Grace Thomas was ordained deacon at Manchester Cathedral on Saturday. She will serve her title at St James with St Clement and Whalley Range, St Edmund.
Grace Thomas lost her mother to cancer just two months before she became a mother herself, at the age of 18. It was a turbulent time that strengthened her faith, but threw out her career plans and made her “nervous” of returning to church.
“My mum had a very strong faith, and when she was dying, it was horrible: she was in a lot of pain. But she would tell the nurses: ‘Don’t worry about me, I know where I’m going, I’m OK, look after my daughter.’
“I was a teenager, pregnant and terrified of everything that was going on. I had had a faith, but by that point believed that God was very angry with me, because I had strayed from the path.
“I saw how mum was dealing with her illness, and how God was really a presence looking after her, and it gave me a different view of God, which was why I wanted to go back to church.”
Ms Thomas had left the United Reformed church that she had attended in Marple, Cheshire, a few years earlier. Her mother had been diagnosed bi-polar, she said, and “home life was difficult”. She left at 16 to live with her boyfriend at the time. She was academic, but gave up the five A-levels she was doing to get a job as a care assistant in a nursing home, to pay rent.
“I enjoyed it, and knew I wanted to develop that, but fell pregnant,” she said. Her mother was “incredibly supportive”, and offered to look after the baby while Grace applied and completed her nursing training. But her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer when she was five months pregnant, and died two months later.
Ms Thomas, then a single mother, started training at Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport, when her son, Daniel, was nine months old. “I had my head in the sand about what it would entail. For three years, we had no money. I had a nursing bursary of about £500 a month. I had to pay full-time child-care for Daniel, because I had no family; rent; and bills; and had no benefits besides child benefit.”
She would eat the leftovers on the hospital dinner-trays, lost weight, and fell into rent arrears and a cycle of payday-loan debt. But her child-minder was a “gift from God”, and the friends she had made through nursing were supportive, she said. She only wished her local church had offered a foodbank: “I might have returned sooner.”
Ms Thomas did not return to church until she met her husband, Gareth, an A&E nurse, in her final year of training, in 2000. After the couple were married the following year, Ms Thomas became more involved with their church, and, in 2006, she was asked to lead a non-eucharistic family service.
“I would never have volunteered, because I did not think it was something I could do. That started the process of thinking that I belonged in the Church: I had no thought of ordination at that point.”
The couple moved to Durham in 2008, where Mr Thomas was starting his ordination training, with her eldest son, then 12, and their six-year-old and ten-month-old children. She studied for a certificate in theology and ministry at the university, during which time it was suggested that she explore a call to ministry.
“Every time I dismissed it, someone else would say, ‘I think you ought to explore ministry.’” She eventually contacted the diocesan director of ordinands in Durham, and then Manchester, where Mr Thomas served his curacy.
In 2012, she left nursing to be a youth and children’s worker in a Methodist circuit of five schools and eight churches. “I felt that it wasn’t right to continue my exploration of ministry. A lot of that was my own personal confidence. And all the stuff about being a single teenage mum was still there: like I wasn’t good enough.”
She stopped the vocations process until 2014, when a stranger at a youth chaplaincy conference asked whether she was exploring a call. She restarted the process, and, by Christmas, she had been accepted by the Bishops Advisory Panel. “By the time, I had finished with the examining chaplain, I knew that if the answer was no, I would be disappointed.”
She began training part-time for ordination the following December at All Saints’ Centre for Mission and Ministry on Moss Side, while working as a family-support officer at one of the Methodist schools she had worked with previously.
“It was absolutely perfect: the journey of working in that role alongside training was formational. It was difficult, I was a mother of three, and Gareth was a vicar at the same time, but it was definitely the right thing to do.”
She is currently writing an MA dissertation on clergy well-being.
‘I gave my testimony underground.’
DIOCESE OF DURHAMDIOCESE OF DURHAM
David Bond was ordained priest in Durham Cathedral on 1 July, aged 72. He will serve his title at South Hetton.
“In the mid- to late 1980s I had a very powerful spiritual experience that changed my life. People noticed a difference in me, and, later, I began to give my testimony to workmen underground.”
