Vocations Day Sermon
20 May 2007
St Peter’s Bocking
MAY I SPEAK IN THE +NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
Well, first let me thank you for having me to speak here today. As Father Trevor said my name is Paul White and I am currently in my second year of ordination training on the North Thames Ministerial Training Course. I know that it sounds a bit like a gas company but they really do train people to be priests!
The reason I am here talking to you is because today is ‘Vocations Sunday’ and the Diocese has chosen to mark this auspicious occasion by asking all their current ordinands (which the name given to those training for ordained ministry) to speak about our experience of exploring vocation to ordained ministry and about the whole selection and training process.
But before I come onto that I should tell you that I have been given a bit of an odd brief. As I said I am here to talk to you about ordination training and vocation but I have also been told that this is not a recruitment drive for ministry. This instruction comes from the Director of Ordinands. Now, as I am an Ordinand and he is the Director of Ordinands that probably makes him my current boss in the church. This gives me a bit of a dilemma as I don’t want to get into trouble – so, can I ask you a favour? If, during the course of my talk or afterwards you start getting any thoughts that you might have some call to ministry then please quash that thought immediately! If word gets back that I have managed to recruit anyone to go forward for selection then I can’t tell you what might happen…I could be defrocked before I’ve even be frocked!
However, if you end up finding it impossible to quash or ignore the sense of calling any longer and you do end up speaking to either Father Trevor or the Director of Ordinands please just keep my name out of it – you ain’t seen me roight?
Vocation – it’s a bit of a funny word and seems to be much misunderstood. What is a vocation? Well, I think that there are at least three common misunderstandings:
First that they are a bit like proper jobs but that people with vocations are allowed to work longer hours and have lower pay, because they have vocations and not jobs! I think that lots of nurses, teachers and not to mention vicars get that one!
Second that vocations can be missed, a bit like buses. How many times have you heard that one: “Oh, you’ve missed your vocation.” And, once missed that is that – the vocation is gone so you’d better just do a normal job and let others get on with having vocations; and
Finally that within the Church a vocation has to mean the ordained ministry – i.e. that the person with the vocation stands at the front at talks to those without.
In reality I think that everyone here has a vocation – whether you are a full time mother, a teacher, an office worker, a shop keeper, retired, currently between jobs or whatever. Does that mean that vocation is so wide as to be meaningless – no! In my view having a vocation means seeking to be the person that God has called you to be at this time in your life to the best of your ability. If God has called you to be a full time mother then live out that vocation before God to the best of your ability. As the children grow up and fly the nest then your vocation will develop – maybe it will be to return to a previous job, to train for a new career, you may have a calling to be the best grandmother before God that you can be or it may be to trek through Africa for charity, who can tell?
However, if you genuinely feel that your current situation is not what God has called you to be then please don’t kid yourself into thinking that you have missed your vocation so there’s nothing you can do – spend some time thinking about what your real calling is or might be – especially in the context of prayer – and ask God to help you find and respond to that vocation. You shouldn’t expect instant results but if you genuinely open yourself to being guided by God into becoming the person that you were created to be then, whatever your age or situation, you should trust that God will do just that. Although be careful because, despite what I said a moment ago, some are called to ordained ministry and you could end up being dressed in funny clothes talking to people about the meaning of vocation and your journey to ordination!
Which, I guess, brings me back to me! Who am I and how did I end up here on the journey to being ordained into the Church of England? They are both questions that I often lay awake at night thinking about…
Well, first the factual stuff. I am 38 years old and married with two young children – the eldest is 4 1/2 and the youngest is 7 months old which, I can tell you, has made studying an interesting experience this year. I am currently working as a solicitor in Chelmsford and studying “part time” on the North Thames course.
Although I was baptised as a baby I don’t come from a Christian family so I hardly ever went to church as a child. I eventually became a Christian in my mid 20s. Now, I wish I could tell you an amazing story about a youth of sinful excess followed by a Road to Damascus conversion and a call to evangelise the world like St Paul – unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) it didn’t quite happen like that. For me my journey to faith and my call to ordination has a lot more in common with the road to Emmaus than the road to Damascus. So, rather than being struck down, blinded and converted by a sudden encounter with Christ my conversion was more like a walk with an unknown companion who progressively unfolded the scriptures to me and let me grow in faith until I was able to recognise Christ for myself. I renewed my baptismal vows by full immersion and was confirmed by the Bishop of Rochester in Kent about 10 years ago. However, it seems that my companion on the road to Emmaus wanted more from me and I definitely felt called to keep walking and to keep exploring to see what lay around the next bend.
