The crisis will pass…

On the first day of my second year at vicar school, I had a revelation. Not one of a spiritual nature, but of a decidedly practical variety. My revelation was that, all of a sudden, our workload had ramped up considerably in comparison to the first year.

For much of this year, deadline day requires multiple pieces of work – not the single essays of last year. That first day back in September, I’d submitted two essays written over the summer. (Ok, who I am I trying to kid, both were written the week before term began. In my defence, I do a lot of planning and writing is the very last element in my style of essay writing…) Some people would have three pieces due just before Christmas, though, thanks to the Guide Badge of Vicar School, I had just the one.

To make essay planning more bearable, I like to use as many different coloured pens as possible.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked of little else other than the two essays I had to undertake over the festive period. Partly because they were on interesting topics (Israel and the land & the atonement) and partly because it was a flipping nightmare to get them in on time. In the end, it took a near all-nighter on Thursday (till 2am) to get the second one in on time. Now that they’re in, my attention has turned to a 5,000 word exegesis of Galatians, due in under two month’s time and a church presentation (which has to have been completed by the same date). I’m vaguely aware of another essay due post-Easter, and more before the summer term ends. There is no time for a celebratory study day day off this week.

People often ask me about the pros and cons of mixed-mode training (the official name for the style of ordination training I’m doing), and it’s got to be said that these deadlines have illustrated several of the cons…

  • It’s all very well having essays to write during the holidays, but our ‘holidays’ usually coincide with major Christian festivals (Christmas, Easter and of course, the summer season of Christian festivals in tents). This Christmas holiday, I had 3 carol services to prepare for and was preaching on December 23rd. Then there’s family to be with and rest and relaxation to be had.
  • When you work at a church half of your time, you will often have other demands upon your time, which means that you (or at least I) can’t go with the usual student tactic of sitting down and working at something until it’s done. You get a day a week and whatever extra hours you can snatch from the rest of the week.
  • A sermon is effectively an essay (at least at my church, where 20mins plus is the norm), so the fact that I’ve preached three times in the run up to this deadline has added considerably to my word count. Fitting a sermon in within ‘normal’ work hours is also generally an impossibility.
  • Stuff happens. I got sick – even worse, I got sick the week all my church’s clergy were at a conference in California. I was down to preach and no one would have been able to fill in, so I had to get on and do it. I took a day I would otherwise have studied as a sick day, but the next day couldn’t catch up on work because a sermon absolutely had to be written. On Thursday morning, when I awoke knowing I had 3000 words to write on the atonement by bedtime, my day began with the news that a close friend’s mother had died. Dealing with the ramifications of that had to be more of a priority than theological ruminations.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t work. It does – you just have to be organised and sometimes we (ok, I) aren’t so good at that. It requires planning, dedication and a brilliant working knowledge of the different libraries of London.

I am thankful to be working at a church whose clergy are academically inclined and (seemingly) always interested in what I’m reading or writing about, and who understand the occasional need to drop everything and write essays.

It might sound odd, but I’m thankful for the essays themselves. At a traditional vicar school (particularly those based in cities beginning in ‘Ox’ or ending in ‘bridge’), you might be churning out an essay a week – becoming a veritable essay machine. Here, it’s usually two per module (and a module might last two terms) and it’s the main way in which your learning’s assessed. It’s great to get your teeth stuck into a meaty issue and have the time and space to explore it. Plus, the questions themselves don’t allow you to simply dwell in the sometimes dry world of theology. Instead, they bring the theology into the context of ministry. Take last week’s epic atonement essay – it could simply have asked me to compare and contrast the different models of the atonement, but actually asked me to do that in the context of which might work best for the mission of the church. Surely that’s a good thing to think about when you’re training to lead a church?

Essay crises are wonderful in that they are by their very nature not permanent. These things will pass, and I am very grateful for this fact.

For the love of coffee stirrers

Over the weekend, I posted an album of photos on Facebook of our week in Merville. This turned out to be something of an error, as it resulted in several comments at church yesterday along the lines of:
“I saw your photos on Facebook – looks like you had a lot of fun!”
“I thought you’d gone away for a week’s intensive teaching? Looked like a great holiday”

Oops. Vicar School en France is intense to say the least. The day begins in chapel at 8am, there’s sessions all day till 6pm, stopping only for coffee, lunch, tea and a short post-lunch break. After dinner, we’re free – save for worship team planning sessions, or last minute sermon prep, or tutorials, or intense theological discussions… It was not a holiday.

But it was a lot of fun – especially in the evenings. As was the case last year, mature ordinands regressed to teenage-like behaviour. I’ve returned from France with knowledge of two more youth group games, and the discovery that a trumpet mouthpiece can turn a hosepipe & funnel into an instrument upon which Mozart’s trumpet concerto can be played. Plus, I now know that trainee vicars are very adept at lying, when the need arises. Around the ‘bar’ [meeting room atmospherically lit by tea lights], on any one evening, you could find ordinands playing Cheat, Mafia, or Poker – all of which require stealth and resolute poker faces. Oh, and most importantly, my fellowship group won the annual college pub quiz.

