Testing the limits

2384200Geraint Thomas riding to victory in the 2018 Tour de France (Source: Eurosport)

Over the course of 3 long-read blog posts I am reviewing my first year as an Ordinand, each post focused on 1 of the 3 words that sum up my first year: tea, testing and transformation.  This, the second post in the series, is all about testing, and no, they haven’t brought in doping tests for prospective priests in the Church of England.  

One section of life where tests for performance enhancing drugs is common place is sport, and in particular cycling.  Each July athletes race in the most famous cycling race in the world, the Tour de France.  For 3 weeks cyclists mix sprinting for glory with climbs up some of the highest and toughest mountains that Europe have to offer.  It is a tremendous feat of endurance just for a person to make it to the end on the Champs Élysées in Paris.  This first year of training has similarly felt like a feat of endurance.

The Tour de France and my training have another parallel, both involve an individual taking responsibility for their own performance within a larger project.  Unlike a professional cyclist though, I had to learn to be content with not doing my best but doing enough.  My challenge was to put aside perfectionism: with my training that meant submitting an assignment knowing that it could be better; with work that might mean making a map that showed what was needed, rather than one which was accurate to levels only the obsessive would notice.  The test was dealing with the frustration borne out of a lack of time.

Dealing with the cost some areas of life had to pay was also testing.  The demands of work and study meant that time with family and friends was limited.  No matter how productive I managed to be with my work and study, I could not contribute towards family life to the same extent as I did before I began my training.  It meant though that when I was with family or friends I had to apply the same focus that I applied to my study, except with family procrastination was not allowed!  For some ‘work hard, play hard’ might mean extreme sports, for me it meant a trip to the cinema, the cycle track or the kitchen to bake a cake.  It also meant deciding to forgo visiting any of the Christian festivals, any time I was to take off work would need to be spent with my family and not in a tent listening to more theology – my college and my church would have to suffice.  Time with those closest to me was planned relaxation, a time to reconnect and recharge.

Sustaining a schedule with limited time to ‘simply be’ over an 11 month-long academic year was challenging.  So it was hardly surprising that as I approached the final module of a long academic year my energy levels were running low.  It was then that I was reminded that running at full capacity didn’t preclude having taking on more.  

Like many people I have often worked within organisations that regularly restructured to save money, and my current job is no different.  For the past year my management repeated the message that the savings made in my section, coupled with being short-staffed, meant that our jobs were safe.  That was the line being communicated right up until an extra person joined me and my manager for our weekly catch-up.  This was no meeting to check on the progress of work, this was a meeting to tell me I was being made redundant.  

I had been handed the biggest challenge of the year, but one which the test of my ability to juggle work loads and question my beliefs had prepared me for.

Being a Ordinand studying Part-time meant that although the Church of England gifted me my course fees, I needed paid employment to pay for my family’s needs.  After my wife’s redundancy 2 years previously our finances were already on a knife-edge.  Without me earning any money the ability to keep our home and feed our family came into doubt.  

I was being made redundant from a job that had been perfect for my situation.  The flexibility and location of my work meant that I could fit a full-time job around the needs of my study and my family.  What were the chances of finding a job with similar compatibility within less than 8 weeks? The available job vacancies suggested it would be unlikely. 

My sense of calling though never came into doubt, even if how it would be realised did.  Whether I would continue to train as I had been, or whether my calling might be manifested differently, was something I did not have time to contemplate though.  Amidst all the chaos of thoughts going around my head, one thought about my training came to me: could I forget about employment and simply be an Ordinand?  It was fantastical.  It was absurd.  It was impossible.  I dismissed it.

I had to concentrate on the things I could control and influence, everything else had to be handed over to God.  He would take care of my calling; my responsibility was to use the abilities He had given me to act in the ‘here and now’.  I needed to find a way to pay the bills.

With less than 8 weeks within which to find a solution I had to change my way of working.  I had to change from reflecting before acting to acting before reflecting.  I had to apply for jobs whether they were compatible with my training or not, working out how they might be could wait until I knew whether I had a job.  I might not be able to see how “all would be well” but I knew that it would be, even if surviving to that point was going to be hard.

Although my work was coming to an end, my family and study life continued unabated. I still had to keep to my study schedule.  I still had to write my assignments.  I only had to “do enough” but with redundancy looming even doing that was becoming difficult to achieve.  Juggling study, work and family life had taken everything I had, but now I had to find more.  This was particularly evident when I came to preach.  The passage chosen wasn’t about me, and the sermon wasn’t for me, but nevertheless both spoke into the situation I was experiencing.  This sermon was personal.  This sermon cut to the heart of the pain of waiting for the time when everything would be sorted.  It was the hardest sermon I have yet preached.

