God is weird: PART 5

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

Into the Great Unknown

Should it be this hard? Should I leave it alone? Why won’t this strong sense of purpose and calling just go away?

Two days later my prayers were answered (many of them at least) and I was told about a job being advertised at the Diocese of Durham. It was to do with stewardship.

To say I was reluctant and lacking in faith is an understatement. I had to look up the word stewardship for a start. I had no expectations of success but, God is weird. God is so weird that the timing was perfect, the actual job description (words like stewardship aside) was perfect and the panel said yes. 

I had a job, I could patch up my finances, I was going to be serving the church full-time and I could use those aforementioned practical skills as a lay person. Hurrah!
So for the last 18 months I’ve been leading The Generous Giving Project, which bizarrely has helped me develop in my worst area of the 9 criteria; knowing about church and stuff.

After I’d only been a practising Christian for a couple of years,  I’m chuffed to bits that I was given the opportunity to work as a Diocesan Officer, advising local churches on developing disciples to be more generous, and writing materials on God’s generosity. I get to present at Chapter meetings, at Deanery Synod meeting, at Bishop’s Leadership Team meetings and I preach most Sundays (sometimes up to three sermons a week!) It’s crazy.

I’ve worked in churches with big worship bands and PowerPoint, where children and adults wave coloured flags and join in with prayer whenever they like. And in churches with bells and incense. And in churches where we hand each other bread and wine in a circle. And in churches who are Forward in Faith and have alternative oversight from a different Bishop.

Until recently I didn’t know most of this stuff even existed. I didn’t even know I was part of a Deanery.

I’ve learned loads, but the more I learn the more I realise I have yet to learn. Each new experience reminds me how inexperienced I am. But that’s OK. It’s not a race (I keep telling myself). What’s really helped is all I’ve learned about the breadth of the Church of England, and how I understand my own tradition. And I still maintain I don’t have one! 

Not really. Whilst this might irk the BAP (if I actually get that far) I can’t comfortably say I’m one thing or another, even though when people meet me they think I give off a whiff of evangelical. I think it’s my brogues.

My weird pathway through faith in my first few years has exposed me to so many different theologies and ways of worshipping that I can’t honestly say there’s one I’m more drawn to above another. I’m a Eucharist loving, modern worship song adoring evangelist, who loves liturgy, saying Morning Prayer, and preaching the Gospel. And I know I’m not alone. I’m told it’s not that rare a condition after all.

But has any of this helped me to discern whether or not I really am called to be an ordained minister? Certainly. Do I have an answer? No. I’m still just muddling through. In this job, at times, I’ve felt so content and fulfilled in my work that I’ve wondered if a future in lay leadership may be exactly what I’m called to do, and that I’d misunderstood that first message in my confirmation service.

Maybe what I’m called to do doesn’t require me to wear a dog collar. I’ve given this possibility much thought, and have talked about what this might mean with my husband, who had just about resigned himself to being married to a vicar.

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I may never become a priest, either because I feel I’m called to lay ministry after all and I withdraw from the process, or the church decides that for me, because it discerns God’s calling me elsewhere. There are no certainties here. A few years ago that would have felt enormously stressful; all this not knowing. But I rather like it. I have no idea if/when I’ll go to panel or what they’ll say. It’s all in God’s hands.

And yes, I’m really getting better with the pride thing. If I get as far as BAP and they don’t recommend me, I’ll be devastated for sure, but not because I’ll think of myself as a failure. I’d be upset because by then, if I get as far as BAP it’s because I’m as sure as I can be that I desperately want to serve the church as a priest for the rest of my days. So a no at that point would still be heart-breaking, but not because of pride. Just because I’ll need to re-evaluate what I think God’s calling me to.

And this whole process of trusting God will hopefully help me to see that if it’s not ordained ministry, then God has planned something else equally weird (and I’ve come to expect equally exciting) around the corner. Let’s wait and see.

