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Ordination stories: where it all started

by
09 July 2021

The next generation of clergy speak to Jemima Thackray about what brought them to ordination

Simon Jones/Diocese of Lichfield

‘I think it saved my life’

Ben Brady, ordained deacon, Manchester

AGED 15, I had a dream in which I was told I was a trail-blazer. I didn’t really know what the word meant; so I Googled it and it took me to the Church of England vocations website. My immediate reaction was: “No, Lord, not this.” Both my parents are priests, and it was not what I wanted at all.

Not long after this, Bishop Robert of the Isle of Man, where we lived at the time, came to speak at our church. We chatted after the service and I told him I felt called to be a vicar, and his reply was: “I know.” But then life got challenging, personally. It was Bishop Robert who said to me, in 2016: “You’ve done it your way and it hasn’t worked, so do it God’s way.” I’ll never forget that.

Then I did the Church of England Ministry Experience scheme for a year. I was sent to Moss Side, in Manchester. I really didn’t want to go, because of the reputation of the area, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

Going somewhere so culturally diverse was life-changing for me. I am adopted, and both my parents are white; so being around Afro-Caribbean community culture was astonishing. I was able to find out who I was. I think it saved my life. God put me there at exactly the right time. I found peace in Manchester, and peace with God’s calling.

 

‘Thrown under a bus’

Jordan McDermott, ordained deacon, Blackburn

IT STARTED very young, as a child in church, as a “possibly-maybe”; but then it went away again. I was a violinist, and everything I did was about music. Then, during my music degree, I got a repetitive strain injury and I couldn’t play any more. It was devastating. I’d wanted to be a professional musician; it felt like 15 years of my life down the drain.

At the time, I was attending Bangor Cathedral, and I was part of the choir. After my injury, I got more involved with singing. I remember, after evensong, we were all in the pub and I mentioned to the youth worker, in private, that I had this sense of calling to priesthood, and he immediately threw me under the bus and told the precentor. But it has always felt like this: being sought out and needing other people to guide me.

I was employed as a choral scholar at Bangor, and then at Blackburn Cathedral. My calling has always been linked to musicianship and the gifts of liturgy and singing. At difficult times, when I have no words, I pray through music.

 

‘I went to McDonald’s’

Sophie Weller, to be ordained deacon, Chelmsford, at Michaelmas

IT HAPPENED at the New Wine leaders’ conference. At the time I was a children’s worker, which felt like a lifetime calling. There were various sessions on leadership, about how it takes all kinds of people. I remember Justin Welby saying: “God qualifies the called, not calls the qualified.”

Midway through the conference, I got a text from a friend saying: “I think God is going to ask you to do something, and you are going to think of all the reasons why not.” The word “ordination” popped into my head, which felt like such a curve ball, as I didn’t feel like the right kind of person. I also have a ten-year-old son with severe autism, and I felt my personal circumstances were too difficult.

But, then, I thought back over all the talks, about how leadership is being called to shine where God has put you. I left the conference to get some space and time out.

I went to McDonald’s, and a woman sat down next to me and said: “So, what is God talking to you about, then?” I couldn’t get away from it.

Since then, my confidence has steadily grown; I’ve realised I don’t need to have it all together to shine for God.

 

‘I became very ill’

Pam Smith, ordained deacon, Manchester

I’VE always felt a sense of calling since my childhood in church, but, at that time, women were not allowed to be priests. When they finally began being ordained, I was newly married and starting a family. It also seemed that the women going forward were different to me: older, and more educated. It just never felt accessible for me.

In 2010, I suddenly became very ill. I ended up having to give up my job in a secondary school where I worked in pastoral inclusion. It was during that dark time when my calling became more real, and I had the sense of God having a different call on my life.

I began educating myself (earlier in life, I hadn’t even finished sixth-form college). I ended up getting a degree from the Open University, and now I also have a Master’s in creative writing. This gave me more confidence in myself.

Then my vicar invited me to prepare a Good Friday reflection. I think it was the encouragement and support I received in response to this, that finally gave me confidence I needed.

 

‘One vocation, two sides’

Charlie Bell, ordained, Southwark

I GREW up in the United Reformed Church, and had a grumbling sense of calling ever since I can remember; but I kept ignoring it because I wanted to study medicine. It was finally towards the end of my medical training that I went to see the vocations adviser — with the intention of closing the door on ordination, actually.

But, when I began to have a look at the feelings, and see them through another person’s lens, it became clearer. I realised I didn’t need to choose between two vocations; that medicine and ministry are, in fact, one vocation with two sides.

I am now a psychiatrist, and my medical life is just as much influenced by my theological life as vice versa. I am increasingly interested in understanding the mind in terms of managing guilt and blame and culpability, and how a scientific perspective can be held in tension with biblical ideas of human responsibility.

As such, I will be non-stipendiary and continuing my psychiatry. I know of several more young SSM vocations, of people retaining two vocations, and I think this is becoming increasingly common.

 

‘My priest said: About time’

Rob Rees, ordained deacon, Winchester

MY FAMILY didn’t go to church, but I got into it through joining the choir. Then, at 15, I did work experience with my priest, and it opened my eyes to parish ministry. I also remember a secondary-school teacher giving me some books on ministry at the time.

