A FiF priest thinks about fostering vocations in the future

The most striking idea that emerged from the first meeting of the Vocations Group was one that I had never thought of before in this context. We did not come up with an answer, but moved on to other themes that we will be considering in later meetings. These groups, set up by the Forward in Faith College of Deans, are not concerned with the form of the structural solution (new province or whatever) but with particular issues that we will have to face whatever solution emerges. I was asked to join those thinking about vocations – how will we foster them, discern them,

sustain them in the new church of a decade hence?

The most striking question was this. What role models for the priestly life will we have in the new jurisdiction? However much we will remain part of the Church of England – and this whole exercise is based on the understanding that we will remain in the CofE – virtually all chaplaincies will be denied to us.

Schools and universities, if they have a chaplain, will be wanting one from the safe and respectable majority, a chaplain who is not going to cause any problems. Institutions of liberal education will

inevitably want a liberal chaplain, modern and inclusive and able to speak the same language as the young people he or she is ministering to – not an unreasonable proposition, surely.

The Armed Forces, prisons, hospitals – each have attracted over the years men with a real calling and with a strong sense of mission; freed from the petty concerns of parish and diocesan politics, they have often shown a Christ-like vision of a life worth living.

Touching people’s lives at moments of high tension or life-changing vulnerability, they have proved to be important role models for the priestly life.

Parish priests are not all bad, and many are inspiring models; but it is only one type of role model. As we know (those of us who have been involved with aspirants and ordinands), many of those who have become good parish priests were first inspired by a chaplain, at school or college, or in the Army, more rarely prisons, and so on. What helped to make them role models was that they shared the life of the institution in the same way as everyone else.

By so obviously sharing the life of the world around them, their calling was imaginable to the young men with whom they lived and worked, and possibly inspiring. This inspiration may then have led the young man to the life of parish ministry, but that is a second stage in a developing vocation, which might never have occurred without the first stage.

The traditional notion and practice of Christian faith is increasingly counter-cultural (another word that kept coming up in our discussions). The implications of this – and it is a hard lesson for those who have been part of an established church to grasp – are that those positions which depend upon the institutions of contemporary culture (chaplaincies, in other words) will be completely closed to the clergy of a new province. They may be closing even for the most ardent liberals desperate to remain relevant and contemporary, but they will surely be completely out of bounds to traditionalists.

We know ourselves to have ‘an honoured place’ in the CofE for our traditional convictions about the sacred ministry, but to the outside world we are a tiny and irrelevant minority; even for Christians within such institutions we may be at best an embarrassment; at worst, they may simply loathe us, and who could blame them.

All very exciting in many ways for those of us who have pierced the mystery of faith and entered the world of Christ’s Church, but where will the role models be for those outside looking in, wondering about what may or may not make sense, in terms of a life worth leading? Personally, I enjoy being a counter-cultural pariah, but can I persuade others it is worth the candle?