Advice For Fellow Candidates

If I had one bit of advice for anyone reading this who is just on the edge of the process, or like me, right in the middle of the storm, then it would be to trust God in whom He calls, and what He calls them to. Time and again I’ve been told that it’s OK that I’m nothing like the model of a “normal” priest, and that if I am ever ordained, I’ll be a Rachael-shaped priest, not any other kind of priest. It’s OK to be different.

I’m told the church actually really wants diversity in its leaders. Phew!

As candidates, we don’t know for sure what will come of our future, we just have to trust that we, our Bishops, and the rest of the folk we meet along the way, can wisely discern God’s call, which is not an easy job, and it’s not always to ordained ministry.  God is weird. He calls weird people to do weird things. Thank God.

God is weird: PART 4

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

Where’s My Pigeon Hole?

Back to the process itself. The DDO assigned me a Vocations Advisor (who has since left and I’ve been assigned a new one) whom I met every couple of months to discuss how my discerning is going. These meetings are like a very long three-way job interview. The church is looking at me and I’m looking at the church and myself and we’re all looking to God and asking “Is this right?”

After my first meeting with the DDO it was apparent I knew pretty much nothing about church. This was also confirmed in my meetings with my first Vocations Advisor. We’d been looking at the 9 criteria, a set of qualities which candidates have to show/possess, in order to be considered for training. I stumbled at the second of nine. Not a great start.

I’d have to show “an understanding of my own tradition within the Church of England, an awareness of the diversity of traditions and practice, and a commitment to learn from and work generously with difference”. Tricky, as I didn’t have a tradition. I didn’t fancy (and still don’t fancy) having to decide what kind of Christian I am.

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I was baffled by the various pigeon holes people occupied and what this meant in terms of theology, worship styles and whether one puts one’s hands in their air while singing or not. I’d be flattered to be described as charismatic, but had no idea this had anything to do with the Holy Spirit. The term Evangelical had, in my limited understanding, been hijacked by aggressive hate preachers in America. Maybe I once watched a documentary about it. Maybe Louis Theyroux was in it.

I now realise this couldn’t be further from the truth, and I now see myself as very aligned with elements of this tradition. Anglo-Catholic still confused me because there was such mystery in it all, but I liked the idea of predictable structure and fancy outfits (the Army in me). Apparently there’s much more to it than that.  Indeed, so much more. I now see myself as very aligned with elements of this tradition too.

Furthermore, B.1 (Candidates should have knowledge and understanding of the Church of England) and B.3 (Candidates should have an understanding of ministry within the Church of England) made me again question why, oh why, a brand new Christian would be put through all of this. There was so much to learn.

Here’s a list of the bizarre church-words and phrases I had to look up  in my first few months as a candidate, because I’d either never heard of them or wasn’t sure of their “church” meaning: chasuble, chancel, vestry, cloisters, slain in the spirit, Brethren, laying on of hands, fellowship, getting alongside, testimony, intercession, eschatology, Emmanuel, Maranatha, Hallelujah, Hosanna, dean, canon, rector, elder, crucifer, anointing, ordinance, ordinand, ecclesiology, episcopal, Episcopalian, epistle, apostle, apostolic, apologetics, missal, canticle, Creed, Calvinist, cincture, liturgy, Pentateuch, 39 articles, Magnificat, matins, Presbyterian, Anglican Communion, Zion, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Luckily I’d served as a linguist and cultural specialist in the Army, so saw this as just another vocabulary to learn.  That said, I feared I’d never be able to convince a panel I knew enough. I could read and read but my veneer of understanding would surely be seen through by even the gentlest of interrogations at BAP. They’d know I was a fraud.

Crash Course on Church at Cranmer Hall

September came around quickly and I’d moved the last of my boxes home, had hung up my uniform, and had enrolled at Cranmer Hall. This exposure was just what I needed. Each day began with Morning Prayer in the chapel which smelled dreamily of incense, where I had to wrestle with a colourfully beribboned book and unfamiliar words, and Tuesday evenings were all about informal worship, heartily sung modern worship songs accompanied by a band, and Communion with real pieces of actual bread. It was all rather mind-blowing. I loved it.

