Geoffrey Squire asks ‘Is the process really fair?’
It is often said, even by some of the traditionalist integrity, that those who advise the diocesan bishops as to who they feel are suitable to train for the priesthood are completely impartial as to the churchmanship and ‘integrity’ of the candidates, but a little further examination of the situation will reveal that this may not always be the case. I give below some examples.
In 1990, a 16 year-old boy server from a church of the Catholic tradition was participating in a Youthlink pilgrimage group under my leadership when he told me that he had just begun to consider the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood. We discussed the subject at length over the following two days of the pilgrimage and I suggested that he speak to his parish priest about it on his return home.
This he did, and the priest was extremely supportive, but, following the Church of England’s decision unilaterally to ordain women to the priesthood in l992, the lad began to attend the local Roman Catholic church, a custom which he continued when he moved away to university the following year; however, he never formally left the Church of England and continued to attend servers’ guild services, and participate in pilgrimages and other events.
After graduating, he returned home and informed the parish priest that, after giving the matter careful consideration, he had decided to remain in the Church of England. Throughout his time at university he remained convinced of a vocation to holy orders, but he was unsure as to which part of the Catholic Church he would serve; but now the matter was decided. The good priest continued to give him considerable support and encouragement with much directed reading and study, but he advised him that, in view of his drifting away from the Church of England for a while, it would be better if he waited a few years before they approach the bishop.
Over three years passed by and he remained very stable in the Church of England. The priest decided that the time was right to approach the bishop. The bishop was also supportive and decided that he should go forward for his selection conference. During his time at the conference, little was said about his opposition to the ordination of women, but much was said about his ‘flirtation with the Roman Catholic Church’ and his ‘instability in the Church of England’. During one interview he was told, ‘It costs a lot of money to train someone for ordination and we can’t waste it on someone who is going to defect if things don’t go the way they want them to.’ He was not ‘at present’ recommended for ordination training and it was made very clear to him and even more clear to his parish priest that the reason was entirely due to his ‘flirtation with Rome’ and ‘instability in the Church of England’. It was further suggested that if he remain stable in the Church of England for a further period of five years, he could try again.
Also at that selection conference was a man who openly stated that he ‘only joined CofE Church last year’ as before that he ‘went to a Baptist church, then a Free Evangelical church before deciding that ‘the Church of England is as good as any’. He was accepted for ordination training.
Two days after hearing that story, I was in a city centre with an hour to spare before a meeting. I wandered into a Church of England church whose doors were open and was confronted by a man who had just dropped a pile of ‘Mission Praise’. I helped him to pick them up, and, spotting my ‘dog collar’ he said ‘Hello, Mister Minister’. The man, who was wearing a red open-neck shirt said ‘I am one of the ministers here actually. I was only ordained last week’. I asked him if he had been ordained as a deacon or as a priest and he replied ‘Oh I was ordained a full minister but I don’t use the word ‘priest’ except in relation to the priesthood of all believers, as I don’t believe in it.’ Further conversation indicated that he disliked much about the Church of England. He stated that he ‘had drifted from one Protestant Church to another, Methodist, Baptist, and Free Evangelical, before giving the Church of England a try just nine months before his being accepted for training for ordination. I asked him why he decided on the Church of England and he replied, ‘I much prefer the Free Evangelical Churches but decided on the Church of England solely because the stipend, housing, and pension was better, there was more opportunity to get on the property ladder, and the career structure seemed better.’
Fast Track for some?
So it seems that you can flirt with an assortment of Protestant denominations, join the Church of England for just nine months, claim that you do not believe in the ministerial priesthood, and then be unconditionally accepted to train for that priesthood as from the following month. But if your flirtation is a brief one with another branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, you will be deemed ‘unstable in the Church of England’ and may have to show at least eight years stability before you’re in a position to be deemed suitable for training for holy orders.
Of course, it is not only in the selection process for the diaconate and priesthood that a bias against Catholic traditionalists exists as the same applies to bishops, at least the diocesan ones. There is an element of moving around bishops of traditionalist Catholic integrity but what has happened to the traditionalist appointments to the rank of diocesan bishops?
And so, if you scratch the surface of the selection system, all is not as well as it seems to be at face value.
For reasons of confidentiality I have not given names, but I will point out that none of the above were in this diocese (Exeter).
Geoffrey Squire is a non-stipendiary minister in the parish of Swinbridge with West Buckland and Landkey in the Diocese of Exeter.