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Vocation: a fitting story

28 March 2014

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 to go."

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 sure.)

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 here.

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