Yes, it’s still Christmas! I’m not getting into the annual discussion about how the Christmas season doesn’t finish until Epiphany, or if you really want, Candlemas. For those who have had the tree up since October you’re probably, and quite understandably, sick of the sight of it and the need for clear surfaces and the ability to walk around your home without getting covered in glitter/standing on tree pines or the ever-penetrating smell of cloves and oranges is all too much.
So, all of that aside, I have been thinking about the year ahead. Mainly, I think, because 2020 was…tricky to say the least. I want to take control of some of things that I do. The biggest thing that is due to happen in 2021 for me is that I am to be ordained deacon into the Church of England. I have spent the last three years training for ordination, whilst continuing to work. Nowhere in all that was the idea that there would be a pandemic, marriage breakdown, moving or fighting for my voice to be heard. I am emotionally exhausted and spiritually empty.
When I say I am exhausted, it is not the same way in which our frontline workers are exhausted. I have been able to work from home, not had to put my health and that of my loved ones on the line, isolate from family, watch friends and colleagues die from Covid-19 or be at the mercy of our incompetent government. For those who don’t believe the pandemic is real take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. I digress…
So, 2021 will be a little different, we don’t know how long we will continue to be lockdowns or restrictions. The distribution of the vaccine is wonderful news and whilst the virus will be with us for some time, this feels like a good start in finding hope for a less restricted 2021.
I am not one for making New Year’s resolutions – to give up drinking, to lose weight, to start a project etc – as I know that I will have either broken the first two by the end of January or give no more attention to the third. That’s not to say I don’t have things that I want to do, I do…lots of things! I just don’t put a time limit on them in that way. And so, at a time when there is so much already planned for me, I am taking back (some) of the control.
First up – I will be taking a break once my academic training has completed in June. There will be no ordination in 2021. For many that would inflict such fear and terror, that it wouldn’t even be a small thought in a very wide horizon. For me, it brings relief and a sense of wellbeing that I haven’t felt in a long time. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t something I have just thought up or pulled out of the blue, this has been a process of discernment over many months with a raft of emotions to go with it – fear, tears, elation, uncertainty…but ultimately, I have come to a place of peace and knowing that this is the right decision for me.
This seems, and quite frankly is, a very simple request. However, as with all institutions the paperwork and justifications needed to do this has become somewhat tiresome and so it has not been without its frustrations. It took me a while to realise that the main reason for my frustration, was that I wasn’t being listened to.
People were, and still are hell bent on projecting how they feel about this, onto me. I don’t doubt for a second they have the best of intentions and without offence being meant, and I love them for their concern. However, to have to justify decisions I have spent a long time discerning, time and time again is hugely frustrating. You have the same conversations over and over again, and all I want to do is shout ‘please listen to me!’. The fear of making such a big decision paralyses people and their ability to just listen, vanishes. I am not looking for something to be fixed, there is nothing broken. What I do know, is that if I don’t have the time out, there will be a very broken me.
I have plans for my time out, things that will help me to reset my sense of self, to strengthen my relationship with God – believe it or not, training has distorted that relationship – and with the church as a whole. It would be very easy to walk away from the church entirely, at the moment, but I don’t believe that is what I am being called to do. However, I do believe that I am being called to establish a different relationship with it, one that is spiritually nourishing and where I can be authentically me, where my ministry (either ordained or Lay) is carried out with integrity, truth and respect.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have a sense of fear. I did – what if it is more than time out? What if I am never offered a title post again? What if I am refused ordination? It’s a scary thought that after all of your discernment (in some cases years at the point you attend a selection panel) and then training, all of the emotion and time that you have put into each assignment, each placement; that actually ordination may not be where your journey, thus far, will take you, that there is something else that you are being called to. It is something that has to be faced, although it makes the Bishops twitchy when you speak in these terms! But so be it. For as hard as it is to start this process, it is much better to give these throughs space, to discuss and possibly change direction, than to follow a path just because it’s easier than stopping and taking a moment to listen to what God might actually be saying and doing.
It feels like there is an unspoken fear amongst ordinands, that if you aren’t ordained at the end of your training, then in some way you have failed. I am not talking about all ordinands, some are clear of their vocation and calling, but there will be some in each training college that aren’t so certain that ordination is the natural conclusion of training. I hope that in some way, my writing openly about this ongoing discernment, helpful.
I would also encourage you to find people you trust, to talk to and a good spiritual director (if you don’t already have one). There are many clergy who have taken time out, it’s not as unusual as you might think. I am very lucky that I have an excellent spiritual director, friends and family that I can have very frank conversations with, without judgement. It is absolutely possible to have time and space for thought and discussion about this, be kind to yourself and let God lead you.