As it turned out the next bend brought us back to Essex – We moved from Kent and ended up living in Coggeshall and going to St Peters there. Now I don’t mind saying that St Peter-ad-Vincula is very different from our Church in Kent – let’s just say that if anyone had spotted that much smoke during a service in our previous Church someone would have called the fire-brigade! Nevertheless, God obviously had a purpose in sending us there as it has been an amazingly supportive Church family and it was there that my feeling of being called to explore further what it means to be a disciple of Christ began to form firstly into a real desire to learn as much about Christianity as possible and, slightly later, into a possible call to ordination.
My desire to learn more about Christianity led me to sign up for a two year evening class called the Course in Christian Studies or CCS which is run by the Diocese. I should say now that if anyone feels that they may be interested in pursuing any sort of ministry within this diocese, whether it is ordained ministry, reader ministry, licensed evangelist or pastoral worker then the CCS course is an absolute pre-requisite. But CCS is also open to anyone regardless of whether you intend to go any further I would urge everyone here to have a think about it – it starts every September and is really interesting and good fun.
It was whilst studying on CCS that it became increasingly clear that my companion on the road to Emmaus was beckoning me on to consider ordination as a real possibility. When that thought had been lodged in my mind for a while and wouldn’t shift I decided that I had no alternative other than to speak to my priest, Father Philip. That first meeting was really quite daunting – not because of Father Philip, on the contrary he was great, but actually talking to someone who is not your spouse and saying : “I think that I may have a vocation to the priesthood” makes it very real and somehow both scary and exciting at the same time. When Philip was satisfied that I had not simply eaten too much cheese the night before he arranged for me to meet the next person in the selection process and off I went. Time is against me so I’ll just outline the steps I went through from there on the journey here today:
First I met with the Vocations Advisor about three times. She lent me some books about how awful life is in the ministry but they didn’t put me off so I went onto the next step.
That was to meet with the Warden of Ordinands, Philip Meader, who you may know. Philip and I met about four or five times over six months and he even visited my home to interview my wife. Somehow we got through that and I was referred up to the Director of Ordinands, Richard More.
I ended up meeting with Richard More nine times over a year – that was an intense time of self-examination but incredibly useful as it made me really think about my understanding of the priesthood. The meetings with Richard were also intended to prepare me for the national selection conference and I went to my selection conference in June 2005, which is now nearly two years ago.
Selection conferences are where the Church of England decides whether people really are called to ordination. It lasted for three days and involved lots of interviews, a written exercise, leading a group discussion, lots of prayer and probably some other things which have now been blotted from my memory. Amazingly enough the Church agreed that I did have a call to ordained ministry and, after some umming and ahhing about whether we should train full time at a college or part time on a course we eventually opted for the North Thames course. God willing, I should complete the course this time next year with a view in being ordained next June.
Of course, there have been lots of ups and downs and plenty of trials and heartaches on the way. I remember once before my selection conference I was out on my bike and I decided that all this vocation stuff was too much and that I would resist the call. I stopped by a church, went inside and opened a bible. It opened straight to the story of Jonah trying to run away from God’s call by sailing in the opposite direction and getting swallowed by the whale! God does have a sense of humour. I’ve no doubt that there are still plenty more challenges to come as we have yet to go through the process of choosing a parish to undertake a curacy in. But, of course, my family and I are not carrying out this journey on our own but we do have a companion on the road – every time we have suffered a bout of uncertainty or fear about the future God has wasted no time in hitting us between the eyes. There are two particular bible verses which seem to have followed me around for the last several years:
The first one is from Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
And the second is from Romans 8:28
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
That doesn’t mean that things are always going to be easy, but when God keeps calling you learn to trust that God knows what he is doing and planning, even if we don’t.
So that’s a summary of my journey to date and some of my thoughts on vocation. Perhaps it will prompt you to have a think about your vocation. Are you in the right place in your life and living out your God-given calling? If you think not then start pestering God – ask him to help you find your vocation and live it to the best of your ability. But, for heaven’s sake don’t forget, if you decide you want to be a priest don’t tell them that I sent you!
IN THE +NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.