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Ordination: Whose calling? Who’s calling?

Sr Helen Julian being made Deacon at Hilfield by Bishop Michael Perham

At the very beginning of every Church of England ordination service the bishop asks those to be ordained: ‘Do you believe that God is calling you to this ministry?’ They answer in unison, with well-schooled gusto, ‘I do so believe’, and the service continues.

If you have ever attended an ordination service in support of a family member, colleague or friend then you might well, at that point, marvel at such certainty and confidence. As a former Director of Ordinands (DDO), watching those people with whom I will have agonised, prayed, pondered and rejoiced over the years leading up to that moment, I am acutely aware of the depths to which they will have pondered that very question until they recognised that, wonderfully, God was inviting them to be living sacraments: visible signs to the world that God calls each of us to love, serve and follow.

It was my privilege to spend six years meeting people day – listening to them try to make sense of a feeling that, for some reason and in some way, God was calling them to be a priest or a deacon. At a first meeting I would sit with a blank sheet of paper on my lap and ask them simply, ‘why are you here?’ In many cases out would tumble the words; held back for fear of ridicule or incredulity, but now at last, invited. In every case I would sit and let them tell me, uninterrupted, what they needed to share, until they had told me everything that had been waiting within them. Only then would I probe, question or clarify.

Being a DDO, listening prayerfully and attentively to anyone who walked through my door, was exhilarating and also exhausting. What I was listening for, as each person spoke, was a glimpse of what God was doing in their lives. Sometimes they articulated this clearly and vibrantly, but more often I had only a hint, a whisper, as they tried to say what they imagined I wanted to hear.

What I always wanted, most of all, was the sense that God was calling them – not an idealised version of themselves. God calls real people to become bishops, priests and deacons. I met young people with barely twenty years of living in them. I met people with devastating histories, anxious that their past might de-rail their hoped-for future. Without exception, I met godly people who were seeking to do the will of God. They were the ‘clay pots’ that St Paul speaks of: with God’s treasure within.

The Church of England has, over the last few years, changed the way in which women and men seeking ordination are assessed. It is no longer enough, as it once was, simply to be desirous of ordination, of good moral character and decent education. Instead, there are criteria by which Directors of Ordinands consider each person they see. These criteria include how candidates speak of vocation and how it has affected them, how they pray and how faith shapes their lives. They are asked about their relationships, past and present, recognising that ministry is lived out in the context of family and friendships. They are invited to consider their own character, and insightful references are sought from colleagues and clergy. They are asked to give an account of what mission and evangelism mean to them and how their own love for God inspires others. They are asked about their Anglican identity and what that means to them; they also need to demonstrate an ability and importantly, a willingness to undertake serious study in theology.

Candidates submit written work; they might, with the guidance of the DDO, undertake a placement in a parish or other pastoral context. Some of them engage with study as independent students, particularly if their last encounter with formal learning was decades ago. They are sent to wise counsellors for spiritual direction and asked to talk carefully with people who matter to them. They are asked to think carefully about what ordained ministry is like in the twenty-first century. DDOs work hard to dispel the gentle myths of what ordained life looks like from the outside, and encourage candidates to get right to the heart of what church life is actually about – and what sort of person a priest needs to be to serve that Church today and in the future.

After time spent with the DDO and others within the diocese, each candidate then submits to a national process. This is known as a ‘BAP’, or Bishops’ Advisory Panel. It is a three-day-long series of interviews, drawing together sixteen candidates at a retreat house with six ‘Advisers’ and a Selection Secretary from the Ministry Division of the Church of England, who ensures that the process is smooth and fair for all. The Advisers ‘advise’ the diocesan bishop as to the fitness of the candidate; the bishop may choose to take or ignore the advice, although in practice he or she will take it. At that point a candidate becomes an ‘ordinand’: a person training for ordained ministry at one of the courses or colleges around the country. They train usually for two or three years, depending on their age and previous theological qualifications.

The period between the first encounter with the DDO and the ordination service is often much longer than ordinands expect or desire; although, as they almost always admit when they come to the end of it, it is never quite long enough! I have spent many hours listening to men and women telling me that, even after all the praying, reading and practising they have done, they are simply not ready to be ordained. My answer has always been the same: no one is ever ready, or able, or capable in their own strength. That’s why we pray for the grace of God; that God will take the unready and unsteady and work through them. This, for me, is the sacramental aspect of ordination: that God does indeed take the ordinary stuff of life and fill it, by grace, to reveal something of the divine call to each of us.

Not everyone who meets with a DDO becomes ordained. In the prayer and exploration and testing some find that God is leading them elsewhere: confirming the ministry they already have or nudging them into a new, and previously unimagined, direction. They may not find the answer they expected or wanted, but, having seriously asked the question ‘is God calling me to ordained ministry?’ they discover something about God and themselves.

‘Do you believe that God is calling you to this ministry?’ The next time you hear that question at an ordination service, remember that those who answer have been asking it for many years. Please pray for them too, that they might discover just how much the God who has called them will honour their response. f


The Revd Canon Dr Georgina Byrne is a residentiary canon of Worcester Cathedral. She was, until last summer, also Diocesan Director of Ordinands for the Diocese of Worcester, a post that she held for six years.