Revving it up

In the process of training for the priesthood, there a certain landmark moments:

  • Receiving your free Greek New Testament and Book of Common Prayer. (I likened it to the giving out of kittens in The Worst Witch. That may or may not be an appropriate analogy.) 
  • The first ordination (of other people) you attend having achieved ‘ordinand’ status.
  • Attending an ordination exactly a year before your own, watching people you’ve sat alongside in college wearing the full priestly regalia.
  • Receiving your interim report – the one that goes to your Bishop and potential curacies.
  • People beginning to confirm their curacies.

And then there’s the vestments fair…

There are no rides and no candy-floss, but there is an array of stands advertising and showing-off various clerical wares, from stoles and shirts to cassocks and surplices (and an awful lot in between). For many, this is a big moment – the first time they will don the clothes that in a few short months time will become their uniform. For others, in lower years, it’s an opportunity to witness familiar faces wearing unfamiliar outfits, and realise that one day that will be them too.

Ours took place on the last residential of the term, nearly a fortnight ago. Several companies crammed into HighLeigh’s old chapel and a host of apprehensive ordinands milled around cautiously examining their goods. I wasn’t actually going to go. Over lunch, I sat with a group of final year students who intended to band together in order to make the process less nerve-wracking. But I was intent on giving it a miss and spending some quality time in Hoddesdon instead (visiting Saver’s, it’s a residential tradition) – especially as I still don’t have a curacy to go to and therefore no idea of what my clerical outfitting requirements will be. [That’s a whole other, long, frustrating story which is not yet for this website.] Hilariously, I had a change of heart and ended up returning to my bedroom over an hour later clutching a cassock.

Yes, while everyone else was getting measured and placing orders, I found a cassock exactly in my size that was in the sale. The only snag was that to take advantage of it, I had to buy it there and then, finding room in my bag to get it back to London. [For the uninitiated, whatever your future church’s churchmanship, you will need a clerical shirt, cassock & surplice for ordination.]

Cassocked LizWhat you miss in this photo is the purple Converse peeking out from under the cassock’s folds. A good look I feel.

The moment when you see your friends wearing a dog-collar for the first time is very, very weird. There’s no getting over that. But the camaraderie is definitely a bonus – going it alone into the world of clerical clothing would be terrifying!

Revved up ordinands David in the jacket packed specific clothes for this occasion, so he could really look the part. That’s forward thinking!

On the train home on Sunday, I was talking about the fair with some first years who had popped into the fair just to see what things looked like. According to one of them, the moment when I emerged from the toilets clad in a cassock was a big moment. Not because it was hugely becoming, but because it was me, in a cassock – suddenly looking just like a vicar. We are all going to become clergy (God-willing) but it’s very easy to forget some of the practicalities that go with it…

The other discovery made at the vestments fair was just how awful some creations for female clergy are. I maintain that much female clerical wear is designed by men who are opposed to the ordination of women! It comes to something when the Dean of the college locates the worst of these and cheekily suggests that they might be perfect for you:

Fashionable Clerical threads I won’t name & shame, but the selection of shirts & models suggests that the catalogue hasn’t been updated since the early 1980’s.

Clerical shirts will be the breaking of me. I never wear blouses and unless Pepperberry brings out a clerical range, I’m determined to stick as much as possible to those bib things you can stick under regular dresses. If any female clergy out there have some tips on this issue, I’d gratefully receive them!

Finally, me in a dog-collar. [Or, as some wit on Twitter felt the need to point out, a ‘clerical collar’ if you’re being precise.] It’s not actually in a shirt as I wasn’t wearing one under the cassock. [For the record, there were clothes, just not anything into which a piece of white plastic could be inserted.]

Dog-collared Liz

Young vicars??

“Do you ever feel as though doctors and police officers are getting younger all the time? Well, soon, your local vicar could be a young person too, thanks to a new Church of England initiative…” 

So began most of the 9 interviews I gave to local BBC radio stations yesterday morning. The first time I heard it, I had to restrain a giggle. Seriously? Were young vicars something to be feared? Were they seen to be a new thing? Where did BBC listeners think all the Bishops who’d been ordained in their 20’s some 30 years ago had been for the first part of their ministry?