My redundancy was personal but not unique: I was experiencing something that many others had experienced and would experience.  It was that realisation that delivered the motivation: in being made redundant I could better minister to those who would be going through similar and worse situations.  My redundancy was not about me, it was about ‘them’.  This test was about the hurting people I will be sent to serve.  This test was for the people who have no one to help them through their tough times.  This test was for the people who do not have the hope that I have.  

My redundancy also proved to show the church at it’s best.  Emails sending news of my redundancy to my college, Sarum College in Salisbury, and my Diocesan headquarters in Wells met with instant replies.  My fellow Ordinands and members of the Twurch stepped up with encouragement and prayer.  But a sign that the support was wider than I realised came with a card from the Bishop of Taunton, with it I knew that I had an army of supporters and prayer warriors on my case.  I was not alone. 

Most miraculous of all was a telephone call with my DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands).  Almost the first words out of her mouth mirrored what I had dismissed as fantastical, absurd and impossible: the idea of switching from being a Part-time Ordinand to being a Full-time Ordinand.

The redundancy was pushing me beyond my known limits  Adding job searching to my regular roles had drained my energy reserves, adding exploring options for full-time study provided hope that refilled them.  In the 8 weeks before my first year of Ordination Training came to an end I used every moment I could find to play my part in securing the remainder of it.  As my college effectively closed for the summer I heard the news: the Church of England is likely to fund me to become a Full-time Ordinand – the impossible becoming possible.

I will still be working towards being ordained in 2020, but I will no longer be juggling work with my studies.  Instead I will be studying more theology and gaining more practical experience, removing my frustration of not being able to get involved with the frontline of church life.  Along with the hours of study increasing so will I be blessed with increased time with my family.  And though the financial side of the switch will have its challenges they are ones I have survived before, and they pale into insignificance compared to the alternative of no funding.  It will be a blessing beyond anything I could have imagined, so much so I have to pinch myself to know that I am not dreaming.

But it isn’t hard to imagine what life would be like if the Church wasn’t blessing me with soft a gift.  My redundancy has helped me imagine a reality where there will not be the funds to pay the bills, a time when I would be dependent on foodbanks, and a time when the family might be homeless and hungry.  I will be fortunate to have an opportunity to serve at the foodbank my church runs, but the thought that I could be receiving from one is a sobering lesson to shape my future ministry.  That I am being gifted so much, by the Church of England and by God, is just one reason to embrace those living on my flip-side.

Mr Tea

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More tea, Ordinand?

Tea.  Testing.  Transformational.  Three words which capture the essence of my first year of Ordination Training.  This post, the first of 3 blog posts reviewing the year, is all about the power of a cup of tea.  Well, partly.  It’s also about self-awareness and mental health.

A travelling tea set I found in the French town of Périgueux seemed just the thing for a trainee vicar who would often be away from home at a theological college.  Contained within hinged cylindrical metal case, held closed by 2 leather straps, were a trinity of tea caddies and an infuser.  It played up to the stereotype of “More Tea Vicar”, but did so on my terms: the blends of tea inside were drinkable.  Just as I don’t like instant coffee but love coffee brewed from the bean, I love lots of varieties of tea but can’t stand the crowds’ favourite of English Breakfast Tea or ‘Builder’s Tea’.  This, I know, is potentially problematic for someone who may be doing pastoral visits in England, but there is always the simplicity of a glass of water!

What was brought as a piece of amusement proved to teach me an important lessons that carried me through the year: the need for solitude and reflection, and to care for my mental health.   Continue reading

Now, what was I here for?

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The Night Before Christmas (Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat)

Transforming something unknown into something known lies in the future. We can use our imagination and other people’s knowledge to paint a picture of what it might look like but it is only when we catch up with it, when the future becomes the present, that we begin to know the unknown. And so it has turned out with my Ordination Training.

As the training reached full-speed in early October (my studies in September were fairly light) the impact on my daily life quickly became clear: each day would be filled from rising to sleeping. My wife and I both needed to continue with our full-time jobs, my children still needed to be taken to school and clubs, household chores still needed to be done, and occasionally we even needed to eat. The only space for study was my ‘spare-time’, something I enjoyed using to spend time simply being with my family and friends. The study mean that this time would be limited, I would not be able to socialise quite as much as I did and this blog would not be added to quite as often as before. As such this post is as much an account of what it is like to train for ordination whilst working full-time as it is a reflection upon it. Continue reading

An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part Two 

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In my previous post I wrote about my determination to find a pattern of daily prayer that suited being a working parent.  The combination of the school run, a days work, family life and church had made if difficult to find enough space and time to connect with God through dwelling on liturgy and scripture.

