‘He shall call and I will answer’: Christian vocation
A sermon by Kenneth Padley from I Samuel 3.1-20
28 January 2024
I trained for ordination at a theological college in a village near Oxford. Towards the end of each day, the students would traipse down the lane to an evening service in the medieval parish church. One such service sticks in my memory for all the wrong reasons. We had just recited part of Psalm 91 in which the Psalmist says to God, ‘He shall call, and I will answer’. And with perfect theatrical timing, someone’s mobile rang out. The whole congregation completely creased, notably the Vice Principal who had an infamous Muttley-like laugh – which he failed to suppress for the rest of the service.
‘He shall call, and I will answer’. The moral of this story is not only that God has a sense of humour, but also impeccable irony. After all, every one of the ordinands in that church were there because they thought that God had already called them, summoned them to be Vicars.
The Church has long used the language of vocation or calling to describe the impetus with which God prompts men and women to offer themselves for ordained ministry. Indeed, before ordinands go to a theological college or training course (such as those run locally from Sarum College), they are put through a rigorous selection process. And this includes assessment of whether they have a genuine summons to undertake the priestly tasks for which they are offering.
Of course, discerning whether someone has a call from God is not as easy as listening for a piercing telephone to ring out across an echoey church. Given this, the Church of England probes potential ordinands about vocation from two distinct angles.
- Firstly, the selectors must satisfy themselves that a candidate has an inner sense of call. By this, I mean spiritual promptings, deep feelings, quirky coincidences that have led a candidate to believe that God wants them to be a priest. This inner call is illustrated par excellence by the story we have just heard about Samuel.
- The Old Testament example of Samuel shows that God can call at any time of day or night, and at any stage of our lives. I trained for ordination with some people who first heard God’s call in their fifties, and with another who began to discern his vocation at the age of 6 while playing with the chickens in his parents’ farmyard.
- The story of Samuel also shows that God’s inward call is sometimes so unfamiliar and incomprehensible that we initially don’t recognise it. Like Samuel, we may need a thoughtful mentor such as Eli to help us identify and understand what God might be saying.
- This role of Eli tips us neatly to the second angle from which the Church of England assesses vocation to priesthood, because, in addition to demonstrating evidence of an inward sense of God’s call, candidates also need to show how this call is affirmed by third parties, fellow members of the Church. Not all ordinands will know a wizened Yoda-figure like Eli. God might be heard in the much more mundane nudge from friends and family when they say ‘I can really see you doing this’.
- The Church’s selection process for ordination has changed a bit since I went through it, but this alignment of outward and inward vocation remains highly important. Evidence of both is required. If someone says that Jesus wants them for a sunbeam and nobody else can see it, there is risk that the candidate is deluding themself. If, on the other hand, a community discerns a vocation but the prospective candidate cannot see it, there is a risk of mismatch and disillusionment.
Our God is a God who calls women, men and children into his service. There may be some here today or on the livestream whom God is calling to be priests in his Church. If you think this might be you, then I encourage you to pray about it, and then talk with a trusted friend or clergy person here or in your local church.
Our God is a God who calls men, women and children into Her service. But the service into which She calls is so much more than ordination. After all, Samuel was not summoned to wear a dog collar or to chair meetings of a Parochial Church Council – for which he might have been very grateful. Samuel’s calling from God was to be a prophet – a political guru and a legal advocate. As we heard, his first sensitive task was to castigate his own master Eli for Eli’s failure to condemn the wrongdoing of his own sons.
The Church has long known that vocation is not a preserve of the clergy, but a gift from God to all. Among the many books about vocation, one which makes this point clearly is Called or Collared? by Francis Dewar. Dewar’s central premise is that our notion of vocation has often been too narrow. He insists that ‘God calls every human being to some particular self-giving task at each stage of their life’. He describes three distinct types of vocation which are true for each of us. The first is a personal call to be most fully the human that God has made us. Next, there is the call of the gospel to be a Christian. Finally, God calls people to particular roles or jobs. This last category includes ordination but is certainly not limited to it.
Telephonic communications have changed radically over the years. And the same is true of the Church’s concept of vocation. We have come a long, long way from the days when you might hear it said that someone is “going into the ministry”, a phrase which used to mean ordination. To claim that Christian ministry is something which clergy enter by virtue of ordination is to promote a narrow clericalism which denigrates the manifold gifts of God’s people. In truth, “going into ministry” is something to which all Christians are called and which we all enter by virtue of our Baptism.
The nature of each of our callings to Christian ministry will vary hugely, depending on our aptitudes and stage of life. However, some common threads run throughout. The Anglican Communion talks about Five Marks of Mission, and every Christian is called to do a bit of each in our own unique circumstances. The five marks of mission are:
- evangelism – proclaiming God’s good news
- teaching and nurturing new believers
- responding to human need by loving service
- transforming injustice in society
- striving to care for God’s creation
God’s call is scary, powerful and immediate because it demands attentive listening and daily response from each of us.
O let me see thy footmarks,
and in them plant mine own;
My hope to follow duly
is in thy strength alone.
O guide me, call me, draw me,
uphold me to the end;
and then in heaven receive me,
my Saviour and my Friend.
 Dewar, Called or Collared, back cover.