IT IS common to hear people talk of “hearing God’s call” — or, in more Latinate terms, “having a vocation”— to the priesthood. For the more biblically minded, that might evoke the literal summons to Moses and Samuel, James and John, and even Saul of Tarsus: direct, straightforward, and unmistakable.
Canon Stephen Ferns used to oversee the selection of potential clergy for the Church of England, working as Senior Selection Secretary for the Archbishops’ Council. He likens a vocation to the priesthood as “an ingot of gold” which God gives to each person who God calls, but which needs to be tested and hallmarked by the Church. But what happens when that ingot turns out to be of a different metal?
Phink PhotographyRuth and Ellie Wilde on their wedding day in 2014
“A true vocation is where someone recognises and owns their sense of calling from God, and the Church says: ‘Yes, we agree,’” Canon Ferns says. When such a perceived call is not affirmed by the Church, it can be “an extraordinarily wounding experience. It can undermine people’s own self-belief, and it often affects their spirituality and their faith and their sense of the love of the Church, as well.”
He recalls many years ago meeting a candidate who had not been recommended for ordination. “I asked her to write a reflection on the experience, and she entitled it ‘Walking Uphill Over Broken Glass’.”
Sometimes, the rejection can be mutual. Ruth Wilde, a former Methodist who had “found solace in the mysticism of Anglo-Catholic worship”, was working commercially, in credit management, when she “felt a kind of calling” to do something with her life which was related to the Church.
“I felt that my skills lay more in ministry, in leadership and discipling, and I thought I was probably called to be a vicar.” She began studying theology, and went forward for ordination.
The diocesan panel who saw her in Leeds asked her to get some experience as a pastoral assistant; so she gave up her job and worked unpaid for a year while her fiancée worked part-time to keep them both. After six months, in February 2014, the bishops released their statement, Pastoral Guidance on Same-Sex Marriage. It was “the final straw that broke the camel’s back”, Ms Wilde recalls. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my relationship, and I didn’t want to keep being made to feel like there was.”
She wrote to this newspaper at the time: “It makes me feel sick that I have to choose between going forward for ordination and marriage — both are a vocation. I have been crying intermittently ever since [the guidance was published]” (Letters, 7 March 2014).
She was married later that year, and she and her wife have since become Quakers. Today she is national co-ordinator of the charity Inclusive Church. She still thinks that she “could have done well” as a priest, but now believes that her calling was broader than that. “It’s not that God didn’t call me: I just think you can be called to a certain direction in life, and several different jobs might fit that direction.”
MARTYN SMITH was teaching philosophy, ethics, and theology for GCSE and A level when he was prompted by his wife to go forward for ordination. “It is so unlike her, I had to listen to her,” he says, “because I felt there might be something of God in it. We laugh about it now. It’s the only time she has had this sort of clear sense, and it was wrong.”
At the time, the idea appealed strongly. He had previously been a minister in a Baptist church and “a sort of ex-Brethren church”, and, to him, Anglican Orders seemed like the real thing. “Going through that whole process,” he says, “testing your calling and having extensive training — that had some sort of authenticity. I thought it would open doors for me. I thought I’d be serving Christ more explicitly.
“I also thought it would be good for me. I’m a bit of an erratic character, and I thought it would bring rhythms into my life. So, there was a selfish element, too.”
In the end, it was he who spiked his application, not the Church. “As soon as it started to become real, I began to see it as an embarrassment. I thought I was going to become something that I’m really not: portentous, pretentious. It felt to me like buying a BMW. I’m not really a BMW kind of guy, but I know if I bought one I’d be cutting people up at the lights and giving them the finger.
“It says a lot more about me than it does about the Church of England, but I felt it was feeding a side of me that I didn’t think was healthy.”
Subsequently, he says, he had “a bit of an epiphany”. He prayed about his future, and he felt that God “gave me back what he’d given me to begin with, but now I had the heart to receive it. I adore being a teacher, and I realised: ‘This is what God made me for. Embrace it!’ Since then, I’ve not even vaguely considered the ministry.”
SOMETIMES, a calling can take someone off at a tangent. Alex Thornton was studying economics at Warwick University and looking forward to a career in the City when he had “a big change of heart. I really sensed God calling me into Christian ministry, and particularly evangelism.”
He spent the next 15 years working for several Anglican churches, the Elim Pentecostal Church, the Salvation Army, and the Church Army in various kinds of urban ministry, community outreach, and youth work.
