One early summer night in 2001, I stood outside and looked to the heavens, putting to God the question that was uppermost in my mind at that time: shall I get married, or be a monk? It was one of the rare occasions in my life when I have had a strong sense of God giving a clear answer to my prayer: “I really don’t care!” God said. “All I want is that you should thrive and be happy. You’re going to have to work out the details yourself. I shall love you, whichever path you take.”
I should perhaps not have been surprised by this. My spiritual director had said a couple of years earlier, before I left theological college, that it was possible that God should have some clear intention for my life, “but it is unlikely that he will reveal it to you like some sort of railway timetable.”
This was not the sort of thing I wanted to hear. I wanted to know that God had nothing else to do but concern himself with my life, placing me at the centre of all things, and making sure that everyone was aware of the immense favour I was doing the Church by making myself available. I had no time for a God who didn’t really care which of two incompatible courses of action I took. It smacked of being asleep on watch and I was not pleased.
This is the first hurdle to clear when thinking about Christian vocation. Yes, it is right to take seriously the sometimes detailed choices that need to be made in a life committed to Christ, but I must avoid the temptation to become wholly self-absorbed by my God, my vocation, my future. The discernment of qualities and the apportioning of roles has always been a matter for the whole church to determine locally, in the diocese: what I think and feel is part of that conversation, but if I can pray for grace to glimpse the broader picture, and make this the burden of my converse with God, I may have a less tormented time while decisions are made, and less of a sense of failure if things don’t go as I had wanted.
Exacerbating the pain and grief of overemphasising my vocation is the unhelpful way in which we have always tended to establish hierarchies of vocational desirability: ever since the apostles argued among themselves as to which of them was the greatest, we have identified high-caste callings and lower-caste callings. For many centuries, we were clear that monks and nuns were at the top of the pyramid: selfless, celibate, poor and obedient, given exclusively to prayer and good works. Then came the ordinary clergy, quite high up the ecclesiastical food chain: although they weren’t as dedicated as the Religious, they were at least a cut above the laity, whose involvement in the ordinary run of birth and copulation and death marked out their unbridgeable separation from those at the sharp and holy end of St Peter’s boat, backs to the people, rapt in prayer.
Although this model didn’t quite survive the Reformation, we have still retained a league table of Church-doing and -being, in which some individuals come to be regarded as greater in worth than others because of the tasks they undertake. We are much more likely to regard as proper vocations the priestly and quasi-priestly roles of worship leading and other busyness about the sanctuary. Those who cut the grass and empty the bins and change the light-bulbs are less likely to agonise over whether they feel themselves to be called to this work. Neither will many have seen the joyfully-irradiated face of one who embraces such a lowly set of responsibilities. Even Churchwardens and members of a Parochial Church Council are likely to be driven by a sense of duty, accepting the historic inevitability of an obligation finally catching up with them.
All of which is a great pity, and a possible cause of the friction that can sometimes exist between the PCC and the Ministry Team: one, a perhaps beleaguered and scantily-resourced body responsible for many unglamorous things; the other, a group usually thought to be close to the vicar and operating on the high-profile stage of worship or in the hushed and beguilingly confidential world of one-to-one encounter.
Many of these difficulties have been intensified by the closed and limiting identification of priesthood with leadership. The problem is not principally that the priesthood has taken on the trappings of secular careers, with jobs advertised in the church press, and interviews at which one has to sell oneself as to a prospective employer, rather than being placed and presented in a parish by a chief pastor.
A far greater problem is that leadership language often conjures images of lone, possibly maverick leaders, fighting and winning against the odds, often with little thought of collaboration or pastoral sensitivity. Such models are inimical to the Church, where leadership is to be shared between clergy and laity, each bringing their own skills and experiences, in diocese as well as parish. This isn’t to establish a consulate of two equally powerful forces: the presidency of the community remains vested in the bishop and the incumbent (‘mine and thine’), but with what we might call a shifting seniority in which many voices and influences come and go, according to the matter in hand and the skills required to deal with them. This process will give rise to many different ministries, by no means all of them priestly or sub-priestly. And many of them will be identified by turning round the telescope so that we begin not with the question, What am I called to? but What needs doing, and am I able to help? From these questions, Parish and Deanery Mission Teams could emerge in response to local need and mission planning. Thus distinctive ministries would remain distinctive, enabling us to see that the one overarching and underpinning qualification in all of this gospel work is the baptism with which we all begin and through which we all belong.
I pray that on this Vocations Sunday, there may be a rediscovery of the primacy of baptism as the seed-bed of calling and the symbol of repentant following, so that, in time, many may be recognised as having been equipped by the Spirit for those ministries by which the Church lives and thrives. May there be drawn from us all a joyful offering of gifts, great and small, plain and remarkable, so that together we might carry out through the Church “God’s work to bring truth and healing to the world” (Daniel Hardy).