Christopher Phillips reflects on a period of ongoing discernment
As I draw to the end of the third year of my time as an assistant curate in Yorkshire, I find myself reflecting on what I have learned since leaving theological college. Since Easter I have been reading Cardinal Schönborn’s book The Joy of Being a Priest: Following the Curé of Ars. This work, developed from a series of talks given by the Cardinal in 2009 to a group of priests from around the world gathered in Ars, addresses various aspects of the priestly life in language that I have found accessible yet, at times, profound. At the point of my curacy where I am looking back on what I have learned and also forward towards discernment of where God might be calling me next, reading the Cardinal’s words has been encouraging and challenging at the same time. There are inevitably substantial differences in emphasis between priestly formation in the setting of an Anglican parish, and that which most of those who gathered in Ars will have received. Yet I would be very surprised if many of the more frustrating aspects of life as a curate did not transcend the denominational boundary!
Cardinal Schönborn takes two key sayings of the St John Vianney as the basis for his teaching. The first is that ‘the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.’ This deceptively simple statement goes to the centre of priestly identity and, looking back, sums up a great deal of what I have learned in the parish. Each time I go visiting, whether to someone’s home, the hospital, or elsewhere, the priest is responding to Jesus’ immense love for each of us by seeking to share it with others. God wants to shower his people with good things, and so he uses priests as ‘servants of his blessings’ . In this way, the priestly vocation is lived out: as the saintly Curé said to the boy who showed him the road to his new parish, ‘I will show you the road to heaven.’
I do not claim to have been a great success. But one of the first and most important lessons I learned was through the imbibing of a hefty dose of realism: as an assistant curate, these first few years are intended primarily as a time of transition. This enables those who are newly ordained to be formed within a parish setting, continuing the process of discernment as to whether they are called to parish incumbencies, or perhaps to chaplaincy work in places such as hospitals, schools, or the armed forces, or elsewhere. This means that, even more so than for an incumbent, we learn the truth of the saying of the American Jesuit Fr James Martin: ‘there is a Messiah, and it’s not you.’ The gaining of direct pastoral experience in the parish follows on from that gained on placements prior to ordination – but it is dramatic how much difference being ordained makes. It is not simply that people sometimes refer to me as ‘Father,’ but that being placed in this new relationship to the church and the people of God involves a dimension of trust which cannot exist for an ordinand. It is through this trust that I am welcomed into people’s lives – often when they are at their most vulnerable – to bear witness to God’s love, to his presence in those moments, and to be an instrument of blessing.
Of course, there has been quite a bit of what can only be described as the ministry of stacking chairs and sweeping floors, too; but I suspect my experience of this has been somewhat less than many of my colleagues, given the rich resources with which our parish is blessed. These times, however, have also often led to conversations that might not otherwise have happened. Of course, no programme of Initial Ministerial Education in today’s Church of England would be complete without solid doses of ‘leadership development,’ and training on the vital legal dimensions of parish life. These have the potential to be quite dry and tedious subjects; but I’m pleased to say I found them very stimulating – especially the sessions organised by the diocese on Canon Law. Having said that, perhaps being the product of two generations of Diocesan Secretaries means that this sort of thing runs in my blood! Through classes with my fellow curates, and through practical involvement (I serve as clerk to my Deanery Chapter, as a member of the Deanery and Diocesan Synods, and as secretary to the diocesan branch of Forward in Faith), I have become more confident than I ever thought possible in these aspects of the role of the modern parish priest. At times it can feel far from the vision laid out in the writings of St Jean Vianney and the work of a seventeenth-century French curé. But if we truly believe in the Church as the ark of our salvation then we must be committed to working within her structures, however frustrating and imperfect they may seem at times. As Catholics, with a focus on the Incarnation and the capacity for holiness in the most mundane and earth-bound of things, it is important that we engage as fully as we can with the wider Church. It is here that another important lesson has been learned: the value of simply turning up to things. This is not just about expressing appreciation for the commitment of others (though this is important, too); but as ‘ambassadors for Christ’ that appreciation takes on an additional dimension. We support our fellow-workers in the vineyard out of love for the Heart of Jesus, and it is this love that serves to hallow our apparently mundane and frequent engagement in administration.
I have undoubtedly grown and changed as a person in the last three years, and I felt this most especially when receiving Holy Orders. Throughout these momentous changes in my identity, however, I also remained a husband and a parent. Given the differences between the family arrangements of most Roman Catholic priests compared to Anglicans, I was unsure quite how much Cardinal Schönborn’s book might have to say to those aspects of my identity. I do not stop being a priest when I am with my family, even if I am in mufti. Yet, as I read, I found little that needed to be understood from the perspective of celibacy, and where that state of life was assumed in the reader, it was easy to see aspects that applied more widely. This underlines the way in which the priestly life simply cannot be defined simply through what is done. Time was spent discussing this at theological college, and though many of us were keen to stress the ontological model of priesthood – preferring to see it as a way of being – it is only through living it that it has been possible to begin to understand what this means. I am blessed to have the support of a loving family behind me: through all these changes they have remained solid, and I have found their readiness to make sacrifices themselves a source of inspiration and strength.
Curacies are rarely a bed of roses. There are always potential conflicts to be negotiated: not least the reality that, at the end of the day, one is never ‘in charge’ in any ultimate sense. But in spite of the inevitable frustrations that have come my way, as I look back on the past three years the overall feeling is one of great thankfulness to God for the many blessings I have received here. As I begin to consider where God may be calling me next, my prayer is that I might one day be worthy of St John Vianney’s words: ‘A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure that the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.
The Revd Christopher Phillips is Assistant Curate of St Margaret’s, Ilkley