Last week, the media team at Church House Westminster sent out a press release about a new internship programme for those aged 18-30 who are thinking about whether God is calling them into ministry. The BBC got interested in this – particular the ‘young’ element of it (and the fact that it was ‘unpaid’). They thought it would be a good idea to speak to someone training for ordination who had explored their calling while in their 20’s. This is where I fitted in – despite being the grand old age of 32, I was in my 20’s while I went through the selection process – and thus I found myself in a tiny studio at 6.30am on a Sunday morning, waiting to speak to 9 different radio presenters across the country.

It was fascinating. There really does seem to be a public perception that youth is a barrier to being an effective church leader. How can you be a vicar without plenty of life experience? Well, quite frankly, no two people of the same age have had the same amount of life experience. It’s much more important that those contemplating ordination are seen to have a level of maturity that enables them to understand where their life experience is lacking; seek opportunities to widen their experience; and to empathise with those they meet facing situations that they have no experience of. As a caveat though, that maturity is essential. If a 21 year old doesn’t seem to have it, they need to!

They wanted to know how congregations reacted to the sight of me, a ‘young’ person, at the front of the church leading a service or preaching a sermon. No one’s ever made a negative comment about my age, or suggested that I can’t possibly teach them anything in my sermon because they are 40 years older than me. Yes, my current church has a lot of young people in it, but it has plenty of older members too and I know they would say something if they felt there was an issue! In fact, the best thing about being young and being actively involved in services is that it inspires other people my age and younger to go and do likewise. To ask me about my own journey to ordination and seek advice about their own vocations. I did some calculations and realised that at my church, only three of our regular preachers are over the age of 40 (we have a group of around 11 or 12 that preach).

Are there even enough of this age group in the church to choose new vicars from? Despite what a former Archbishop said recently, yes!! [This is when my Missing Generation research becomes useful again.] Admittedly, the vast majority of 20s & 30s worship in the capital, but across the country, there are a lot of young people worshipping in Anglican churches and possibly contemplating ministry. Just last June, 80 young women exploring their call gathered in London for a vocations day – there is plenty of hope!

Young women gather at St Jude'sYoung women at St Jude’s in June, all exploring ordination.

Ultimately, having spent some time talking to those involved in the creation of the internship scheme and reading about it, I think it’s a good idea. Many people who feel called into ministry don’t have an opportunity to test it out in a really practical way. Yes, some will work as lay people for churches, but few churches can afford to have such employees. Some might have grown up in clergy families and have a very good idea about the practicalities of life as a vicar. (That was my own experience.) Perhaps they will have the chance to preach the occasional sermon, but will they have time alongside a full-time job?

So the scheme enables people who want to, to take a year out from secular employment and spend a year engaged in practical ministry. They don’t receive a salary, but they are provided with accommodation, food, travel and a small allowance. Plus, they receive some theological education and mentoring, ensuring that their personal development is monitored and that they have people with whom to discuss their vocational thoughts. Currently, the scheme (officially known as the Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme – CEMES)  is being piloted in four dioceses, with another 14 looking to take it up next year.

For the next week, if you’re so inclined, you can listen to me being questioned by a few of the BBC’s finest Sunday morning radio presenters. I’ve not provided links to all nine (partly because it would be tedious and repetitive; partly because some were very short), but it’ll give you a flavour…

BBC Cambridgeshire (2hrs 10mins) – I liked Cambridgeshire!

BBC Wiltshire (2hrs 54mins) – Wiltshire was also lovely. They also interviewed someone local after me, which thankfully backed up what I’d talked about & even mentioned pioneering things.

BBC Lancashire (2hrs 47mins) The toughest interview of the lot!

BBC Newcastle (1hr 40mins) – Where they seemed to think I was actually on the scheme, which was awkward – as was being disconnected right at the start of the interview! I was also asked if I was a good singer (!) and in typical British fashion, stumbled over my response in fear of sounding big-headed if I simply answered ‘yes’!

BBC Sussex & Surrey (2hrs 16mins) – where they surprised me an in-studio priest who disagreed the scheme. How nice of them!

What’s the collective noun for…

…a gathering of 70 young women interested in ordination?

I’ve no idea. A group of vicars is a ‘prudence’. A host of ladybirds is a ‘loveliness’. Quite frankly, it matters not a jot what the correct collective noun is, the fact that it happened in the first place is utterly awesome.

