endorsed my candidature.

My first experiences of life on the Northern Ordination Course were not entirely positive. It would take some time for me to get over that taster evening but I had to remember not to let my lack of enthusiasm for study get in the way of the experience and so it was with some anticipation that I set off for the college one Sunday early in the autumn term for my induction afternoon.

The weather was lovely and my spirits were accordingly high as I stood in a nice garden chatting with the people who were my fellow students and who were to become my friends. We would be a small year group, a mere eighteen of us, and that would help the group dynamic. Seven would be taught at York on Monday evenings and eleven at Mirfield on Wednesday evenings. We would join together on our residentials. In situations like this, where I am meeting new people, I have a default position: I tend to listen a lot but say little myself. I like to observe and weigh people up. The early basis for conversation tended to be about something called a BAP. I had always understood this as being a Yorkshire variant on bread-cake but it became clear that what was being discussed was people’s experience of the Bishops’ Advisory Panel, or selection conference. I began to hear about who had been where and which diocese people were from. Some even recognised each other from the same conferences. It became increasingly apparent that I was the only non-Anglican and I began to dread the question “Where did you do your BAP?” as my selection process had been quite different as I duly discussed with an older Geordie gentleman. I certainly didn’t want to be the odd one out with these people from the outset of our knowing each other. That was inevitable, however, and we subsequently sat in a circle and introduced ourselves.

We were an interesting group. The age group seemed to be from the late thirties through to the early sixties and there were more women than men by about two to one.

More significantly, there was no-one I took an instant dislike to.

There were teachers, a lecturer, a computer technician, someone from Christian publishing, a youth worker, a retired salesman, an accountant, a mental health worker, a housewife, a banker, someone who had run the Falkland Islands, a children’s nurse plus one or two that I didn’t quite pin down and they ranged sartorially from dippy-hippy to dapper.

I found myself in conversation with a man I would guess was in his early forties. He had the most incredible eyebrows. He was very friendly and I liked him instinctively. I also liked the mental health worker: she had one of those laughs and I just knew that time spent with her would be time well spent.

Revd Stephen introduced us to the other staff which included the Revd. Ian, the course’s newly appointed Principal. How nice that we should start together and find our feet together. On to lunch in the company of one or two students from the years ahead of us, there to help us to settle in and so that we would have some familiar faces when teaching began that week.

All in all, a good experience. I was actually looking forward to being a theological student.