Everyone has an opinion, even if that is to sit on the fence or have ‘no opinion’, and most are quite happy to share it, but often how we share it says as much about us as it does about the thing we are talking about.
When my wife was pregnant this was all too obvious, almost everyone we met had a tale to tell and advice to share: “don’t eat peanuts”, “eat peanuts”; “don’t give the child a dummy, you’ll end up regretting it if you do”, “give the child a dummy, you’ll wish you did if you don’t”; “breast is best”, “bottle milk is fine”; “I did this, you should too”; the list goes on. They wanted to help us bring up our child as well as possible but their opinion would often conflict with another well intended piece of advice.
Opinions and advice can help people to make a decision, but they can also be a way of justifying a decision we have made. Promoting the pathway we took helps us feel good about our decision, if we admit to it’s flaws that exist we can wonder if we decided correctly. One strengthens our position, the other opens up to nuances that can be perceived as a weakness by ourselves or others.
When we do give the impression that the decision we took is the decision everyone should take we blinker ourselves and others to the uniqueness of each person and situation, or undermine and ridicule those who decide differently from us. It can turn something helpful into a tribal sales pitch where people are given a stark choice: be wise and join my tribe or reject it and be foolish.
Believing and promoting 1 decision as superior to all others supposes that one size does fit all, that diversity is not something to be celebrated but something to be scorned. That isn’t to say there are never singularly right decisions to make, but that when there are several answers we should be open to the possibility that others can concluding differently to us without either being wrong. We should be able to support or celebrate different decisions without thinking that we are undermining our own justifiable decisions. Being at peace with the circumstances around a decision and having confidence in it is key to help both ourselves and those who might face similar decisions.
Back in September 2016, having been unable to escape it I was still fumbling my way along the discernment road. I had just returned from a trip around England where for a second time I had been exploring which theological college I might move to on the off-chance I found myself training for ordination. The picture of a possible future I had built up crumbled when the Church of England announced that the training options and funding were being changed with immediate effect (see One Foot in the Graveyard).
Reflecting the advertising campaigns of the Church that focused on encouraging under 30s to explore their calling, the changes placed me into an older group whose reduced funding would reflect the reduced return on the investment. The Church’s finances and focus meant that for some tuition fees and subsidence allowances for 2 years full-time study would be replaced by tuition fees alone for 3 years part-time study. This change became my reality: the finances to pay the bills, clothe the family and put food on the table would not come from the church but from my wife and I continuing to work. It is not a complaint about the Church of England’s decision or a justification of it, it is a matter of fact which older ordinands are finding themselves facing.
When faced with a situation we have a choice: do we focus on the positive or negative aspects? I came to see, appreciate and look forward to the differences in ordination training. Whilst studying full-time has many advantages (becoming immersed in the learning and building community to name but two) so has part-time study. Whilst full-time students have to work to avoid being sucked into the college bubble and isolated from the world outside, part-time students live in that outside-world and get to apply what they learn as they learn it. We might have our preference but neither can claim absolute superiority, both have their virtues.
If we have two alternative options comparing one against another can be a valid and helpful was of determining the best for the individual involved. When only one option is available comparing it against another can become a negative and undermining point scoring exercise. To dwell on an ideal option that does not exist in reality, for some or all, is to daydream into depression.
In exploring my college options for ordination training advice was offered in the same manner as people had advised my wife and me about how to bring up a baby. Friends, acquaintances, supporters and interested observes had opinions on how and where I should study. The offering of those opinions was usually well intentioned and often helpful, but too often the choice I was being ‘encouraged’ to take did not exist in reality: I was urged to train full-time even after the person urging had heard it wasn’t an option, as though the option and the finances would appear out of submission to their protestations.
What was sometimes intended as a complaint about the changes to training made the Church of England served to focus on the unachievable. The comments illustrated how people were judging and rating church leaders on the type and quantity of their training as much as its quality: how could, for example, a vicar possibly be of any worth with only one evening class a week and the odd weekend of study? At times it felt like people were seemingly, yet unwittingly, trying to view the church as a foe to be battled, or to be their surrogate in a fight to defeat institutional injustices and win whatever will make them feel is just and right. Instead of the intended encouragement and support the conversations felt like a depressing attempt to reopen old wounds or create new ones.
Conversations also served to highlight the tribal nature of the church as well: don’t study there, it’s too liberal; don’t study there, it’s too evangelical; this is the only place to study, not like those happy-clappy places where they stick their hands in the air; it is a great place to study, not like those wishy-washy places; I could go on. Instead of celebrating or respecting the diversity within the Church of England alone, let alone within the other denominations, too many seemed intent in promoting their own tradition at the expense of others. Some have given the appearance of being scared to explore opinions and traditions other than their own, when there can be no other safer place at exploring the real world church than in the security of a theological college. It all hints at the size of the task for those that seek to build unity and respect within the church.
A saving grace in conversations about church traditions came from within the theological colleges themselves. Over the years I have found staff in the colleges I have visited to have a quality not found in the commercial world: they sell their college and want the custom an ordinand brings, but more than that they want people to go to the place that is right for them. The disappointment that someone might choose another college instead of others is understandable, but the message received has been that they want people to go where God wants them to go and where the person’s circumstances and training can work together most fruitfully. They tread on the right side of the line of promoting their college and place they are proud of, without denigrating others,
The theological colleges I have visited have been dictated by the logistics and finances of juggling work and family life with the study option available to me. And although trying to discern God’s will through prayer is important, as it the style of teaching and training at each college, it will be logistics and finance that will probably play the greatest part in helping determine just where I will study. That is not the ideal situation but it is the reality, and it is a reality that I intend to enjoy and make the most of. And it is the reality I hope others will get behind and celebrate too, because otherwise it will be too easy for wounds to open as the pain of not being able study in the ideal, and unreal, way and college takes hold.
Whatever decision my Bishop, my DDO and I come to will not be a slur on the people whose advice I appear not to have followed, or on those colleges I have visited but do not train at. They are not second choices or inferior, just options that aren’t compatible with my particular situation. Nor will the decision I come to be one that I will feel the need to justify by suggesting the college I train at is perfect and the best choice for everyone: just as each person is unique so is the life they have led and will lead, and so will be the training they will need and the training that they will receive. But the college I do train at will, thankfully, be one that will not be a second class option but an option to celebrate and look forward to.
The college that helps train me for the ordained life will be the college where God can help me merge my existing and future life most easily and constructively. It will be the college where, given the circumstances I find myself in, God and others can prepare me for life that will turn my calling into an active and fruitful life of service. After all, isn’t that what this is all about?