In my previous blog post (A man who doesn’t have it all) I wrote about how certain questions and conversations can be unique to certain groups – in that post I wrote about how asking what it’s like to be a male priest is not itself sexist and can indeed be a helpful question to ask. Recently I returned from a Retreat for Ordinands and their families, and it presented a parallel: sometimes it is good to live inside a bubble with people like you.
‘Being in a bubble’ is something labeled against residential theological colleges, often in a negative sense. There, people with and without spouses, partners and children live, study and worship together on and off-site. The negative associations come from the view that the bubble isolates them from the ‘real world’, from the people working jobs to pay the bills, from the people the bubble-dwellers are training to serve. This is, of course, a sweeping generalisation and takes no account of whether those inside the bubble engage with live outside of it or not.
I recently got to spend 4 days inside the bubble, and it was glorious – I was at an Ordinands’ Retreat run by Lee Abbey in North Devon. What made this special was not the presence of so many ordinands but the presence of their families, and it made me realise just what was missing from my training.
Throughout my ‘Discernment Process’ the heaviest weight I carried was the impact the pursuit of my calling would have on my family – it is a constant theme running through my blog posts during that time (see Exploring Ordination). As it turned out, when I came to train the impact on my family was minimal. The Church of England’s age-focused training and funding meant that I went to a non-residential training; each member of the family stayed put in their jobs, schools, friendships and community and it was only me who was introduced to the occasional visits to theological college.
But whilst both my training college and church is preparing me for life as a curate, neither are preparing my children and wife. Non-residential colleges may attempt to involve families but the very nature of their training and funding makes such involvement difficult. By necessity, the weekends I do stay at college are packed full of lectures designed to meet the needs of the curates-to-be, not their families.
The Ordinands’ Retreat with families at Lee Abbey proved how valuable fellowship is with similar people living and preparing for similar things. There were ordinands across the age spectrum from multiple colleges. There ordinands on their own, ordinands with spouses or partners, ordinands with children. Each person unique and different, yet having something in common: they were all preparing for a life of ordained ministry.
Lee Abbey’s programme was perfect too. My wife and I were inspired by the talks Bishop Nick Baines gave, and my children had fun in their activities; but it was in the space between the talks and activities that proved to be most powerful. In the space families and generations stayed together, separated and mixed. Each person got to spend time with someone of their own type, children with children, spouses with spouses, ordinands with ordinands, but they also got to spend time with people like members of their family. Parallels and commonalities could be seen. Questions could be asked and answered. Experiences could be shared. We were in the bubble, and we thanked God for it.
There are pros and cons to both residential and non-residential training for ordination, and this post is not one extolling the virtues of one over another because frankly neither is terrible and neither is perfect, and also because I’ve already written about it before (see A Tribal Sales Pitch). Non-residential training has proved to be good: working kept me connected to the world I would be leaving to serve, and being placed in a church for the majority of my training is giving me experience of building and living in a church community for over 3 years. And it has been good for my family too: they have appreciated not being uprooted. But being inside the short-term bubble at Lee Abbey highlighted the importance of what we were missing: fellowship with other families going through, and preparing for, the same experience.
The nature of Ordination Training means the focus has to be on the person who will hopefully be ordained. But training should also seek to meet the needs of any family members accompanying the ordinands. If there was a will, and if time, accommodation and finances allowed, then partners, spouses and children could be invited and included in a whole weekend of talks, activities and fellowship. Finances for dioceses, colleges and ordinands make this much more difficult to achieve than to dream up and write, but preparing the whole family is essential. Doing so not only acknowledges the sacrifice spouses, partners and children make as a result of ordination, but also helps them to live the life that they have not necessarily chosen or been called to.
My family and I left Lee Abbey encouraged and enthused, and wanting to go back again, and again, and again. A big reason for our desire to return was the amazing landscape and hospitality, but it was also because we were in a bubble with others ‘like us’. And by being inside the bubble we knew were were going to be better outside it.