“IT IS all formation.” These three words have become my mantra over the past year. A long, complicated lecture on the liturgical calendar? It’s all formation. Another “discussion” about some contentious issue, when you said something that you shouldn’t have and now feel dreadful? It’s all formation. College serves you potato wedges for the 14th meal in a row? It’s all formation.
Formation became my byword for pain, humiliation, and prayers of the “God, you know when I said I would do anything for you, can I add a couple of caveats?” variety. It’s meant partly in jest, but it’s also a way of explaining the weirdness, frustration, and discombobulating liminality of theological college. Then something changed.
Like many ordinands, I spent this summer on placement. I was initially apprehensive. Through no fault of my college, I felt de-skilled, with nothing to offer a bustling benefice with an exceptionally gifted ministry team. Also, placements are for formation; so it would be painful and humiliating, and drive me to pray for the Rapture, and then ponder whether I believed in the Rapture.
It was the complete opposite. Through the generosity, kindness, humour, and deep compassion of everyone that I encountered, I discovered the true side to formation — the gentle side, where people patiently and with great tenderness take your brokenness and piece you back together so that the blueprint of your soul, complete with imago dei stamp, is there for you — and others — to see. In the perpetual Lent of vicar school, they shone some Easter hope. They showed me that God had made me and declared me “very good” and formed me to believe that that was true.
I met a lady with the most beautiful soul and fragrance of Christ about her. In just a few encounters, by loving me as God loves me, this most unassuming of people undid the wounds and lies of formation as pain, humiliation, and prayers lamenting my uselessness.
One day, God willing, a bishop will command me to tell the story of God’s love — and formation is certainly needed for that. But we tell that story of God’s love through experiencing it; and we don’t experience that love through punishing pain or humiliation, but through saying with gentle persistence to all the people that we encounter that they are fashioned out of love for the purpose of being loved and sharing that love.
So, thank you to all those placement churches and communities. Thank you for having us, thank you for indulging us (“I’ll always remember you as the ordinand who preached about wee at choral matins”), and thank you for the tender, delicate, and empowering part you play in priestly formation.
Bring on the formation, with more love — and fewer potato wedges.
Hannah Barr is an ordinand and Ph.D. student at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
Canon Angela Tilby is away.