Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, has been a special time for me since my student days, when I went on my first silent retreat. Two dozen lively 18 to 21 year-olds went through forty eight hours together without speaking, apart from joining in frequent acts of worship. We listened to a series of wise profound talks on prayer and faith delivered by a calm priest, in a convent chapel smelling of incense and beeswax candles. Simply taking the time to listen and digest Christian teaching, time to think in the silence and darkness of two winter days, had a powerful impact on me. There was no brain-washing, no emotive appeal, no manipulation. We chose to go, to seek and find whatever was there for us in that haven of peace. In the freedom of silent reflection, the message of Jesus came home to me in a way that re-oriented my life.
Conversion is a much maligned word, associated too often with dramatic experiences, rather than a simple change of direction or deepening of personal commitment. It happens to different people in different ways. Sometimes it is in the midst of a tragedy, sometimes through a chance mundane encounter. Sometimes the impact of a powerful personality, a great work of sacred architecture, art or literature brings an un-sought for awakening.
I once met a young Croatian teacher who'd been raised an atheist in communist Yugoslavia. Her path to baptism began when she picked up a tourist leaflet at a monastery on a school trip. It contained a quotation from St Francis. "To reach the poor with the Good News you have to become poor like them." This puzzled and disturbed her. She could not rest until she had understood it. She knew nothing of Francis or his religion. But she started on a journey which led her to Christ, and eventually to peace-making work, building bridges across the ethnic divide in Bosnia.
Conversion can be a strong experience of sinfulness and of overwhelming divine mercy. It may be dramatic and sudden, as illustrated memorably by the story of St Paul's conversion. (Acts 9:1-22). I’ll never forget how, as a junior priest, I was caught by surprise, the night before the event, during a relaxed chat with a young man I had prepared for baptism,. In the middle of agonising over the certainty of God’s unconditional mercy, he was seized with an intuition so powerful that he fell to the floor weeping, overwhelmed by what he had suddenly realised about the love of God. I didn’t know what to do, apart from make tea there was little I could do. For the moment the matter seemed to have been taken out of my hands. It changed his life for good. Unusual? Yes, but not at all rare, even among people distrustful of powerful emotion.
For others conversion happens gently yet with equally great effect. The process can be slow and agonising, or just an un-dramatic movement towards the conscious departure point of re-orienting one’s life towards God. A conversion experience of any kind is nothing unless it leads to personal growth and change. It is not an end in itself. God deals with each of us according to our current need, our temperament and our abilities, offering us the help we need to grow. We learn how to say ‘yes’ to his gifts, and how to use them. Conversion results in a change of awareness, behaviour, lifestyle and ethics. It brings a renewal of personality, of confidence, discovery of hidden talent, the flowering of a new role and purpose in life. Every Christian, though they may not realise it or may find it awkward to speak of, has their own conversion story to tell.
Faith in Christ, when awakened or deepened, leads to a discovery of one’s true gifts and calling. Christians understand this as realising the gifts of God’s Spirit. Everyone receives a fine mixture of natural abilities and spiritual potential, whether we are aware of it or not. Some gifts are discovered more quickly than others, like the unfolding of vegetation at different rates in the light and warmth of spring and summer according to where they are planted. We do not always understand how God's timing or placement works, but there are no mistakes! As St Paul said: “All things work together for good, to those who love God.” (Romans 8:28)
Moreover, what is brought out in us, and when it happens is never simply for our own benefit. It is also for the sake of others. God calls us through the working of his Spirit to become truly what each of us is meant to be, in ourselves and in relation to others. Often this takes time to understand. In a world where instant responses and answers are always desirable, taking time to obtain a perspective on anything is not popular. Growth in discipleship, however, requires the cultivation of patience with oneself and other fellow pilgrims.
There was a young woman attending that first retreat. We had met weeks earlier, just after starting University. We had friends and interests in common and began to see a lot of each other. Though our backgrounds were different, we knew by the end of that first student year that we wanted to share a lifetime of getting to know each other. Clare and I married as soon as we graduated.
Meeting another person, being attracted to them and falling in love, is a basic human experience. It can exalt us to the heights, and it can shake the foundations upon which our confidence rests. It can happen when we are not ready for it, and when we have despaired of it ever happening to us. It can expose the worst and best sides of our personality, leave us trembling with fear, or recklessly brave.
It's like a conversion experience. If we analyse what happens when we fall in love, we must admit that the forces operating are a mix of biological impulses and socially programmed responses, but there’s more to it than this. At the heart of the encounter is an experience of a gift, a calling, something beyond the self at work, something which points to a shared destiny.
