Friday, 1 July 2011

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

We don't have enough priests training in the Church of England. This will not be news to anybody! The imminent ordinations (taking place all over the diocese and at the cathedral, this weekend) have prompted me to think about this. Why are people not coming forward to be ordained? The answers are many and have mostly been well rehearsed by others. Maggi Dawn and the Ugely Vicar have both blogged on this topic in the last few days and Ronni Lamont, in her book Leaping the Vicarage Wall; Leaving Parish Ministry, Continuum 2001, sets out some of the reasons she discovered while doing her recent research (p.51 -Theological Education.) 

So I thought I'd try and set out some of my thinking on the subject. Firstly, I have long thought it strange that, when something needs doing, we don't just say, 'X needs doing - please come forward if you think you might be able to do it!' I learned from Jewish colleagues and from African and Asian Christians that some religious communities are much less precious about the notion of 'calling' than the good old Church of England. They take the line, 'If God really wants us to do this, He will provide someone to do it from the resources we have!' Contrast the Church of Engalnd approach. I was talking to a friend, 
 this week, about someone we both know who has just taken early retirement from a fairly senior post in one of the caring professions. He wondered if the church might be able to see, in his life-long, sincere commitment to his faith and his working experience, a reason for ordaining him. He was told that the whole process of discernment will take nearly four years. Well I ask you, no wonder we don't have enough priests! Do we deserve them? I'm not jumping to the conclusion that this person has a call, merely saying that there has to be a quicker way to test it out.

I get asked about twice a month (often by a bishop) why we don't have more young women coming forward. Do they really need to ask? Would you expect young women to wonder if they are called to serve a community which distinguishes itself from other communities (legal, medical, educational, scientific, business......) by being the only one actively to exclude women's presence and voices from senior leadership roles? Again, I am not saying that there isn't sometimes an absence of women in other spheres, but at least the absence isn't upheld by the rules of the organisation or the law of the land. And in all the endless debates about women priests and bishops, have we ever actively sought to learn about the shape of priesthood as it is inhabited by women? Can most dioceses tell a young woman who might need to be on maternity leave what the arrangements are for covering her period of maternity leave? I think the Church of England is pretty much classed, in most people's minds, with groups who do not honestly believe women are as capable or as able to lead as men. This is not likely to inspire women to offer themselves for a role in which the church is increasingly looking for leadership qualities.

Then there's the spirituality angle. Vocations conferences seem to me to be shaped largely by the kind of spirituality which appeals to introverts. Absolutely nothing wrong with this; except that the majority of the population are extraverts. People who are capable of profound insight about the active world, making wonderful leaders and organizers and giving effective service in some of the most demanding areas of life are at least as likely to be extravert as introvert. When I was selected for ordination training, my selectors seemed only interested in finding out if I could read, pray and think. They weren't particularly interested in what I could do or whether I could influence people to work and learn with me. At theological college I quickly learned to show the part of my personality that was drawn to reflection and to keep quiet about the side of me that liked to get things done, usually noisily and with other people - indeed getting things done was treated with great suspicion. A theological college principal to whom I once said that maybe the church would have more members if ordinands were taught to do a good funeral, run a youth club and read a balance sheet told me, 'We are not into mere training, here, we are educating people to think'. That seemed a bit patronising - don't people who get things done think as well? So I wonder if the selection process puts off a number of potential priests who would like to learn to be better at reflecting and integrating their prayer with their life but would also fear having to sacrifice a part of themselves that has to do with service and communication and enterprise to do it. (It is strange that, in the church's selection process, self denial nearly always seems to involve giving up activity and involvement; it is seldom about giving up a tendency to too much reflection in order to be more active.)

I've kept quiet about most of this over the years, but I am beginning to think that the Church of England needs to take a close look at the theology underlying its selection processes. Is part of the problem that we put far too much emphasis on a personal sense of call (and then, ironically, suspect people who have too much of that very same sense of call - 'I just know God is calling me.') Conversely, we put too little emphasis on the responsibility of the church (ie. all its members) to recognize that God is calling people - should we not be spotting people with the gifts we need and saying to them, 'Have you thought about offering yourself for ordination?' And then supporting them as they think about the things they would have to give up to follow such a call. To give an example, I can think of a couple of people with profound prayer lives and enormous financial skills who would make excellent vicars but would, I suspect, not get through the selection process. They just wouldn't be aware that they needed to play the game of 'I think being de-skilled is a really valuable means of education'. Actually they almost certainly would be faced with their own vulnerability during the training but they would not start from a point of acknowledging this to be a useful aim. And that's probably true for some younger people, too.

Then there's joy! I remember saying to my theology professor, 'I've enjoyed every moment of studying theology!' That was meant as a compliment - his had been an excellent course. He looked slightly shocked and I realised I had (again) said something flippant. Some people do  find they love praying, they love studying and preaching and teaching, they flourish in leadership roles, they rise to the challenge of sharing their faith winsomely, they know how to inspire trust and create a following in communities. I think we make it all far too complicated! Ministry is demanding and asks things of you you never expect. It leads you to places of dereliction at times. What you most need is a sense of adventure about your relationship with God, some humility, and joy at following in a tradition - you are not called to do it all, merely to do faithfully that part which you can see in company with others who may not see exactly what you see but are also faithful to what they see. Could we perhaps talk a little more about the joy of ministry and the needs and opportunities of the church and a little less about that oh so off puttingly serious and self important notion of individual ministerial formation which puts all the emphasis on the interiority of the person called and by so doing actually implies they are more important than the God and the church we are serving? 

If we had a bit of a rethink, we might find more people coming forward to have vocations tested.       


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