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I was at Cranmer Hall for a year, and in that time I took modules in the Old and New Testaments, Mission and Evangelism (I got sent away on a mystery mission for 24 hours with no money which you can read about later), and preaching. I chose these modules because if I wasn’t recommended at BAP and couldn’t afford to continue my degree, at least I’d have some really useful practical skills to use as a lay person in my local church. This forethought proved worthy, as I’d soon find out.

By the spring term I was quite unwell and for a variety of reasons (I’ve written blogs on this, check the homepage) I had to leave. 

This was traumatic. I loved the community and all the staff. My head was full of new learning and ideas, and I felt I was being stretched in all the right ways. But alas, I couldn’t continue, so I told the Warden, who was very understanding, and I stepped out into a scary world of great uncertainty, wondering what on earth had just happened. What do I do now?

I just didn’t understand it. No job, no money, no more studying. Wasn’t this what God had wanted? 

I was unwell and very sad, and so very confused by my calling. 

God is weird: PART 2

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

In the car on my way back to the barracks, I turned to my husband and asked if he’d heard what the Bishop had said. He had. Well? Well, what? Hadn’t he heard the Bishop was say I should become a vicar? No, he had not heard that bit. It was a tense journey. The message seemed clear in my mind. And as I’d just promised to live the rest of my life for Jesus, which meant making some big sacrifices and changes, so I decided there and then to leave the army and work out if I really was called to become a priest.

My husband was very understanding. All he asked in the car was, “Where will we live? What will they pay you? Will you get a car?” Our lives might be very different from now on. Our hopes as a newly married couple of a certain lifestyle and combined salaries would need some realigning. I sensed my husband was sad about the holidays we probably wouldn’t have and the new Mercedes he’d definitely never have. I couldn’t answer any of his questions, as I didn’t know any vicars. This thing needed exploring, which he agreed I should do. I thank God for this marvellous man who was and is totally fine with me giving it a go.

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The thing was, I still couldn’t get my head around why God would want me. I just seemed like such an inappropriate choice. One of the earliest stumbling blocks, was that I personally knew a much more sensible candidate and simply couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t been called. She was a fellow Army Officer, a devout Christian, and she had a well-maintained and state of the art moral compass. She was wise and kind, and a competent leader. She really would be the better choice.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that, even if she felt she had a priestly vocation, she couldn’t take it very far, being a Roman Catholic. But still, I thought, if you take anyone Lord, take her!

I looked at my life and thought, wow God is weird. This can’t be right. It can’t be me, God, come on! (I’m told this denial phase is totally normal). I’d done some stupid stuff. Stuff I was embarrassed about. Stuff I was sorry about. What on earth would the Church do with me? A rugby playing, weight lifting, craft gin drinking, potty-mouthed, Army Officer? Aren’t priests supposed to be mild mannered and quiet? Reflective and peaceful? I was more likely to be found on the floor of the Officer’s Mess at 5am, showing off in front of everybody by challenging the Regimental Sergeant Major to a press-up competition, than saying my morning prayers.

Seriously God, you don’t want me leading a church.

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That night in bed, having decided I’d do my very best to follow Jesus, even if it meant exploring ordained ministry, I looked at my life and wondered how much of it I’d have to change. Indeed, would the lot have to go? Part of my discernment process has been trying to filter the bits I think Jesus rather likes about me, which perhaps make Him smile, and the bits that make Him face-palm, and say “No, Rachael, that’s definitely in the redemption pile.” A rather timely moral MOT. And it’s an ongoing process.

Spilling the Beans on a “Need to Know” Basis

I sat on this vicar-secret for what felt like ages. I was pretty embarrassed about it. Firstly because, as I’ve said, it seemed so unlikely, and secondly because it seemed so dreadfully arrogant. What gives me the right to think I could be a Priest, when I’ve only been a Christian for five minutes, when there are others before me that should do it, and, frankly, I’m not entirely sure what being a Priest is all about?

