Today was supposed to be when a time away from my family came to an end; a time when I would have finished a Retreat (a focused quiet time contemplating, praying and listening to God) and I would be walking from the Bishops’ Palace in Wells towards Wells Cathedral. I would have been wearing a cassock and a surplice, and carrying a stole in my hands as I walked through the doors of the cathedral to see my family sitting there, along with hundreds of other people. I would have taken a seat in view of the altar, and the service that would have see me ordained would have begun.
The ordinations cannot happen today.
Today, the cathedral lies empty.
The coronavirus pandemic that has claimed and devastated so many lives means that it is not yet safe to gather in the cathedral. With no ability to gather, Bishops cannot lay their hands on the ordination candidates, and without that the line of apostolic succession that links each deacon and priest to the first priests of the Church will be broken. That is a tradition worthy of keeping, worthy of waiting to keep. Knowing this, knowing that the cathedral would be empty today, I sat alone within it on Monday. I went there to trace the steps from the Bishops’ Palace I would have taken had the pandemic not arisen. I went there to remember that we have lost, and that we still have: people and possibilities. I went there to remember Steve and light a candle where he would have sat.
Steve Rogers was a former Church Army Captain, a friend, a Father, a Husband but above all, Steve was a Man-of-God. Steve had led St Andrew’s Church in Foxhill, Bath for many years. It was the sister church to Holy Trinity, Combe Down in Bath and the congregations of both had sent us both. We had worshipped together, prayed together, laughed together. Together we had trained at Sarum College, and together we were going to be ordained on this day.
I last saw Steve outside my house. We had just returned in his car from a weekend at college. We were due to return to college but neither of us would. For me it was the coronavirus pandemic that prevented my return, for Steve it was cancer. Steve passed by my house one last time at the moment, in ‘normal’ circumstances, we would have begun our final journey to college. He was on route to his final act of worship, his final resting place, his funeral: Steve had died weeks before he would have been ordained.
Steve’s time with us on Earth may have ended, but the fruits of his ministry have not. He served both God and community with such intoxicating fervour that the impact of his presence would be seen and rejoiced for years and years to come.
I sat alone at my desk after Steve had passed by, and I am sitting there once again today. Then it was to begin my final college weekend, today it is to begin my curacy — not ordained as a Deacon but licensed as a Lay Worker. My curacy is not going to begin with the laying on of hands, but with a digital proclamation. When the clock hits 10:00 the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Bishop of Taunton, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, myself and 17 other Ordinands, and several others will appear on my screen. And we will appear on the screens of our family and friends’ computers and TVs when, together over the internet, we walk not physically but digitally together into curacy.
Starting my curacy sitting alone at my desk will certainly be a strange experience. But I have been sitting alone at my desk for much of the past 3 years. The experience has taught me much, including how easy it is to be detached from the world around us when viewing life through a screen. And Steve’s death has reminded me how easy it is to take life for granted. I knew that Steve and my other friends and family were around and ‘with me’ because we met often enough, both physically and digitally, to be reminded of and continue the relationship. Gaps in our meeting were usual. We would have met more often if we could, but life was busy.
So whilst Steve is no longer with us, it is still difficult to accept he isn’t here because I’m used to not seeing him for chunks of time. It will, perhaps, only be when his face fails to appear on screen for the Licensing today that I will truly feel his absence. Or maybe it will be when I gather with others for a pre-ordination retreat in September. Or maybe it will be when we finally walk into Wells Cathedral to be ordained. Or maybe, and most likely, it will be at each of those pivotal liminal moments. Either way, the licensing today will, I anticipate, be as much a painfully raw experience as it will be a joyful one.
When the service ends online, my screen goes blank, my room will return to normal – everything will be as it was: the desk I have studied from for the past 3 years; the window beside me looking out to the community I haven’t yet moved from; the lack of people around me. Yet so much will have changed: I will be a Curate, a Lay Curate at that. I will be serving new churches, congregations and communities. Steve would have been serving too.
Life is full of ‘would haves’, but life needs to be lived for what we do have. From my all too limited time with Steve I learnt that he lived for what he had and wanted others to have: the love he had received from God; the love he had received from and had for his family, his friends, his community, his church. I have all those things and the time has once again come to celebrate and live those things. I have had 3 blessed years of Ordination Training having been sent by the Church. I have a family, I have friends and I have a new community to love and be loved by in return. Tomorrow I will wake for the first time as a Curate because I will have been licensed. I plan to celebrate that and each moment that will follow, including ordination when I will have walked into the cathedral.
Rest in peace Steve, rise in glory and save a drink for me at the eternal party.
Details of how to watch the Licensing service live and afterwards is available in Getting my Curacy License.
The walk I have, would have, and will have walked from the Bishops’ Palace to Wells Cathedral: