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Questions of propriety in the discernment process

06 March 2020

Those going through discernment for ordination need to be prepared for intimate questioning, reports Jemima Thackray

ALL candidates for ordination go through a long discernment process. In regular meetings with their diocesan vocations team, conversa­tions leave few stones unturned, exploring areas from a candidates’ financial lives to their most intimate relationships.

As one diocesan director of ordinands (DDO) put it: “This is not a normal job interview. This is a job for life. We have to think about what would cause a public scandal, and we have to therefore be more intrusive. But I always say we need to be professional, prayer­ful, and pastoral. It’s pastoral because, if we give you a role where you fall down on your face, then it’s not good for you, either.”

The Director of Ministry for the Church of England, the Rt Revd Dr Chris Goldsmith, says that the questioning is “an attempt to look at the whole person, seeking the well-being of the candidate in identifying what will enable them to thrive in ministry”.

All candidates are asked to read the 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality; although clergy are at liberty to disagree with this official position of the House of Bishops, the Bishops expect those they ordain to live within it.

And all candidates also face questions based on a “traffic-light” document supplied to DDOs by the Ministry Division, which sug­gests various lines of enquiry, including man­age­­ment of finances, experience of power dynam­­ics in relationships, boundaries in pas­toral situations, as well as intimate relation­ships, divorce, and sexual behaviour.

The document, written with the help of a psychotherapist and a former member of the selection team, was first circulated in 2017 after requests from DDOs who “wanted help with the area of personality and character, which is one of the more difficult areas to ex­­plore, and the area where difficulties can arise for people in ministry”, Dr Goldsmith says.

Few candidates, however, are aware of this document and its use as a template for ques­tion­ing during the discernment process. “While we don’t publicise it, it is widely avail­­able,” Dr Goldsmith continues. One DDO says: “When I had training on it, the Ministry Divi­sion did not want you to take copies of the slide, and they do not want it circulated. I am surprised you have got hold of it.”

The long list of questions is not meant to be asked line by line. “Rather it is an aide-memoire of areas to explore,” Dr Goldsmith says. “In the training we provide for DDOs, we discourage asking all the questions at once. But we must trust our DDOs to do their job, and acknowledge that we are human and [that the process] won’t always be perfect. If there are mistakes, or if candidates feel something hasn’t been well handled, then we hope that they would raise it.”

Some candidates have found the lines of enquiry too intrusive. And some DDOs have found asking some of the questions difficult. “The first time I [used] it, it was just awful,” one DDO said. “But now I find the document a springboard into some really good conversa­tions about power and ethics.

“It opens up for candidates that ordained ministry is like living in a goldfish bowl; that they are going into public ministry. We need people to have thought about this. It seems to me that, when Christian leaders fall, it’s money, sex, power. I think it’s really helpful for people to know early on what their weaknesses are under stress.”

One candidate attested to the unease experi­enced by his DDO: “I was asked about sexual behaviour, but the questioner was so embar­rassed, and obviously trying not to offend, that they managed to offend by proxy. If they had been more direct — not rude, but open and honest with the questions — it would have been done and dusted.”


HOW qualified are DDOs to judge the suit­ability of candidates in relation to questions about sex and sexuality? “While we don’t at­­tempt to turn our DDOs into professional psy­­chologists, we ensure they are well sup­ported through the training we give, and by the fact they work in teams,” Dr Goldsmith says.

“We also provide access to a psychologist who, on an anonymised basis, will help them if there are issues and questions they are working on with candidates. They might offer sugges­tions about how to open up better dialogue in certain areas.

“Most DDOs stay in their role for quite a while, and we are confident in the recruitment process of people who have the right skills.”

One experienced DDO said: “There is no strict set of rules around the use of the traffic-light document. It’s meant to be used as a tool, sensitively. . . I hold it in my head rather than work through it. But perhaps if someone was particularly difficult in an obstructive way, then I might just go through the document line by line.

“I usually start by asking: ‘Is there anything you don’t want to tell me?’ I find that question usually opens things up. We have a candidate in her forties who dis­closed abuse, for the first time to anyone outside her own family, that she had experi­enced as a child. The abuser was still in contact with children. By lunchtime, we had the police involved.”


A MINORITY of dioceses routinely use ex­­ternal professionals to conduct psychological assessments, in addition to the sessions with the vocations team.