Did you know that women in their 20’s (and particularly of an evangelical inclination) are the least represented demographic amongst ordinands? There are many reasons why this is the case. Possibly, young women are more reticent about coming forward. Perhaps they lack role models to encourage them in their calling. Chances are, they’re worried about the role of being a woman in a church that doesn’t always welcome their gender. Maybe they’re terrified of the uniform. Whatever it is, it’s likely to be something that can be overcome with a little work.

This is where #ywv2013 came in. A day to encourage young women to explore what God might be calling them into.

youngwomen_churchweb

I was there largely thanks to its location – my vicar school – and my enthusiastic response to the Dean’s suggestion that a few female ordinands go along to share their experiences. Of course, given the way the church works, it turned out I knew several people on the planning team and attending the day themselves, so it was a great opportunity to network and catch up too. (Fear not Dean, I did also emphasise what a jolly good time I’m having at college and plugged St Mellitus where appropriate.)

It was soon abundantly clear that this was going to be a very exciting day. 70 women from across the country felt that God was possibly calling them to ordination – people travelled from as far afield as Doncaster and Cardiff to be there. The team was excited at the response and the guests were excited to be with like-minded contemporaries. The future of the Church of England all of a sudden looked to be a much brighter place for women!

Young women gather at St Jude'sListening to Helen Fraser share her experiences of selection, training & curacy.

It wasn’t long before I wished that something similar had been held five years ago when I began exploring my calling. I was comparatively lucky, as I knew people who had been through the process and were just ahead of me in it. Most of these were women – and single women at that. Someone I chatted to on Saturday said I was the first single female ordinand she’d met! I also have parents who’ve been through it and have (literally) written a book on the process. I had plenty of people to talk to and never felt isolated. However, that is definitely the exception rather than the rule. The majority of those present on Saturday had come on their own, desperate to find people who they could learn from, confide in and ask questions of. It was an enormous privilege to be able to provide some form of solidarity with them!

There are all sorts of perceived barriers to ordination when you’re a young woman:

  • Is it biblical for a woman to lead a church?
  • I’ve never heard a woman preach – are there any good ones?
  • Clerical shirts look rubbish on women, especially if you’re blessed with a chest…
  • What will my husband do?/Who wants to marry a vicar?
  • Can I lead a church without a husband?

That last one really hit me yesterday, while at a conference for the network of churches that my church is a part of. There wasn’t a single female vicar present – every church was led by a married man, with a supportive wife. (More positively, there were at least five female ordinands in the room.) They accounted for the majority of evangelical churches in London. If you’re a member of one of those churches, where do you draw your inspiration from? Who are your role models? It’s something I find incredibly difficult every time I’m in one of those gatherings. (Although don’t get me wrong, the churches are doing great things, it’s just frustrating that women are noticeable in their absence – well, to me and the other female ordinands I chatted with. Should I mention I also got asked to join a panel of 4 curates/ordinands “as a woman”?? I digress…)

This is why we need these days. So that young women can see the amazing things that female clergy have already achieved. That even in a world without female bishops, good stuff is happening. That you can be married, and a mother, or single and still live out your calling. That there are lots of other women exploring the same call, and they’re not freaks. That life does not end once you become selected for ordination, it’s only just beginning…

 

Formation

In the world of theological colleges, it is farewell season. The final weekend of June (‘Petertide’ in the CofE calendar) is ordination of deacons weekend, the moment that marks the end of life as an ‘ordinand’ and the beginning of the next stage of training – the curacy. (For the uninitiated, it takes almost as long to become a fully-fledged incumbent vicar as it does to become a Doctor.)

This past weekend was our final Vicar Weekend of the year. As was the case last year, we gathered on the lawn of High Leigh for photos, farewells and Pimm’s. On the Sunday morning, we heard each leaver share their next destination, along with their hopes, challenges and prayer requests – 90 minutes of inspiring stories that should encourage the Church of England. It’s also a peculiar moment, because you know that at some point, it will be you up there. It seems to go a little like this:

First year: “It’s so sad I haven’t had longer to get to know these guys… I’m so glad I’ve got another two years before I have to do this!”

Second year: “I can’t believe that we’ll be without all these amazing people next year! How has time gone so quickly? I wonder what I’ll be saying when it’s my turn?” [Meanwhile, every single 1st year will say to a 2nd year at some point “this time next year it’ll be your turn!” with a gleeful smirk on their face.]

