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Michaelmas ordinations: Exploring ordination from a non-Anglican background

by
07 October 2022

Theology learnt in other Churches may have to change for a call to ordination to be heard, reports Jemima Thackray

The Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano

The Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano

A FIGURE that is not included in the Church of England ministry statistics — but perhaps should be — is the number of clergy who come from non-Anglican backgrounds before training for ministry.

All the courses and colleges will have a good proportion of these spiritual migrants, especially those with non-denominational Evangelical roots. The stories of these individuals who have found a home and a vocational calling within Anglicanism have many shared themes — a changing relationship with scripture is perhaps most commonly referred to — and yet all bring to ordained ministry their unique experiences, which usefully serve to enrich and evaluate the Church and its processes.

For the Revd Ayo Audu, an Assistant Curate of St Frideswide’s, Water Eaton, near Milton Keynes, who grew up in an independent church in London that was “Pentecostal in flavour”, it was indeed a move away from a literal approach to the Bible which first drew him towards the Church of England.

“I was taking a biblical-studies module on Genesis, and I remember being stunned by how much of it is stitched together and redacted, and having to face, seriously, the idea of the creation story as a myth.

“Through God’s weird economy, I found myself being drawn to Anglicanism, and then to ordination training, and I began to understand that questioning the Bible doesn’t make it any less valuable; the Bible not being literal does not mean it isn’t inspired by God. If anything, it is more proof that it is, given the continuity of the message despite being passed through and marked by many human hands. Surely, it is [an] even greater testimony to the majesty of God.”

One of the biggest challenges that has arisen for Mr Audu, ministering in the Church of England, is adequately answering the question: what does salvation mean?

“In my background, the emphasis was on ‘solution evangelism’: telling people that they can pray to Jesus to be saved and for their problems to be solved, which is very transactional — as if the name of Jesus is creditworthy. I have been increasingly influenced by Sam Wells’s idea of mission as incarnational ministry, and I am starting to think that simply ‘being with’, my presence, is all I can offer in such a fast-moving culture like the UK.”

Before going forward for their Bishops’ Advisory Panel, most candidates will have to demonstrate an understanding of the breadth of the Church of England. Diocesan directors of ordinands encourage visits to settings outside their comfort zone if they have spent most of their worshipping life in one tradition.

For the Revd Rhoda Blackwell, the Assistant Curate of Newbold Parish Church, in Chesterfield, who grew up in the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, this experience of breadth of tradition was something that she relished throughout the vocations process.

“I trained at St Hild, in Yorkshire; one of its teaching sites is STC Sheffield, an ecumenical Anglican/Baptist church, and the other is the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, at totally the other end of the spectrum. I loved listening to what others value. I always keep in mind F. D. Maurice’s idea of ‘comprehensiveness’: that the Church is greater than the sum of its parts. He said: ‘If someone claims to know the whole truth, we are entitled to be sceptical,’ and I stand by this.”

When the Revd Jan Ashton, a former Rector of St Stephen’s, Hightown, in Liverpool diocese, now retired, also from a Brethren background, first encountered the Church of England, it was the intercessions that most drew her. “I was amazed by the sense of everyone praying for the good of the whole world, and I fell in love with that. In my background, we didn’t pray for anything except for people to be saved. I’ve only really learnt to pray since I’ve been an Anglican.”

She was ordained deacon in 2007, but first felt a sense of calling when she was eight years old, although at the time she presumed it was to be a missionary, as women were not permitted into leadership.

When she finally began training at Westcott House — “It took me 20 years to leave the Brethren properly, by which I mean living without guilt” — she did so without her family’s blessing. “However, I know that when my mother was in a care home, she was visited by a female Anglican priest. I like to think that in her last days she was able to enjoy the ministry of an Anglican woman, which could just as easily have been me.”

 

THE transgressive quality of feeling called which is experienced by women who have grown up in churches that teach male headship is well understood by the Revd Charlotte Cheshire, a school chaplain in Lichfield diocese. She grew up in a megachurch of 1200 people in Canada, and had felt a sense of vocation since her early teens. “But when I expressed it to a youth worker, he said: ‘Well, you must be called to be the wife of a pastor.’

The Revd Rhoda Blackwell

“This experience, and others, began chipping away at me internally, and when I left home to go to college in Toronto, I had a mental-health crash.

“I couldn’t find a place for lament in any of the churches I’d been used to going to. I remember waking up on Good Friday, and feeling like I just had to go to church somewhere. So, I snuck in the back of a packed service at the Anglican cathedral.

