The discernment road can be a rocky one, a journey of soaring highs and rough and rutted lows. My journey has been more of the latter of late. The journey to my first BAP was pretty smooth, an enjoyable glide along an undulating path before gravity took hold and sped me into a post-BAP crash. Since then I have found myself being a willing but wary participant on a road to a possible second BAP with enthusiasm, scepticism, devotion and despair as travelling companions.
The Church of England recently ramped up their efforts to encourage people to come forward for ordination, in part to help fill the gap left by retiring clergy. The messages emanating from the church’s leadership and the advertising campaigns have been notable for their absence of anyone over 35, with the focus being on young adults. This focus hasn’t been limited to advertising, the changes in ordination training and funding announced recently also signify a shift of focus towards those younger than me. I was already starting to get the impression that prospective ordinands over 35 were not welcome or appreciated by the Church of England when a new recruitment campaign video was released. Although full of encouraging stories it reinforced my cynical suspicions that my life experience and age might a curse and not a blessing (see One Foot in the Graveyard).
The discernment process is fraught with difficulties, the greatest of all being humans trying to correctly discern the will of God. Although I am thankful that I can say the Advisors at my first BAP made the right decision in not recommending me for ordination training, I am all too aware that the church can get it wrong and reject or recommend people for training that shouldn’t have been. The changes and recruitment emphasis increases the frailty of the process, raising the prospect of the church’s administration and funding ruling who is ordained, not the discernment of God’s will.
The reminder of the passing of time and my increasing age is a challenging thing to face. Whilst my experiences with discernment had led to some essential personal transformation, clear mistakes and points of failure make me lament time wasted. Much of the responsibility for the rush to my first BAP is my own: I could and should have taken the first BAP date offered and turned down the subsequent earlier date. At the time it seemed sensible and would have fitted in well with my children’s schooling, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Now the mistake is clear to see, but whether the time gained by accepting the first date offered would have helped me to learn much needed lessons is doubtful.
As I prepared for my first BAP there were none of the Candidates’ Day currently offered in my diocese; these have been very helpful in understanding both the BAP Advisors and the tasks candidates are asked to complete, not least the dreaded and artificial pastoral letter exercise. Back then my preparation for the BAP was limited to a single and hurried meeting with my DDO at the time.
Looking back can be helpful but it can have unwelcome consequences.
Had I been ready and recommended for ordination training following either of the BAPs offered I would have started a curacy by now, assuming that I had passed the training. Had I recovered quicker and be gifted the clarification and transformation earlier I would be training alongside friends in their final year at theological college. Had the training age groups not been changed I would be facing up to a possible curacy putting my calling into practice in 2 and a half years, instead I am facing the prospect of being 3 and a half years older before that could happen. However much God may have planned or want my past to inform any ordained ministry, however much He wanted and needed to transform me into the person I would need to be, the possibility is arising that His timetable is incompatible with the church’s. I may be in need some of some direct divine intervention.
With the impression being given by the Church of England that the older you are the less welcomed you are, for ordination, my own mortality is beginning to haunt me.
My relationship with my current DDO has been a confusing mix of frustration and friendship since it began. Our brief meetings have always been friendly and cordial but my frustration reached new levels when my discernment meeting with a Bishop was cancelled at short notice and without explanation. As I had yet to see the reports from my Examining Chaplains (see Shown the Door, Do Worry, Be Happy and Comfort Blankets) my paranoia leapt into overdrive. The cancellation inevitably caused me to think the chaplains’ view of me and my calling was anything but favourable. It took 5 days before the silence was broken with an explanation that relieved and frustrated in equal measures: the Examining Chaplains’ reports had nothing to do with the cancellation, the DDO had simply changed her mind and now wanted to meet me before I met a Bishop.
My subsequent meeting with my DDO was a positive mix of encouragement, constructive advice, like-minded views and friendship. The strangely reoccurring issue of being prepared to move because of the job was once again raised. Whereas in recent times my local diocese had been able to all but guarantee a curacy in the diocese for local ordinands, but changes in structures and an increase in numbers going through ordination training had changed this – now there was no such guarantee and a move out of the area for a curacy was a possibility to be aware of.
By the time of our meeting the Examining Chaplains’ reports were available. All 3 were helpful and mostly constructive, though a few false and minor assumptions that had been made in the reports served as a mild irritant. My concern and pessimism had been unwarranted, and the reports picked out similar parts of my BAP form that I had identified as needing a clarifying redraft. The chaplains were all of the same mind, I should go further in the process and so a meeting with one of the local bishops could be rearranged.
The meeting ended with a request from the DDO for a short reflective piece on the challenges and affirmations I had experienced over the past few years. A short deadline was agreed so that it was done before meeting a bishop and so I set to work writing late into the nights that followed. It was only after sending the piece to the DDO on the agreed date that I found out the DDO was on holiday and wouldn’t read it for another week. My level of frustration rose once again, not least because of the things my children and I had missed out on as a result of me writing to the deadline.
The descent into melancholy was sealed by what had been intended to be an evening of encouragement. My vicar and his wife came over to cook for me and my family, and for the chance to catch up on recent events. It was a wonderful and gratefully received blessing, but it was the reminder of the challenges faced by clergy, their spouses and their children that coloured the night. The nail in the coffin was the issue of moving house for a curacy and incumbency being raised yet again and tipping me from a position of being prepared to move to one fearful of how difficult the move would be.
My melancholy changed to despair as I watched the evening’s news. Tears flowed as I watched he Jungle refugee camp in Calais being dismantled and people scattered across France to fend for themselves. Many decades ago my father had been one of those child refugees, although thankfully in the company of his parents and brother. He had been offered sanctuary in the United Kingdom but the children on my television screen were being spurned and vilified by both the UK and France. It wasn’t just the physical needs that pierced my heart but their spiritual needs – I had seen the impact of faith and faithlessness in refugees I had helped during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. I wanted to be there in the camp, to shine a physical and spiritual light in the darkness but instead was in the bitter sweet comfort of my own home with my children sleeping peacefully in the room above me.
Deep down I know I have been called to be on the discernment road. I know I have been called to have my calling tested and to be transformed by the process. I know many believe I am being called to be ordained, and I think I am too but there is one thing I don’t know and it troubles me. I don’t know if I can go through with it, I don’t know if I can say yes to an offer of training, I don’t know if I can say yes to being ordained. What I do know is that I can’t sit still and that whether I end up ordained or not God has a ministry for me to serve in.
Now watch some young blessings and be encouraged whilst I reach for my Smiths’ albums.