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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Maundy Thursday ...

As I sit to write this post, my former colleagues in ministry will be assembling in Gloucester Cathedral for the annual rededication of clergy and the Blessing and Consecration of the Chrism and Holy Oils. It used to be something I looked forward to every year, but it was also a bittersweet event for me. Traditionally the day marks the start of Easter, with the commemoration of the Last Supper of Christ, his retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane and betrayal by Judas Iscariot.

In the Anglican tradition the Eucharist is held in the evening and is, in fact, the starting point of a three day liturgy. At the end of the evening's service, the Ciborium is carried to a chapel, decorated as a garden, and left there for the Vigil which will last through the night until the start of the Good Friday Solemn Liturgy. Once the consecrated elements have been removed to the chapel, the High Altar (and any other chapels) are stripped of all decoration and the clergy, servers and other ministers leave quietly and without fuss, leaving the sanctuary bare of all adornment. It is an incredibly moving moment and one I have been a part of for many years, in different Parishes and in many roles.

I no longer have a 'ministery' role, my current spiritual home is a much smaller congregation, and a different liturgical tradition, and there is no role for 'Readers.' That is the Ministry I exercised sometimes with encouragement, and sometimes under tolerance, for a little over 30 years in the Anglican Church in South Africa and then in England. It is a somewhat strange ministry, since the role you are permitted depends very much on the Incumbent of the Parish.

Reflecting on that I realised why the Maundy Thursday Rededication was so 'bittersweet' for me. As a Reader one is always a second class minister. In English Law you are regarded as 'clergy' and even under some of the Canon Law of the Church of England you may be treated as 'clergy,' but in ministry you are most definitely not. While one Parish Incumbent may welcome a Reader and treat them as a de facto Deacon, another will not and may even insist on allowing the Reader only to preach, and then only if the sermon and the subject have been vetted and approved. The Maundy Thursday service tended to reinforce that for me, especially in the latter years of my service to a small village church and then the Abbey, as I had to stand by and watch as other Readers were eased into ordination. Yet, whenever I raised the possibility of exploring it, there always seemed to be a stumbling block. At first it was my wife's desire not to be a 'vicar's wife' and then it was the fact I was divorced.

It was often painful to watch others being joyfully ordained, or welcomed at the Maundy Service, while I remained in a limited ministry excluded by the difference between a 'licence' to minister, and being 'ordained' to do almost the same things. I expect, to some reading this, it will sound like 'sour grapes' and to an extent I suppose it is. It has certainly been spiritually very painful, since, from the very first, I have felt 'called' and three Bishops in South Africa certainly felt it was a genuine call. Sadly family problems prevented me following that path before my marriage, and later, it would not have been acceptable to my wife. The eventual divorce placed an automatic 'bar' on it - until the Canon Law was changed as a result of the ordination of women for whom the 'bar' did not apply.

At every parish I served, I was lucky enough to be treated, by the incumbent, as their liturgical Deacon and it was a huge privilege to serve in that role. I was encouraged to widen the ministry as far I could, given that I had a fulltime job and family. When I moved to Tewkesbury, however, it was different. At first I was allowed to preach, and not much more. I joined the Server Team as a result and tried to build a ministry through that office, but then came a 'Vacancy in Cure'. Suddenly the Readers were much in demand. Suddenly I was being 'trusted' with Reservation of the Sacrament as the Sub Deacon of the Mass and the role widened as I was called upon to 'Deacon' the Parish Eucharist and even allowed to lead Evensong, all functions previously 'reserved' for ordained clergy only.

With the appointment of the new incumbent, the role of the Readers remained as it had become in the Vacancy, but here there was a new twist. Some members of the congregation campaigned tirelessly to have Readers excluded from Administration of the Sacraments, some even refused to receive the elements from a "Layman" as they termed us. The new incumbent certainly resisted that, but it blighted any widening of our liturgical ministry. We were 'good enough' to be 'deacon' for the Parish Eucharist, but not for the Sung Eucharist. With one of our number now being ordained, another exploring it and one, in training, converted directly to 'ordained' status, I found myself once again being sidelined. Yes, I was exercising a 'new' ministry as Church Warden, but it was not, and is not, a role I either wanted or enjoyed. It did give me the opportunity to once again raise the issue of going forward for ordination myself (another Reader had already been approved for it) and so began a long drawn out process toward getting to attend a Selection Conference.

They say the mills of God grind slowly, I think the Church of England can probably do it even slower. In the time it took for the various 'background checks,' references and numerous discussions, meetings and reviews, I had retired, set up my own business and eventually 'retired' as Church Warden. A spell abroad (a man has to pay the bills even if he's retired), took me off the Ministry Roster long enough to become someone who 'may be called upon in emergency only' and essentially I found myself more or less a 'ghost at the feast.' All the focus was now on training several former Readers to be priests - and I certainly wasn't among the 'select.' Yes, I do say this with some bitterness, for most of my ministry I have taken out communion to the sick and to the remote where no priest could be sent. I have filled the gaps when there were no clergy available and I have ministered to the troubled, to children in need, to mourners and the dying. But, for the last year of my Reader Ministry, I actually felt as if I was being a nuisance just being there. I was clearly no longer part of the team, and apparently causing a problem somewhere in the system by trying to explore ordination selection.

Yes, at the eleventh hour, I got an interview with the Bishop, and approval to go forward to a Selection Conference, but I couldn't escape the feeling that it was a reluctant approval at best. In the end, I withdrew my application as I had, after a great deal of prayer, decided that I could not give up the opportunity to marry the woman for whom I feel nothing but love. So I will not, in this life, fulfill the Call to ordination.

It saddens me that I will never have the opportunity to serve my God as a priest. It saddens me even more that I can feel that the ministry I did offer and give for almost 30 years, 11 at the Abbey, should have just quietly 'run into the sands' as it did. So, while I wish it could be different, I have to accept yet another 'changing season' and move on. I hope though, that any friends at the Abbey who read this (or from any other parish in which I have had the privilege of ministry) will remain in touch and remain friends. They more than anything else, made it all worth doing, and I will be thinking of them as I celebrate "Gruendonnerstag, Karfreitag and Ostern among my new friends here in Germany.

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