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Called to fail at an early age

11 July 2014

The go-away-and-get-a-life era is over, says Christopher Landau

Hearing the Call: Stories of young vocation
Jonathan Lawson and Gordon Mursell
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ALTHOUGH its title might suggest a volume centred on "stories of young vocation", the focus of this book is a series of biblical accounts of the call of God. These are reflected on, first, by Jonathan Lawson, drawing principally on his work as a vocation adviser at Durham University, and then, second, in a broader context by Gordon Mursell.

This structure makes for a rich and varied set of reflections, growing out of the scriptural texts; and the two writers are unafraid to highlight some of the challenges that face the Church as it reverses its previous discouragement of young vocations. As Gordon Mursell writes, "We may well wonder how many vocations have gone unnoticed and unheard because those who inhabit the world of institutional faith have been unwilling to accept not only that God will call people utterly different from us, but also that those people's vocations may well be to transform completely the Church as we know it."

Given those words, it is striking that this book feels very much focused on vocation to parish priesthood rather than pioneer or sector ministry. The tensions inherent in preparing for a Bishops' Advisory Panel are discussed frankly. While true vocation "is a call to failure because it is an invitation to walk the way of the Cross", the authors are candid about how uneasily such an observation sits with the competency-driven culture of ministerial selection.

Jonathan Lawson's reflections seek to encourage and reassure those who might worry that they would not "fit" among Anglican clergy. His favourite observation from an unnamed potential ordinand is this pithy and memorable remark: "Once God's got you, you're buggered" - a sentiment that may well resonate with many among the ordained who finally gave in to the unremitting call of God.

Hearing the Call is a stimulating and honest exploration of vocation, significantly enriched by quotations from spiritual writers. It is inevitable that its anonymous case studies focus on Durham graduates, and collaboration with vocational advisers from other contexts would have resulted in a richer diversity of examples. The only really perplexing part of the book is its appendix. Having repeatedly emphasised that vocation is about the whole of one's identity, the appendix includes a meditation written by a university counsellor, tightly focused on sexual identity. It feels like a politicised and curious way to end an otherwise helpful text.

The Revd Christopher Landau is Assistant Curate of St Luke's, West Kilburn, and Emmanuel Church, Harrow Road, London. He is a former reporter for BBC Radio 4, and the author of Christians and the Media (Grove Books, 2013).

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