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Features

Tackling the ‘Is it I, Lord?’ question

Rebecca Paveley

How are religious orders, theological institutions, diocesan advisers, and others helping people work out their calling, asks Rebecca Paveley.


Membership of religious communities in the UK runs into the thousands. It is a fact that belies many of the stories about the decline of monasteries and convents. In fact, in recent years, there has been a huge growth in vocations to the religious life; but this growth is among members of a community who do not live together under one roof.

Brother Damian Kirkpatrick is a Franciscan, and joined the Anglican Society of St Francis more than 40 years ago. He said that while his order currently had six novices - which is 'quite unusual, often it is one or two' - there were thousands of members of the Third Order (who follow the Franciscan rule, but do not live in the community).

'There are around 70 Franciscans living in community in the UK, but in the Third Order there are 2000; it has really grown,' Brother Damian said.

'A lot of people are very interested in the religious life, but people today are thinking about giving some time to it rather than living it out 24/7. The attraction is there, but people are wary of the commitments: a life of chastity, which does not go down well; and obedience, when people are used to being individuals, choosing what they want to do for themselves.'

For many who feel some kind of vocation towards the religious life, the Third Order is the answer. 'In the Third Order, the emphasis is on taking the richness of tradition and spirituality, and seeing how it can be lived out of some form of community, but usually not all under one roof. Dispersed communities are very popular.

'I don't think we shall ever lose our traditional orders, Franciscan or Benedictine, but they are going to be smaller communities than they were 20 years ago. But it is very important that the Church should continue to have a visible sign of the religious life, or else [it] is just hidden away, in secular clothes.'

Perhaps more needs to be done to raise the profile of vocations to the religious life. But the challenge to adopt a very visible sign of commitment to life in community, and to prayer, has been taken up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is an oblate of the Anglican Benedictines. He has asked four members of the ecumenical community Chemin Neuf to live at Lambeth Palace, as part of his commitment to a renewal of the life of prayer and religious communities (News, 22 November 2013). They arrived last month, and join in daily prayers with the Archbishop.

'There has never been a renewal of the Church in Western Europe without a renewal of prayer and the life of religious communities,' Archbishop Welby said. 'If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer.'

There is also a shift taking place within the Church of England to do more to help lay people to discover their vocation, whatever that may be. Vocations advisers are increasingly being given the task not just of thinking about ordination, but to help people discover their calling in the Church and in the wider world.

'We are encouraging diocesan vocations advisers not just to recruit to ordained ministry, but to think more about discernment and lay development: how the laity are involved in the Church and in the world. But it varies enormously from diocese to diocese. We are trying to do more joined-up thinking, working together as mission and ministry and education,' the national adviser for lay discipleship and shared ministry, Joanna Cox, said.

The Revd Margaret Dean, Rector of Reepham Benefice and a vocations adviser in the diocese of Norwich, acknowledges this shift. '[In the past], I think, the C of E has thought of vocation as being primarily ordained ministry, but I always start from a different place, really, in terms of thinking whether people are actually called to teaching, or evangelism, or something completely different.'

'Within the Church, there is something for all of us to contribute into God's great story, and the next bit is to help people find the best place to be, where they can flourish and be who God has made them.

'We are given guidance as to the kind of questions to begin to think through with people if it does seem that they're moving towards ordination . . . but I try not to get to that point too quickly, because I think there's a lot more to discover about who people are, and what their gifts are. We are available to people for as long as they want to talk to us.

The Revd Jules Cave Bergquist was formerly national vocations adviser, and is now the diocesan director of ordinands (DDO) for the diocese of Oxford. Oxford diocese has dozens of vocations advisers at deanery level, who are the first port of call for those referred on by their priest. The part played by the vocations adviser was 'not to say no to anything', she said, but to refer people on.

'Vocations advisers explore vocations in the widest sense: they only go through to the DDO once they are sure they have a call to ordained ministry. If their call is to be an evangelist, then they will goto to talk to someone about the Church Army; if it is to a religious community, then they will talk to someone aboutthat. Vocations advisers are like a triage nurse, really: they look at where God is in the person's life, they look at their whole being, and they work with people to listen to their sense of calling.

'Vocation is so much more than the sum total of your gifts. Just because you are good teacher doesn't mean you should go and teach confirmation classes. God's call is so much wider than that.'