After a few weeks I confided in the man who married me. No not that one, the other one. Padre Justin Bradbury. We’d already spoken quite a bit about my new faith during marriage prep, and I trusted him implicitly. He seemed like a very wise and measured man.

I must admit I was rather hoping he’d say I’d lost my senses. But, alas, he recognised something and suggested my next move. He told me priests needed a degree in theology, so without further ado, I made an enquiry at Cranmer Hall, Durham University. It seemed sensible to move back up North to my home in nearby Darlington while I worked all this lot out.

To my surprise, the Deputy Warden Kate Bruce, who had arranged a meeting with me to listen to my inquiry, offered me a place there and then on the course as an Undergraduate, beginning in the September. I was totally at a loss. It was so very unexpected, and unlikely. But I had agreed to walk through doors if they opened when I pushed them. So, that was that. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to study theology as an undergraduate at Cranmer Hall alongside real trainee priests. This should help me work out if I could imagine myself as one of them.

As I stood to leave, still trying to keep Kate’s Labrador away from my crotch with my briefcase (a futile task), she asked if I’d seen the DDO. What’s a DDO? I wondered, hands covered in saliva. The Diocesan Director of Ordinands interviews and processes everyone exploring a vocation. I needed to book an appointment with him as part of my discernment. This scared me. This would make it official. More official.

Part 3 is out now

God has called you by name and made you His own

Last week I attended the confirmation service of a dozen or so candidates at my local church. I had the honour of being the ‘Crucifer’ and carrying a great big wooden and metal cross. I got to lead the Bishop and the rest of the party up and down the church, which I thoroughly enjoyed as it was much like drill, something I’m both experienced in and fond of. This was another one of those moments where my two worlds and identities collide; being a soldier and being a Christian.

I wasn’t always a Christian, but I feel like I have always been a soldier.

I’ve been getting paid for it since I was 17, and prior to that I just played at it with my cousin. We had Action Men toys and would run around the woods and North Yorkshire Moors with sticks, pretending to be soldiers. We used to make dens and catch fish and draw maps. We’d lay silently and patiently for hours watching birds through our binoculars, consulting the Dorling Kindersley British Birds book, whilst eating packed lunches our Grandma had made us, then we’d spring up, startling the farmers and we’d pretend we were fugitives on the run from the German Army and would hurtle down the hill together back to the caravan.

Real soldiering is somewhat different, but I feel as though my outdoorsy and somewhat non-conventional childhood prepared me well. I was accustomed to cuts and scrapes, exercise, being too hot and too cold and hiding in bushes. So whilst I may have always been destined for soldiering, or at least very comfortable doing it, I couldn’t have imagined spending the rest of my life as a Christian. This second part of my identity is a recent development. I was never interested in faith, and though I attended Sunday School as a child until I was 10 or so, I understood church to be in the same category as the Brownies or Guides and so I grew out of it as I did other my childhood clubs. My faith in God came as a huge surprise. I felt ill prepared and it certainly seemed that God sought me out, rather than the other way around. My account of just how I came to believe in God, whilst serving in Afghanistan, can be found here.

This blog is about the endlessly surprising ways in which God has changed my life since I committed to being a Christian. It is also about why I think the C of E is so weird and so wonderful, and about the many and frequent embarrassing mistakes I make as a new Christian. I’ll be writing about what I feel God is calling me to be and what this discernment process feels like. I will write about living out my faith in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Shrivenham and other exotic locations, and the organisations and people who have shaped my faith and helped me to become a disciple of Christ.

This personal blog is also linked to my work blog TheGenerousGivingProject. Yes, another surprise for me was landing a job working for the church, shortly after leaving full-time service in the Army. If you like short stories that poke light fun at the church whilst tackling a serious message (in this case what it means to be generous with our money) then you might like these. They’re also useful as resources for your own church and will be updated every few days. You don’t have to be an Anglican to read them.

That’s it by means of an introduction. Enjoy and be sure to pop back if you like what I write.

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Photo by Sgt Jamie Peters