Wednesday, 14 October 2020

07/09/2020 Five years later - now ordained!

See my previous anniversary posts: One year, two years, four years

My ordained team photo, taken outside my curacy church

My other anniversary posts might have been a bit late into September, but it is unfortunate this year that I have made it into October before getting round to it. I do think I can be given a bit of slack though, due to the global pandemic and the small matter of getting ordained. 

So it's finally happened. I'm sitting here in a clerical collar. And I must say I really haven't processed the whole thing yet. Let's start with a look over the last year.

It's been a much bigger shift than my last anniversary posts have covered. Last September I was starting third year, courting a curacy, and worried about my dissertation. I was part of a community, with a house full of friends, and I had a very full and exciting summer with lots of travel and new people and experiences. I felt like I was on a conveyor belt. 

Now the whole world has changed, and then my corner of it has changed even further.

I didn't get to enjoy my final term and engage in the the rituals of ending properly. I moved house in fraught and subdued circumstances, back to a city with a very different rhythm to the one I was leaving. An empty house with my three pieces of furniture, all on my own, my first time in full control of a household. I started a curacy without being ordained, and with worship a far cry from what is usually is. 

When you read the literature about stress, I tick most of the boxes for big life changes - moving house, new job, committing to a relationship, money worries, on top of times of uncertainty, lack of control, and additional responsibilities. I am very lucky that I have secure employment and housing, and I have not been bereaved, but I think it's still fair to say I have had a lot to handle.

Yet again, it is lots of life stuff, not so much God stuff that has taken most of my time and energy, and whilst everything has been turned on its head (again), the religious stuff is coming to the fore, but not so much my own spirituality. Learning and committing to a new church as one of its clergy, at a time when everything is weird and we don't know what Advent will look like, is bloody hard. All clergy have to put effort into maintaining their own spiritual lives underneath day to day ministry, but I think those of us starting curacy this year are at a disadvantage that we have more to get under without the benefit of years of practice.

Anyway, the ordination. Here's a glimpse of what I was feeling the day before it happened, and some snippets from the livestream of the service itself.

(the full ordination service is available here)

It definitely now feels like I've started something, I'm in a new chapter (and of course, I have joined deanery chapter, haha!). Who I am has now clicked into place with the life I've been living, and all the small inconsistencies have been smoothed out. Even just watching this video back a few weeks later, I do feel like a different person. It's not dramatic, but it is noticeable. And I'm not as worried about having a 'schema'; all the rhetoric about being yourself as a clergyperson rather than fitting into a set pattern of 'what a priest is' makes so much sense - who I am behind this collar is as much a clergyperson as my colleagues, but in so many different ways, and that's beautiful and marvellous.

My sense of self has definitely cleared up since I wrote about it in August. I am no longer fractured or unsettled. My identity is more certain. I cannot know how this all would have gone down if I had been ordained in July in a world without Covid-19, but no matter. 

How are me and God doing? Well, in a previous post I wrote "God and I have a very slow-moving relationship, because it is true that I do better at things in life if I get to work up to it in a thorough and methodical manner. God understands that better than I do when I'm being blinded by my enthusiasm and passion." This still rings true. I understand quickly but retain slowly, so building up to being an ordained curate by doing it as a lay one first might have been a bit of a blessing.

God is the undercurrent, as always. I get comfort and reassurance when I stop and check in. As per my MO, daily corporate prayer is an anchor point, particularly the eucharist on a Monday evening. The eucharist has also been a touchstone place for me and God.

Am I still on my axles in God's workshop? I haven't thought about this imagery much lately, but I re-read some posts and came across it. I thought when I last wrote about it that I would eventually "set down off the stand ready to hit the throttle into curacy, to warm up the tyres and get to grips with the upgrades, so that I can journey well in the rest of my life in ministry". I don't feel like I've necessarily hit the throttle as such. I was stuck revving the engine with a depressed clutch for a while, but I have nosed out the garage doors now. I can feel the sun on my new, novel parts, and I'm slowly testing out my new shape and features in the yard.

I can see the life-long learning ahead of me. Growing as clergy will happen every day - slow days, days off, bad days. I like who I have become in five years. I am where I should be, lucky son of bitch that I am. I love God, I love people, I love the Church (for all its flaws). I love being ordained, at least so far.

