Boarding the sinking ship

This morning, an article with the above title went up on Threads – but for some reason it’s currently not available. It was a response to another article (published at exactly the same time) entitled ‘A sinking ship we should abandon?’ – a reference to a church that is quickly disappearing. The article to which I was responding proved to be very controversial and at points today I’ve pondered whether agreeing to write a response was a good thing. (There is a whole blogpost about that which I composed in my head earlier…)

The missing posts may be owing to a glitch on the super-shiny new website that launched yesterday, or it could be that someone at Threads thought better of publishing it. I’ve had a few requests on Twitter for the text, so I’m posting it here. (My version may be slightly different from the one Threads posted, as I know they edited it for length!) It’s possible it’ll reappear on Threads, in which case this post may come down. I won’t post the other article here, even though I have the text, as I don’t think that would be fair. Hopefully it’ll resurface tomorrow. 

Apparently, I’ve made a bad move, career-wise. On July 4th, I was ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral, into an institution that may as well be irrelevant the majority of the population who don’t believe in the God I’ve committed my life to. I’m not so much a new curate, more a new curator at the ‘faith museum’ that is the Church of England.

I know the stats: the 2011 census showed a drop of 13% in the number of Brits identifying themselves as Christian since 2001. Since 1960, attendance at Church of England churches has halved. Methodist membership’s declined by nearly two-thirds since 1980. The numbers are bleak.

Am I kidding myself that the pension fund I began paying into last month will still exist by the time I retire in 30 or 40 years time? Will I even have a job in my 60’s? How about some more stats: I trained at a college that didn’t even exist ten years ago, and next month, it will welcome a record number of ordinands (over 70). My diocese is aiming to have doubled the number of people entering ordained ministry by 2020. Is this a last ditch attempt to rescue the institution? I think not.

The church got things wrong in the past, but it’s by no means irrelevant today. In parish ministry, I get to meet people at the highest and lowest points of their lives and everything in between – from weddings and celebrating new life, to the funeral of a child that was barely two. I have witnessed how, when the worst of life happens, church communities come together in response. Clergy have a unique role in those spaces and no matter the statistics, society doesn’t seem to be ready to let them go yet.

That’s part of what makes up my ‘calling’. To serve society. It’s not about the Sundays, or being a local celeb. It’s about serving as Christ first served. I know that’ll I never match his sacrifice. I know that many in society don’t give a toss about why I do what I do, but it doesn’t stop me. It doesn’t end at the church door, or the parish boundary, but stretches out far ahead of me – wherever I end up and in whatever role within my vocation.

Countless people question this calling. Some have the right and duty to do so, others are curious. Total strangers, intrigued by my answer to their polite “So, what do you do?” quiz me about my motivations. Often they’re not interested in ‘the church’ – but are curious as to how God impacts someone. “It’s a calling” is never the end of a conversation, often it’s just the beginning.

I could stay hidden amongst those who share these out-dated beliefs, in the security of an emptying church building, but I don’t. I out myself as a ‘professional’ Christian in my dog collar, and get landed with stereotypes, high expectations and abuse. Rather than offering protection, it brands me as one of ‘them’. Not so much a status symbol, as an object of ridicule.

But I carry on wearing it, tucked under my ‘normal’ clothes. I’m just trying to be me, living out what I think God wants me to do. I’m not edgy or trendy (although potentially marginally more so that the kind of vicar Sara Cox had in mind when banning them from wearing trainers). I’m this curate, in this place at this time, looking for God to use me. I’m a feminist who’s made the conscious decision to become Anglican in order to fight the church’s patriarchy – the stained-glass ceiling may have been broken, but it’s left behind shards that can cut those attempting to travel through it.

I’m anxious not to get caught up in a Christian bubble – I’m more interested in getting out into the ‘real’ world than inviting people into ours. If the church is to survive it has to make that its mission. It’s not an easy ride. When things didn’t go to plan and I screamed at God in anger and frustration, the message came back loud and clear that ordination was the way forward.

I don’t know how we avoid the iceburg, but I do know that abandoning ship isn’t right either – someone’s got to be on the bridge to steer a new course.

And that’s how I got my calling…

…pretty much.