Then, while at university, another parish priest opened it up again as a possibility; he even gave me the application forms. But, again, I decided it was not for me, not now, and life went on.

It was only when I came to the village I now live in, that everything changed. It went from being this niggly thing at the back of my mind, to something bubbling over that I couldn’t control. Suddenly every sermon seemed directed at me. I would feel embarrassed in church that everybody was thinking the same thing. I went to see my priest, and he said: “About time!”

For me, it’s been about now being in the right place and feeling called to a particular community. I am staying where I am for my curacy, because I want to walk the whole journey with people here, and have the privilege of being alongside them at every stage.

 

‘An unquenchable desire’

Claire Abraham, to be ordained deacon, Chelmsford, at Michaelmas

FOR me, it was a Damascus moment involving the sacrament of reconciliation. I was a cradle [Roman] Catholic and very much involved in my church, but I had rather a Protestant view of confession, not thinking it was necessary. But, then, in my mid-thirties, I thought I should just do it. I had no idea how powerful it would be.

Immediately after, I felt like I could barely walk. I didn’t eat for several days. I didn’t want to read or watch TV. All I wanted was to go to mass every day. I was filled with an unquenchable desire for God. After that, for about six years I would read only Christian literature, and this was accompanied by a sense of urgency, like God was saying: “You have to learn this stuff, in order to teach others.”

Then came the dawning realisation that this was a call to ordained ministry. This obviously wasn’t possible in my Catholic church; so I didn’t tell anyone. Finally, I told the curate down the road, who I knew from Churches Together. He encouraged me to do a course in Christian studies run by the Church of England diocese.

I was also seeing a spiritual director, a Catholic, who helped me wrestle with the fact that I was going to have to give everything up: all the people I loved, the church of my childhood. I remember I would lock up my church every day and pray: “Lord take this away.” But he didn’t, and here I am.

 

‘The pain of the journey’

Kendall Augustine Tanner-Ihm, ordained deacon, Manchester

I GREW up in the Assemblies of God churches in the US. I remember being at a youth camp, aged 14, and receiving a word that God was going to give me a new mother and father and make me a priest. I ignored it at the time.

A few year later, I found myself in a very conservative theological college, being given a lecture by a Catholic priest, Fr Albert, on the theme of spirituality and “coming home to your new self”. After the lecture, he told my tutor that I had a calling on my life to the priesthood.

I began the discernment process in 2013, by this time in the UK, and the reality is that all my cohort at the time — majority white men — are all now starting their first incumbencies.

I am a fighter, and part of the African-American religious experience is that we don’t give up. When people say “sometimes, doors close”, I reply: “Sometimes, God gives you sledgehammers to destroy them,” because many of those doors are put there by normative, patriarchal systems which need breaking down.

My sense of calling is about fighting for a place at the table, fighting for people to see us, African Americans, as image bearers of Christ. But, you know, I am still as evangelistic as I was before, despite the pain of the journey.

 

‘I remember sitting up in bed’

Coryn Stanforth, ordained priest, Norwich

IT FIRST hit me, aged 21, when I woke up in the middle of the night convinced that God was calling me to ordained ministry. I can’t remember a dream. The closest thing I can compare it to is when Samuel is woken up by a voice but he doesn’t know whose it is. I remember sitting up in bed feeling frightened, and not knowing what to do. It wasn’t something I had ever considered, it was completely out of the blue.

I held it to myself for a number of weeks, and then, eventually, went to see the curate at my church who told me not to worry, and to get on with my life and see what happens. So, I became a primary-school teacher. But, the whole time I had a niggling feeling that wouldn’t go away about what I had heard that night.

It took a change of church for me to finally begin exploring my vocation. I began to train, aged 47. Now feels very much the right time and place, but I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I had followed the path aged 21.

 

‘A long, quiet revelation’

Ruth Harley, ordained deacon, Oxford

MY FAMILY are atheists, and going to church was my way of rebelling. I was baptised at university, and I remember the college chaplain saying: “Keep hold of your baptismal certificate, because you will need it when you are ordained.”

I was involved in college chapel, and many people were encouraging me in the same thing. I did pray about it, but felt strongly that God was saying “no” at that time.

Years later, and I was working as a children, youth, and families minister. It was a job I loved, and I thought I would always work with kids. But many people were saying I should think about ordination.

One day, it struck me that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: I do have a priestly calling — particularly to children and young people. I have wondered if this is going to be important, as we work out how to reintegrate families after this pandemic.

Rather than a light-bulb moment, God has been a lamp to my feet, lighting my path just enough to see the next step. I have needed a slow, gentle revelation. I think of Jesus’s words, that he has more to say “than you can now bear”, but that the Spirit will come and “guide you into all truth”.

If I’d had a spectacular calling at 18, I think I would have lost my mind, because priesthood is such a big deal. I needed a long and quiet revelation that speaks to me of the steadfastness of God.

Forthcoming Events

21 October 2021
Transgressing Theology
From SCM Press: authors Natalie Wigg-Stevenson and Thia Cooper in conversation.

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