EVERY call to ministry is different: a feeling, a nagging question, a dramatic moment of decision, a slow realisation, a challenge from a friend. Whatever form it takes, once acknowledged, a first step has to be taken.
Frequently, it starts with an informal chat with a parish priest, talking over what ministry might be right — that of a Reader, perhaps, or a deacon or priest. A meeting with a vocational adviser might be suggested, or going on a vocational away day. “Step Forward” days, for instance, are designed for 18-to-30-year-olds who want to learn more and ask questions.
When the call gathers momentum, the official wheels start rolling, and the potential ordinand moves into a world of acronyms and interviews.
The discernment process has been described in various ways — slow, bizarre, intrusive, as well as affirming and encouraging — and culminates in a three-day residential assessment by the Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP).
Birmingham diocese has produced a flow chart to guide candidates from start to finish. Key to the process is the diocesan director of ordinands (DDO). The potential ordinand will have frequent meetings with a DDO, or an assistant DDO, who may also want to make a home visit. Further study might be suggested, or a parish placement, or work with a spiritual director. At some point, references are taken, extensive forms are filled out, and searching and personal questions are asked.
”Typically, this process of discernment takes between one and two years,” the Oxford DDO, Canon Faith Claringbull, says. “It requires some courage and patience. We are looking for evidence of particular gifts and aptitudes to grow the Church into the future, and will listen to both the candidates’ sense of calling, and also the call of the Church, through references from people who know them well.”
“The process is a rigorous one,” the Gloucester diocesan website warns. “It’s not designed to put candidates off, but to ensure that any decision made is in the best interests of the candidate and the Church, and is within God’s will for all. It may seem a bit daunting and bureaucratic, but remember: this is only the scaffolding. The really interesting bit, the building itself, is you.”
An assistant curate in Lewes, East Sussex, the Revd Jules Middleton, has written an insiders’ guide to discernment on her blog Picking Apples of Gold. Meeting the DDO for the first time, she writes, “can be incredibly nerve-racking and potentially emotional. It tends to be an informal chat, and, unless you are really barking up the wrong tree, or there is something significant in your life that needs addressing, it’s unlikely you will come away from this disheartened.”
One ordinand, now completing her training, however, describes how her first and only meeting with one particular DDO left her feeling completely worthless.
After several interviews going through the Church of England’s selection criteria, candidates may be interviewed by two examining chaplains, or be required to undertake a psychological assessment, or have a medical check-up. At some point, there is normally a meeting with the Bishop, who ultimately decides whom to send on to the final interview — with the BAP — to be tested and assessed “by people skilled in the discernment process”, the Oxford diocesan guide for those enquiring about ordination says.
Jemima Lewis, from Christ Church, Winchester, who has been recommended for ordination but has yet to start training, describes a period of self-examination. In her case, she had to come to terms with a Free Church background in which there were no women in leadership. “The DDO wanted to know if I really understood the Anglican Church,” she remembers. Encouragement can come from unexpected sources — in her case, “Even from an aunt who is herself a pagan.”
Jeff Tutton, from St Mary’s, Northiam, in East Sussex, was training to be a Reader when his tutor asked him if he had considered the priesthood. Not having at that point done any academic work for 30 years, he recalls, one of the hardest aspects of the process “was having to use language that wasn’t plain English, and struggle with a whole new vocabulary”.
Nicky Rawlins, from St Stephen’s, Chatham, in Kent, describes her sense of a calling to be a deacon, and how she went through the same process of discernment as candidates for the priesthood. “Things go in fits and starts. There are frenetic periods of activity, when you get wound up and busy, and then things go quiet for a while.”
The process does not follow a neat pattern, and family issues can throw plans off course. The Revd Stacey Rand, now an assistant curate at St Stephen’s, Canterbury, started the process when living in Ely, but had to start again, almost from scratch, when she and her husband moved to Canterbury. She recalls a “difficult conversation” with him, then still her fiancé, and the “painful decision to put the process on hold” for a while, until after they had married, and had relocated for work reasons.
Mrs Lewis has a career in journalism, and two small children. She has delayed starting training for two years. “I have a sense of God’s calling, and yet feel I can have other vocations at the same time.” This September, she is set to start the new part-time course being offered through Winchester diocese, Winchester Ordination Pathway.
A process that is searching may be seen as intrusive. One candidate, who suffers from chronic-fatigue syndrome, says that she was referred to an approved C of E doctor, who “went through my medical notes and discussed with me how my condition might affect my future ministry”.
Mrs Middleton says that one aspiring ordinand on her BAP interview was required to see a psychotherapist, “which was standard for candidates in their diocese”, she says. “Sadly, their experience was not entirely positive.”
More troubling can be the questions asked about sexuality. If a candidate has married after divorce and has a former spouse still living, or is married to a person in that position, a faculty has to be granted for the ordination to go ahead.
“Very many years earlier, my husband had been divorced. Looking into the circumstances of my husband’s divorce, I felt, was almost a step too far,” one candidate recalls. “I had to learn things about his first marriage I hadn’t known. The Bishop was very supportive, but regulations are regulations.”