Mrs Cave Bergquist also believes that the Church is getting better at helping people who are articulating a sense of having a vocation towards becoming a priest. 'The process of discernment has become professionalised, more careful and systematic. It is an evidence-based process, and it is less bruising than before, when people used just to be told: 'No, you're not suitable,'' she said.

Practice varies widely from diocese to diocese, but those seeing Mrs Cave Bergquist, or one of her colleagues, wanting to explore ordained ministry, are given tasks to complete to ensure that they understand the breadth of the Church of England. They visit parishes across the spectrum, from conservative Evangelical to Anglo-Catholic, and then have to give presentations on the parish they have visited to fellow explorers.

She also 'twins' people, partnering together those who are very different in churchmanship, and of different gender, and they are sent to each other's churches and asked to do a Bible study together. 'It's a bit like Blind Date, to see how people cope, and for them to see that difference has a human face. Everyone who has done it says it's a useful experience.'

Although the latest figures show a rise in the number of younger people - in their twenties - being ordained, she said that she has seen caution about people coming forward to explore ordination. 'It's noticeable in areas like the north, and among young people. I think it is because of the uncertainty and discussions about gay clergy, and people are waiting and seeing what will happen.'

The leadership principal of the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS), the Revd James Lawrence, wants to celebrate the number of younger people being ordained, but is also cautious. 'If it's not just a blip, it's exciting.'

He has seen hundreds of people go through You and Ministry weekends, which CPAS has been running now for 50 years. They are mostly younger people in their twenties and thirties. The weekend is aimed at those who are exploring ordained ministry, and vocations to religious communities and the Church Army.

'We get people coming at all different stages: from those who have just had one chat with their vicar to those who are already seeing their diocesan director of ordinands,' Mr Lawrence says.

'People come because they want to pray, and they want to have space. This year, we have three groups: 75 people in all. We also run some day events for younger people - 15-to-25s - and we get lots of teenagers on those, exploring their vocations.

'We don't follow up - that's deliberate; so we are 'out of the system'; we don't report on them to anyone. There is no pressure to perform.

'Anecdotally, though, we know that a number go forward to ordained ministry. We also get a number who go away feeling clear that ordained ministry isn't for them. We make it clear that, as a disciple of Jesus, it is baptism that engages people on the vocational journey, and we encourage people with that.'

At the Cuddesdon School of Theology and Ministry, students often enrol on courses to explore calling and vocation, a tutor, the Revd Jennifer Brown, says.

'Students come to deepen their knowledge, and to explore their vocation. For some, it is an early stage in discerning their calling to authorised ministry; others are already involved in their church but want to expand their theological education. Some are spouses of those training for ordination, and they want to do the course to equip them for the new role they will have of supporting their partner. The course is designed to help students: to give them confident skills and knowledge to decide what they want to do.'

Students who graduate from the London School of Theology (LST) take a variety of different paths, a lecturer in practical theology, Adam Smith, says. 'A number will go into leadership of the Church; some may go on into formal ordination training in the C of E, or other denominations. We are not so focused, as other colleges are, on the creation of ordinands. We have alumni who are now senior police officers, judges or lawyers, or a host of other vocations, such as teachers or social workers.

'We would explore [calling] with them at interview, but we recognise that that's a journey that students are on, and some will come here with quite an articulated sense of their call, and a tangible goal; but others come, and part of what they do here is an ongoing exploration of a sense of calling.'

Chloe Lynch, who teaches formation at LST, agrees that courses also contribute towards students' developing more of an understanding about what they may be called to.

'The formation programme [which accompanies each undergraduate course] looks to develop their sense of where they fit in the Church, and the theme of the third year is vocation, asking: 'What does God want for you?' Vocation is thought of very broadly here: it's not just about fitting you into your hole and leaving you there.'

'In all theological colleges, all students have tutors whom they meet with regularly who ask them, whether they're ordinands or not: 'How is your sense of God's call on your life unfolding at the moment?'' the Acting Principal and director of Anglican formation at Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Paul Roberts, says.

'If a student has real anxieties, they also have recourse to a spiritual director outside the training environment, whom they can ask the 'black hole' questions, or say: 'I'm not even sure there's a God any more.' It may not even be an intellectual thing; maybe people learn more about themselves, and then they ask: 'Is this really me?'

'However, across the theological colleges, only a very, very small percentage comes to the conclusion that it isn't them after all. [And] we have professional trained counsellors who can help if people clearly need to deal with past hurt in the course of training for public Christian ministry.'