My retreat from social media is over. My return to a Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP) has been completed. The results are in and a chapter of my life that begun back in January 2013 is over. It has involved 1 Vocations Chaplain, 5 Examining Chaplains, 3 Diocesan Directors of Ordinands (DDOs), 2 Bishops’ Advisory Panels, 2 Panel Secretaries, 6 Bishops’ Advisors and 2 Bishops; with far greater numbers of people that have accompanied me on my journey with encouragement, wisdom and prayers.
But what happened? As often is the case there is a before, during and after to this extended blog post of going to my second BAP. Whilst my blog post Strange Days (aka Going to a BAP) covered what goes on at a BAP in detail this post aims to illustrate the value of finding peace and living in the moment with God through challenging times, because returning to a second BAP was truly a challenge. As for the result? Well, it wouldn’t be right to write the ending before the beginning!
As my BAP approached I had decided to pause the blog and to retreat from social media to I focused on what was important: discerning God’s will for and call on my life (see Silent Running). As a sense of impending doom building as each day took me closer to the BAP I realised that simply abstaining from social media would not be enough, I needed to take it further. I needed to go places and do something I had ever done before. I needed go on a spiritual retreat.
That I had never gone on a retreat had been noted in the reports that had been sent to the Advisors in advance of the BAP. It wasn’t for want of will that I had never been on one though. Much as I could see the benefit of a retreat I had never been able to justify deflecting the time and money from my family’s needs to enable me to go on one. But as the retreat from social media focused my mind on avoiding making the same mistakes as I had leading up to and during my first BAP, the value of a spiritual retreat to both myself and my family overcame my objections. When one then came to my attention that would take place immediately before my BAP I seized the opportunity and booked a place; the circumstances surrounding it suggested it was no mere coincidence but God-sent.
Given I had become particularly interested in the concept and value of silence it seemed appropriate that the retreat I set off for would be a silent one in the company of nuns. It proved to be more fruitful than I could have imagined.
Silence became my instant friend. The removal of all distractions and calls upon my time enabled me to hear things otherwise so easily missed. As I listened to the silence I began to hear much more. Each chime of the bells emanating from the convent sounded out the power of prayer and the everlasting presence of God to all with ears to hear it. The distant drone of car tyres reinforced the peace of being still and unhurried. I felt no urgency and no need of praying for specifics, the silence had awoken my soul to feel God’s gentle words and suggestions.
I was living in the moment with God and it was good. I had surrendered control of my thoughts and allowed God to lead me to places it needed to go. He helped me to release my fears of what was to come in the BAP and in the resulting decision. He helped me to appreciate those that had gone before me and the work He had been doing within me. He helped me to trust that whatever was to happen He would continue to provide the peace and the direction for my life. And through the retreat He also added a whole convent to the numbers who would be earnestly praying for me and the Advisers in the week to come.
I had one more meal with my family, one more bedtime story to tell and one more school run to drive, but the peace and presence of God that had seeped into my soul during the retreat remained and carried me through what came next. As I stepped on board the train towards my second BAP and all that I knew lay ahead of me, little did I know just how intense it would be.
I arrived at the venue for my BAP particularly early and to my pleasant surprise was guided immediately to my room. The time granted to me before the proceedings would begin turned my room into a sanctuary and a continuation of the retreat I had left 24 hours before. Just as within the convent I felt no need to hurry or be somewhere or with someone. I felt no need to socialise with the other BAP candidates arriving or to seek an escape from the venue to pray. I had a job to do and I knew that in order to do it I needed to retain my connection with the peace and presence of God, socialising would happen but it would not be chased after. My focus and determination also led me to forgo the somewhat traditional evening escape from a BAP to the pub and seek the solitude I needed instead.
When the time came for the BAP to begin I descended the stairs and entered the group room for the first session: the traditional ice-breakers designed to ease tension and help both candidates and advisors to get to know each other. As the time we had together lengthened I could see the unspoken hopes and fears contained within each fellow candidate; the joy I saw led me to praise and the pain led me to prayers.
The Personal Inventory designed to extract quick and unpolished answers and evidence against the selection criteria came and the answers flowed. As before a request to write a tombstone epitaph was made and as before I could not contain my wry take on it: “No longer at this address, returned to sender” was my answer intended with both humour and seriousness. Thankfully it was received as intended by the Advisor whom received it for the interview focusing on the associated criteria.
It was what happened next that set me on edge and began a spiral of incidences that made me fear for my ability to stay the course and see the BAP through to its conclusion: I entered a room for the final group session of the day last, and significantly so; everyone’s eyes bore into me as I sat down. I could almost hear the advisors write a black mark against my name. Whilst the discernment process had forced me to analyse all aspects of myself, the BAP turned it up to 11. Minor and insignificant points that in normal life would not be noticed or considered worthy of note became things which threatened to derail my entire journey. The end was so close but felt so, so far!
The presentations took place the next morning with the same goodwill as before, each candidate willing the others along in both their listening and speaking. I cringed and made a mental note when I engaged in the discussion I chaired in a way I instantly realised was not ideal: I had corrected an irrelevant falsehood rather than simply allowed it to be heard and forgotten. I left, even more on edge than before, to begin work on my nemesis: the Pastoral Exercise. As I began to find traction and make progress with the task I looked up at my clock: it was 13:02 and I was late for lunch.