Being public property will get wearing. Working too many hours will be hard. Holding people through the highs and lows of life will take a toll. Meeting problems I cannot fix will wound my soul. I cannot predict what else this life is going do to me, or the people in my life. I cannot predict what my life will look like. But thank God I was called so young - the unexpected adventures ahead, the anticipation of the unknown, it's an incredible gift. I hope I never take it for granted. And I hope I can keep taking you along with me.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

What even IS a lay curate??

My lay licensed worker team photo, taken outside my curacy church building

When I was told that my ordination was going to be postponed until at least Michaelmas because of Covid-19, I was hit with shock, like a gut punch. But I was lucky, because I was told in March, and as I was due to be ordained in July, I had time to rearrange my concept of my future. Some of my contemporaries were not so lucky, getting radio silence from their dioceses until the last minute, or pin-balling throughout March-June between umpteen different scenarios in regular updates on what to expect. Also, I had enough to think about as I finished my dissertation, got through the last of my teaching (online), planned my house move, and dealt with the emotional fallout of lockdown in a global pandemic. 

I moved on the same day I had planned, started working on the same day as had been agreed, and I have been doing the work of a new curate (in a pandemic) with only one difference based on my lay status. That one difference is that I sit in the congregation at services, in my smart work clothes, rather than in the sanctuary in robes. 

Laid out like this, it all seems like I should be happily bobbing along, content with my situation and basically unhindered by my lack of ordination.

However, I feel a little bit like I'm going mad. That sounds dramatic. What I mean is I have a slight, underlying feeling of being somehow fractured, unsettled, like some of my feathers are sticking up the wrong way just behind my periphery. This is not how things are supposed to be. I don't quite fit this state.

Now I know that in some dioceses this is actually a normal scenario, a new curate being ordained at Michaelmas, so I don't want to imply anything about that situation. All I can do is express my own experience, and it is one of a very disconcerting sense of an indeterminate and uncertain identity. I am one of the clergy and not ordained - this is not something for which my blueprint of the world has a reference point. 

One of the most tangible symbols of this is my clothes. "Well now", you might say, "what have clothes to do with being a minister? You're still ministering, right? Getting to know the parishioners, settling into the team dynamic, continued study, helping plan services, pastoral care, working on a theology project, updating the church website, leading the offices - how are any of the things you are actually doing with your time affected by your clothes?"

None. I will grant you, none of these things are being done differently because I am not in a clerical collar. But we are not simply the sum of our actions, and it is my sense of self within these tasks that is off-kilter, plus my theology of priesthood is ontological, not functional*. The collar is an outward sign of something of the self, and its absence - in a context in which it is expected - makes me aware of my lack. And it doesn't help that, whilst I spent three months knowing and preparing to be a lay curate, I previously spent years preparing to be an ordained curate. I can't throw off such long-held expectation so easily.

I walk the streets of this parish and pray, and I get what I can only describe as cognitive dissonance, and I feel guilty. I know it's irrational, but that's how my heart twangs. Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that. 

The action of praying for the parish connects with my understanding of a clergyperson's duties - a deacon or a priest prays for their people and their place. But I ain't no deacon, and so my mind immediately connects with my lay status and boom, internal turmoil. And I feel guilty because part of me is disgusted that I would pretend to be ordained. And then I get annoyed at myself - obviously a lay person can pray for whoever they blooming like, what theology am I touting here?! I'll reach up and gently touch my exposed throat, and grief will rise up in my belly. 

I'll remind myself that I only have to wait just a little bit longer, but the time is not exactly flying by. I'm having a wonderful time, I have no complaints, but it's like going down a slide sideways. Not quite aligned to fit the groove and motion of travel.

I don't mean to complain. These are not problems of huge suffering, and I acknowledge that. Plus I am guaranteed an end, it is acute not chronic, and these three months will dwindle to insignificance as the years of ordained ministry pile up. But this is my reality right now, a lay curate who can't figure out what that means to me. It challenges my ecclesiology, and makes me question what the difference between 'ordained' and 'not' means. 

An ordained person is still a member of the laos, the people, for all in the laos have a calling to something, the baptismal priesthood of all believers, and there just happens to be a minority for whom that is vocational priesthood. They are 'set aside' somewhat, but not separate, not vaunted or raised up. In my opinion, it's ontologically a sideways move to a distinct place in the Church. So ordination is not some huge elevation, but it is important, and integral to how the body of Christ is on earth. 

