On 29 June 1986, I was ordained Deacon in the Church of England in Dorchester Abbey. (That’s Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, by the way, not the one in Dorset). That means I have now marked the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon.
While I was writing this piece, I decided to check up on the bishop who ordained me a deacon. His name was Conrad Meyer, and as Bishop of Dorchester, he was an area bishop in the Diocese of Oxford. He wasn’t someone I got to know, as my curacy was in Aylesbury, where we came under the Bishop of Buckingham. (Oxford Diocese also has a bishop of Reading. The three area bishops support the Bishop of Oxford.)
In the years between ordaining me (which I was sure was a highlight of his episcopal ministry!) and now, what became of Bishop Conrad? I wasn’t too surprised to discover that he had died in 2011, aged 89. He had retired from Dorchester in 1987. (Nothing to do with having ordained me the previous year, I’m sure.) He became an honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Truro (Cornwall) in 1990. And then, in 1994, I learned to my surprise, he became a Roman Catholic. He was formally received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and, in June 1995, he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI gave him the title Monsignor.
From the date (1994), you might have guessed that the issue which led to bishop Conrad leaving the Church of England was the ordination of women as priests. So, what to make of this? The man who ordained me as a deacon in the Church of England gave up his own Anglican ministry in order to become a Roman Catholic priest. Does that make my ordination less valid? Just to be on the safe side, I looked up the Bishop of Buckingham, Simon Burrows, who ordained me as a priest in Christ Church, Oxford, in 1987. (There was no Bishop of Oxford at the time – there was a vacancy before Richard Harries was appointed.) As far as I can tell, Bishop Simon remained an Anglican priest until his death in 2015. So, presumably my ordination is valid!
Of course, in reality, the validity of my calling to ministry doesn’t rest in the hands of either of those two men, or anyone else, for that matter. I believed then, and believe now, that it is God who has called me to ordained ministry; and that God has called me to be vicar in these two parishes.
People speak about ordination as a vocation or ‘calling’ – which it is. But there is a danger lurking there, if we miss the fact that all Christians have a vocation, not just the ones who get ordained or licensed by bishops. Each of us who has been baptised as a Christian has a calling, a vocation. Each of us needs to ask, What is God calling me to? As we hear in the gospels, the call of Jesus to those first disciples was ‘Follow me’ (e.g., Mark 1.17). Our calling is first to follow Jesus, in all that we are and all that we do. That calling is to all of us, but each of us also has a unique calling or vocation. The Church of England website has a page called ‘Your calling‘. Here it says that we “have come to understand Christian vocation in three areas”:
Social vocations – our place within the workplace and the community and how we contribute to the common good;
Relational vocations – our calling in relationship to God and other people such as family, friends and neighbours;
Ministerial vocations – our calling to serve and build up the church community and equip it for mission.
My vocation – and yours – is made up of a unique mixture of those callings. I would have put them in a different order: I would have put ‘relational’ first. So, that’s what I will do here!
My ‘relational vocation‘ is to do with who I am in everyday life, in my relationship with God and with family, friends, and neighbours. In particular, speaking personally, I have been called to be a Christian disciple, a husband, father, and now grandpa! So, how do I live out my faith in my relationship with family and friends? This is my ‘everyday faith‘ and has little to do with going to church or (in my case) being a vicar. I think this is my most important vocation. Jesus says that he has come so that we might have “life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10). The church side of things is simply a part of what we do. Life is the real business of faith, and, for most of us, that means life as it is lived in relationship with others. I think for many of us, that’s the real challenge. Not, Who am I in church? But, Who am I at home? And is there any tension between the person that I am in church and the person that my nearest and dearest know so well? (The one who gets grumpy and argumentative. The one who sulks when they don’t get their own way… Are we relieved that our church community doesn’t know that person?)
Our ‘social vocation‘ is to do with serving God in our communities and workplaces. As Christians, how do we contribute to the common good? This is ‘faith in action’. We live in a world in which a major question in people’s lives is how to be happy. I suspect that the pursuit of happiness is a wild goose chase. What if my happiness is not something to be pursued but rather the byproduct of doing good, of having purpose? Jesus talks about the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds a house on a strong foundation. The foolish builder builds on sand. Jesus says that wisdom – the strong foundation for our lives – is not about hearing his words but acting on them (Matthew 7.24-27), putting faith into practice.
