Merville Reflections

Merville, reflected Merville, reflected. (It rained, nearly perpetually.) 

Ah Merville. I had mixed feelings as our coach departed. On the one hand, I was keen to return to normal life (with freely-chosen food, more friends, and consistent internet); but on the other, I was sad to leave a place that I’ve now spent 3 weeks of my life in. It seems St Mellitus will return to Merville next year (despite much room-sharing), but as a soon to be ordained ordinand, I will not be among them.

St Mellitus is virtually the only theological college in the Church of England to provide full-time ordination training in a non-residential context. It’s therefore slightly ironic that the highlight of the year for many students is the week we spend in a monastery, being as much like a residential college as is possible in rural France. Chapel every morning before breakfast and every evening before dinner; eating meals together; eating one meal in silence (while the sermons of St Augustine were read aloud); living alongside one another on corridors with fire doors that bang really loudly; awakening each morning to the sound of your neighbour’s footsteps echoing really loudly; and having the kind of fun in the evenings that only trainee vicars letting their hair down can have…

DeanoThis screen-grab is from the only video of my only appearance at St Mellitus open-mic night. It’s a private video so I can’t share it, plus it didn’t manage to capture the whole song. (I’m hoping we might repeat it at some point, so we can get the whole thing.) The above crew worked together to produce a parody of The Lumineers ‘Ho Hey’, that became a ballad of how our Assistant Dean was plotting to overthrow the Dean – who we affectionally call ‘Deano’, which would be the word we’re all singing at this particular moment. (Assistant Dean is now known as Ass. Dean, which is unfortunate.) 

In actual fact, our residential week is probably a lot more intense than a typical week in a residential college. For a start, there is next to no free time (apart from after dinner and one free afternoon), whereas you’d usually have time to do things like write essays, prepare sermons and visit churches. Secondly, even the married students are onsite. (This is a good thing, as otherwise all but two of my friends wouldn’t be around.) Thirdly, so are the tutors. (This is an especially good thing when one of your tutors brings with them an excellent card game that you become practically undefeated in.)

It’s a good job it only lasts a week! I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but it has got to be said that the level of exhaustion after 7 days of continuous vicar school is on another level. Not to mention just how peopled-out this introvert gets when the amount of time she can spend by herself is strictly limited. Although, one element of the exhaustion would be my own fault – given my commitment to rising at 6.30am (an hour before non-compulsory pre-morning prayer eucharist) in order to run; have early breakfast so that work could be completed; or walk to the boulangerie for croissants. I saw a lot of Merville in the dark and as dawn broke…

Before and during the dawn, Merville The church and civic hall before dawn (which finally broke at 7.30); the cemetery and canal as light began to appear.

Talking of the boulangerie, my reconnaissance mission to check its opening times and quality led me to have possibly the most appropriate pastry treat anyone at vicar school in a monastery could have:

Une Religiose GBBO fans will obviously recognise this as une religieuse – the pastry shaped like a nun. (Coffee flavour.) Recipe here.

Finally, I inadvertently began a Merville tradition in my first year. While out on a reflective prayer walk, I took a seat on a peculiar concrete manhole and started taking photos. Inevitably, I wound up doing a Liz. The next year, I found myself in the same spot wearing the same jumper and so took another. This year, I took the same jumper with me for the sole purpose of completing the trio. And thus, I now have proof of how much two years of vicar school has aged me:

Merville self-portraits 2011-13(2012 was clearly a little windy.) I think the answer is, I’ve not aged that much & I’ve certainly got happier! 

Intentional or token?

Christian festival season usually means that the issue of gender representation rears its head again. Someone, somewhere will analyse festival programmes, working out what proportion of the speakers are female and whether that proportion seems appropriate. For Focus, that person was me, while in the green room for a BBC recording.

Focus was analysed thus:
Main stage speakers: 1 woman out of 9.
Seminar speakers: 8 women out of 27. (Though 2 of the seminars I went to had women speakers who had not been listed on the programme.)

Focus wasn’t alone. The Keswick Conference had none (people on Twitter were not surprised by this), and someone at New Wine LSE tweeted this comment during the week:

Ah yes, the lay wives of clergy thing… Yes, couples where one is ordained are both called by God, but the issue really isn’t about the woman concerned, but the prevalence at many of these conferences of wives of church leaders speaking from the front while ordained women sit listening. Why aren’t the ordained women speaking??

