Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: I miss our ordinands in the parish

This year, for the first time, we have no trainees in Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams. It is a great loss 
February 22, 2024

We didn’t know it here in Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams, but we were living in a golden age—which now seems to be over. This year, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, we have had no ordinands (trainee clergy) on attachment. Not one. Nor do I have much hope that we’ll be sent any next year. For one thing, the numbers are down at our local theological colleges—and nationally too.

Various reasons have been given for this. A new selection process was brought in a couple of years ago that seems to have gummed up the works by changing the time at which people knew whether they’d be going off for training. There’s also the sense that there may not be posts (we’re not supposed to say “jobs”) for priests after they’ve served their curacies: not full-time stipendiary posts anyway. That tends to give pause to those with families and those who are thinking of giving up good jobs for full-time ministry. There are, I understand,  those who hesitate because they fear that they may be required by law to bless the unions of LGBTQI+ people; there are also LGBTQI+ people within the discernment process who see no sign that the Church of England is ready to permit them to live the truth of their lives
 and relationships.

The theological colleges that sent us ordinands are the two here that offer full-time residential training: Westcott House and Ridley Hall. Both were founded in the same year, 1881, the former being more Catholic in its traditions and the latter more evangelical. Residential theological colleges were still a new thing when the novelist John Masefield made them seats of villainy in The Box of Delights. It costs more to train clergy in residential colleges and so, over recent decades, they’ve been closing. More ordinands are now in part-time training and living at home. 

We sadly miss ours. 

At the start of my time in the parish there was Jenny, who had straight red hair and cycled in to these villages from Ridley Hall. Jenny was the first of the ordinands on attachment to these parishes in my time here. More than anyone I’ve ever met, Jenny reminded me of Dinah Morris, George Eliot’s heroine in Adam Bede

After that first year the word spread and more came: Dan, also from Ridley, conservative evangelical, but eager to learn everything that we could teach him about things like laying up the altar, the breaking of the bread and the elevation at mass. Alex S, from Westcott, who stayed for three years, preparing children for their first Holy Communions, and Alex B, who brought his whole family; Matt who sat in the village café for hours, in conversation with the parishioners; Liz, Angus, Harriet, Jassica, Gareth, Roxane, David S (who mostly liked to stand in farmers’ fields and pray) and David B, always eager to do more. And then there was Philip, who held an umbrella during a very wet burial; Alastair, who came when my knee was being replaced and made himself indispensable; Anna, who was here the summer that my husband died; Louisa, who sang the exsultet at the Easter Vigil; Jo, Graham, Funmilayo, Danny, Naomi, Nell, Lucie, Morten, Edwin, Mike, James and Raúl. 

I hope I haven’t left out any names. The ones you’ve just read I listed from memory, not necessarily in chronological order. We loved them all. We became a place that people wanted to be sent to. They learned from us, and we learned from them. We talked endlessly. They became friends: mine, each other’s and the parishes’. True, there was a long Attachment Supervisor’s Report to be filled in at the end of the year, but that was a small price to pay.

Oral tradition is the oldest kind of teaching. This is how we light the candles on the altar: the gospel candle never burns alone, and that’s the one on the north side, because the north is where the heathens were situated when that custom was established. If you’re reading verses one to six of the 14th chapter of John’s gospel at a funeral, add verse seven to let hope in. School assemblies should never be boring. Your sermon is not a tutorial essay. Don’t be afraid. Of course you’ll make mistakes. Each parish has its own identity: a Great Wilbraham sermon is subtly different from a Fulbourn sermon. A child asks, “Where shall we put Judas in the Easter Garden?” The priest replies, “That’s a good question. Let’s ask the ordinand.”

A former ordinand writes to me to say, “This is how we build the kingdom, little brick by little brick.” The ordinand never pays for the coffee and sandwiches, but one day will be treating tomorrow’s ordinands, with a sure and certain hope that there will be ordinands tomorrow.