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
"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
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."