God is weird: PART 3

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

Out of My Depth

A few weeks later I was sitting in front of the DDO feeling incredibly nervous. I’d spent hours deliberating over what to wear, for fear of appearing too formal and Army Officer-like, or much worse, too casual. Perhaps those hours would have been better spent reading the Bible. One of the first questions I was asked was whether my conversion experience in Afghanistan felt more like a Road to Emmaus experience or more like a road to Damascus. Hmmm. Jolly good question. If only I knew more about these roads. Damascus is in Syria. What might that have to do with Afghanistan? Was this a trick question?

“Gosh, it’s hard to say really.” I stalled for time. “It wasn’t a very road-y experience at all. It was in a shipping container.” Hadn’t he been listening at all? I’d been very clear about where it’d happened. There were no roads.

Then I was asked about my tradition. “Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic? Up the candle or down? High church or low church?” This man is speaking another language, I thought. I faltered. I desperately wanted to answer correctly. My future could depend on it. But I hadn’t the faintest idea what any of this meant. My first 9 months of being a Christian were spent worshipping in tents and in the back of armoured vehicles in Helmand Province. How should I know if I was an Evangelical? And Anglo-Catholic? No, I was definitely Church of England, I knew that much. It was certainly a trick question.

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I feared the interview wasn’t going well at all, but the warmth and friendliness of the DDO helped a lot, and we carried on for another hour. I told him stories and shared my fears and concerns. He seemed rather excited about having a shiny new Christian to work with, which was a relief. He diagnosed me as very possibly having a case of potential vocation, and prescribed me several months of prayer and further discernment. He handed me several kilos of paperwork to fill in. I was officially a candidate.

Spilling the Beans: Going Public

I still hadn’t told many people about this. In fact, other than Kate from Cranmer Hall, Richard the DDO, Dickie my husband and Justin the Padre, only two others knew (best pals). I was still embarrassed. Why, exactly, took months to work out. Eventually I figured it was pride. Up until this point in my life, I had been very driven by success and achievement. In fact I’d have probably once told you that my biggest fear was not spiders, or death, or War of the Worlds (the new one with Tom Cruise…seriously terrifying). It was failure. I wouldn’t normally put myself in a public situation that was so uncertain. And putting yourself through the vocations process is pretty public and pretty uncertain! At any stage someone may say no. And it can take a long time. Months, years…even decades for some.

I was keeping it to myself because I was so unsure the church would say yes, and I didn’t want to have to face people if I was rejected. And I know that’s really not the right word to use, but in layman’s terms, and certainly in my own mind at the beginning of this process, it felt like the right word. I’ve since learned to say “not recommended.”

So having identified pride as the obstacle, and humility as my aim[2], I decided to come out of the discernment closet. I told my parents, brother and sister-in-law at a family meal on Easter Sunday two years ago. That conversation could have gone better! At first my family, whilst very supportive of anything I do, were rather concerned. It was such a massive departure from my ordinary life; my army career. And leaving the security (relative; financial) of the army to embark on a second degree did appear rather drastic, especially as there were no certainties it would lead to a job, as it were.

My mum was particularly unhappy about it all, and her maternal instincts manifested themselves in interesting ways. She viewed the established church as cold, dusty, old and miserable. She feared it would take the life out of me. None of my family had had much contact with the Church before, and sadly none of them could imagine it as a lively, joy filled, and life-giving environment. I could see why my mum would want to protect me from a life, which she probably thought, would drain away all the energy and happiness that characterised her daughter.

I’d have to help my parents to see the unbridled joy that knowing and worshipping Jesus could bring. But I wouldn’t change their minds overnight. For now, they’d just have to trust me.

I realised my problem with pride was fairly deep rooted, so I took the rather extreme approach of going to the press. Or rather, the press came to me on a totally unrelated issue, which I used to tell the world “Hi, I’m a Christian!”. As a serving female Army Officer, the local newspaper had, over the years, interviewed me as a “local girl” about this or that to fill space on slow news days.

 

It was supposed to be an article about the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I’d recently been serving as been part of a British delegation. In the interview I decided to tell the reporter that I was a new Christian, I was discerning a call to ordained ministry, and would soon leave full-time Army service to start studying theology while I worked it all out.

This excited her. She ran the story on Bosnia, and a few months later got back to me and did one on faith. Whilst reading it in the paper was hugely embarrassing for me, as the reporter hadn’t quite got the exact nuances of the some of the things I’d said (it’s snappier to type “trainee vicar” than “discerning a call to ordained ministry”), it was quite a relief that pretty much everyone I knew would now know about this bizarre change of direction. This article was followed up by one eight weeks later about me doing a faith sharing mission weekend in HMP Durham, alongside about 30 convicts. Again, I cringed at the wording, which didn’t reflect how very unsure I was and am, but at least now all my colleagues, family and friends now knew, which helped me to deal with the problem of pride.

Yes, now people very much know I’m a Christian and that I’m wondering about becoming a priest. They’ll also very much know whether the church decides to recommend me for ordained ministry or not. Taking this risk, and being open and honest really has helped me to accept that my future is no longer in my hands. It is in God’s hands. This verse helps me:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6

A second, totally unexpected and totally brilliant side effect has occurred as a result of me going public; conversation starters about Jesus. I couldn’t count the number of times in bars, at dinner parties, or at the gym that I’ve got into a conversation about careers (“So, what do you do?”) and I’ve been able to say, “Well I was doing that and now I’m doing this. Yes, crazy isn’t it? Oh you want to hear how this U-turn came about? Let me tell you about my weird conversion experience in Afghanistan and how knowing Jesus has changed my life”.