Finding and making a relationship with someone as a partner for life is a process which matters a great deal to people. It is an occasion when God’s gift and calling are made known and awaken the seeds of faith which exist in every heart - even those whose lives are little affected by religion. The growth of deep intimacy with another person happens through building trust, to a point where self-surrender is possible. We best learn that we can trust someone by testing our experience of love and acceptance. This is why making a lasting relationship can be so precarious and painful a process.
Identity loss and social fragmentation in this age of mobility, means many lives are dominated by a sense of impermanence. Few products are now designed with a long life-span. Rather, they are designed to wear out, are un-repairable if broken, as replacing them is cheaper. We talk about living in a throw-away society, as many utilities are made for single use only. Painful effort is required for a successful life-long relationship. When difficulties are encountered, separation and early divorce are an easy option, no longer discouraged or subject to social disapproval. Human relationships which don’t work seem to have become as disposable as consumer goods.
With marriage seen in such provisional terms, some couples fight shy of making any long term commitment. Co-habitation with a joint house mortgage is as much as many couples feel they can sustain, unless a mutual desire for children develops. Couples will wait until they think they can afford to marry and raise a family in complete comfort and security. Mutual convenience and self-interest rather than seeing the potential in forging a lifelong relationship is what prevails.
Taking seriously the traditional marital vow: 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer' when conditions are not ideal involves a risk of faith. Christians bent on upholding the sanctity of marriage can stray into being over-judgmental about modern values and habits. A compassionate understanding of the pressures on those whose faith and self-esteem are weak is needed. An over-sentimental view of love, and the romantic desire for a ‘nice wedding’ can make light of the challenges of permanent partnership. Anxiety about making a 'good' marriage, to provide necessary security in an insecure world, propels some couples to the altar before they are ready. They may marry without the maturity, skills, or family support to sustain them in making a long term commitment.
Yet, although marriage has become a disposable commodity like many others, amazingly, despite the pain and damage resulting from divorce, the majority of people with failed first and second marriages behind them still say they are looking for a life-long relationship of love and faithfulness. The ideal of permanence lives on, though it is harder than ever to attain. Marriages following cohabitation are said to have a greater tendency to break up than conventional ones, yet many who start by cohabiting do still end up in a permanent commitment after all.
Once, slave owners denied marriage rights to their subjects to retain total power over them, but this did not stop some slaves from forging lifelong relationships on their own terms. In the Caribbean, a touching inverse of social convention emerged after emancipation. Couples postponed their church wedding until they had lived for decades as man and wife. Then, their extended family of three generations raised 'out of wedlock' would assist in celebrating a marriage achieved. Unconventional relationships may turn out more healthy and stable than those driven by social expectation. Couples who chose a civil wedding from necessity or lack of conviction when young, may approach their Vicar when they reach a special anniversary to ask if they can make their vows in church or receive a blessing, out of gratitude for a happy life together. Love and fidelity in human relationships is a reflection of how God acts towards us, made as we are in his image.
Marriage is a sacramental sign for Christians, celebrated with or without a church ceremony. The vehicle of divine love in marriage is the commitment of the couple, expressed in the vows they make, either before a priest or a state registrar. A wedding celebrates their gift of commitment, no matter where the vows are made. The outward signs of marriage are a life together. Wedding rings are worn to advertise one's status, as a person set apart by commitment.
When a couple marry, two families enter a relationship, which did not exist before the couple met. Marriage is now less common between members of a community in which both lived and grew up. Barriers of nationality, culture and race, are often overcome in modern marriages, though not without problem. Sometimes cross-cultural couples are reluctant to marry, due to the distance between them and the support of their extended families, or the difficulties of bridging the culture gap between their families. Forging a new identity for those with different histories and cultures is a special challenge in a changing world.
Matters of culture or age difference in couples out of line with social expectations attract attention. Even more so, if a couple with or without children are of the same gender. Loving trustful commitment is a gift from God, distributed without regard for human ideas of what is right and proper. Although it is turned into a bone of contention, the devotion and fidelity of homosexual couples is worthy of respect if it contributes to community growth and stability. The easy break-up of conventional marriage and family life, undervalues the gift of love, undermines community and increases loneliness. Anything that counters this is to be valued.
