Crossing the Line - part 19
While at university, my path towards ordination continued.
I met with my DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands) in Manchester when I was at home with Mum and Dad and in my second year, I was deemed ready for ACCM (see below for explanation!)
The Church of England selection conference for ordination is a strange animal with many names. These days it is called a BAP – with apologies to friends in the Midlands and Northern England where this means something entirely different! In the past it has also been CACTM and ABM. In my day it was the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry (ACCM). Whatever the name, it has changed little over the years. It’s a three-day residential selection panel, that can feel like being in a human goldfish bowl. As well as interviews with the selectors or advisors, there are group exercises and written pieces of work. You are observed almost all of the time to see how you relate to others and express your faith and calling. You are expected to sit at different tables each meal time to ensure that all the selectors get a good look at you. The only times you are not being observed are in the regular acts of prayer and worship. It’s a bit like a spiritual version of the TV series Big Brother, with Bishops Advisors instead of cameras.
Before I went however, there was still one thing on my mind that I needed to sort out.
At one of the university Christian Unions meetings I had heard a preacher called George Verwer. He founded a missionary organisation called Operation Mobilisation (OM) in the 1950’s and was a compelling speaker. He asked us what Jesus last commandment was, before he went back to heaven.
The answer is found in the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel.
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28)
George argued that this last command calls on all Christians to be missionaries. So the real question is not “Am I called to be a missionary?” but rather “Am I called to stay at home?” His challenge went further, arguing that unless you hear God calling you to stay at home, your Christian duty is to go into all the world, because those were his last instructions.
This turned everything upside-down for me. I had assumed that missionaries were the special few, called by God to a special task. George Verwer was saying that we are all called to be missionaries unless God tells us otherwise. I felt challenged and began to pray. Was God indeed calling me to ordination in the Church of England or was he calling me overseas? I needed to know.
The answer came from one of the few times that I have actually heard an audible voice. One day at the end of my prayers I heard the words, “Read Ezekiel 3.” That was it. No burning bush or blinding light. No clap of thunder or vision of heaven. Just a simple instruction to read this chapter of an Old Testament book about the prophet Ezekiel.
As I opened my Bible, I had no idea what I would find. It was not a book or chapter I knew well and although I must have read it at some point, I couldn’t remember anything about it. I was, therefore, utterly amazed by what I found there.
“Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and strange language, but to the people of Israel – not to many peoples of obscure speech and strange language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.” (Ezekiel 3:4-9)
It is part of the story of God calling Ezekiel to ministry. Chapters 1 & 2 set the scene and in chapter 3 was the answer to my question. There was no ambiguity – it was in black and white in front of me! I couldn’t believe it. As I read and re-read the chapter I realised that just as Ezekiel was called to his own people (the people of Israel) so God was calling me to my own people. The realisation also came to me that this would not be an easy task. “If I sent you to great nations that spoke difficult languages you didn’t understand… they would listen to you… but your own people will not listen.” I wasn’t sure what this meant yet, but one thing I knew for sure – God was calling me to stay.
So early one March morning in 1984 I set off for my ACCM. It was a long journey. I had to travel from Oxford to Riding Mill in Northumberland. It took 3 trains, the tube, and a 15-minute walk from the station at the other end to get to the retreat house.
The only preparation I received for my selection conference was the instruction “Go and be yourself lad, you’ll be fine.” Compared with the way Dioceses prepare people for their selection conference today, that was decidedly minimalist! So I went as myself, dressed in jeans, trainers, T-shirt and denim jacket, with my Adidas bag slung over my shoulder.
On the last train from Newcastle I noticed someone smartly dressed in his three-piece suit & tie and with his professional looking suitcase. When I got off at Riding Mill Station he got off too, and started walking up the road to the retreat centre. When I followed, I sensed him getting a little nervous at being followed up these deserted country lanes by a denim-clad stranger. He started to quicken his pace and I thought of trying to catch up with him, as I was sure we were both heading for the same place. Then I thought better of it. If he was scared now, what would he be like if I started to run after him. I slowed my pace to allow him to get away!
On arriving at the retreat centre I was looking at the visitors’ book and working out how to register, when I heard a voice saying, “Are you just leaving?” I turned around and saw another smartly dressed man who had clearly taken one look at me and thought I couldn’t possibly be a potential ordinand. What a welcome! He turned out to be another of the candidates, not one of the selectors, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit out of place.