I decided to take 3 different sources of the Daily Office available in multiple formats and focus on each for a week: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the Northumbria Community’s Daily Office and the Church of England’s Time to Pray. which together combine a mixture of books, the internet, smart-phones and music.

This post is part reflection and part review of these and the impact focusing on applying them to an inconsistent and complicated schedule had on me.  As I found out when trying to do Morning, Midday and Night Prayer, not each format is necessarily suited to each part of the day. Continue reading

An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part One

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Starting my Ordination Training has once again made me examine my pattern of prayer.  Over the years I have used lots of different patterns and sources in my attempt to take my focus off myself and onto God and others.  I have had times when it has worked, when I have tapped into a rich seem of inspirational liturgy but such times have ebbed and flowed with an unhelpful inconsistency.  This inconsistency has meant that the focusing and calming effect of prayer became vulnerable to be lost, drowned out or shut out by the distractions and pace of everyday life. Continue reading

Top 10 Tips for Starting Ordination Training

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Sarum College in Salisbury

For some, September and October marks the beginning of their ordination training. My training at Sarum College in Salisbury began a little earlier with a week-long Summer School in August. It was a welcomed opportunity to build a sense of community with the tutors and other students, and gave me a chance to pick up some tips for theological study that may be helpful; so here are my Top 10 Tips for Starting ordination training. Continue reading

Tears for Fears

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

I am now, officially and undeniably (even to myself) an Ordinand.  This week I have begin my training at Sarum College in Salisbury, a place which echoes from my past and which will be embedded in my future, for the next 3 years at least.  Although it is largely a non-residential course it has started with a weeklong Summer School: a chance to build community and get used to the fact that I really am an Ordinand.

Part of the week’s programme has included a mini-silent retreat: from Midday Prayer to Evening Prayer we have been silent.  Having been on a silent retreat before my BAP I was looking forward to this part of the week with eager anticipation.  And as I did during my pre-BAP retreat I gave control of my fingers to God and let Him reveal to me what might be on His heart and to help me articulate what was on mine.

What you will read is the result of the writing.  Normally I type away on an computer with a large screen but this time I used a phone, with interesting results: I could only see a limited amount of what I had typed and only saw the full picture when I read it on my iPad later.  It isn’t polished but it is, with a few spelling corrections, what was the silence revealed to me as I sat in Salisbury Cathedral on the afternoon of 23rd August 2017. Continue reading

Nothing to lose

 

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Preparing to worship at New Wine

 

The New Wine festival is taking place in Somerset this week and next. I can’t be there but reading tweets from those who are, and listening into some of the sessions being streamed live on the internet, has reminded me what a key moment my last trip to the festival turned out to be on my journey towards ordination training. Continue reading

Time Turning

 

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Hermione Granger’s Time Turner (TM & © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR.)

My family have discovered Harry Potter this year, and not just the films. The books have grabbed my son’s interest like no other book has done before; a previously reluctant reader he now can’t stop reading and has encouraged me to read the books too. So as a family we came across the character Hermoine Granger using a Time Turner in Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban in order to turn back time so that she could study more subjects. Going to services ordaining priests and deacons has been like having a time turner myself, only turning time forwards not backwards. Continue reading

Leaving the Shadows

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There is a time for everything, a time to be anonymous and a time to be named.

Writing anonymously or under a pseudonym is nothing new and the reasons for doing so are numerous. Anonymity is a mask that enables both good and bad. It can be hidden behind by those seeking to abuse or to avoid abuse. It can remove perceptions of a person or reinforce them. It can be liberating or confining.

Like many, when I began exploring my sense of calling I searched for other people’s experiences; I didn’t find much and as I began my journey I soon discovered why. Exposing the deepest confines of our soul to ourselves is difficult enough, exposing that to others is on another level entirely! Exposing developing yet incomplete experiences and thoughts adds to the vulnerability: views and understanding change over time so to talk about something can create unhelpful misperceptions, especially when a blog post is read in isolation. It also risks ridicule and embarrassment when naivety or errors are exposed.

When I started this blog I had one thing in mind, to be as open and honest as possible as I explored whether I should be trained for ordination. I had seen people begin exploring ordination with rose-tinted glasses and be hurt when the challenges came. Some of those I spoke to as I took my first tentative steps wanted to make sure I went into it with my eyes wide open; the discernment process, the training for ordination and the life of a priest would not be a fairy-tale bed of roses, at times the thorns would be undeniably present. Continue reading