Petertide ordinations: Souls under our cure

by
11 July 2014

A new collection pulls together the experience of curates, training incumbents, and diocesan supervisers. Here they reflect on their calling, their image, their problems . . . and their round

CURACY involves taking on a new role and identity, even if it doesn't mean taking on a new place. Wherever and however our ministry as a curate is shaped, there is an "ontological shift" that occurs at ordination. This means that there is a real sense that who I am has changed.

After ordination, we can never go back to being the people we were, but instead we become "set apart" for God.

I think the ontological shift is the moment when you realise that you are in the world, but you are called to be no longer wholly of the world. It is the moment when something almost indescribable in the very core of your being changes.

It is the moment when you fully realise that when people look at you they will see "the Church". It is the moment when you realise that, however supportive others have been with you on the journey so far, they cannot accompany you on this part.

It is the moment when you realise that, however much you are loved by someone else, however much you love that person in return, he or she will never fully understand what it means to be ordained and ultimately "different".

My advice is to really think this through - perhaps with others - because to be ordained is to somehow change who you are; and that happens in public, in full view of family, friends, and parishioners. It's quite an undertaking, though it's also an incredibly exciting privilege.

People who know me well have commented that, since ordination, I am much calmer, more centred, and seemingly more at peace with myself than I used to be. I think that is to do with a constant sense of God's presence in my core being, and in all that I do, which was simply not there before.

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Being ordained priest has brought with it a sense of completion in who I am. There is a real sense of coming home, but not to rest. The journey is not yet complete (in fact it seems to have just started) and there is lots of work to do. I feel that to be ordained is to carry the privilege and responsibility ofbeing a bearer of hope, love, and light to a world in darkness. It's quite a charge, but I honestly can't think of anything else I would rather do.

Ruth Fitter
Assistant Curate, South Cheltenham Team
 

IT IS probably neither sensible nor desirable to try and articulate what a "typical curate" looks like, but I am certain that most people hold some sort of model in their heads, however ill defined. My conviction on this matter comes from two sources.

First, I know that when I first thought I heard the call to ordination, I couldn't reconcile my picture of me with my picture of "vicar". They just didn't fit - at all. Second, I have seen a similar bewilderment play itself out on the faces of my parishioners, and others with whom I have contact, the first time we meet; their models of "curate" and "me" are often a long way apart.

Let me explain. First, of course, I am a woman. Of itself, this is hardly revolutionary. The other thing which is true of me is that I use a wheelchair, and my cerebral palsy means that walking, co-ordination, balance, and good posture are not things that I have ever found it necessary (or even possible) to learn. All of these things taken together mean that I often need to negotiate all the unspoken "but how do you . . ." questions that articulate themselves on people's faces in those first moments of any encounter, particularly when I am in my clerical collar.

In the midst of such encounters, I have come to realise that help-ing people to understand how I work as a disabled minister is as much part of my calling as presiding at the eucharist, or baptising babies. The incredulity that I see in people's faces the first time I meet them is not so different from my own reaction when I thought I heard a call to ordained ministry: "I don't wish to appear difficult, Lord, but I can't walk, and, while we're having a chat, I'm not great at talking either." (I had a debilitating stammer at the time.) "But apart from that, it's a great plan . . ."

So began my journey towards ordination, with the startling realisation that my physical circumstances are not a mistake, and that I am called to ordination because of my disability and notin spite of it; coming to that real-isation in myself continues to allow me to answer similar questions when I see them in other people.

Since my disability is not an obstacle to be apologised for, or overcome, but simply part of what makes me the person I am, it is less of an issue.

It may be true that some people's image of God is challenged by having me as a curate, but it is also true that I have watched the vast majority of people move from a tendency to want to "mother" me to a position where I feel respected and valued as a member of the clergy.

My disability means that I have a gift for dropping things, and meetings and services early in my curacy were characterised by over-anxious watching and rushing to my aid at the slightest sign that I might need help. Now, when I drop things, people just ignore it, and that's the way I like it.

A gentle but firm refusal of help - or gracious acceptance, when that is appropriate - has helped everyone to learn when help is and is not required. People are now much more likely to comment on how much they appreciate the way I preside at the eucharist, where once they might have said: "What a struggle it must be!" I regard the change as a triumph.

