Twenty five years ago I was ordained a priest. That means this is silver jubilee time. And I even have a card to prove it.
I remember the ordination in Manchester Cathedral. Eight of us were ordained at the same time. To my left, a man who died about five years later in a fishing accident. He took it up as a hobby but should first have learnt how to swim. A terrible tragedy. To my right, an extremely large man who could only get to his feet from kneeling by putting his hand on my shoulder and pushing hard. I recall that much more vividly than any bishop’s hands on my head. That man’s ministerial career came to an untimely end too. He was arrested and imprisoned for possessing a firearm and ammunition.
It was hot. Very hot. My wife was eight months pregnant. Six weeks later I remember conducting a pre-wedding interview with our new baby on the floor sleeping fitfully on a fleece. A few hours later he was in hospital. In the middle of the night we had to decide whether to summon the chaplain to baptise him. I was caught between wanting to do it myself and toughing it out. We toughed it out. So did he. But it was touch and go. I baptised him three months later.
Attending an ordination service earlier today I was trying to recall what I was thinking twenty-five years ago – apart from, ‘will I buckle under the strain of this giant heaving himself to his feet?’. I was wondering how much of the reality of ministry I had been able to imagine at that stage. Very little, I think. Certainly in terms of detail, but also in terms of themes.
So what did I underestimate? Three things spring to mind: buildings, money and people.
I had expected, terribly wrongly, that ministry would be something that happened ‘wherever’ and ‘whenever’. The church building seemed to me to be a kind of convenience. Certainly not intrinsic or central.
I discovered that I was wrong in my curacy. I wrote in article in ‘Theology’ that people connect their mental image of the church building with the person of the local priest.
Since my curacy I have only had three jobs but in each one the building had a massive significance. When I say that one was King’s College Chapel, Cambridge and another Durham Cathedral then it does make sense, though I had never seen such splendid edifices in my crystal ball. But the two churches of Holy Trinity and All Saints in Loughborough were really important too. While I was rector we closed one and restored and developed the other. Both were major, major, projects demanding not only time and effort but also a hat full of skills that I did not possess. The church architect said to me, ‘you would be better off with an OND in Building Studies than a Cambridge degree in theology’. He was right. But I also needed degrees in fundraising, capacity building, project management and keeping the peace in the congregation.
Money? This was not an issue when I was a Cambridge Chaplain. But when I got to the parish it was the issue. We could not afford to do what needed to be done so I had to learn very quickly to pay attention to matters financial. This was not what I had in mind when I first felt called to ordained ministry. I expected to live and move on a higher plane. Perhaps the main change in my attitude and expectation over the years is that now I believe that ministry takes you not to the heights but to the lower levels – and that spirituality is not about exaltation but about plumbing the depths. It’s a journey down to the level of reality. (‘It’s humility, stupid’ should be the theme of every ordination sermon.)
I now know that money is a primary consideration and that it is a ministerial duty to get stuck into the issues. The issues, however, are not quite what they seem. Yes, there are the accounting issues, the cash flow problems, the systems to ensure bills are paid and the task of craftily increasing streams of income and at the same time encouraging high levels of straightforward financial giving. But the big questions about money are around values and priorities and involve keeping money in its place.
There is a major role for the church in talking about what money cannot buy and limiting the influence of financial matters in decision-making and the wealthy in calling the shots. I have always thought something like this. The difference now is that I realise that lofty aspirations are not an alibi for careful financial management and planning. But neither should the seemingly endless everyday tasks let the clergy off the hook of speaking out prophetically. Rather they can be used to offer a way of gaining credibility and learning how to speak the language that people will listen to.
The third theme is people. Ordained ministry exposes you to a huge variety of people and accelerates the speed with which you get to know them. It also exposes you to a huge range of people. From Royalty to Rectory callers looking for money, clothes or food. Care in the community, indeed.
It can also exaggerate the significance of the issues on which you differ. I have always been ‘interested in people’ as my University choice of Psychology attests. But people are far more complex, subtle, vulnerable and unpredictable than we appreciate. They are also much deeper, more spiritual and generally more robust and resourceful than we give them credit for. This applies to children too – and the elderly.
One thing to surprise me in parish life was my lack of capacity to read novels or enjoy soap operas. I think it was because my head was already full of personalities, stories, characters and complicated plot lines. One of the delights of the role of vicar is speaking at funerals when you feed back to a family some of the things they have told you, not in order to add an undeserved halo to someone’s memory, but to help them see the significance, perhaps the holiness, in the life of their loved one.
I could of course find more themes to expand upon. After all, twenty-five years is a long time. And if pressed, I would nominate my surprise at feeling the importance of spirituality more and more pressingly over the years. I would also mention coming to see the Christian contribution much less in terms of announcing the right way ahead and much more in learning how to be there in the muddle and in the aftermath of it all going wrong.
Once upon a time I believed that the Church would be in the vanguard to progressive and liberationist movements. In some places it is; we even have something called ‘inclusive church’. But generally speaking it is not. I am sad about that as I believe that society has moved quicker than the Church and that much truth is spoken more clearly beyond its walls. And yet I have come to the view that the important thing is not the pace of change but the quality of the journey, and in particular the quality of relationship sustained, forgiveness given and reconciliation both hoped for and accomplished.
What I think I am clearer about now is that the mess of the world, like the mess of people’s lives and minds, is far more intractable than I had thought. We are not going to sort it out and there are lots of things we are never going to get right. The role of the priest is not to be angry at the failings of others, or excruciatingly shamed by their own or steamed up with indignation at the church’s faults. Rather, it is to be alert to the reality of pain and the possibility of healing, to be alert to the reality of failure and the reality of forgiveness, and to be willing to work within the mess in such a way that the window which allows the grace or spirit of God into the situation is open, even if only slightly.
This might seem to be a poor aspiration. It is not. Getting and keeping that window open is the ultimate, practical and spiritual challenge.
It is only possible for those who keep the window of their own soul unlocked and open. That’s the thing.
Ordination is not about being high-minded, or having clean hands, knowing lots of theology or about being right, talented, good or skillful. It is about being a means of grace.
Addressing my younger self I’d have to say, ‘It’s humility, stupid’. Not that I would have listened then.
I hope I can now.