Somehow we’re already mid-way through February and, for me, that means that the prospect of theological college draws ever closer. And that brings a whole range of emotions from excitement to sadness at the thought of leaving my current placement behind to a deep-rooted anxiety about how theological college is likely to change me and the way in which other people view me.
I remember first visiting a theological college with my then college chaplain at the end of my second year at university. Ripon College, Cuddesdon, set in rural Oxfordshire, has stunning grounds, is broad in its intake of ordinands from a range of theological backgrounds, and has an interesting chapel shaped like a womb or a ship that is designed to mirror both Noah’s Ark and the wombic imagery of parts of scripture such as Psalm 139: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” I kind of liked it. As we walked around, the principal chatted about a world that seemed unfamiliar – of the rhythm of prayer, of the Eucharistic significance of the college community living, eating and worshipping together, and of “theological formation”. I tried not to look too daunted, but I can’t really have succeeded because at one point, he turned to me and said, “And somehow, somewhere along the way, you realise that vicars don’t all have two heads and green eyes.” I kind of smiled politely as though I understand what he was on about, and thought, “This whole vicar thing is absolutely definitely not for me. I have definitely got this wrong. And even if I haven’t got it wrong, I definitely don’t want to do this.” And I remember trying not to say this as we drove away because I didn’t want to offend or upset anyone and also because I didn’t really understand why I had such a vehement dislike to the whole thing anyway. In essence, theological college sounded like it should be a joy.
And after that visit, I went off to spend a month with some sisters on the edge of Toronto who, as well as teaching me much about prayer and the rhythm of religious community, also utterly terrified me. This wasn’t a world that I was familiar with – I hadn’t grown up in the Church of England and I certainly didn’t have a friendship group who were overwhelmingly Christian. I wasn’t even sure when or how God had entered my life, and I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to be part of this story. And, a year later, when I went for the interview to be a pastoral assistant as part of the Church of England’s Ministry Experience Scheme, I felt equally terrified. The then pastoral assistant seemed totally OK with a world of prayer (with strange books), with spending 6 days a week with a couple of priests, with praying openly, with setting up the altar for communion – actually, just generally with Church being the focal point of the week. I knew none of these things and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be part of them either.
Yet, somehow, I was strangely drawn to the place, and somehow I ended up being pastoral assistant at that church, and almost 2 years later, I find myself living the very life that had seemed so strange. And, quite often, the words, “and somehow, somewhere along the way, you realise that vicars don’t all have two heads and green eyes” run through my head. Because I remember how unfamiliar and strange and utterly bizarre the world of the Church of England looked to me until very recently. And I remember how I saw priests differently to other people – as wiser, as more knowledgeable, as more Godly, and definitely as a whole lot stranger than “normal” people. And yet, somewhere along the way, that image has faded, as I spend my life coming into contact with more and more vicars, so that now I see them as more ordinary, more normal, more human. That doesn’t mean to say that many priests aren’t also inspirational, compassionate, caring, generous, hardworking, wise, knowledgeable, and deeply rooted in faith, just that they’re often also profoundly human. As I journey towards theological college, I am faced with the only too terrifying realisation that one day, people will look at me, will look at the “dog collar” around my neck, and will see me as being different to them. Some people will take an instant dislike to me because of their own personal wrestling with faith or religion, some people will ask me questions about God that I don’t know the answer to, some people will ask me to pray for them, some people will stop being themselves and start behaving in a way that they feel is “more appropriate”. Few people, even in today’s predominantly un-churched nation, will behave as they would if I weren’t a priest. And that terrifies me. That is what leaves me wanting to run in the opposite direction. That fear of being “the other” that probably begins in primary school or early adolescence, for most of us, runs deep. Yet, because of that strange, inner sense of calling, of what Frances Dewar calls “profound rightness”, I’m somehow still on that incredibly unfamiliar path, on that road that I was so vehemently opposed to. When interviewed about his calling to ordained ministry last year, Justin Welby said, “I was unable to get away from a sense of God calling. I went [to theological college] kicking and screaming, but I couldn’t escape it.”
I felt strangely relieved. But what I really wanted to ask was, “And when did you stop kicking and screaming?” I think the answer is probably that you never really do. And I think that, maybe, in reality, that’s probably not really such a bad thing at all.