It struck me last week, while preparing a sermon for Sunday night on Hearing God’s Call, that I’d never written anything about how I ended up on the road to vicar-dom. Sporadically, I’ve been writing a series of posts loosely collated under the heading: ‘Irreverent Guide to Becoming a Reverend’. [Which is what my satirical Church Times column would be titled, should it ever happen.] It’s been a rather haphazard collection, but altogether it shows something about the interesting journey that is the route to priesthood.

Through the gates of St George's

If you wanted to, you could just listen to the sermon. (There’s also a video of it floating around as it was my assessed preach for Vicar School.) Or, you could read this post, which is likely to include substantially fewer than the 3,500 my sermon consisted of!

Let’s start at the very beginning – with some singing nuns. I’ve always said every lesson in life is aided by songs from musicals…

When I preached on Sunday, I quoted two verses of the song. Sadly, I couldn’t play the whole thing to the congregation as it gets a little unsuitable-for-church near the end.

If I remember correctly, when I left this performance I felt strongly called to join a convent. That call soon dissipated when a friend informed me that most convents don’t have gospel choirs.

Anyway, this is less about the nuns and more about me. The point I’m trying to make with the nuns is that we are all called in different ways. Some of us see God’s call in junk food, others in natural disasters. God works in many, mysterious ways. (One of the points I also wanted to make at church was that we are ALL called by God – just to different things, places and situations. It’s not just those people who take up traditional ‘vocations’ like teaching, medicine or ministry.)

Also, for those of you reading this who are not amongst the Christian masses, this applies to you too. Vocation is a common word in our vocabulary, even within secular society. (Though I sometimes wonder if that’s because it refers to jobs that no sane person would want to do, unless a higher being made them do it!) Everyone wants to have a purpose in their life (there’s a musical reference for this too, thanks to Avenue Q), and I think anyone who said otherwise would be kidding themselves.

Often, the most frustrating thing about calling is that it can be difficult to work out what it is. I spent most of the last decade, in common with most aimless graduates, trying to work out what on earth one does with a degree, or specifically in my case, a MA on a rather obscure bit of history. Who might be interested in the activities of missionaries in New Zealand between 1845 and 1853? Very few people… I ended up working for a few different Christian organisations and, in fact, working with a lot of missionaries (I guess my MA wasn’t quite so useless!), but this only served to make my lack of purpose all the more obvious and my desperation to work out what my calling was all the greater. When you work for a mission agency, a commonly asked question is: “so, would you like to be a missionary?”. I emphatically did not!

Looking back, it’s clear to me that God put me in those jobs and places for a reason. They were the right place for me to be at that time, and they helped shape my future. I have confidence in my calling today because of the countless people I’ve met who have been faithful in listening to and following the calling they’ve received from God. But how did I hear God call me into ministry?

It sounds a little lame, but my first inkling was just a feeling. A feeling that I needed to be doing more with my life and that the things that energised me most weren’t found in my desk-job, but in the relationships and activities I was involved with outside the office. The problem was that this feeling pointed towards the same vocation as my parents, so I battled for quite a while as to whether this was a genuine calling, or simply an inability to think of something different and original. It took questions and comments from friends to finally get me to admit and acknowledge that this is what I thought God was calling me into. Specifically, it was a simple question asked by someone who turned into one of my wisest friends, on a train from Reading to Paddington. “Do you feel called to lead a church?”

I was actively hunting out my calling. I spent ages trying to work out what it was, what God might be saying, praying about it, asking friends about it – the thing was, he kind of had and I was ignoring it, thinking I was wrong!

Once I stopped ignoring this, and accepted God’s words, I felt peaceful. Well, not all the time. At times it was – and still is – flipping scary. But it comes back to trusting that God knows best. Personally, I think the biggest clue that you’ve got it right is how it makes you feel. At the beginning of the week in which I left my last job and moved out of my flat of over five years, I preached a sermon in my last church about calling. I was scared of all the changes that starting training would involve – but it’s turned out ok. More than ok, in fact. I think it was noticeable – actually, friends did comment that in my first weeks at Vicar School I looked the happiest they’d known me. That is peace at work.

It’s got to be said that having reached the half-way point of training, and having the first pieces of curacy paperwork sitting in my inbox, my calling’s feeling rather scary again. But it’s ok. I will just keep repeating that mantra to myself until it feels like it is…

[Over the next couple of weeks I’m planning on writing a bit more about the selection process, vicar school and life as an ordinand generally. If you’ve got any questions or ideas for a post, do let me know. I’m always happy to share my experiences!]