Sermon for Matins

29 April 2007 at :00 am

But I want to think this morning about the whole question of vocation, for what does it really mean? I do so with a particular part of my earlier ministry in mind, for back in the late 1970s and early 80s I spent some seven years engaged in the process of selecting candidates for ordination, and for some of those years I was the person responsible for administering the whole selection system from the other side of Dean's Yard in Church House. So, what might we mean by vocation?

There is a view of vocation, at least as it applies to ordained ministry, that sees it as something that, as it were, starts in the mind of God. God, it is believed, chooses those who should be ordained and the issue is simply 'has someone correctly heard God's call'? Over my seven years working in Church House I found that a less and less satisfactory concept to work with, and perhaps the crunch came when a potential ordinand said to me in an interview 'I can cope with the process telling me I am not suitable, but do not tell me I am not called'. What, I wondered, was the relationship between 'being called' and 'being suitable'?

In fact the 39 Articles of the Church of England make that clear. Article 23 says 'It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called for this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send ministers into the Lord's vineyard.'

In other words for the Church of England it is the Church that calls men, and I am glad to say now women as well, into public ministry. Whatever it may have been that provoked someone to offer for ordination, and clearly the question of motivation is an important one to examine, it is the Church that examines the person and then subsequently calls, the 39 Articles are quite clear on that. And presumably a criterion for 'being called' is that those with the authority to call judge the candidate concerned as 'being suitable.'

That seems to me not only right but helpful, in that is does not make the call to ordination fundamentally different from any other vocation to a role. All sorts of people want to be all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, but if, for example, someone wants to be a doctor, or wants to be a professional singer, or wants to be a solicitor, they are subject either to a careful selection process or the pressure of market forces so that some succeed and others do not. Feeling it is right to do something is not, by itself, enough to be able to fulfil a particular role. And perhaps I might add that I believe that also applied to the matter of the ordination of women. I voted in favour of it because I thought the church's ministry would be more representative of humankind if it included women as well as men, not because there were certain people who felt they were called and who happened to be female.

But what, then, of the question of motivation?

There is no doubt that a number of those who offer for ordination do so because they feel they are responding to the will of God. They have an inner conviction that this is the right way for them to go, and so they offer. It is then for the selectors to advise the Bishops whether they are suitable. But as a matter of sheer fact there were a number of other candidates I met in those seven years who were not sure that God was calling them in that sense, but who were willing to offer themselves for ordination and wanted to see if the church judged them suitable; and I have to say that among them were, in my mind and in the minds of my fellow selectors, some of the better candidates.

The whole matter does, of course, raise the broader question of how specific is the will of God for an individual? I think we can reasonably assume that God wills that we should be fulfilled as people, using whatever gifts God has given us in a creative way and so achieving whatever potential we have. I think we can also assume that he wants his church to be served by competent clergy. But it has always seemed to me at least possible that thereafter God is willing to leave it up to us to decide how we should fulfil his general call to discipleship. His will may not be as specific as some seem to think. And, of course, we must also recognise that the freedom to make a choice about our work is a freedom only those from a relatively wealthy part of the world have. Many in our world have little choice in how they spend their lives, and are we going to say that God calls many people to poverty, or to a lifetime of servitude or, in some cases, to inevitable unemployment?

So I believe it would be helpful for the church as a whole if we got away from the notion that the move to ordination for an individual inevitably starts somehow in the mind of God. And I am glad to say that, at last, the Church of England's ordination service is at least partially moving back in that direction as well.

Again this is a bit technical, but in the Book of Common Prayer Thomas Cramner, acting on the advice of Martin Bucer, included a question for those being made deacon: 'Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon you this office...?' to which the candidate replied 'I trust so.' The point to note about that question is that it was in the present continuous tense, 'Do you trust you are ...' and it was asked just as a person was about to be made deacon.

The Alternative Service Book, published in 1980, made what I always thought was a very unhelpful change to that, with its question, not just to deacons but to priests and bishops as well 'Do you believe in so far as you know your own heart that God has called you to this office?' It is in the past tense, as though the process of vocation is prior to the ordination service itself. Personally I believe that a priest's vocation is what the ordination service itself gives them, and it is not the confirmation of some prior calling. Once a person has been ordained then they have been called. Of course thereafter they must know the need for their reliance on God in the ordained ministry, and I always thought the best liturgical expression of that came in the American Lutheran Church's ordination service, when the question asked is 'Will you take the Church's call as God's Call..?' That strikes me as good theology, bringing theory and practice into a realistic relationship with one another. In future, in the case of the Church of England, I believe the question will now be in the present tense 'Do you believe God is calling you to this office?' and it will be a question asked just as person is about to be ordained, so it does not separate vocation from the ordination service itself.

But more broadly than the liturgical issue I believe the Church needs two policies for ordination. It needs vigorous recruitment and rigorous selection. Vigorous recruitment, because there is no doubt that able and competent men and women are urgently needed throughout the world to represent the church to the wider world, to carry out the church's sacramental life and to provide pastoral care. But we also need rigorous selection, because not everyone who wants to do it will be suitable and it is a demanding role. A sensible and realistic understanding of vocation is needed to sustain those policies. Whether this sermon provides such a basis is, of course, like the decision on any individual offering for ordination, for the church to judge.

But let me also say, if this address is part of encouraging someone here to think about it afresh for themselves, then in the post-Easter period I can only say; 'Alleluia.'

In the spirit of the comment about the church judging this view I would be very willing to receive responses to this. It depends on how many I receive whether I can reply to all! My e-mail address is robert.reiss@westminster-abbey.org

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