If I am honest though, it didn’t really bother me. It may sound arrogant, but I knew God was calling me to be a priest, right down to the depth of my being. I know that not everyone feels that way. Many go with a much more questioning approach, wanting to test if this is for them, but I knew. As a result, I wasn’t worried about getting a ‘No’ at the end. If that happened it was the selectors who would have made a mistake, not me. I would simply wait the statutory two years before I could try again. Although this may seem arrogant, it wasn’t. I didn’t think that I was God’s gift to the church. I knew my weaknesses far too well for that. I just knew, despite all my faults and failings, that this was God calling for me.
As the three days progressed I noticed that the other candidates did progressively dress down and if I am honest, I dressed a little smarter, putting a proper shirt over my T-shirt! We almost ended up meeting in the middle.
The selectors were astute but kind, and they did their best to put us all at our ease. My interviews went well, although I was a little disturbed by my educational interview because it was far too short. Almost as soon as I walked through the door, the selector told me, “You’ll be alright; you’re at Oxford” and to all intents and purposes that was the interview. While reassured to hear I would be ‘alright’, I did wonder if that was a little presumptuous. Maths and Theology are miles apart and I hadn’t written essays since I was 16. How had he come to this conclusion without asking me a single question? It partly stuck in my throat because in those days, the only selector with a veto on recommending a candidate for ordination was the educational selector. I wondered whether he gave a much harder time to candidates who had not been to Oxford. It all felt a bit too elitist and cosy to me.
The two other things which stick in my mind about my ACCM Conference were nudity and drinking!
There was a group exercise called 10 minute topics. Our names were drawn out of a hat at random and we each had to choose card from the coffee table in the middle of the room. The cards were face-down and when you turned over your chosen card, you read the topic you had been given. We then had 10 minutes to introduce the subject, then chair a group discussion and sum up at the end.
At 21, I was by far the youngest person in the room, and my name came out of the hat first. I approached the table, chose a card and turned it over. It read “Beach nudity – harmless fun or moral outrage?” I almost burst out laughing. Looking around the more elderly group I was in, I took a deep breath and launched into the subject. Why couldn’t I have got one of the easy topics like fox hunting, pacifism, or euthanasia?!
Outlining arguments from each point of view, I opened it up for discussion. Silence. It was like trying to get blood out of a stone or discuss nudity at a Church Council meeting. Half of the room were too embarrassed to speak and the other half were worried about saying something which would place them in a negative light with the selectors – either too judgemental or too permissive.
After a bit of encouragement, one brave soul opened his mouth and began with the words, “When I was in the south of France…” Thank you God! Then others chipped in and it went well in the end.
The other memory I have is from the second evening. We had been told by the selectors that attendance at Compline (night prayers) was optional and we could choose whether to attend or not. So on the second day, a small group of us took the selectors at their word, missed Compline and went to the pub instead. After we ordered our drinks and sat down, we noticed one of the selectors was also in the pub, sitting at another table. Was he having some time out too, or was he there to spy on us? Initially we all felt like we were back at school and had been caught sneaking out, but then we relaxed and enjoyed our evening. We did swap contact details and promised to let each other know if got through of not – a kind of straw poll on whether nipping down to the pub was seen as a black mark at selection conferences.
The three days came to an end and we all went our separate ways, knowing that the decisions lay with the selectors’ now.
During the long journey back to Oxford I couldn’t believe how tired I felt. I was exhausted and more than that, a kind of depression set in. As the adrenaline levels fell away, far from feeling close to God and eager to know if my vocation had been recognised, I felt down, exhausted and alone.
Working as I do now in encouraging Vocations, I now know that this is common among people who go to BAPs today (Bishops Advisory Panels) but I think it is still underestimated. Parish priests and supportive friends would do well to know that most candidates will need more encouragement after a BAP than before it. Candidates also need to know what to expect and be allowed to cut themselves a little slack after attending one.
About ten days later the phone call came from my DDO. I had been warmly recommended with two conditions; that I finish my degree at university, and that I didn’t go to theological college straight from university. I should spend at least a year doing something different first.
I was over the moon! It was 5 years since I had first filled in a form to explore ordination and now I had been recommended for training. I also welcomed the time out before theological college with open arms, having already decided that there were lots of exciting things that I would like to do. My mind went back to my father who was told the same thing after his selection conference. It was suggested that he should go and work in a book shop, but instead got himself a job on the shop-floor of a steel works. What would I do?
|With my parents in 1984|
Telling my parents was a particular joy. They had always been very careful not to influence me in any way. Ever since I told them at 16, they had been totally neutral and had never expressed an opinion, for or against. Now, as I told them my result, they were openly overjoyed and finally told me they thought God was calling me to ordination all along.
When our little group from the pub let each other know our outcomes, guess what? We had all been recommended. In the end, neither beach nudity nor drinking had been a barrier to any of our callings being recognised – perhaps they even helped!