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Petertide ordinations: What we’ve learnt in our first year

11 July 2014

Pat Ashworth talks to seven new priests

Matt Hornby and his family

Matt Hornby and his family

BEING priested at the age of 25 makes Sam Erlandson unusual in the current demographic. He is serving his title in the three parishes of Llay, Rossett and Isycoed in the Church in Wales - and finding the process of discernment to be ongoing.

His first year has taught him that "in reality, I know nothing," he says cheerfully, recalling with humility how, as a student at St Michael's College, Llandaff, he had held forth to his friends on the subject of ministry. "It was a small college, and there were tremendous benefits in that," he says. "But there's also a risk of its being something of a fishbowl. Ministry has brought me crashing down to earth in a very big way."

But that hasn't been a negative experience, and his youth has been a witness that the Church is not just full of people of post-retirement age. "The three churches have just appreciated someone who is quite young - I don't like labels, but I would be labelled Anglo-Catholic and quite traditional; so there's no problem with the old hymns, for instance. That's been good for the old ones who think the only way to get young people into church is to throw out all the old traditions with the bathwater."

He reflects: "The way I'm functioning as a priest has not been at all as I thought. That's a good thing. Because, if a 22-year-old ordinand, new to working life as well as to ministry, can predict how it's going to be, that's a very sad thing. The fact that I've got a heck of a lot of learning to do shows how deep ministry really is.

"I was training to be a teacher before this. Throughout that training, I was constantly thinking of other things I should be doing. But, even on the very worst day I've had, I've never thought 'Maybe I should go back into teaching.' I've thought, maybe I should have handled that differently, but never, never, 'I wish I was doing something else.'"

LATER entrants reflect that a first curacy can, in some respects, be harder when you come into it after a successful career in another profession.

Suzanne Leighton, newly priested and serving her title at St Mary's, Charlton Kings, on the outskirts of Cheltenham, was a solicitor for 30 years before she "felt the divine foot in the small of my back". Jaws dropped at her legal firm, but her announcement also led to fruitful conversations.

A Reader for 25 years, with experience of many different forms of ministry, she was in no way "wet behind the ears. When you come in with 'Curate' stamped on your forehead, the assumption is that you are a learner." But there has been much to learn, she agrees: funeral ministry, for instance, of which she had very limited experience.

Her biggest challenge came directly after her ordination, when she was diagnosed with cancer, and went through emergency surgery and six months of chemotherapy.

She was hugely supported by the congregation. They prayed, and they "thrust scones through the door, but didn't keep banging on about it", she says with gratitude. "They didn't know us, but they loved us unconditionally, as God would have them love us."

Now, with the health trajectory "up and up and up", she is out and about and loving the visiting in particular. "There's no greater privilege than having coffee with someone and thinking, 'This is my job,'" she says with pleasure.

Lucie Lunn also reflects on just how many people she has met during her first year as curate in the 180 square miles of the Binsey ministry in Cumbria. A group of 11 parishes and 12 churches, it has a population of 4000 and contains none of the market towns where full-time curates are usually sent. "I blame myself," she says cheerfully. She moved to Cumbria in 2000 and remembers, "looking round the village churches in the Eden Valley and wondering, 'What do we do with these?' 'Go and find out,' God said. . ."

There are 25 villages, countless hamlets, six primary schools, several caravan parks, and lots of community groups. The nearest shop is an hour away. "It's a very beautiful place to be, and also a hard place to be," she acknowledges. "But it's worked out well. There's a big variety of services, and plenty of occasional offices, and the biggest high of the job is meeting people and realising you are making a difference in their lives."

The biggest low came when she slipped a disc, was isolated at home, managed to drive to the doctor's, but missed the parcels van bringing something that she needed. "That's when I thought: 'I wish I was in inner-city Birmingham.'"

But it's a good model of ministry, she says - "brilliant for training. I'm not just learning from one person."

Matt Hornby left London and Oak Hill College to work in Barrow, on the western side of Cumbria. It is a town with a population of 69,000 and a very strong sense of community. "They lament that community isn't what it used to be, but it's stronger than I've seen anywhere else."

The South Barrow Team Ministry serves a population of 20,000. Looking back at his guidelines, Matt notes that he was expected to do at least three funerals. He has done 34, and has had many difficult family situations to deal with. One funeral resulted in a request from the son of the deceased to take his wedding.

Schools work was new to him: he admits having been "petrified" when he was asked to take his first assembly. But he has been struck by the spiritual hunger he finds in Barrow: "A lot of my experience out of college was in the more well-off parts of London and the south-east.

"Here, there's less sense of the 'I've made it and I'm successful.' People feel they need something, and, while the Church isn't necessarily their first port of call, there's a lot of occasional churchgoing, and much more openness. People will come up to me in the pub and ask questions."

Things have improved greatly since their first days. "We moved up here, and almost immediately I was on pre-ordination retreat, leaving Caroline in a house full of unpacked boxes, with two small children, a fridge that wasn't working, and a cooker that wasn't connected. A lot seemed to go wrong in that first month," he remembers. But living opposite the local library has proved a godsend, and their daughter, Rachel, "now has a stronger northern accent than any of us."

For Toby Bassford, in Sheffield diocese, being priested this year has had a special significance, both personally and for his Fresh Expressions community, City:Base, a plant from St Thomas's, Philadelphia, for prayer and work among students, young adults, and the urban poor. It is within a stone's throw of Sheffield Cathedral, and the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, signed a Bishop's Mission Order (BMO) for City:Base in 2012.

Toby had been working at the church for several years before exploring a church-plant. He felt called to leadership, but admits to having "slightly fought the idea of being formally ordained. Mainly because of my reticence against an overly institutionalised expression of faith, and a bunch of preconceptions."

The Yorkshire Ministry Course allowed him to stay in Sheffield while he did his training, but, with two small children, that was still "an incredible stretch".

"My being priested feels and communicates a maturity, accountability, and safety about what we're doing."

Toby is 34, and thus a good deal younger than David and Angie Austin, also priested this year and working as NSMs. David, a former Baptist minister, is serving his title in a Gloucestershire multi-parish benefice. Angie, his wife, a former nurse practitioner, is in the adjacent benefice.

Hospital chaplaincy led David to Anglicanism. He says of his training: "I have done it all before, but I still have things to learn, particularly from a liturgical perspective and Anglican canon law, and I'm always referring to Trevor, my incumbent.

"But ministry is so different in this rural setting, because the Church of England has such standing. It is still in the villages, while other denominations are now only in the larger conurbations and the towns. It's privileged to be in that position, even though it is constantly juggling with keeping churches like these open with such a small staff."

Angie rejoices in having found her voice after years of what she describes as "struggling to emerge as a woman in ministry. . . My year as a deacon has really confirmed that. It's been beyond my wildest expectations," she says. "Since my ordination, my confidence has grown 100 per cent, and people have commented, 'What has happened to your voice?' It has changed. I'm speaking out."

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