I am functioning as a curate, that's my role, but I'm not in my place in the Church yet. My very nature is held back from slotting into place. I must admit my role is also a little held back, besides not robing - the collar will add to people's perception of me, so I have not done the exploration of the parish that I would have already started if I were already ordained. I want to go into the businesses of the parish and say hello, but I know that's going to be less awkward with the collar, so I'm delaying it until after I am ordained.

This is true even if you don't have an ontological view of priesthood - wearing a collar means something, it is affective

I am the curate, but I am only half way to what that means to me. It will be such a relief when it happens, even though my role here in the parish will not change from one side of the weekend to the other. I will be a member of the people of God's Church, and on top of that something of my being, my mind, body and soul, will be dedicated and empowered in a new way. Until then, I'm going to feel (irrationally) like a fraud, functioning in an ecclesial identity I don't actually have. Yet.

*there's an interesting pair of blogposts about this argument within Anglicanism from both sides, here and here.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

When I am a curate...

This is a post that was first drafted, I don't know, about a year and a half ago, maybe. It's been sitting here, and every so often an idea has occurred to me to think about later, so I've opened this draft up and popped the idea in, creating a list. Now I've started as a curate (though as a lay licensed minister rather than a deacon) so I'll have to stop simply adding things to it and then forgetting about them, and instead post it in the hope and intention that I will start doing them.

I've got three categories here. The first is 'personal', and it is the longest. Now, on a vocations blog, you might think such a list would focus on more religious things than anything else, but I'm here to show you the reality. All the gumpf one encounters on the discernment hamster wheel is very religious, and so is a lot of the training. Sure, this is a good focus, and should be the groundwork that such a process gives candidates. But my experience has had a wider impact on the unreligious parts of my life, and, to be honest, I'm not surprised there is not a lot of attention or guidance to these areas, because of course this is the part that makes every vocation story different.

There is no standard story. I have been incredibly frustrated over the last five years (wait, five years?!) by the vague tone of almost every piece of guidance and advice, as all I wanted was some concrete how-tos and a reassuring roadmap. Sadly, this was never going to happen, and it's only now that I can see it. There is no how-to, there is not a roadmap beyond the vague guidance. Said vague guidance is the only content that it is possible to give to everyone, because ultimately they're not going to have a universal experience. Some will have similar patterns and some will overlap, but many will not.

No two vocation stories are the same, and some are incredibly, wildly different. I mean, just look at me and my brother. We shared a lot in a 16-year window of our stories, then mine went through drama school, lodging in London, working at a church, theological college, and then becoming clergy. His (to give a very inaccurate and brief overview) went through a normal uni degree, moving back home, training to be an MMA fighter, working for a shop, then in an office, becoming a coach as well as a fighter, and then also getting a normal part time job.

You might not believe me, but there are other curates in the Church of England right now whose story has as much in common with mine as my brother's does ie. not a lot. Even if one shares a general vocation to something like 'priesthood', no two vocation stories are the same, and some are incredibly, wildly different.

Anyway, so one of the reasons for the disparity of vocation stories is the personal context. Different backgrounds, life structures, responsibilities, financial situations, personalities, priorities and values lead to a wonderful variety of clergy lives. My life as a clergy person is unique, and that is mostly due to the personal context, not the religious.

Okay, enough waffle, here's my first list. 

  • I would like to create and stick to a running schedule
  • It would be wonderful to get some singing lessons
  • I am really keen to try to get to know the people who live nearest to me
  • I plan to subscribe to newsletters for local events, and cultural opportunities eg theatres
  • It would be a good idea to do the DVSA enhanced rider scheme
  • I want to sign up to give blood and possibly other donation options eg eggs, bone marrow etc
  • I would like to ride my motorcycle to visit friends across the country
  • I want to occasionally visit my grandparents
  • I want to subscribe to a daily newspaper and the Church Times
  • I fancy getting and using a bread maker
  • I am very keen to try to be more eco-friendly
  • It would be nice to visit other curates I know from Cranmer Hall who are in London
So I've been in my curacy house for just under 4 weeks now. I've already met some neighbours, subscribed to a local newsletter, and digitally to a newspaper, plus gone to see my grandparents. I have also been setting up my new house with eco in mind, so all my cleaning products/equipment are as plastic-free as possible. I did plan to start running before starting at the church, but that hasn't happened, still on the to do list, as are a lot of things. 

