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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Self-Supporting Assistant Curate, St Edmund's,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Pub customer: "I think you coming in here has been a
Me: What makes you say that?
Pub customer: Well, since I have known you, I haven't
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.
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