This month marks twenty years since I was first ordained as a deacon, at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, on Saint Agatha's Day, 1995. In that twenty years I have been called to minister as an Assistant Curate at St James the Less, Mount Eliza and St John's Toorak; and as Vicar to St James and St Peter Kilsyth and Montrose (Surely the parish with more saint and suburb than any other!), St Alban's West Coburg and Pascoe Vale South (multiple suburbs a theme it seemed), and finally, as proof that God truly loves me, at Holy Trinity Williamstown. It was a bit disconcerting to realize when my oldest daughter began grade two, it was at her second school and her fourth address. She began grade 6 at her third school and fifth address.
It is an odd thing being called to ordained ministry. Your main qualification is that you can sincerely say “I think God wants me to be here, to do this.” These days, you then spend a year while both you and the relevant authorities of the Diocese check the sincerity of that statement. The year consists of a series of seminars and interviews. In my day it consisted of questioning interviews with a rather frightening man in an office next to the Archbishop's, then two armchair interviews at the homes of elderly priests (only men in those days, of course!) This all culminates with a full day of interviews, which any spouses have to attend with you, called a 'Selection Conference'. A month or two later, your letter comes in the mail with a yea or nay.
But that is just the beginning of the process. You then do a four year degree course, at the same time being placed to work in a different parish each year, and still getting interviewed regularly to see if that 'calling' is still there. Once that is done, and you have your degree as well as a Diploma of Ministry from the parish placements and holiday placement in chaplaincy roles, as well as other 'extra' courses and seminars you do along the way, they ordain you. You are then placed to work under a senior priest in an 'Assistant Curacy'. You do two of these, two years each. Interestingly, of all the professions you could choose, in ministry, you continue to attend classes, seminars and conferences – Post Ordination Training, known more familiarly by those doing it as 'Potty Training'. During those next four years, you continue to be interviewed to see if that 'calling' has survived the process.
It always made me chuckle to think that, up to nine years after you first did something about that sense that you are being 'called', that God has communicated in some inner way that you are chosen for a particular ministry, the Church authority is still checking if that 'call' is true. After nine years, a doctor is writing prescriptions and potentially performing surgeries. A lawyer is standing in court representing people in major life-changing issues. After nine years, the Church is still checking if you have actually 'got it'. Compare that with Mark 1:16-18:
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
They heard the call, they put down their nets, and it began. Oh! For those simpler days!
It is, I do accept, a strange thing, this 'calling'. For Peter and Andrew, placidly fishing in the Lake of Galilee, there was Jesus, in person, saying quite clearly - “Follow me! I have a job for you.” Discerning your calling today – whether to ordination, or any other path you hear God sending you along – is a spiritual matter. Only you can hear it, that inner voice through which God guides you. I know the Church today is rather over-loaded with people who will tell you with great personal conviction what God is telling you to do or say or believe. Over the years, I have relegated them to the background noise of the world. If God is speaking to you, only you can hear it. Read 1 Kings 19:11-13, one of my favourite images in the Bible.
Depending on how you define it, in most denominations of Christianity, there is a belief that we are all 'called' in some way. At its simplest, some believe that the call to believe and follow Jesus is the calling of all Christians, plain and simple. The Apostle Paul in a number of his writings alludes to many ways we are individually called to use the gifts God has given us to build up the Christian community, such as 1 Corinthians 12:28. God calls us all, and we all should be listening out for it.
During my training for ordination, I took part in six silent retreats. One each year at college and one before each ordination, deacon and priest. I have tried to book one in every year or two since. I continue to maintain that if you are listening for God to speak to you, you are far more likely to hear it in silence, rather than the lecturing voices of others.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)