FOR the Revd Heather Ross, aged 65, the road to ordination was both the shortest and the longest that she has ever taken.
Married at 17, Mrs Ross was a wife and a mother of two, and also worked at the Cowshill Hotel, in the village of Cowshill, in Upper Weardale, County Durham, where she had been born and raised. She has spent all her life in this beautiful rural area, and knows — and is known by — everyone in the surrounding scattered hamlets. People here are used to long winters, power cuts, and glorious, peaceful summer days.
Mrs Ross describes her former life as “normal, busy, and fulfilling”, and, while she regarded herself as a Christian, she did not attend church, preferring to pray regularly at home.
“St Thomas’s Church in the village is directly opposite the Cowshill Hotel, where I have worked for many years,” she says.
“I would pass the church every day, going to work, and saw it out the window when I was cleaning rooms or preparing meals. I just didn’t have a desire to go there on a Sunday, but I was still a Christian.”
To supplement the family income, she completed an Open University course in IT and computing. After graduation, she taught at Bishop Auckland College and gave classes in village halls in Upper Weardale.
This contented life was interrupted when Mrs Ross’s husband, John, died, aged 60, in 2007. A few months after his funeral, she “felt a call from God” to go to St Thomas’s. For the first time in decades, she took the familiar road to work, but, instead of going to the hotel, she crossed the road to the church and went inside.
Not knowing what to expect, she was delighted to receive a warm welcome from the congregation, and soon became involved in various parish activities. As her faith grew, Mrs Ross prayed over whether she had a vocation to serve.
“It was like God was gently nudging me on,” she says. “Working varied hours at the hotel meant I could attend services and midweek events, but I had a desire to do more. It is important when considering a call to vocation to pray first, but also to seek out advice from others.
“Thankfully, Upper Weardale is a place where many retired clergy — and even one bishop — have come to retire; so I started conversations with them. It was like having a huge well of holiness, wisdom, and experience on tap. I had lots of questions and concerns, but also a real sense that God was inviting me to move into a ministry, and those priests helped guide me and were very encouraging.”
In 2018, Mrs Ross was licensed as a Reader, just a year after the death of the priest who had responsibility for St Thomas’s and five other parishes.
“We did not have an incumbent for the next three years; so I was called on to fulfil several roles. I led services, funerals, did home visits, and looked after three primary schools.
“I reckon I carried out more duties as a Reader than most people in a similar position, due to the rural nature of the area, as well as the arrival of Covid.
“Of course, there are some things I was not permitted to do — such as holy communion or marriages. However, the various ministries are quite fluid, and I found myself performing roles perhaps more associated with a deacon.
“This is a good thing and only natural. You can’t draw too rigid a boundary around the various roles. That wouldn’t work.”
Mrs Ross’s expertise in IT and computing meant that she could remain in contact with her scattered congregations during lockdowns. It was also a time to reflect on a calling that she sensed to become a deacon.
“I suppose it was a natural progression,” she says. “I was already performing several duties associated with a deacon. I believed God was calling me forward; so I again discussed it with others, and prayed about it.”
She was ordained deacon last July, and this summer will be ordained priest in Durham Cathedral.
“I will be a self-supporting priest. I am doing this because I love God, and want to do his work and serve my parishioners, not because I want to be paid. I will probably continue working part-time at the hotel, which will help financially, and — best of all — I can remain living in my own home.
“If I was a paid vicar, I could be moved anywhere in the country. But I am a home-grown vicar; I get to serve God and my parishioners and live in this beautiful area where I have spent my life. I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Mrs Ross says that her two children, who live near by, are “very proud” of their mother. She is thankful that her mother lived to know that she was becoming a deacon.
“She fell into a coma 13 days before my ordination, and died two days after it. I am blessed she knew about it.”
Asked about coming to the priesthood later in life, at a time when many people are looking to relax, Mrs Ross points to her life’s experiences as a plus.
“I have been a wife and a mother and I have also worked a normal job,” she says.
“I know Upper Weardale like the back of my hand, and what it is like to live in such a rural location. Coming to the priesthood in your sixties means stepping into a whole new world — but with a whole lot of worldly experience coming with you.
“I’d urge anyone my age considering a vocation to pray and to seek advice. Other people can help you to discern what God is calling you to do.”