St Mellitus Leavers, 2013This year’s 45 leavers pose for a photo. Yes, that’s 45 soon-to-be curates – an impressive total for any theological college. (Not that it’s a competition, obviously.) 

However, that doesn’t account for the many ordinands who only undertake two years of training instead of three. At St Mellitus, everyone does 3 years unless they have a previous theology degree (unlike everywhere else, where you do 2 years if you’re over 32) and in my cohort of 28 ordinands, 12 fell into that category. That’s a lot of people to bond with and then lose 12 months before you’re really ready to!

It just so happens that my formation group (aka ‘officially the best formation group ever’) is particularly hard hit by this state of affairs. This month, 5 of our 12 members will be ordained – that’s a lot of people to lose from a group that’s been a literal Godsend to every single one of us. (Personally, I blame Alex and Phil for being promoted to 2 year students having begun as 3…) Life at Vicar School will be very different next year, and quite possibly, a lot quieter.

Formation Group funThanks Tonia for this – though I’m impressed that despite yells for everyone to move into the photo, Rich & Phil are still obscured!  (Incidentally, I was violently ill minutes after this was taken, you almost wouldn’t know…)

A couple of weeks ago, we were invited to think about how ‘formed’ we felt – in relation to how we felt at the start of training and how close we were to finishing. Theoretically, those of us at the end of two out of three years should feel approximately two-thirds formed. But did those who had only had two years feel fully formed? Does anyone ever feel fully formed? What am I going to get in the next year that they won’t? Are the departing 2nd years leaving partially formed?

The short answers to the first and last questions would be: no and no. The departing second years are brilliant people who, like all new curates, will continue to be formed in their post-ordination training. In fact, like all clergy (if not all Christians) who should continue being formed throughout their lives. And as for me, I’m grateful I’ve got another year in the comparative security of Vicar School!

Choosing a school for Revs…

Thanks to my BAP post and Twitter conversations with wannabe vicars, I’ve found myself regularly explaining how I came to choose the Vicar School at which I’m currently being formed and moulded. For posterity, here’s an explanation, just in case you find yourself needing to choose one…

The road to Anglican vicar school goes something like this: feel called to ministry; explore call; fill in forms; meet regularly with a DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands); have a couple of Examining Chaplains interviews; get the ok from an Archdeacon or Bishop to attend a BAP (that’s a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, as opposed to a bread roll or female bit of anatomy); and get a ‘yes’ from the panel and your Bishop.

At some point, concurrent with, or after the BAP process, you also need to choose somewhere to train. It would be sensible if this was some centralised, UCAS style system with one application form, but it is not. Instead, you need to visit colleges you think you might be interested in, fill in their own application forms and have interviews. (Some colleges even insist you fill their form in before visiting.)

There are almost countless institutions you can train in. You begin by narrowing down your selection based on the following factors:

  • Are you training full-time or part-time? [Part-timers usually study on a ‘course’ rather than at a ‘college’.]
  • Are you being trained for stipendiary, non-stipendiary or pioneer ministry?
  • What kind of tradition do you worship in?
  • Do you want to live in a residential college for the next 2-3 years?

One of the best tips I was given by my DDO was to visit places and wait until you found somewhere where you felt at home (I did worry that I might not find anywhere), and it was an excellent tip! I visited two residential colleges which didn’t feel right. Then I visited what became my college and felt instantly at home. Lucky, as it’s where I’d wanted to go all along.

I knew what I didn’t want – a residential college where, as a single person, I’d be forced back into a halls-style bedroom and have to eat in a canteen full of unhealthy options. [It’s worth saying some colleges provide flats for singletons, but the ones I looked at didn’t.] I also knew what I wanted – a place where I’d get to experience the reality of church-based ministry, the ups and downs of parish life and where I’d get to practice and develop my skills.

There aren’t many places that offer mixed-mode training (the combination of academic theology and practical church-based experience), but St Mellitus is one of them and is the newest kid on the block as far as theological colleges are concerned. I’ll spare you its full history (it’s on its website), but it combines the traditional part-time route (it includes what was the North Thames Ministerial Training Course) with a full-time mixed-mode course, bringing us all together on regular residentials throughout the year.

Christmas Jumpers When I am old and grey, this will be my abiding memory of vicar school. (Christmas jumper day, 2011.)