Most fun of all, our final night saw a return of the Merville Spoons Championship. This stupidly childish game was a highlight of last year, and Merville wasn’t quite Merville until the coffee stirrers came out; the circular table occupied; glasses of wine were moved to safety; and spectacles removed from faces. Spoons is violent, loud and totally pointless. We love it.

Some of us take it a little too seriously. Take my friend Alex, for example. Always an excitable person, he exists in a frenzied state of anticipation throughout Spoons. Here he is explaining the rules:

And this is what ensued in his efforts to ensure he had a ‘spoon’:

Extreme, no? It got worse. This round was so hotly disputed that the two men fighting over the last spoon (it wasn’t the last round, everyone else had already secured a spoon) ended up having a one on one spoons fight – usually how the overall winner is decided. Partly so I could stay safely out of the way, and partly so I could record it for posterity, I have both this and the final on video:

Check out my particularly deep voiced/croaky commentary on the final. There’s a BBC sports job out there for me somewhere…

The sad thing about all this fun was the realisation that most of the people around the Spoons table won’t be there next year. Lots of people in my year are on the two year stream, meaning that they’ll be getting ordained this summer – all the girls & one of the guys will be around and that’s it. It may only be just over a year since my vicar school career began, but already some of us are on the final strait.

The show must go on

The monastic sojourn has ended and I’m back in London with a new appreciation of myself and the amazing group of people I’m privileged to be training with. I also have a speaking voice that’s an octave lower than usual – not thanks to over zealous singing, chanting or Bible reading, but thanks to some kind of autumnal virus.

The dome of the rather lovely Merville chapel.

This virus emerged on our first day in Merville. By Monday morning I was croaking out the words of BCP morning prayer. Normally this would have been a mild inconvenience – I’m a person who does not appreciate their ability to talk being compromised. However, as I mentioned in my pre-Merville post, I was preaching my first ever college sermon on Tuesday morning. A lack of speaking voice would be a major issue.

So, I did the sensible thing of taking to my bed for Monday afternoon; not talking too much; drinking sloe gin to ease my throat; and asking Twitter (& the St George’s faithful) to pray. [Actually, my fellow ordinands prayed lots too. I was stunned that so many of them – when they heard my voice – immediately prayed for me. I’m not sure why this surprised me.] Twitter did pray, but it also suggested a back-up plan:

If my voice completely failed me, I could always do my sermon via mime or, even better, interpretative dance. Hmmm. [As it happens, someone in my year at college is a mime artiste – I think I’ll leave miming sermons up to him…]

On Tuesday morning, I awoke early and tested my voice. There was noise, it was crackly and croaky, but it was something to work with. I got through the sermon, it received positive feedback, and with the pressure over, I took to my bed for most of the rest of the day.

As I commented to a fellow ordinand & fellow child of clergy, it was a valuable lesson in the show must go on. Sometimes, no matter how rubbish you feel, or how little voice you have left, you have to get on with what you’re called to do. Services need to be conducted, sermons have to be preached and pastoral care needs to be provided. Not that I’m suggesting that vicars never get a break, it’s just that sick days aren’t always as easy to take as they might be in an office job.

Also, sometimes you’ll discover two days before you preach that someone else had the same passage as you, and was going to use your main theme just 36 hours prior to your own sermon. By some ridiculous quirk of the worship rota, Daniel 2 was the Old Testament reading for Sunday night’s service, as well as being the designated lectionary reading for both Tuesday (verses 1 – 24) and Wednesday’s (25 – end) morning worship. That’s three sermons on Daniel interpreting Nubuchadnezzar’s dream. Needless to say, the ordinands are now very au fait with Daniel…

But in such circumstances, one cannot simply get up and say “sorry, I had a sermon when we got here on Saturday, but unfortunately Ashley made most of my points on Sunday night”. One has to instead re-write one’s sermon, trying not to think about the poor person who’s preaching 24 hours later. [That person was slightly miffed that I’d used her Brueggemann quote, but she made a good joke out of it.] Fortunately, it seems that there is a lot to be said regarding the interpretation of dreams – which makes me wonder if interpretative dance/mime would have been a good way to go had my voice escaped me entirely.

The vaulted ceiling of the chapel gives it a marvellous acoustic.
This makes singing sound wonderful, but makes coughs highly conspicuous.

Returning to Merville

Today, passengers on the mid-morning Eurostar service from London to Brussels via Lille will be sharing their journey with 100 trainee vicars. Yes, it’s time for vicar school’s annual week in a French monastery.