Marriage is not the only divine gift and calling. Jesus was a single man, yet lived in the company of others. His disciples included both married and single, women and men in one community. Diversity is normal. There are single people who would like to marry and never meet the right person, but live in hope. There are single people with no desire to marry. As disciples of Christ they are respected. There is a welcome place for those who remain celibate by conviction or necessity. Singleness allows a person freedom to act. It can be a blessing in a life of discipleship which allows them more time for God. Since ancient times, creating a household around shared faith and mission has been a means for celibate people to create an important expression of Christian community.
Just as marriage confers on a couple a change of identity, so too does consecrating a vocation to serve others through ordination to the church's ministry, or life in a monastic community. A new identity is given to men and women whose gifts as carers, teachers and preachers have been recognised by the church. By the action of laying hands on a person’s head, and asking the Holy Spirit to come upon them, people are set apart to represent what the whole community stands for - Christ's life, and the Gospel of God's kingdom. Ministers remind members and non-members alike of their mission - to act as ambassadors for Christ, and the community he came to build.
Each branch of Christianity has developed ministries which reflect its history and mission. Two patterns can be recognised in the way ministries have evolved. One of them goes back to the early second century, and the other to the Reformation. Ministry is mentioned in the New Testament in embryonic form, but not described well enough to support claims that either pattern is the perfect outcome of what began in the first century.
By the early second century, churches were led by Bishops (a Greek word meaning 'overseer'). They were consecrated by neighbouring church leaders, as chief pastors and guardians of authentic apostolic teaching. They presided over worship and church government. They shared their tasks with presbyters or elders, who became known by the term we use - priests. These deputised for the Bishop in his absence. As churches spread, priests became local leaders under the Bishop as leader of the community of communities in a region.
Bishops and priest were supported in their tasks by an order of Deacons (the Greek original means 'servant'), first mentioned in the Acts 6:1-6, where they organised care for the needy. They also had a role in worship distinct from priests, bishops or laity. The role still exists in the Anglican Church, sometimes exercised by ordained deacons, but more often by readers, who are authorised non-ordained lay people. The deacon's role today is often a transitional one, like an apprenticeship for priesthood during the first year of public ministry. In many churches the deacon's order remains linked to the church's social outreach and administration, as well as playing a part in worship.
The hierarchical status given these orders of ministry in the West led to their use being questioned at the Reformation. Scholars recognised that the roles of apostle, prophet, pastor and teacher were exercised in the early church, and along these lines ministries and church structures we re-invented to allow more participation by all members. Ordination was retained to express self-dedication and commissioning for a particular role or task, rather than a life-long consecration. Some Reformation churches kept the ancient three-fold pattern of ordination (viz.: Lutherans, Moravians, Anglicans). Others favoured one ordination for ministry with some parts of presbyters' and deacons' roles exercised by the Minister, and others by elected laity. Different patterns of ministry in the church are responses to the variety of calls to mission.
The terminology of church ministries is quite a puzzle for the uninitiated. The title Pastor describes any person exercising ministerial care over others, ordained or lay. Titles beloved of Anglicans, such as Vicar, Rector, Dean, Archdeacon, describe the setting in which a priest serves, and the job the do. The titles have been part of the church’s organisation into parishes since well before the Norman conquest of England. This has emphasised caring for all people and sharing the Gospel in the area and social institutions where they live and work. A Chaplain is a pastor, lay or ordained, who serves people in a defined social group or institution, not a territory. Armed services, schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, industries, and cultural minorities have chaplains.
God's call to ordained ministry is an invitation to make the best of our individual constitutions, temperaments and abilities in what we do with our lives. Taking a role in professional pastoral ministry is not the only possibility. Some are drawn to a life given over to prayer, witness and service under monastic vow in a monastic order. Some serve the church, or work with humanitarian and development agencies far from their home land. Some remain unpaid volunteers, combining the vocation of being an ordained pastor with doing an ordinary job in a commercial, industrial or academic work place.
The Church celebrates new vocations with a service to recognise a person's change of role and identity, and affirm that this is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. This reminds all who take part of God's call to serve through the proper exercise of their gifts for the sake of others. The sacramental signs of marriage and ordination should be seen in the broader context of God's call to everyone to realise who they are and what their gifts are. All God's baptised people have a vocation of one kind or another. All are chosen and special for some purpose.
Those who come to adult Confirmation and renew their Baptismal vows can find it is a moment to reckon with a personal calling, arising from the grace of the Spirit confirmed by the laying on of hands. Finding out what it means in practical terms takes time. The first step is realising that God works in the depths of our being, calling us into an intimate relationship with Himself. What makes realisation possible, as a disciple of Jesus, is a life of personal prayer.