Within a month of starting training, I knew I’d chosen the right place. Whenever anyone asks me about how I’m finding training, I can genuinely say I love it! I’ve made life-long friends, I’m having brilliant teaching, I’ve got plenty of opportunities to experience every day life in church ministry, and I’m part of a community that genuinely cares about how I’m doing in my training. So, what’s below is totally biased, but it’s my blog and I wanted to share my experiences. There are various myths about mixed mode training and St Mellitus that I’d like to dispel…

If you’re in a parish job half of your week, surely you’re only a part-time student and don’t get as much academic input as a residential college would have? In a word, no. Our ‘job’ in the parish is just as much part of our training as the academic stuff is. Often, our essays, lectures and formation training will have a direct link with what we’re doing in our church contexts – and not just in terms of sermon fodder. I love having somewhere (and someone) to talk to in my parish about theology who understands how to apply to our situation. I also love having fellow students (and staff) with whom I can discuss questions I have about my church. And academically, it’s rigorous. Maybe there are fewer contact hours, but there is a huge emphasis upon our personal studying as well as teaching. And don’t forget the residentials – seven a year, plus the week long autumn one. Plus, the teaching staff are top quality!

What about community? If you only see people once a week, how do you get to know other ordinands? Maybe if we only saw each other on Mondays, it would be tricky, but the residentials are a major factor in getting to know people. The students on the part-time route aren’t strangers either and there are ways in which we’re brought together in small groups that mix years, centres and traditions. Then there are formation groups – like a tutor group – in which we meet regularly and who are our major support network during training. Mine is officially the best formation group ever. I was dubious when I was told that these strangers would be friends throughout my ministry, but I’m now pretty much convinced that they will be.

How do you afford to do this type of training? Just like any regular full-time ordinand, I get a combination of grants from Ministry Division and my diocese. The church I work for also makes a contribution – in my case it’s housing, for others it’s a half-time salary. As is usually the case in the church, it’s not a fortune, but it’s ok and people do check that you’re coping financially.

How do you find a placement? Some people stay at the church they already attend or work at. Others get a placement with help from the college – you don’t need to hunt it out yourself. Plus, it’s ok to not like the first one you’re offered, it’s important to end up at the right place for you and for the church to get the right ordinand.

Aren’t you just going to become a workaholic? Well, it’s possible! But you need good boundaries between work, studying and family life – three areas that the tutors at college will regularly check up on. Blur those boundaries and life will get hard.

Isn’t it just HTB’s theological college? No. Yes, it has strong links with HTB and yes, part of St Mellitus grew out of SPTC (HTB’s theology centre), but the broadness of Anglicanism is reflected within it. Read anything about the college and much mention will be made of ‘generous orthodoxy’ – embracing all that the church has to offer. When the whole college is assembled, worship will be conducted in all sorts of styles, and usually by those students who are comfortable in that tradition. So Anglo-Catholic ordinands will do amazing high eucharists; charismatic students might lead a worship band full service with prayer ministry; there’s BCP and Common Worship; plus alternative styles of every description. There is no inclination towards ‘middle of the road, trying to please everyone’ worship, which I love – because often when you try to do that, it fails. Attendance at the annual HTB Leadership Conference is part of the course, and many full-time ordinands have placements at HTB network churches, but that’s just a bonus.

Isn’t it an academic soft option? Some people argue that a course like this is an easy option compared to other colleges – particularly Oxbridge ones where you’re expected to do an essay a week (I ranted about our essays earlier this year). It might be suggested that if you hold academic ambitions, you’d be better off elsewhere. Rubbish. I have friends who are academically brilliant and are flourishing. Fellow ordinands are doing MA’s via a route at King’s College London or on St Mellitus’ own brand new MA, others have places to do MA’s post-ordination. I’m being very supported in my ambition to do a PhD at some point in the near future, with tutors offering to read my ideas and encouraging me in routes that might be a good option. I have no doubt that I’m being challenged academically!

There’s no way I’ve covered everything, but this is already a very long post! And, to be honest, you’re probably reading this with zero intention of ever ending up at a vicar school! If you have some specific questions, do let me know – I’m happy to share more. If you find yourself visiting St Mellitus at any point before June 2014, give me a shout, I’m always happy to talk people’s ears off in the flesh.