Within a couple of sentences we’re totally away from whether or not I may one day wear a dog-collar, and slap bang in the middle of the Gospels and how ace Jesus is. So “coming out” as a candidate in the discernment process was definitely the right thing for me to do. But, what now?

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[2] All of James 4 helped me, but in particular vs 6-7 “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God.”

 

God is weird: PART 1

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process.

So You Want To Be A Vicar?

I’m a candidate somewhere near the beginning of the formal process where the Church is discerning if God is calling me to ordained ministry. Risky, therefore, to be publishing my experiences and thoughts on the discernment process whilst I’m still in it. But I think it’s worth the risk, because in the very first few weeks and months after I felt “called” I really knew nothing about discernment (more on me knowing nothing later) and wondered if I was completely alone/insane in sensing a calling, so I turned to the internet to read blogs about this well-trodden path, from those wo had gone before me.[1]

Whilst I found blogs detailing what actually happens at BAP (the national selection panel, but don’t call it a selection panel!) there were few, if any from people this side of it. The blogs were from folks on the other side; those who had been recommended. Perhaps it’s too painful to drag up and write about if the panel said no.

So this is a blog from an insider who has no idea where her future will be. I’m inviting you to follow this journey with me over these 5 instalments, through it’s many twists and turns. There are many hoops to jump through, interviews to be had, prayers to be prayed, and ultimately a number of wise clergy and lay people will make a decision. I’ll be recommended to train for ordained ministry, or I won’t… or option three, I’ll be deferred until I’ve worked on whatever it is that’s needs developing further; the “not yet” category.

I write this completely open to the idea that I may have got this wrong and God’s not calling me to ordained ministry after all, but has something else up his sleeve. There’s that option too. In which case, that’s exciting as I have no idea what that could be.

The Conversion Bit

This candid blog about the process, my hopes, fears, anxieties and faith, is titled “God is Weird” because God is really weird. Here are a few reasons why:

I first met God in 2012 in a shipping container in Afghanistan. I was an agnostic, probably, if I’d cared enough to give myself a title, which I didn’t. I wasn’t really bothered one way or the other, but I certainly didn’t believe the universe was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, and that the Gospels and Jesus were true and real respectively. So it was a bit of a shocker being confronted by the awesome and terrifying truth that God exists. I won’t tell the whole story here but you can read it later if you wish.

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So that was weird. And God, it seemed to me, wasn’t going to let me get away with just a feeling of awe and wonder. God, it seemed, wanted me to have a very active, personal and constant relationship with Him… immediately. And like the screaming of a child you just can’t ignore, or an eyelash that’s caught in your eye that you have to attend to right now, God got my full attention. I began exploring everything I could about Jesus, with an insatiable appetite. I was a very hungry caterpillar, eating (metaphorically of course) the Gospels.

I also really felt the need to share. I wanted to tell everyone that I’d just started reading this amazing book and that they should read it too. A real page turner. I didn’t know it at the time (because I hadn’t yet learned the proper church words) but I was evangelising from the offset. I was telling the soldiers I lived and worked with on the front-line in Helmand Province, that I’d just heard that God is real and Jesus is awesome and would they like to hear what I’d learned so far?

And that’s pretty weird. I had no clue about most of the Bible- indeed the version the Padre gave me was just the New Testament and Psalms, so Job and Leviticus would have to wait- and I was in no position to answer tricky questions. Frankly, my friends back home, and indeed most of my colleagues probably thought I was nuts. But what can I say? God made me do it. And what’s weirder is that at least one of the soldiers I told, began exploring faith for herself, and got booked onto a Christianity Explored course. Winner. This was all within the first few months. God is weird.

Drama at Confirmation

And then within two years (2014), and only three weeks after I’d made other life-long promises before God at my wedding, I was at my confirmation service. At my confirmation, as I knelt in my smart army service dress, a uniform which has scarcely changed since the 1940s, I remember feeling so excited and overwhelmed by these huge pledges I was making.

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Yes- I’d firmly decided- yes, I will serve you Jesus and I’ll do whatever you ask of me. I’ll change my life. Right here and right now I am turning away from the old me, and I’m going to live differently. From now on I’m all yours. I squeezed my eyes shut and my hands together, and shed a few tears.

All sounds rather dramatic doesn’t it? Maybe I got a bit caught up in the moment. Maybe this is how you’re supposed to feel at your Confirmation. I don’t know. All I know is that in that moment, surrounded by 11 year olds and their parents and the Bishop and my brand new husband, I totally meant every word.  Twenty minutes later God tested my resolve.

God is so weird. Following the pattern of immediate action that had characterised my new faith, within a matter of minutes of me being in the church, the Bishop was delivering his sermon, which he illustrated with the story of his own calling; his own sense that God was saying he should be ordained. What the…

I sat there sweating, with a dry mouth. A film reel of significant moments of my life flashed in my mind. The good bits, the bad bits, the hard bits. The regretful bits. The choices I hadn’t understood at the time. The stuff I’d always thought was just good luck. The weird way my life had been mapped. The strange sense that I was meant for something but hadn’t yet, perhaps, figured out what.

Was it…? Surely not. The idea that it could be becoming a vicar actually horrified me. What a ridiculous and comical suggestion. It seemed so implausible, so outrageous, so unlikely, so clear and obvious. It was like the Bishop was talking directly to me, though we’d never met. Things slotted into place and made sense, but at the same time it all just seemed so… weird. I was probably getting the wrong end of the stick. My first test. But I’d never felt like this before about anything.

Here I am Lord. Is It I Lord? I’m Not So Sure Lord…

 

There are 4 more chapters and I’ll post one each day this week. To get them direct to your inbox (so you don’t need to faff about finding this site again), just click follow.

[1] I also read Rev. which I highly recommend, even if it isn’t on any official treading lists.