My ministry has uncoupled notions of physical and ministerial competence which are so often unthinkingly bound together. No one can do everything, and my presence makes that OK; I hope people see that doing what they can is truly more important than apologising for what they can't do.

Rachel Wilson
Self-Supporting Assistant Curate, St Edmund's, Dartford


A COUPLE of weeks later, when I had observed nothing of [my training incumbent] James's ministry, and did not know where he spent most of his days, he handed me a funeral referral, and told me, "There you go, it's an easy one. Just go and see the family and use the book; you'll be fine." His definition of training carried on in this vein. . .

Time rolled on, and no paperwork, no evaluations were done, and the inevitable arrived - the director of curate training again checked on what was going on. The Archdeacon became involved.

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When James discovered that I had talked to the Archdeacon, he became more angry and bullying. I was concerned that he was going to lie, and I spoke to my Archdeacon to flag this, and gave him a detailed list of (non-) supervisions, with dates, and of incidents of concern. James predictably lied, but got caught up in his own lies, so that they were obvious to the Archdeacon. . .

He made me meet him, and was bullying, and lied to my face - repeatedly. This was the point at which I knew I had to leave. He then took it upon himself to attack me on everything he could. He could not fault my performance; so he attacked me on the fact that I was doing further doctoral study. I pointed out I had done no work on it - and he then berated me for doing a Hebrew class on my day off, and neglecting my family.

I was due to see the Archdeacon on that day, and I laid everything on the table. The Archdeacon was extremely supportive, and told me that what I was saying was almost word for word the kind of account they had heard during the pastoral breakdown previously.

He also said that he was aware that James lied routinely - this had been picked up independently. He apologised for placing me there in the first place, and told me he was pulling me out with immediate effect.

Anonymous curate
 

GOING into any new place for the very first time is always a little daunting, I find; and going into a village pub is possibly not the most inviting of prospects.

I deliberately didn't wear my dog collar for my first visit to the pub because it was (and still is) primarily a social visit, but, this being a small village, I had a fair idea that at least a few people would know who the newcomer was. Word soon gets round about the identity of the new vicar.

There can be a tension of sorts when you are a recognisable person belonging to any institution in a public place, whether a police officer or a vicar. For example, if you are a policeman, it wouldn't be right for you to neglect something occurring in a pub that was illegal.

It's similar in my experience as a clergyman. There have been times when I have heard racist or sexist comments, or seen plain bullying in one form or another, and the trick, I think, is not what to say in these situations, but often how to say it, and possibly when.

One of those occasions was when the landlord decided to announce my presence - "Steady, we have a vicar in the building" - in order to curb the regulars' language. The reply that came back from one of the punters: "At least I am not a paedophile."

It was quite a shocking thing to be said in a public place, and it happened early on in my curacy, when I had been in the pub only a couple of times. Charming, I thought.

Now, I do have quite a bit of life experience, but, if I am honest, it knocked my confidence a little. But within a couple of weeks I was having in-depth conversations with that very same person about all sorts of things.

Perhaps the remark came about from losing face after being publicly rebuked by the landlord, or from a need to be one of the lads, or perhaps he thought vicars are fair game when it comes to public ridicule. . . Whatever it was, it's often the case that I don't need to spring to my own defence - there's always someone willing to tell the offender, on your behalf, to pipe down.

It is true that the simple presence of someone ordained can cause all sorts of reactions. So we should not underestimate the possibility of ministry by our presence. In who we are, and what we represent, we may quietly challenge the people we come into contact with to ask questions, to think about some of the big questions in life - even to modify their behaviour.

I remember a conversation with a pub customer one evening:

Pub customer: "I think you coming in here has been a calming influence."

Me: What makes you say that?

Pub customer: Well, since I have known you, I haven't hit anyone.

Me: That's good, then. . .

As I reflect on my ministry, what stands out for me are the many pastoral encounters. When people get to know and trust you, I have found, all they want to do is tell you something of their life story, and to be accepted for who they are as opposed to the person they think they need to be.

And when I show them unconditional acceptance, I sense that they feel that the Church and, ultimately, God accepts them, too - and this is very important for them to know.

Rob Kean
Assistant Curate of Black Notley, Braintree

 

These are edited extracts from  Being A Curate: Stories of what it's really like, edited by Jonathon Ross-McNairn and Sonia Barron (SPCK £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.69))

www.spck.org.uk.

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