In this the second of a two part post I am looking at my experience of meeting with a Vocations Chaplain, having looked at the preceding stages in Part 1.
In the Anglican Diocese I find myself living within those exploring ordination are asked to first meet with their vicar before meeting with a Vocations Chaplain if the vicar feels there is a reason to explore.
As with the vicar and those met at later stages, the Vocations Chaplain (different titles are used for such people, even within a single diocese) is tasked with the job of discerning whether God is indeed calling a person towards ordination. This may take several meetings but if a calling is sensed the person is passed onto a Diocesan Director of Ordinands, or DDO for short. The process continues along similar lines before a person meets with a local bishop and a Bishops Advisory Panel (often simply known as a BAP).
Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established. Proverbs 15:22 (KJV)
Meeting with people who are used by God to impart their wisdom and knowledge, such as those exploring ordination experience reminds me of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-36). The Ethiopian was searching for God and trying to understand the scriptures. God placed Phillip on his path for long enough for him to understand and move on.
The Vocations Chaplain did more than use his gift of discernment, he helped me to know more about myself and more about what God was calling me to do. God used him to bring clarity and understanding to me just as Phillip did to the Ethiopian. He did that, in part, by asking me to explore 3 topics (my image of God; my motivation in helping people; and what it means to be a leader). He also did that through his questioning and perceptiveness.
Diversity and Unity
We talked about the broad nature of the Anglican communion. It appears that more and more of the people coming forward for ordination come from the evangelical background, think Holy Trinity Brompton, the home of the Alpha Course. Yet the Church of England contains a wide range of worship and teaching styles and church leaders need to respect them all. Just think of the music that congregations listen to or sing, from Thomas Tallis and William Byrd to Hillsong, from John Newton’s Amazing Grace (Click to hear Mumford & Son’s version) to Worship Central’s Our Generation.
It is also a tremendous challenge not just for the Archbishop of Canterbury to manage but for all church leaders. My church, for example, has 4 services each Sunday, each with a different style and emphasis yet we all belong to the same church family. If you were to go a couple of miles down the road from my church you would find another Anglican church with yet another different style of worship and teaching. That’s over 5 different styles in just 2 churches, now imagine the whole of the Church of England, and then all the denominations if you can!
Contemplating ordination within the Church of England has made me very aware that I am signing myself up as a card-carrying Anglican. Despite having been a member of 2 Anglican churches I have never before considered or labeled myself as anything other than a Christian. I am still wrestling with that thought and with trying to understand why labelling myself makes me feel slightly uncomfortable.
Just as I have respect and appreciation for the diversity within the Church of England so have I for other denominations who are clearly Christ-centered. I have happily gone to other church denominations including Baptist and independent churches for example. I went to see Pope Benedict at the beatification service for Cardinal Newman in Birmingham in 2010 and found it to be an open, inclusive and exciting service.
So why the need to label myself as an Anglican? Perhaps it is something I need not worry about. The Church of England is a wonderful institution that has blessed me and countless others. Indeed there cannot be any greater blessing that to have been led to faith as I was through the Church of England. Perhaps being labeled as belonging to a particular denomination is on my mind because I unity across denominations is important to me. Whether that indicates an area of focus for me in any ministry it is clear that God is calling me to work from within the Anglican church.
Wrestling and testing is not a solo sport
As someone who likes to work through issues through writing or speaking with others, it was very enjoyable to talk through issues surrounding my journey of faith. Involving another person in getting to grips with something brings in another perspective and helps in getting to a solid conclusion. With that in mind, and with the recommendation of my Vocations Chaplain, I am in the process of arranging to have a Spiritual Mentor or Director.
Spiritual Mentors are people with whom you can chat about issues of faith who, ideally, have no connection with your home church or circle of friends, family and colleagues. As such can remain independent, confidential and unaffected by issues in those environments. They are set apart and able to help you wrestle with spiritual issues on your mind and heart. I can see why those training for ordination are apparently advised to have such a person to talk and pray with.
It isn’t just officials who send us out though. In the early days of the church, in the Book of Acts, the whole church was involved in sending out people to serve and preach in the name of Jesus. So it is today, the home church of someone exploring is also part of the discernment process. My vicar said how it was important that the church family saw that I was on this journey, not just so they could judge whether I was indeed called by God to become ordained but to also accompany me on the journey in prayer.
Some may question why the process is so rigorous. Personally I am very glad that it is. Becoming ordained and potentially leading others on their walk with God is a serious issue. It isn’t like taking any job and deciding to move on because it doesn’t feel right once in the post. The damage that could be caused if it wasn’t the right thing for someone to have been ordained could be very serious.
My experience with a Vocations Chaplain has been a good one. He posed challenging questions that moved me forwards and was helpfully perceptive. In feeding back to me that he sensed that I was being called towards ordination was deeply encouraging and boosted my confidence that I have been hearing and interpreting God correctly.
The experience of being constructively challenged has also given me the impetus to challenge myself. There are areas that I feel weak in, areas that I feel the need to test. That these are also things the Church of England will be looking at is almost inconsequential. I am my harshest critic and I need to challenge myself to know if I have the gifts and skills needed to be effective for God. With this in mind I am working with my vicar and taking on more visible leadership roles. I am also going to be given an opportunity to preach; now that is terrifying!
Patiently moving on
So my time with the Vocations Chaplain has come to an end. He has confidence that I am being called to God and spoke of my being ordained as a definite rather than a possibility. That felt rather unnerving if I’m honest but his confidence was also very encouraging. I left our meeting elated and excited. He will now be writing to my diocese and I am to await their call.
I know I will need to meet with a DDO many more times than the 2 meetings I had with the Vocations Chaplain as we will need to work through the 9 selection criteria together. Yet somehow it has been suggested that I might go to a BAP in 2014. I am caught between wanting to move on to the next meeting quickly yet feeling that a BAP in 2014 seems rather close!
As I believe my Vocations Chaplain and others have said, exploring ordination is a marathon not a sprint. The timing is not in my hands but in God’s and those He has put in places of authority to decide my fate in this regard. Just as I talked about trusting God’s plans in a previous post I know I will have to continually trust Him in the timing of it all. Patience is not something that comes easy to me, yet it is one of the most important things I need in my life at the moment. The Vocations Chaplain knew that too so he sent me the prayer of Teilhard de Chardin for patient trust. I hope that you find it as helpful as I have.
Prayer for Patient Trust
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