“On the one hand, I was absorbing the alien beauty of the worship, and on the other genuinely feeling I might get demon-possessed — that’s how traumatised I was.

“As I watched the procession of clergy, I saw a woman in full cathedral vestments — it was extraordinary to me. I heard a voice behind me say: ‘One day you’ll be doing that,’ but when I turned around nobody was there. I left that day feeling totally at peace — and hooked!

“After that, I immersed myself in cathedral life; I made myself a total pest to the clergy, asking ‘why’ about everything, but they answered my questions with such grace and meaning.”

The Revd Marianne Foster, the Assistant Curate of St Mark’s, Oliver’s Battery, in Winchester diocese, also had her sense of vocation deferred, having first felt called to ministry as a six-year-old, when asked to read the scripture at her parish-church carol service. “I stood up at the pulpit, and had a deep sense of this is where I should be,” she recalled.

As a teenager, she joined the local non-denominational Evangelical church, drawn by the passionate Bible teaching. “I remember eight-minute homilies being replaced by in-depth 60-minute lectures, and I loved it. I even did better at school, because I learned the importance of careful study and critical thinking.”

As time went on, however, she became increasingly uncomfortable with the church’s views on male headship, especially once her four children were born. “I would look at my daughter and think: ‘What if she feels called to leadership? What am I saying to her by staying here?’”

Her family began attending their local Anglican church. Mrs Foster described being overwhelmed when the Vicar asked whether she had ever considered exploring ordination. “I was absolutely distraught. The thing I had buried for so long had been seen by someone else, and there was this huge outpouring of grief. I replied: ‘I think I’ve probably missed it. Aren’t I too old?’”

She was ordained priest this summer. “My experience of the Church of England has been as an endlessly generous and spacious place, where I have been able to work out who I am. I will be eternally grateful for that.”

 

ANOTHER young priest whose calling to Anglican ministry was also a journey of self-discovery and affirmation is the Revd Dr Evan McWilliams, Assistant Priest of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, and Chaplain of St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Dr McWilliams grew up in the Presbyterian Church of America, in Florida, before exploring Episcopalian worship while studying architectural history at university and then Anglicanism during his Ph.D. studies in York: “I really got into the Book of Common Prayer, and I began attending matins most weeks.

“But the biggest thing, for me, was being in an environment with faithful Christians, but with so much diversity of interpretation. Being able to ask questions and not be squashed meant I could grow out of a self-referential thought system — which is what you get if you start from a place where scripture explains scripture — to a non-monolithic view of the Bible, which is more accessible and alive.

The Revd Dr Evan McWilliams

“It was also the first time I came across openly gay people in church. I realised I was gay in my late teens, but the environment I’d grown up in shielded me from all gay experience. I only realised the trauma of that once my new church environment had given me space to explore, in a more comfortable and healthy place, and only then could I acknowledge a call to ordination.”

He then trained at Cranmer Hall, Durham: “I’ve learned how to use the Bible as a lens, to do both justice to the text and to the full range of human experience, which has meant coming to terms with myself and also the roots and groundings of my faith.”

For another Floridian, Jeremy Heuslein, his calling to ministry and to Anglicanism has been characterised by what he describes as the pursuit of “the social gospel”. He grew up in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an offshoot of Presbyterianism which focused heavily on global mission. Now in his second year at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, on a journey that took in a stint at the University of Leuven, Brussels, where he became involved in a community in the diocese in Europe, he reflects that he is now more motivated by “the gospel as liberation here and now — not just by the idea of eschatological salvation.

“Jesus was concerned for the living poor. If Christians align themselves with the reign of God, this should be their pursuit, too. I grew up in a tradition where the gospel felt very disembodied. But, since I have learned more about the incarnation, this has radically changed, which ties to a more sacramental practice and expressing that materialism in liturgy.”

A similar interweaving of vocation, identity, and personal interest defined the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano’s journey from an Assemblies of God church in Illinois to being a chaplain at St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, via a Ph.D. in church history. “I’d taken a biblical-studies degree at university, and began digging into the history of my denomination and its relatively recent beginnings in the 20th century.

“It was then, on a summer course on church history, in Oxford, that I began to discover the riches of Anglican church tradition. My wife and I are both keen musicians, and we also appreciated the depth of the musical tradition, along with the visual and ritual space, and how these things connected to the long history of faith, both its riches and its failures.

“I am still shocked by the number of self-confessed Anglicans who say they find it the most miserable expression of worship. I’m like: “Wow! You haven’t seen what else is out there.’”

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