Seeking life inside the bubble

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.

The art of seeing salvation

Each summer those beginning or continuing their ordination training at Sarum College gather for a week of fellowship, exploration and reflection.  This year’s ‘Summer School’ focused on the use of art to help us ‘see salvation’: in the stones that have been calved and placed to gather amongst; in the sculptures formed by hands and machines to walk around; and in the paint applied to paper, canvas and plaster to gaze upon.  Although much of the art looked at during the week was formed with a clear religious intentionality behind it, an expression of faith and worship by an artist, not all of it did.  Indeed it was one of these latter pieces that provoked the greatest reaction and insight into ‘seeing salvation’.  The piece was Zak Ové’s “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness”, seen during a visit to the New Art Centre at Roche Court, near Salisbury.  Continue reading

This time now

Nervous excitement woke me up early.  I put on my glad-rags and left for the cathedral before my neighbours had begun to emerge into the daylight.  I didn’t want to be late.

I descended the Mendip Hills into Wells over an hour before the service began.  The Cathedral greeted me as I emerged from my car, and the Bishop of Taunton waved as she walked past.  As long as I kept both in sight I was going to make it in time. Continue reading

I belong because I don’t

Sunrising behind 3 crosses on a hill

Sunrise in Easter Day 2019 from an ecumenical service on The Roundhill, Bath

I am over half-way through my Ordination Training and thoughts are starting to turn to curacy.  When my diocese asked me to indicate which type of church I would and wouldn’t work with my reaction surprised me.  The question saddened me.  It was asking me where I belonged.  At once I realised that I belonged everywhere and nowhere. Continue reading

Silently Speaking

Sunset over the island of Coll

Listening to the silence

Growing up as the youngest of three, opportunities to talk were few and far between.  Each one had to be seized upon in case it would be a year before another would come again.  Silence was my chance to speak. 

Whatever the truth of my memory, the impact was that silence became an entity that I needed to fill; if I didn’t, and it continued, I would become increasingly uncomfortable.  And so I filled them.  I would jump into the silence with whatever opinion, facts or half-baked humour I could muster.  It wasn’t always the best idea. 

Filling the silence risks not hearing the very thing that needs to be heard.  Increasingly I’ve realised that isn’t me.  

Continue reading

Testing the limits

2384200Geraint Thomas riding to victory in the 2018 Tour de France (Source: Eurosport)

Over the course of 3 long-read blog posts I am reviewing my first year as an Ordinand, each post focused on 1 of the 3 words that sum up my first year: tea, testing and transformation.  This, the second post in the series, is all about testing, and no, they haven’t brought in doping tests for prospective priests in the Church of England.  

One section of life where tests for performance enhancing drugs is common place is sport, and in particular cycling.  Each July athletes race in the most famous cycling race in the world, the Tour de France.  For 3 weeks cyclists mix sprinting for glory with climbs up some of the highest and toughest mountains that Europe have to offer.  It is a tremendous feat of endurance just for a person to make it to the end on the Champs Élysées in Paris.  This first year of training has similarly felt like a feat of endurance.

Continue reading

Mr Tea

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More tea, Ordinand?

Tea.  Testing.  Transformational.  Three words which capture the essence of my first year of Ordination Training.  This post, the first of 3 blog posts reviewing the year, is all about the power of a cup of tea.  Well, partly.  It’s also about self-awareness and mental health.

A travelling tea set I found in the French town of Périgueux seemed just the thing for a trainee vicar who would often be away from home at a theological college.  Contained within hinged cylindrical metal case, held closed by 2 leather straps, were a trinity of tea caddies and an infuser.  It played up to the stereotype of “More Tea Vicar”, but did so on my terms: the blends of tea inside were drinkable.  Just as I don’t like instant coffee but love coffee brewed from the bean, I love lots of varieties of tea but can’t stand the crowds’ favourite of English Breakfast Tea or ‘Builder’s Tea’.  This, I know, is potentially problematic for someone who may be doing pastoral visits in England, but there is always the simplicity of a glass of water!

What was brought as a piece of amusement proved to teach me an important lessons that carried me through the year: the need for solitude and reflection, and to care for my mental health.   Continue reading

Now, what was I here for?

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The Night Before Christmas (Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat)

Transforming something unknown into something known lies in the future. We can use our imagination and other people’s knowledge to paint a picture of what it might look like but it is only when we catch up with it, when the future becomes the present, that we begin to know the unknown. And so it has turned out with my Ordination Training.

As the training reached full-speed in early October (my studies in September were fairly light) the impact on my daily life quickly became clear: each day would be filled from rising to sleeping. My wife and I both needed to continue with our full-time jobs, my children still needed to be taken to school and clubs, household chores still needed to be done, and occasionally we even needed to eat. The only space for study was my ‘spare-time’, something I enjoyed using to spend time simply being with my family and friends. The study mean that this time would be limited, I would not be able to socialise quite as much as I did and this blog would not be added to quite as often as before. As such this post is as much an account of what it is like to train for ordination whilst working full-time as it is a reflection upon it. Continue reading

An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part One

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Starting my Ordination Training has once again made me examine my pattern of prayer.  Over the years I have used lots of different patterns and sources in my attempt to take my focus off myself and onto God and others.  I have had times when it has worked, when I have tapped into a rich seem of inspirational liturgy but such times have ebbed and flowed with an unhelpful inconsistency.  This inconsistency has meant that the focusing and calming effect of prayer became vulnerable to be lost, drowned out or shut out by the distractions and pace of everyday life. Continue reading