One DDO in a large diocese said that “absolutely everyone” was sent “for a psy­cho­ther­­­­­apeutic assessment. This is supposed to uncover relationship issues, or red-line issues. But we can’t only rely on that, because anyone going into that kind of interview will have their guard up and be careful about what they say.

“So, in one-to-one sessions with candidates, I will cover the areas in the traffic-light docu­ment. It is given to all DDOs, and we are told to use it. It absolutely has to be done, but the document must never be shown to the candid­ate.

“Of course, I don’t go through and say: ‘Now it’s time to talk about X.’ It is in the context of many deep conversations had over many weeks. After each session, I might go back to the document and think about what we covered, and what we might still need to discuss. I do think we need to delve deeply into these things, but in the context of a relation­ship where we have built up trust with candid­ates.”

In one of the categories of the traffic-light document, under the subheading “addictive and destructive behaviour”, questions about porn­ography are listed, alongside the use of prostitutes and sexual contact with people under age. While acknowledging that some pornography is illegal, saying nothing of the ethics of its use even if legal, some have objected to the lumping together of legal and illegal sexual behaviour.

The reasoning behind this grouping, Dr Goldsmith says, is that “all these behaviours may be addictive and hidden, leading to a dual life which can be destructive. Again, it is about the well-being of candidates, anticipating the way they are wired and how this may play out under the stresses and strains of ministry.”

Speaking about the external psychological assessment, one candidate said: “Therapists ask about your sexual experiences and prefer­ences, and about pornography. But . . . they seem to focus their deeper examinations on those who are single and male. It seems there is an expectation that married females will have ‘normal’ sex lives and clearly have no need for pornography. I’m not condoning the use of pornography, but I do think that this process is riddled with inequality and assump­tions which devalue the process.”

One DDO said: “Pornography, for young candidates, has become a normal part of the landscape. We have to be sensitive to this; and yet, if a candidate made light of pornography use, I would be quite concerned. We must also maintain a higher standard — not just about sexual behaviour, but in how we handle money and relationships of all kinds.”


CONVERSATIONS with LGBTI candidates also vary in how deeply they probe. One gay candidate described being “warned by my DDO at the start of the discernment process that we’d cover some topics which were likely to be sensitive. The questioning concerned the potential impact of celibacy on my partner’s well-being and our relationship, and I really appreciated the regard for our well-being.

“I was not questioned directly about our in­­timate life. It became clear, during training, that LGB students who had not been asked about their sexuality during discernment strug­gled much more with how to reconcile their vocation and partnerships than those who had wrestled with the topic earlier in the process.”

Another candidate felt that the issue of their sexual identity was given undue attention. “As someone who had recently come out as bisexual, this was a topic that my assessor was very keen to explore: how I came to this realisation, what support had I received, the challenges I had faced. My experience of being asked further questions about the impact of living within the [Issues in Human Sexuality] guidelines is not unusual for homosexual, bisexual, and pansexual candidates.”

Another candidate said that, when she had her first meeting with the DDO, sexuality was the first issue raised. “I found this odd, as I would have expected questions about my faith to precede everything else. It seems that this issue has become a particular test of orthodoxy in a way that has no grounding or justification in the tradition.”

She said, however, that she “respected the DDO for the way he handled the matter. I think it enabled us to have an easy and very honest relationship, going forward. He seemed rather embarrassed to have to raise the issue. I was not asked about it again. He accepted my word on my celibacy without question.”


FOR other candidates, their concern lies not with the questions, but in how much weight and attention is given to sex and sexuality within the process. “I think the Church does have a right to hold its clergy to standards of behaviour,” one said, “but is their sexual behaviour more important theologically than where they invest their money, what they do to repair our earth, how they care for the poor and marginalised in our world? I think not.”

One DDO said that she has one potential ordinand at the moment who is in a civil partnership. “I know that the Church doesn’t seem a safe place to her through the discern­ment process, as she is never sure who she can be honest with.”

“For me,” another candidate concluded, “the Church needs to develop an approach to sex and sexuality that encourages candidates to explore the healthy aspects of their relation­ships, and bring to light behaviour or attitudes which are unhealthy or unacceptable for those exercising public ministry, but [in a way] which does not leave candidates feeling as though their sex and relationship history has been scrutinised, or is the most important part of the process of discerning their vocation.”

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