WE HAVE recently had a new bathroom put in. It was a job well
done, and involved a remarkable number of tools, pipes, and skills.
The builder who carried out the work also does kitchens, and has
two sugars in his tea. And another interesting fact about him is
this: he used to be a priest.
I am told that there is a good number of people still coming
forward for the ordained ministry; but it appears that there are
also good numbers leaving early, for various reasons. I recently
sat with an individual who has been a priest for 18 years. He has
found his present parish "the least Christian place on earth".
He went on: "I was thinking it was time to move. I knew I
couldn't do another December, it made me ill; so I started looking
at job adverts. They all wanted 'the Messiah-plus' - you know,
Jesus with a family and extensive PR experience - and I just
thought, 'No, I've had enough of this.'"
Someone else who had retired early from priesthood told me: "I
could see what the job was doing to my family. I knew it was time
Most men and women who are ordained still imagine that it is for
life when the bishop lays hands on them and they set out on the
priestly journey. I certainly did, all those years ago in St Paul's
Cathedral, as the organ thundered afterwards, and a man slid across
the floor on his knees towards me, apparently a serial collector of
priests' first blessings. (How much mine helped him I am not
So it was a surprise to me, after 20 years, when I felt that the
adventure was over. I did not have anything else to do, which was a
problem; but I just knew that I could not carry on doing what I was
doing. There was no loss of faith, just the putting down of a
position, and an insecure journey into the limbo beyond.
The priestly function is called "a vocation". "Do you have a
vocation?" people are asked in sincere tones, as if this is very
particular territory. And, of course, it is particular territory -
a good priest can create so much that is good; it is a wonderful,
if challenging, part to play.
But we perhaps do the priestly task a disservice by getting too
poncey about it, or by putting a holy cordon around it, which
declares it particularly venerated.
I sat with someone recently who had been turned down by a
selection panel. Understandably, they were devastated; but I could
think of a hundred different things that they could do in the world
- all equally holy, all equally a vocation. As a disappointed woman
said to me: "Jenny has just been selected for ordination, and I'm
furious. She used to be an engineer - much more useful."
I celebrate the unique priestly function; and I celebrate the
unique part played by bathroom fitters everywhere. Truly, God is