Last year was fun, but at times traumatic. This year, I’m travelling with people who in the last 12 months have become great friends – even more potential for fun. I know the pitfalls of the monastery (bad tea & plastic cups mean that I have my own tea & a decent mug), and its eccentricities. I’ve located the local supermarket for French provisions, and I know people who know where an excellent patisserie is…

Plus, I have gin. Yesterday, while contemplating my packing, I asked Twitter & Facebook what they would pack for a week in a French monastery with 100 trainee vicars. Overwhelmingly, the responses were alcohol related – which is quite logical, thinking about it. (Though actually unnecessary  as beer & wine are served at both lunch and dinner.) But it’s good to know that the vicar stereotypes persist! [Also, hipflasks were mentioned several times – I don’t have one, but perhaps this would be a useful ordination gift come 2014?] In fact, the bottle in my bag isn’t just gin, it’s M&S sloe gin – escapes the need for lugging tonic water around.

The other essentials? Slippers, dried fruit, granola bars, Percy Pigs, satsumas and chocolate. After all, this is the place who greeted us with Shark Curry on our first night last year. (Please note, the slippers will not be munched upon unless there is a dire food-related emergency.)

Some of the delights of Merville in 2011
This post is more a means of explaining my imminent blog silence, more than anything. If you’re a praying type, do think of us all. The 2nd years are doing leadership training, which can be a bit of a struggle. Plus, I get to do my first ever college sermon on Tuesday morning – an 8am service before breakfast to be precise. If that’s not a tough crowd, I don’t what is. The biggest challenge will be keeping it to 5mins (given that I usually have to preach for 25mins), but go on longer and I’m likely to be lynched by starving ordinands… 
I’ll be back in a week. Stay safe people, and Americans, don’t go and elect a moron while I’m away! 

The Guide badge of Vicar School

A little known fact about me – depending on how long you’ve known me – is that I am a warranted Guider. (Well, I was. Warrants expire after 5 years and that happened to me in 2007.) It might come as no surprise to those that have known me a while that I was something of a try-hard Guide and Brownie.

Uniforms? Yes please!
Hierarchy structure with leadership potential? Count me in!
International network and history? Ooh, fascinating!
Multiple badges? When can I start?!

It was the badges that really got me. In my first week of being a Brownie, I’d read the handbook cover to cover and established exactly what I needed to do in order to gain the Footpath, Road and Highway badges (you did one a year over a three year period). I’d learnt all I needed to learn in order to get enrolled – and yes, I can still tell the story of Betty, Timmy and the talking owl from memory.

I joined Brownies back in the days of brown dresses with a strict badge etiquette. Interest badges (the subject, free-choice ones) went down the right arm (and then down the left, if you were especially try-hard). There were rules over badges that needed to be removed once you’d passed another year (promise badges) or gained another annual merit (the Footpath/Road/Highway series); plus badges that had to go beneath or above others. It was complicated…

Can you believe I found this image on eBay
Who would want to sell their complete Brownie history? More to the point, who would want to buy it? 
By Guides, the new uniforms with sashes had arrived, but the lack of sleeve challenge didn’t quash my motivation to gain as many badges as possible. Fear not, the uniform’s designers had thought of that – there was an extra-long sash for such circumstances! My try-hardness did not go unrewarded – I reached the pinnacle of achieving the Baden Powell Trefoil Award. [At the presentation evening, my parents heard how all those receiving the honour had done multiple good deeds and had done much hiking and camping. They wondered how on earth I’d managed to gain the badge without ever having done any hiking and only 2 nights of camping…]

Guide badges aplenty

Weirdly, this sash is nearly identical to mine – down to the three-stripe Pack Leader badge and Young Leader badge tab bearing a Baden Powell Trefoil. (Found here.)

Anyway, before I descend into too deep a Guiding reverie, my point is that I appear to have discovered the Guide badge of Vicar School – although sadly, as far as I’m aware, we don’t actually get a physical badge in return for our efforts. (Which is a shame, as I bet cassocks would look a lot more interesting with lines of badges on them.)

What we do get is 60 credits towards our theology degree – the equivalent of three modules. All we have to do is prepare an ‘Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning’ portfolio. I say ‘all’, it’s hands-down one of the most tedious missions I’ve ever engaged in, involving endless tasks akin to the most frustrating application form you’ve ever completed – you know, the kind that basically ask the same question 7 times, but expect you to answer it a different way and with different evidence every time. (Anyone who’s had the pleasure of applying for a Methodist job would be familiar with such a thing.)

The Guide badge similarity dawned on my while I read through the process back in April, while on board Eurostar. [Oh yes, I am so try-hard that I started work on this thing a full 8 months before it was due. I’d be impressed with myself, but one of my class-mates had already handed hers in by that point.] There, I came across the instruction: ‘Find a shoe box (or box file) and fill it with anything that might be offered as evidence for your learning…’ I’m pretty sure that was the exact same instruction when preparing for the Baden Powell Trefoil – except this time I don’t have to cook anything over a campfire; organise a sing-song; or help with a Brownie pack for two years.

However, right now, having spent 90 minutes of my Wednesday evening filling in endless boxes proving that I do indeed have key skills, a campfire looks really rather appealing. Maybe to make the process a happier one, I’ll design a badge I can award myself with once I’ve finished the beast. If anyone would like to suggest an image for it, then please do so…