At Focus, Wednesday morning was a highlight for me – not just because it was orchestral & choral worship morning, but because this was the first time I’ve heard an ordained woman speak at a main stage HTB network event. It was church plant morning, where those plants that were new, or changing, reported back and were prayed for. Again and again male clergy came up to the stage with their wives in tow. The men did most of the speaking. But then, the leader of a new plant in Hounslow was invited up – Libby Etherington, an ordained woman. I whooped vigorously! I cheered again when my belief that she was the first female HTB church planter was confirmed from the stage. [As an aside, in the commissioning of the newest church plant, I think HTB may have commissioned their first unmarried church planter. Another landmark.]

It’s progress, but much more work is needed…

Earlier in the week, I’d attended an excellent seminar on gender from Sean Doherty (my Ethics tutor at St Mellitus) & Tamsin Merchant (part of the brains behind the recent Young Women’s Vocations Day). The content was great, but it was the questions at the end that fascinated me:

  • How can women find mentors if they worship in churches where few women in leadership can be found?
  • What can we do to encourage women who feel called into leadership?
  • Do churches/conferences need to be more intentional about involving women, or is intentionality tokenism?

That last question was my own and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I want to see women speaking, but I want it to be because they have something worth listening to, not just because “we need to have a woman”. I hear great women speaking on a regular basis – I’ve had some great lectures from female theologians; I’ve been to women’s events where talented women have contributed; I’ve worked in a denomination where women have regularly held the top job and performed brilliantly; and I know that there are a lot of great women out there that I’ve never had the opportunity to hear.

Often, when I mention the lack of women at these festivals, people ask “well, who would you like to hear?”, which isn’t always a fair question. Do you know of every male speaker on the Christian circuit? No. Then why expect me to know which are the women who should be speaking? I do have some names I throw into the mix – especially if it’s a theological setting. But part of the problem is that at these big events, there are big-name speakers flown in from the US. Attitudes to gender within many of their churches are even more complicated than ours, and finding women who are in the same league as Louie Giglio (Focus’ top speaker, and an excellent one), Bill Johnson, Rick Warren or Rob Bell is nigh on impossible.

But I know and understand that, so I don’t expect to find women – or that many at least – in that league. What I would like is for a conference to think to itself: “Well, we’ve got a big-name from the US who happens to be male, do we have a British woman who could contribute too?” And to actively pursue balancing out the main stage speakers so that there’s an even mix of men and women. Someone, this year, should have looked at the list of speakers at the Focus Big Top and asked why there was only one woman…

It’s not all about the conferences though. In fact, for the conferences to get the idea, it needs to happen at grass roots level. There needs to be an inherent intentionality to include both men and women in all forms of leadership and speaking – then perhaps it won’t be too much effort. When I asked my question, Tamsin replied that intentionality was not tokenism, it was a change in mindset that was needed. She used an example of a lunch I’d been at just an hour earlier where everyone who had spoken had been male, but hadn’t needed to be – that’s when intentionality comes into play. Sean added that it’s only tokenism (in his opinion) if someone asks a woman to contribute by saying it’s “because you’re a woman”.

The Wednesday morning where we heard from the first female church planter was also the morning when all the St Mellitus ordinands, graduates and staff are prayed for. I like to refer to this as ‘ritual humiliation of ordinands’ day, but it’s actually a real privilege. HTB has a strong relationship with St Mellitus and many of those training there are placed with HTB plants and go on to work within the network too, but as we stood on stage, I noticed something…

Nicky G. +Richard & St MellitusNicky Gumbel & The Bishop of London pray for St Mellitus. (Credit.)

It’s not necessarily clear from this photo, as it doesn’t show the whole stage and some of the people are obscured, but while standing up there I became aware of how few women were present. One of the things I love about St Mellitus is the fact that men and women are split pretty much 50/50 – there’s no noticeable imbalance. (If anything, given all the people in my year who did two years not three, our final year will be rather female dominated!) Yet in that group on the stage, there were only four female students – i.e. four women who are placed in churches that are part of the HTB network and go to Focus. There was (as far as I could tell) one woman who had trained at St Mellitus and now works within the network. There were an awful lot of men. All the women I’m training with will get (and have got) jobs at the end of it all, but it doesn’t look as though any of them are at an HTB network church. Is there an intentionality to have women leaders? I’m not sure. Curacies are often the luck of the draw, but at the moment it seems that the men are luckier. [Obviously, these churches can and do take curates from other colleges and many people I train with wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of the network, but there is a definite absence of women in leadership.]

We need a church that is intentional about sorting these imbalances out. In the mean time, I’m going to be intentionally asking the same questions and making the same points over and over again, until something changes. Hopefully, it won’t be too long.


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!