Illustration by Adam Q

Clerical life: Ordination season

As the years pass, you find inspiration in people just beginning the work that you’ve been doing for years
June 16, 2022

When you are just beginning your work, the people who inspire you tend to be the old-timers who have seen, done, and endured much, and still believe in what they’re doing enough to hand it on. As the years pass, you find inspiration in people just beginning the work that you’ve been doing for years. I’m inspired every day by William George Stonehouse, who is buried in the south aisle of my church and whose white marble monument you may read on the wall: “His ambition was to present the Gospel of Christ/which he adorned in life/and found his support in death.”

William Stonehouse was 20 years old. The only son of a cotton merchant from Salford, he attended Manchester Grammar School, matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge and died before the end of his first year in 1835. He was our first student preparing for ordination (they’re called ordinands) that we can name.

My reverie in front of the Stonehouse plaque was interrupted today by a text message from one of our current ordinands on placement, who had submitted his final essay, and was on his way to London to be fitted for a cassock. “Remembering your advice about the pockets,” he added. Having learned the hard way, I advise our ordinands to make sure that the pockets in their cassocks are made of strong material, and double-stitched. They’ll be putting a lot in them over the years: keys, prayerbooks, phones, pens, boxes of matches, cough sweets, radio microphones. Oh, the secrets that we hand on; the things that aren’t in books!

I need to update the map in the vestry that is brought out at the end of June every year, around the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, one of the two traditional times for ordinations in the Church of England. All around the edges are the names of the new deacons and priests who’ve been here on placement since 2011, and coloured yarn and pins connect them to their title parishes—the places they were ordained to. Twenty two of them over 11 years.

In the US, where I studied for my Masters in Divinity (the professional degree for clergy across most of the churches in North America) it takes at least three years to prepare for ordination. I studied the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the history of Christianity, the philosophy of religion, moral theology, systematics, homiletics and pastoral care and counselling. I have my old ring-bound notebooks stacked in the wardrobe, and it comforts me to know they’re there if I ever forget what was said in that seminar on “Revelation, Faith, and the Nature of Tradition.”

You learn the history of liturgy, and how and why the church’s ceremonies have taken the shapes they have. There’s Field Education, the North American name for the attachments and placements we have here. Finally, before your General Ordination Examination, you go off to a hospital for an intensive programme of chaplaincy training combined with group therapy: the dreaded Clinical Pastoral Education. You learn how to listen to what’s not being said as much as to what is. You learn what your own baggage is, and how to check it. Some people concentrate on one part or another of the curriculum, but everyone has the basics and for everyone—whether they’re 20 or 60—it takes three years.

Over here it’s quite different. Alarmingly so. In the Church of England, the training you get depends, first of all, on your age. Ordinands over 40 tend to be funnelled into a shorter programme. The three-year course is primarily for younger ordinands, and those who have been talent-spotted for preferment. A full-time residential programme is for the lucky few. In a new development, one theological college and at least one diocese are trialling a scheme for ordinands to move in a single year from the selection interviews to the bishop’s laying-on of hands and anointing that makes them priests. This is aimed at what are referred to as “mature Christians.” Apparently, they are people who have been active in their church for a long time, and have retired with a really good final salary pension scheme, or are independently wealthy. The Church of England has decided that the learned clergy that the Elizabethans pushed for are a limiting factor to the survival of the institution.

It might work out all right in the end. Maybe, like William Stonehouse, aged 20, they’ll adorn the Gospel of Christ with their lives. Except for this: the religious education of children in the Church of England has been negligible for generations, and even mature Christians come up for training cheerfully unfamiliar with most of the Bible and all of the creeds. Some leave that way. Having strong pockets in their cassocks will only take them so far.