REFLECTING on his journey to Bethlehem, Eliot’s magus is in no doubt: he would do it again. But would I? That journey has taken me through varied terrain, both literally and professionally. Like the magi, I’ve experienced the ways deep and the weather sharp; the very dead of winter. But I’ve also known many a temperate valley. My journey has had its share of joys and sorrows for me, and its mix of successes and failures for others. Fairly typical, I imagine. But would I do it again? No.
It started a long time ago for me, too. But I finished only last autumn, when I retired from full-time ordained ministry after 33 years.
Over recent months, I’ve come to acknowledge that, all those years ago, I made a wrong choice, took the wrong path. That’s not a conclusion I’ve reached easily, for obvious reasons. Nor is it one I’ve felt able to express to others, maybe because I felt that I would somehow be letting them down.
Certainly, the lay people I’ve shared it with have all, without exception, clearly been discomfited by it. What does that reaction tell us about the expectations we have of our clergy?
Maybe I have always been someone who has implicitly communicated a sense of being a round peg in a round hole. I wonder, then, what that says about my own authenticity.
Second, it seems as if my admission upsets something in my hearers’ own scheme of things. Maybe they believe that priests aren’t meant to be individuals who have such major doubts and make such fundamental errors.
Ministers know that projection plays a significant part in our relations with our parishioners: we are screens on to which all sorts of images are thrown by those to whom we minister. Have I just deviated too much from the advertised programme?
I have come to question whether I ever really had a calling to the ordained ministry. In the early 1980s, I would have said with confidence that I did. Now, nearly 40 years on, I find that I cannot say yes, or no.
Instead, I find myself asking whether anyone ever has a lifelong vocation to anything specific in this way. Maybe the only vocation is the one we all share: the call to compassion. But it is for each one of us to work out what that means in the specifics of our own life.
And so, like the magi, I journey on, these voices singing in my ears.
The Revd John Page ministered in parishes, schools, and a hospital, most recently in Guildford diocese. He is now retired and living on the Wolds in East Riding.