John Turner wants a much stronger understanding of how we should go about fostering vocations to the sacred ministry

On its membership application form, Forward in Faith says, ‘We seek an ecclesial structure in which our children can grow in faith; one which will continue the orders of bishop and priest as the church has received them…’ In the light of this I want strongly to advocate that the relevant FiF Working Party should adopt a much bolder policy than that of just trying to ‘foster vocations’.

We may be critical, and rightly, of those women who justify their right to be priests by the certainty of their subjective call from God; but we seem to be as tempted to give primacy to the individuals own conviction of a call.

I have for a good while been convinced that the right source of any vocation is an invitation coming from the Church, most likely the local church, to a person who is seen as probably having the qualities that will fit him, or her, for a ministry which needs filling; those who are needed, and who appear to have the right potential, should be approached and invited to be trained, whether for an ordained or for a lay ministry. It is then up to the person invited either to accept or to refuse the invitation.

The call from a congregation

There is plenty of evidence that for centuries it was accepted as normal for a vocation to priesthood to come through a congregation or a superior inviting, urging, or even ordering a man to be ordained. There are, indeed, instances of a considerable degree of compulsion, and to this day in Orthodox ordinations the ordinand is led forward to the bishop by two clerics who hold him by the arms, to prevent his escaping!

The idea of a person wanting to be ordained priest was for long regarded with the utmost suspicion. Thus when St Hugh, subsequently Bishop of Lincoln, was a Carthusian monk, he was told by his director that, if he wished, he might be now ordained priest. His reply, that there was nothing that he desired more, horrified the older monk, who exclaimed, ‘What is this that you have said? You have so often read the words, ‘He who comes to the priesthood otherwise than unwillingly, comes unworthily’ and yet, as you now confess, you are unafraid of coming to it, not unwillingly but even eagerly’

I am not seriously suggesting strong-arm methods, nor would I maintain that only those ordained unwillingly are worthy priests. But I do maintain that there should be no vagueness when we consider methods to be adopted for increasing the number of vocations. Of course, prayer is essential, but after and accompanying prayer, definite action has to be undertaken.

Do not hesitate to ask

Bishops of our constituency, priests and representative members of our parishes, should not hesitate to approach those who appear to have the right potential, and definitely and distinctly invite and challenge them.

At the same time all of us need to be endeavouring to improve the quality of our communal life. A French priest who in the early twentieth century was already writing in a similar way about vocations, insisted that the right of a parish to tell one or more of its members that they should take seriously an invitation to be ordained depends on its being ‘a united and fervent community, conscious of the privileges which baptism has conferred on all its members; a Christian community which really is Christ’s mystical Body, having the duty and the right to participate in him and to continue his priestly offering.’ Here is a challenge which we must not ignore.

Finally, let me point out that many of those approached and invited to be ordained to the priesthood could serve as non-stipendiaries, nor need they all preach every Sunday, for we have quite a number of lay-readers.

We should be looking for mature Christians, respected by their fellow-worshippers, and capable of ministering liturgically and pastorally By God’s blessing on them we can look forward to the continuation of ‘an ecclesial structure in which our children can grow in faith.’