Then there is our ‘ministerial vocation‘. This is about who we are as part of the church community. Each of us is called to serve as a member of the church. There are no spectators in church: each of us is called to be an active participant. For some, that will mean ordained or licensed ministry – what we call ‘public ministry‘, ministry that is recognised across the Church. It was while I was at university that I got a sense that God might want me to get ordained. But that inner sense had to be met by the Church’s affirmation. It’s not just that I ‘felt called’. The Church, through its selection process, had to recognise that calling in me.
But not all public ministry is ordained. The Church of England also recognises lay ministry particularly in the form of Readers (often called ‘Lay Readers’, although some dioceses use the term ‘Licensed Lay Ministers’.). A Reader in this sense isn’t just someone who reads from the bible in church, although they may well do that. Historically, the Church had Readers, or Lectors, who did exactly that. If you were going to become a Deacon or Priest, you might start as a Reader. It was one of what the Church called the ‘minor orders’, as opposed to the ‘major orders’ of deacons, priests, and bishops. (This distinction between ‘minor’ and ‘major’ orders seems to me to suggest that some orders are more important than others, which is exactly the opposite of the point I’m trying to make! What is important is to know and follow your unique vocation.)
The Church of England hasn’t held on to these ‘minor orders’ as steps on the way to ordination but in 1866, it revived the title of ‘Reader’. Readers are licensed to conduct services (other than holy communion, baptisms, and weddings, for which you need an ordained minister) and to assist the priest at communion. Readers may lead public prayer and preach, similar to a ‘Lay Preacher’ in other denominations. Many Readers also have other roles, including conducting funeral services. What Readers actually do varies with the particular Reader’s gifts and experience. Our own Reader, Linda, has developed a ministry which includes sharing weekly Reflections online. She also ministers to the Scouting movement and in other ways in the community. She has been called upon to officiate at funeral services where the person had a particular connection with her. The important thing about Readers is that they are lay people – part of the community in a way that is different from that of a priest. (There is something about ordination that ‘sets you apart’ from others. I wish there wasn’t, but it does seem to be the case!) Readers usually come from the congregation, as opposed to vicars who usually come from somewhere else. (Although it is possible for congregations to grow their own priests.) Readers are almost always volunteers, and they bring their experience of life outside church with them, as well as living out their Christian faith in the community beyond the church.
This diocese also has Pastoral Workers who support the church’s pastoral ministry. Pastoral Workers are trained and licensed and, again, are volunteers. We have Sheila working across both parishes in this role. Pastoral Workers may support those who look to us for christenings, weddings, and funerals. They may also visit the sick at home or in hospital.
As well as ministerial roles that are recognised by the wider church, each local church relies on every member fulfilling their ministerial vocation. So much of what we were doing before COVID19 arrived has been put to one side. But we have also developed new ways of ministering: the team that has been built up to lead worship via Zoom and Facebook continues in a way that we had not envisaged before the coronavirus. I’m very proud of them!
As we recover from the pandemic, there are many roles that church members can pick up – including reading the bible or leading prayers in church, welcoming people to services and providing hospitality afterwards. There are also roles in our work with children and young people, as well as the practical jobs that need to be done in and around our church buildings.
I did hear of a church where the vicar got fed up with preparing the Sunday service rotas. Instead of a quarterly rota they had some badges made with job titles on: ‘sidesperson’, ‘bible reader’, ‘coffee maker’, and so on. As people arrived in church, they had to pick a badge and that was their job for the service. I wonder whether we might try something like this. I have occasionally threatened to put ‘post-it’ notes under the seats in church. Wherever you sit, you look at the note and that’s your job for the year! (Although some jobs, like ‘musician’ or ‘bellringer’ are probably best left to those who know what they are doing!)
Imagine you have three badges. One describes your ‘relational vocation’. One describes your ‘social vocation’. And one describes your ‘ministerial vocation’. What does each of those badges say on it?
‘Friend’. ‘Charity Shop Volunteer’. ‘Church Coffee Maker’.
‘Grandma’. ‘School Governor’. ‘Bible Reader’.
What are your vocations? Let me know if you need any help discerning, following, or developing them.