I ran to the dining room to find everyone eating and that the only seat available was beside the Adviser that was scheduled to interview me immediately after lunch. To make it worse he was the Adviser I feared the most and was to interview me against the collection of criteria that worried me the most. I apologised profusely and was told no offence had been taken or black mark made against me but the encouragement made little impact on me, the damage had been done. When I returned to my room I was hit by an anxiety attack and wanted to run away but my feet would not move. It was as though I was being kept at the BAP against my will because my will at that moment was not God’s; He acted as my anchor to help me weather the storm. I found myself drawn to the chapel, to gaze upon Jesus on the Cross. As I did I heard a gentle voice over the noise of my anxiety “I love you. I love you”. God was on the case.
I entered into the room for my first interview with a mixture of fear and dread. In hindsight it is unsurprising what happened next: when asked how I was I gave account of why I felt on edge and burst into tears. It was not the start I had wanted but was perhaps the start I needed. The tears released the pressure that had built up within me and enabled the Advisor to demonstrate a kindness and understanding that replaced the detached demeanour I had observed. I quickly regained my composure, peace returned and I left content having enjoyed the conversation that had taken place.
The second interview I had was in the same place as the equivalent interview at my first BAP but the experience was very different. The similar interview at my previous BAP had been an extended set of rapid fire questions that left me bruised and battered. This time my answers had been noted, my approach to life apparently understood and smiles exchanged. It was over quicker than expected too and I left to spend the evening trying to find my way through the Pastoral Exercise.
The peace and joy I had been granted through my first two interviews stood me in good stead during my final one the following day, which was just as well given yet another shaky start. As we began my phone, which had been on silent for months, rang loudly from my pocket. It was my children’s school calling, most likely because they could not get hold of my wife (the school she was working at was being inspected by Ofsted during my BAP). I declined the call, apologised profusely once again, and the interview began. As before the interview carried on as though no faux pas had been made, and as before it was an interview full of joy. All that was left was to read over my response for the Pastoral Exercise again and again and again, before I finally swallowed hard and sent it off to be printed and handed in. I prayed I had properly applied the lessons I had learnt from those far wiser than I.
I left the BAP happy and content. The work God and others had done with me in addressing the painful truths my first BAP had uncovered had been fruitful: my focus was not on me but on others. I had still referred to my own experiences in conversations but this time I did so to an appropriate level gained from a healthy perspective and an awareness of myself and my company. The mistakes I felt or knew I had made during the 3 days were, in truth, minor ones blown out of proportion and perspective by my anxious and over-analytical self. I could do no more than hope and pray that the Advisers had had their questions and concerns answered, and had seen God’s will for and within me.
I did not rush home but continued to remain in a retreat of sorts, spending time with a family member living nearby, going to Evensong somewhere I was anonymous, and meeting up with my first DDO. Although we had not been in contact with each others for 3 years my name had repeatedly come to her in her prayers, and she had contacted me when she had heard of my return to a BAP. We met and embraced like old friends and it was a meeting full of joy and celebration of each other’s lives. I left to return home and wait for the result of the BAP.
The peace and contentment which I had been gifted through the retreat, and which had help me not just to survive but enjoy the BAP, remained in place in the days that followed. The only interruptions were the well intentioned questions asking how things had gone, and the realisation that moments of significance in the decision making process were happening: I had felt rather queasy when I realised that the Advisers would have made their decisions and recommendations; and when the time came when the Church of England’s Ministry Division were due to email the report containing the recommendations to my Bishop and DDO I felt worse. Not that these were the only moments that disturbed my peace.
Leading up to, during and after the BAP I found myself admonishing myself anytime I felt hopeful that I would be recommended to start training for ordination. Given what had happened before (see my blog posts after my first BAP in my timeline) I had decided it was better to expect the worse and be surprised by the best. As the time came for the letter to arrive that would tell me my fate an increasing sense of dread came, I knew that opening the letter would be very difficult and reading it even harder.
I had been told that the Bishop would read the Advisers’ report as soon as possible, come to a decision and write a letter to me which would be posted. A telephone call from my DDO to ask how I was and how the BAP had gone was encouraging but left me feeling on edge, she didn’t suggest any change to the plan but did ask about my whereabouts on that day. When the day came I tried to settle my increasing sense of foreboding and readjust to waiting until the following week for the news.
And so it was unexpected when my telephone rang at the end of the day Ministry Division had sent the report to my diocese. I heard my DDO’s voice and instantly prepared myself for the bad news, but it wasn’t. The Advisers had recognised and affirmed my calling, and had enthusiastically recommended that I start training for ordination!
I found it hard to take in the news and only heard snippets of the summary I was given over the phone. Whilst the Advisers at my first BAP had been so damning of my character and ‘calling’, the Advisers at my second had been quite the opposite. When the phone call ended I did not find myself excitedly jumping about though elation, instead a sense of relief came upon me that I had not been deluded, my sense of calling had been recognised by others. The journey that had consciously begun over 4 years before had come to an end.
The letter did not arrive for 2 more days, and until it did and I saw the words confirming the recommendation I found it hard to truly accept it was true, so much so that I could not tell anyone of the news until I held it in my hands. The summary report from my Bishop was very encouraging and constructive, and it was interesting to read that the areas I held back during the BAP because of the previous BAP’s Advisors’ comments were the areas they felt I could have been more ‘me’! A meeting with my DDO to look over the full report will come in a few weeks time, and there is the small task of finding a theological college to train at, but for now it is time to celebrate!
Information about my retreat
My retreat was organised and led by Michelle Eyre of Discovering Prayer at St Mary’s Convent in Wantage. The Sisters were wonderfully hospitable and accommodating of those of us staying, and the convent was a perfect sanctuary in which to spend time alone with God. I cannot recommend it highly enough and I know more retreats are planned so please contact Michelle and the Discovering Prayer website for more information.