In 2010, having already commenced a part-time diploma in theology at St Mellitus College, he applied for ordination in the Church of England.
“I never wanted to be a vicar as such,” he explains, “but I suppose I thought that ordination was a good way to get authenticated. I already did pretty much everything that an ordained person does, apart from take communion and do funerals.
“They never said no, but they kept saying they were still not sure.”
His life took an unexpected turn in 2014, when “a lot of things came to a head.” His mother died, his wife was in and out of hospital, and he found himself “a bit tired of the politics of church life”. One day, he was out on the local estate when a woman jumped from the third floor of a block of flats in an attempt to kill herself. “I thought: ‘It’s good to pray for her, but what she really needs is a paramedic.’”
He is now training as a paramedic, and expects this to be his profession for the next 15 or 20 years.
He believes that he “definitely had a vocation; but a vocation can be for life or it can be for a season. I’m now in a different season, though I still feel called to evangelism.” He is excited by the openings that working as a paramedic will give him. “If you’re in an ambulance [with your colleagues] for 12 hours, you really get to know each other, and it can be a great opportunity to share your faith.”
David Shervington was 30 or so when he started going through discernment. In his case, it was a fairly swift process.
Throughout his twenties, he had been interested in preaching and leading services, and a moment of crisis in what had been, until then, a steady career in publishing prompted the thought that he should get ordained.
“I didn’t feel like I was tested at all,” he says. “I’ve heard lots of people say there is real pushback, the DDO asking: ‘Is this definitely from God?’ I didn’t get any of that, really. As a youngish white man, possibly they just thought I fitted — which I find a bit troubling. Maybe I would have met more resistance if I had made it to [the Bishops’ Advisory Panel].”
Instead, he realised that he was called to the tasks that he was already doing, as a lay minister and a commissioning editor. “I realised that, if my call seems to be mostly to preach and to lead, and if my day job is something that excites me and feels like a calling, well, that feels much more like a ministry to me [than the priesthood].”
Recently, he says, he read a book that said something to the effect that the priestly calling was the highest calling. He disagrees. “I think the highest calling is [to do] what God has called you to, whatever that might be.”
SOMETIMES, even after ordination, a vocation can come off the rails. The Revd Tim Pottage was a successful property developer when he received an unwelcome message. “One evening, in my prayer group, an inner voice said: ‘I want to be a vicar.’ Three times. And I thought: ‘No, that’s the last thing I ever want to be, thanks very much.’”
None the less, this vocation was confirmed in various ways: by dreams and a vision; “words” given to other people; and “the Holy Spirit filling me with a great sense of excitement and desire for the role. When I talked to one of the ministers at my church — St Aldate’s in Oxford — I thought he was going to say, ‘I think you’re talking nuts, mate.’ But he said: ‘Well, that’s what God does. He sort of hijacks your life. And if you want to follow the calling, you’ll be fulfilled in that calling. But it’s your choice.’”
Mr Pottage found the process of discernment long and arduous, and, when he went before the Bishops’ Advisory Panel, he was rejected. A year later, however, a second panel strongly recommended him. After completing a diploma at Wycliffe Hall — he is dyslexic, which made it “quite painful” — he was ordained deacon in 2015, and found a curacy in Taunton.
“I come from a Charismatic Evangelical background, and my incumbent struggled with that side of things. I really don’t mind which flavour of churchmanship you prefer, but, looking back, I can see that there was some frustration with my style, and so there were probably frictions building up that I was oblivious to.”
The Revd Tim Pottage
The explosion (as he puts it) came one Sunday, when Mr Pottage invited God to bless the congregation, and some were “slain in the Spirit”. By now, he had served all but six months of a three-year curacy, and the Bishop decided that it would be best if he did another curacy in a church that was more suited to him.
He had to decline. “My son is autistic. [He] was finding life very challenging, and had became suicidal. He said: ‘If we move again, it will kill me.’ So, I had to pull out. It was a no-brainer.”
He has, for the present, returned to property-developing. Having spent their savings buying a house with a large garden in Taunton, he has now secured planning consent to build four homes on the land.
“It’s easy to think: ‘These last few years have cost a lot of money, and a lot of heartache for the family. What have we got to show for it?’” he reflects. “As painful as the process has been at times, I believe I have followed God’s calling, and have done, so far, what he’s called me to do.
“When our plans don’t work out, we think: ‘The enemy has got in.’ And, sometimes, that is the case; but often it’s not: it’s just that God wants us to grow in grace. And, after a while, you try to gauge his rhythm and discern his hand.”