The CofE have got a good thing right in some of their training, because in the last five years (seriously, five years!) I have imbibed a good sense of looking after oneself as a priority within the context of ministry. These things are on this list because they will hopefully help build a life where I am able to minister to the best of my ability, and lay a foundation for a full life that won't lead to burn out. The groundwork is important, and it continues from college into this phase.

The next two sections are the religious stuff, and I have separated out 'spiritual', which overlaps religious and personal, and 'clerical', which are things I want to do specifically because I am clergy.

Now I'm sure those of us in discernment/training/ministry all have a picture in our minds as to the kind of priest we dream of being, and I'm also sure that none of those dreams will ever be real people. We instead will learn over the years what kind of priest we are and will grow into. My sending rector has always said that curacy is the time to build up my 'muscle memory' for the basics of priesthood, and I'm trying to hold to that. Obviously my training vicar has responsibility within that, seeing as he has the experience to know what those basics should be that we want to work on.

This list is not coming from that perspective - I don't need to make a list of the basic priestly things the learn in curacy, for starters because ministry division already have criteria I need to meet to pass IME phase 2! (Initial Ministry Education - phase 1 was training at college) And it is again a slightly vague and unquantifiable thing - there is still a focus on personal formation, but there's also things like liturgical education, and every training incumbent is going to have slightly different priorities on how to use the 3-4 years of curacy to best effect. There is so much that priests do and could do, and not enough time to cover it all, so those priorities lead to a triage of what to cover and what to leave to 'get round to' or just not cover at all.

So this list is none of that. These are things I have seen done, heard about, or thought of for one reason or another over the last few years that I fancy having a go at to see how much they might play a part in the priest I'm going to become.

  • seek out my local Churches Together
  • visit all the cafes, shops, businesses and bars in my parish
  • research local initiatives and see if there's anything I can support
  • track my hours
  • register with the local library
  • Maintain links to the army chaplains department
  • Attempt to train in Godly Play
  • acquaint myself with the key people in my episcopal area and diocesan offices eg funeral directors
I have visited some shops in the parish - I know by name two of the three people who work at the deli down the street, for example; and my long-awaited haircut was achieved at the salon right next door to said deli. But I've got a long way to go. I have printed out an unlabelled map which I hope to fill with my own labels as I explore the parish. I'm lucky that it is in fact only about 0.5miles square in size! But that does add the pressure to get around all of it - no excuses. Churches Together is something to check with my vicar; tracking hours is a tad optimistic I reckon, but I thought I'd give it a go; I have registered with the local library service, so I need to pop down to my nearest one and have a look; I have already had lunch with the senior army chaplain for London; wow, I had forgotten the Godly Play thing, this is why I write things down; and we'll see how the last one goes, considering being in the middle of a pandemic.

Lastly, there are two things that I really hope I can achieve from a spiritual point of view.

  • I’ll go on a retreat, where I can access Anglican services, once a year
  • set up a 'prayer space' to see if that is helpful to me
The first one is priestly 101, and a habit I have been trying to form over the last few years, so we'll see if I can keep that going; and the second one is going to be interesting, given that I have not got the luxury that some of my contemporaries do of a five bed house with a garage and a garden. I have been very lucky in where I am living, but its smaller square footage does make finding a corner for said prayer space a little bit of a challenge. 

There it is, the list I have been sitting on. Now is the time to activate it and see what sticks. 

As you can see this is not a post reflecting on 'the end of my time as an ordinand'. I may have anticipated doing something like that, but now I've reached this point, typing this in my first week at St John's, it's not the big transition I thought it was going to be.

Going from lay person to ordinand shattered my whole world and I started again. Going from ordinand to curate is continuing to build on top of being an ordinand. I am not starting again, because it is the same project, the next step, rather than a new journey. And I feel ready for it. It may be exhilarating, and make me a little nervous, but becoming a curate is nowhere near as frightening as the feeling of stepping into the void that starting at college was. Let's be fair, I've also grown up three more years since then, so that's a factor too. I'm more confident, I feel a fraction more knowledgable and experienced, and I am eager to learn more and more of what I've started absorbing into who I am and how I honour God with my life. 

I am doing what I have been doing for five years, and wish to do for decades to come - following my calling, living my vocation, discerning God's path for me. I am so lucky, and I will give it my all.