“I’m heterosexual and married, but still found some questions intrusive,” the Revd Sara-Jane Stevens, now an assistant curate at St Matthew’s, Worthing, says. “But I understand they are trying get to the root of the person; we all live behind masks.”
The Guildford DDO, Canon William Challis, says: “About 50 per cent of people who come to discuss ordination don’t get through. It might be leadership potential they lack, or they are not robust enough. They might come across as insensitive in personality. And we talk things through. Some are quite relieved not to be going forward; others don’t take it so well.”
BAP assessments are residential, and take place over three days. There are normally three one-to-one interviews, group discussions, a pastoral exercise — perhaps being asked to write a response to a complex pastoral situation — and all the time the assessors and candidates live alongside each other.
“It was amazingly intense,” Mrs Stevens recalls: “72 hours on high alert, living with the interviewers and fellow candidates.”
“I felt like a bug under a microscope,” Mrs Rawlins says.
”Before you go, you will be given a whole heap more forms to fill in,” Mrs Middleton warns. “I had an email arrive from my DDO with 13 attachments. In the week before [the assessment], I seemed to veer from excitement to panic. Make sure you have answers prepared to some obvious questions: why do you want to be a priest? Above all, do remember that you are there because of God. He has called you, and you have followed his calling. So just trust in him.”
Take some comforts with you, she recommends in her guide: “Chocolate . . . gin . . . a good book.”
Mr Tutton — who is now in his final year of training part-time in Chichester diocese — had no idea what to expect, and had had no coaching. “I just decided to be me. When I arrived, I met the other candidates, and they seemed to have done so much more than me, and I wondered ‘Why am I here?’”
“I think I must be an oddity,” Mrs Rand says. “I recall enjoying it. I had come back to Ely for the BAP, and I felt I was meant to be there.” Be yourself, she advises, and remember: you never know what you might be asked.
The Revd Lyn Dafis, now a Church in Wales assistant curate at Llanbadarn Fawr, Ceredigion, recalls being asked about hell; and Mrs Rand was taken by surprise by being asked: “Would you baptise someone from a washing-up bowl?”
“For three days afterwards, I couldn’t talk to anyone,” Mrs Rawlins remembers. “Fortunately, my husband picked me up, and we had a holiday booked.”
“I told myself that, whatever the outcome, I would always value the experience,” Louise Bishop, from Holy Trinity, Lyne, in Surrey, says.
She is now in her first year of training as an ordinand. “At times, it was very tough. One interview reduced me to tears. But it was uplifting and affirming. Even if they were to say no, I felt that that would be OK; it would just mean I would have to find another path to serving God.”
The discernment process differs only slightly from diocese to diocese, and is also much the same in other provinces. Mr Dafis recalls his three intensive days with assessors and 12 other candidates at St Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden, in north Wales. “Afterwards, I felt I needed to talk and go through everything, which I did with a friend, who was not himself involved in the Church.”
The decision to recommend a candidate might take up to two weeks to come. “It was quite a shock when I knew that my plans were really going to happen,” Mr Dafis remembers.
Mrs Rand, who had had a “plan B” in case of rejection, says that she felt “numb” on receiving the news. “I couldn’t quite believe it.”
Inevitably, some candidates do not get recommended. “Between 20 and 25 per cent of those who go to a BAP are not recommended for a variety of reasons — perhaps the timing isn’t right for them; and some do return for a second BAP,” Canon Challis says.
“I was hugely disappointed,” one unsuccessful male candidate wrote on the online forum bigbible.uk. “It took a couple of days for the reality of the situation to sink in. It’s really important to have a support mechanism in place to help you to cope. I had my spouse, who was pragmatic, but loving. . .
“I am very much aware that something that I have been part of for over three years is ended. The loss is real; it’s a form of grief; it will continue to strike back randomly.”
Mrs Middleton, in her guide to the discernment process, says: “I would like to say that the Church will pick you up and help you move on, but, sadly, I haven’t found one person who has found this to be the case. So, please, even if your diocese doesn’t appoint someone to help you, seek help — through your spiritual director, or someone impartial who can help you take stock of your feelings.”
Mrs Lewis recalls meeting candidates coming back to the BAP for a second time. “I sensed they had been deeply hurt by not getting through.”
“Some people are really quite scared,” Mrs Stevens said.
Looking back, Mrs Middleton feels that the discernment process was like being on a treadmill. “It’s important to remember who is calling you into all this. It’s so easy to be swayed from trusting in ‘the One’ to worrying about oneself.”
“We are looking for candidates who have the imagination to make the gospel attractive,” Canon Claringbull says, “and who have an appreciation of the riches of the Church and an ability to proclaim the Good News in fresh ways. They should have generous hearts to reach out to all in their care, of a faith or none. They will require energy and stamina.”
The “Will I or won’t I be?” question is the one that all those who feel a call to ordained ministry ask themselves again and again, as they navigate through the discernment process. For some, it feels like an obstacle course, on which most stumble somewhere on the way, only to pick themselves up and keep going.
One candidate was told by his bishop: “There’s no place for you in the Church of England.” That was a certain Justin Welby, who did not give up.