So, on to the other things that I would like to give some time to. A long retreat – obviously this is pandemic allowing. I have gone on retreat many times, usually for a few days, sometimes a week. But the one thing I am always left feeling is ‘I wish I could spend more time’. Maybe 2021 is the year that I take a sabbatical and actually go on that retreat. I want to read more than theology. Whilst this is edifying and helps me to think about my faith, it isn’t always what I need. Sometimes, all I want, in fact all I need in that moment is a good historical crime novel or do something craft based or baking or walking…
My relationship with God is really rather straight forward, when you strip away all of the ‘stuff’ that we are told that we should be doing, which in a lot of ways distracts me from that very relationship.
I have come to realise over the last year, actually, I don’t have the need to ‘be in church’ to worship God, I find that I give and receive more from being in nature on a long walk, or doing something meditative, rather than being in a church at 8am on a Sunday morning. For many people, this won’t be any kind of revelation, but for me this is quite new, and slightly left field. I have been in church every Sunday for years and many a week night, and I have wanted to, even needed to be there. When I think back on that, that was right for that time, but this is a new time.
Liturgy gives us the words to voice our praise for God and Prayers for our world, in a uniform and consistent way. But sometimes there are just too many words and not enough time for listening and just being – for instance I have never been one who ‘bonded’ with morning prayer as set by the Church, it is far to wordy for first thing in the morning. Give me silence, maybe a poem or a piece of music that shows me the love of God and my day with God gets off to a cracking start. Compline, now we’re talking, it’s a beautifully simple service at the end of the day. As I get older, I want more simplicity and silence. I think this is my inner Quaker trying to come to the surface.
Now, I love a beautifully ornate chasuble, lots of incense and a proper epiclesis but I don’t need that all of the time. There was a time when I would have baulked at the idea of anything other than all of the bells and whistles of a full Mass. Now that isn’t to say I don’t gravitate towards this type of service, but it is no longer the be all and end all. When I have thought about why, its actually quite simple, the one and only thing I have truly missed, more than anything over the last year, is being able to take the sacrament. Now, it could be part of a simple 20-minute service with two readings and prayers, a full Mass or anything in-between – I don’t actually believe God concerns themself with the length of, or how intricate the service itself is.
I’m not going to argue the merits of online services. All I will say is that I think they are massively important. However, for me personally they leave me a little cold. I don’t feel as though I have worshipped or praised God through my laptop screen, and I wish that I could feel the sense of connection that I know so many do. Online worship has without doubt come into its own over the last year, especially for those who find going into a church hard for whatever reason – all reasons are valid and I support them all. God meets us where we are, not where it is deemed valid or expected, and that may well be at the kitchen table with our slippers on and a cup of tea.
So, it would appear I am between a rock and a hard place about where I place myself for worship. Now, that has the potential to be troublesome, however, I am taking this as an opportunity to find a new place – field or cathedral, church or chapel. Either way, I am looking forward to having the time to explore this.
I want to give more time to the things that bring me joy and a sense of peace. This seems like an odd thing to have to be explicit about, but I often find myself sticking with the things that are not joyful in the least, but because I have started, I need to finish or complete. I am going to apply this not only to doing things, but also the relationships that I choose to have.
I am constantly told to love everyone, no matter what the cost to me may be, that I should turn the other cheek when treated badly, and if I don’t, I am not a ‘proper’ Christian – whatever that means. Yes, I agree that we should love one another, but that doesn’t mean we have to put up with bad behaviour. I love people because they are part of Gods plan and made in the image of God, but do I like all of them, absolutely not. I believe to cut ties is sometimes the most ‘loving’ thing to do. You don’t have to make room for people who cause you pain or make you feel small, bully, devalue your existence or harm you. Where there is a consistent disregard for your feelings, an ignoring of your boundaries, and a continuation of harmful treatment in any way, they need to go. I’m not talking about minor fallings out or disagreements, that is part of being human and part of being in relation with each other. There is always room for good disagreement, but to still like and respect each other.
Moving on to things that bring me joy. I have become interested in lino printing over a number of months, watching videos, looking at peoples work, even having some of that work – it is still yet to be framed and hung! I hadn’t even heard of this until recently. The beauty and simplicity of the lines really appeal to me. So, this year, I am going to learn how to do this. My main aim of learning something new, is to find new ways of meditation and prayer. If you’re at all interested, I’ll be posting the end results on my Instagram page as I go. I know I said I don’t make resolutions, but I make an exception here and say that I resolve to come out of this year with all my fingers!
If 2020 teaches us anything, and there are many take aways, one thing I have become very aware of is that, whilst online stuff is extremely useful, fun and interactive, what I crave is some real experiences again, and on occasion some human interaction – but only on high days and holidays, we don’t want to overdo it! I jest. Actually, getting to see people in real-life in the flesh and everything, rather than through my laptop or phone screen is something that I am looking forward to immensely.
I realise that I am immensely lucky in that I have some of the very best people in my life. They are supportive and loving, they are diverse and beautiful, they are inspiring and I love them all.
As a side note, I should have been writing an essay and a sermon today, and it turns out that the word count I should have been using for both those things I’ve used for this post…this has been peak procrastination, and I don’t regret a thing!
I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2021 x