He studied for a BD at New College, Edinburgh, graduating in 1999, before spending a year as a verger at St Columba’s by the Castle. He has been a Reader for the past 15 years.
“Taking a completely new direction from mining engineering to study theology was extremely difficult, but there was never any doubt in my mind about my eventual success, as I firmly believed that I was being obedient to God, and that he would see me through.
“My present challenge is promoting the gospel in a community devastated by colliery closures, and in a society whose interest in church is largely non-existent.”
‘It was hard to turn away from sporting glory.’
Phil Nightingale playing squash
Phil Nightingale was ordained deacon in Peterborough Cathedral on Sunday. He will serve his title at St Mary’s, Rushden.
Phil Nightingale has felt called to serve all his life — in two very different ways. He is a former professional squash player, whose career has intertwined with a strong call to ministry.
Mr Nightingale began playing squash when he was eight years old. He eventually secure a scholarship to Wycliffe College, a boarding school in Gloucestershire, in 1996. “I’d never have got into professional squash without that training — it was rigorous. But it really helped my confidence.”
He was offered a squash scholarship at Birmingham University, where he studied English and German, and turned professional after graduating in 2005.
He took a year out of his international squash career in 2012 to be a youth worker in Northampton, and made contact with the diocesan director of ordination. “It was ultimately hard to turn away from the glory of professional sport, but knowing increasingly the greater glory of Christ has made that transition a lot easier.”
Since starting training at another Wycliffe — Wycliffe Hall, Oxford — he has been runner-up in the Karakal British Open (for over-35s) and has commentated for BBC Sport.
Mr Nightingale says: “I am looking forward to devoting my energies to ministry now, but still hope to train and play competitively where I can — if time allows.”
‘Wonderful, and not at all weird.’
Karen Hanford was ordained priest on 30 June. Her son Richard was ordained deacon the following day, both at Southwell Minster.
Karen Hanford is serving her title at the Wollaton benefice, Nottingham, while Richard will serve his at the Worksop St Anne & Norton Cuckney benefice, 35 miles away.
It was “wonderful, and not at all weird”, he said, that he had shared his ordination retreat with his mother. “God has led us on very different journeys towards ordained ministry, and we trained at different colleges; so it feels exciting to both serve in our home diocese.”
Richard studied theology at the University of St Andrews, and met his wife, Rachel, when they served together in the Lee Abbey Community in Devon. He trained for ordination at Trinity College, Bristol.
His mother worked as a probation officer, and for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, before exploring a call to ministry while studying theology part-time at St John’s College, Nottingham, where she subsequently read for ordination. She said: “Richard discerned a call to ordained ministry many years before I was recommended for training; so I am pleased that his long-held sense of vocation is coming to fruition.
“It is brilliant that, having left for St Andrew’s ten years ago, he is now coming back to Nottinghamshire, and we will be in the same diocese.”
‘I was met with disbelief.’
DIOCESE OF ST ASAPHDIOCESE OF ST ASAPHDominic Cawdell was ordained deacon in the Church in Wales in St Asaph Cathedral on 30 June. He will serve as a curate in Llay.
AT 22, Dominic Cawdell was the youngest-ever candidate for ordination in the Church in Wales, and needed a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Wales for it to take place.
“I’m not from a Christian family. I got involved with CAFOD a few years ago, and I used to go along for the non-churchy stuff; but I stumbled into a service one day. I was deeply moved, and felt called into God.”
At the age of 17, he “tentatively mentioned” his vocation to his parish priest, and has been working towards his ordination ever since. “I went to an ordination service five years ago. I heard the charge read by the bishop, and I cried.”
Approaching his own ordination, Mr Cawdell said that he felt “terrified and unprepared” on the one hand, but, on the other, he felt as if “God is helping and guiding me.”
He completed a theology degree at the University of Cambridge before his ordination, and is a Brother of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. He felt “called to both the monastic life and the priesthood”.
He said that his family have become Christians since he began his journey towards becoming a deacon, but, when he first told them, “it was met with disbelief.”