Michael Fisher considers his call
The Parish Mass had ended, and the congregation were leaving. The priest stood by the door to chat to people or simply say goodbye. Among them was a thirty-one-year-old teacher who attempted to slip past unnoticed, but Father beckoned him back: ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘I’d like a word with you.’ So, wondering what on earth this could be about, he waited patiently until almost everyone else had gone. ‘Now then’, said Father, ‘have you ever thought that you might have a vocation to the priesthood? I’d like you to give it some careful thought, and next time we meet I shall ask you again.’
The strangest thing about this story is that the priest was not the incumbent, but a retired priest who sometimes covered services when the vicar was away, so he didn’t know this young man all that well; but he was as good as his word, and the next time the two of them came face-to-face, he repeated the challenge: ‘Have you thought about what I said to you last time we met?’ There was no escape! The upshot of all this was that the young man responded to the challenge, was eventually selected for ordination training, embarked on a course at theological college, and four years later was ordained priest.
That young man was myself, back in the 1970s, and last year I celebrated my fortieth anniversary of ordination. Though retired now from full parochial duties, I am still able to offer assistance in much the same way as that elderly priest did in his retirement all those years ago. Had it not been for his challenge, my life might have followed a very different path, although I still wonder what it was that he saw in me all those years ago that made him think the way he did.
At the time I was working as a history teacher in a local secondary school; married and with a six-year-old daughter. Non-stipendiary ministry, for which I had been selected, was then something of a novelty in the Church of England, and was viewed with suspicion by those who considered it to be a way of getting extra clergy on the cheap, and that the training was bound to be inferior to that of the ‘full-timers’. In practice the training led, in those days, to the same five-part General Ordination Examination, though it was done by dissertation rather than by sittings. It also involved maintaining a fine balance (which naturally continued post-ordination) between the demands of family, work and ministry/training. Later on I quit teaching in order to pursue what some have kindly described as my ‘literary ministry’: historical research, consultancy, and writing and publishing in the field of church history and architecture. Being self-employed brought new flexibility in the time I could devote to priestly ministry, and eventually I took on the role of NS priest-in-charge of St Chad’s, Stafford, then under the oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet.
The Scriptures teach us that priesthood is not the only form of Christian ministry. Every baptized Christian is given some special gift, or ‘charism’ to be used in the building-up of the Body of Christ, that is the Church on earth. St Paul lists some of these in his first letter to the Christian community at Corinth (I Corinthians 12. vv14-31). All of them matter, like the different parts of the human body, and though some may seem more humble or less important than others, they all have a function and purpose, so that if one part is missing the whole body suffers. You might not think of a treasurer’s or secretary’s or churchwarden’s job as a ‘ministry’, but then Acts 6 vv.1-6 tells us that the Order of Deacons originated as a means of freeing up the apostles from administrative tasks in order to concentrate on teaching and preaching. How much of a parish priest’s time and attention today are taken up with tasks which – although necessary – do not require an ordained person to carry them out? How much more time could he give to pastoral visiting, teaching the faith, mission and evangelism?
There’s also the ‘ministry of encouragement’ – spotting in other people some asset, gift or talent that they might be encouraged to recognise and offer in service to God and his Church, or encouraging someone to stick at it when the going gets tough and their faith is challenged. Saint Barnabas – whose feast day is 11 June – was known as the ‘encourager’ because it was he who encouraged the early Christians in Antioch to hold fast to their faith, and who encouraged St Paul to join him there and later become ‘the apostle of the Gentiles’ (Acts 11.18-26) with amazing results. During the COVID-19 pandemic, with public worship suspended and churches closed, this particular ministry has come very much to the fore, with our bishops and clergy using all the means at their disposal to encourage the faithful to be just that, and one also hears stories of how members of congregations have set up informal networks, paying particular attention to the lonely and vulnerable, and those unable to access what has been put out via social media. In the long term this can only strengthen the Body of Christ, recognising our dependence on one another, discovering new ways of sharing our faith, and looking beyond the present sadness to the joyful day when we shall gather once more at the Lord’s Table on the Lord’s Day. I’m reminded of the words spoken by St David of Wales to his followers shortly before his death: ‘Be joyful. Keep the faith. Do the little things’.
Amongst the ‘little things’ is the ministry of intercessory prayer in which everyone may be involved, but it is often overlooked or undervalued. A lady who had once been a very active member of her church, but who became confined to her house because of disability and old age, found a way in which she could still be of use. Every day she received the local evening newspaper, and she took it upon herself to read through the Births, Marriages and Deaths columns and to use them as a stimulus to prayer; praying for the newly-born, for those preparing for marriage, for the departed and their families, knowing that she might possibly be the one to bring those people before the Lord in prayer. Now isn’t that as valid a Christian ministry as any you might name?
Now – back to where I began. If it had not been for the discernment and encouragement of that elderly priest -namely Fr William Leslie Warrington (1903-1995) – 40-odd years ago, my vocation might well have lain dormant for ever. He was present at my ordination, joining in the laying-on-of hands, and there too at my first Mass. I was privileged, some sixteen years later, to minister to him on his deathbed, and when I visited him that day, his first words to me were, ‘Have you said Mass today?’ Fr Warrington was a staunch catholic for whom the Mass lay at the very heart of his life’s work, as indeed it should be for all of us whether ordained or lay, in response to the Lord’s own command, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ For it is when we gather at the altar that members of the Body of Christ on earth are united with their Head, receive the heavenly food for their journey through life, and offer whatever gifts they might have, to be used in His service. Fr Warrington was most certainly in m heart as I stood at the altar at St. Michael’s, Cross Heath, on my fortieth anniversary of ordination. So should we all be grateful to those from whom we receive encouragement to take a bold step, and also be ready ourselves to discern in others potential for some form of ministry – whether ordained or lay – and encourage them to act upon it. One of the collects for Good Friday is particularly apposite:
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth, to the glory of your Name, through Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen (Common Worship)
Fr Michael Fisher is a retired priest
who writes on matters ecclesiological.