“Here I am Lord”: Reflections on Vocation
A Sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor.
Sunday 4 September 2022, the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, the Eucharist.
Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14:25-33
Over these last few weeks, in our summer sermon series, the Cathedral clergy have been sharing stories of our calling to ordination. Instead of addressing the day’s bible readings, we’ve been exploring what led us to take the step of becoming a priest, and what each of us might be called to by God. And today, the last week of the series, it’s my turn.
I’m sure if someone had told me that I would end up getting ordained as a teenager, I would have been very surprised! When I was young, I was incredibly shy- so much so that, one time in infant school when there was a “Guess the birthday of the rocking horse” competition, the prize being the rocking horse, and I won, I was so scared to go up to the front and collect it in assembly that my younger sister- who was not at all shy- had to go up and do it for me!
Although- as I would discover later- there are lots of stories in the bible of God calling quiet people, I didn’t really believe this for a long time, as my experience of clergy and church leaders was that they did a lot of talking.
Ironically it was only really when I made my peace with my quietness that I was able- in my early twenties- to get the confidence that I could lead. My partner Rachel and my Mum both say that after I was ordained at the age of 26, I started talking overnight and haven’t stopped since- which is probably not a very good reflection either on me or on the priesthood!
But looking back now, I can trace the beginnings of my sense of calling to much earlier than that, to my teenage years. When I was very young, we had times of going to different churches. But it was only really when I was 13 and my grandad died and my mum wanted to reconnect with faith that we started going regularly (and even then, “regularly” by no means meant every week!).
My introduction to church came through music. I’m from a musical family, and- when we joined the church- my Mum, sister and I all joined the church choir. Although I learned musical instruments, everything about singing and sacred music was new to me, and I loved it from the start. The village church we went to was tiny, but there were three other girls in the choir my sister and I made friends with- which was enough for us to be a little group together.
For me, music and faith really do go together. Discovering sacred music in the Anglican tradition, and discovering faith, were, for me, part of the same thing. I also loved the beautiful language of Evensong, when we occasionally sang that service. Alongside Shakespeare and the other authors I was being introduced to at school in English lessons- the language of Evensong inspired me and captured my imagination. It gave me a strong sense of the mystery of God, but also introduced me to the idea of prayer. Maybe because I only discovered it as a teenager and was never once forced to go to church, the whole thing- music and religion- was something I always wanted to do, and quite a revelation to me.
Over the next couple of years, I really enjoyed, with the rest of the church choir and community, going to Canterbury Cathedral to sing in the Area Festival with other choirs and learning about liturgy and music through the RSCM Chorister awards that we worked towards. But then we moved to the other side of the town and stopped going to that- or any- church. By then I was doing A levels and singing in a Chamber Choir at school, and there were plenty of other things going on. So church didn’t really feature very highly, although I did get confirmed around that time, and I think I do vaguely remember hearing about the first women priests being ordained on the radio in 1994, when I was about 17. But still not in a way that I ever thought it was something I would do!
At university, studying English, I became a choral scholar, which meant I had to go to Chapel every week to sing, and I was also taken by a friend to a large, very lively, evangelical charismatic church- which was pretty different from either the village church I’d been to or the Chapel- although it did have some liturgical texts- such as the Collect for Purity- a personal favourite that we start our Eucharists with every week here too (and, incidentally, that originated in the Sarum rite!).
This was a formative time for me, where- amidst the challenges and minor heartaches of leaving home- I really thought about my faith and made it my own, thinking about what difference it really made, and it’s where my feeling that I might be called to ordination first began to crystallise. I found it amazing that a church could be so full, compared to my village church experience growing up. And there were lots of people around me who were passionate about their faith, yet also clever and interesting. Being with students all day, every day, one of the things I liked about church- and have always liked- was that you met people who weren’t your age, and I really enjoyed helping with the Children’s Church, our group being 3-4 year-olds who were great.
I think one of the things that attracted me to ordination was the rich combination of things it potentially involved, the spiritual and the practical, social justice, pastoral care or leading others in worship and prayer- though of course that multifacetedness of priesthood can be its downside too- clergy sometimes joke about not having any actual skills- being a “jack- or jill- of all trades, master of none.”
In the church I was in as a student, the model seemed to be that it was the men who did the up-front stuff, and all the preaching, while the women- even if they were ordained, which only one was- didn’t do the upfront stuff, but did the quieter, more backstage or pastoral roles.
Being ordained in 2004, things were easier for me than for the first generation of women priests, but I do remember feeling a lack of role models in those early days as I was testing those first stirrings of a sense of a vocation. In the late nineteen nineties, the vast majority of senior clergy were still men, and of course women still couldn’t be bishops. That meant that any clergy person making public pronouncements about the church- in the media and so on- was a man, so there were still very few prominent women to look up to. Of course, it’s not that I couldn’t learn from a male priest- I did learn huge amounts from different male clergy and religious I talked to, and did placements, or attended lectures by, with as I started my training- but I still think it’s very important to see yourself mirrored in those you’re aspiring to be like and modelling yourself on. And part of that is seeing confident people of your own gender.
My sense of vocation wasn’t something dramatic- more a sense of pushing the door at every stage, to see whether it would open, which, for me, miraculously, and gently, it always did seem to, though there were some hairy moments. As a gay person wanting to become a priest, working out this part of my identity and- in the end- meeting my partner were not the easiest things to negotiate whilst also going through theological training. Societal attitudes have changed vastly even since then, which, I believe, the Church now urgently needs to keep pace with.
But I’ve never seen my ordination and my sexuality as opposed. To me, they both fit in the same category. They’re both things that involve swimming against the tide, going against the flow of what someone else might think you sensibly should do. They’re both things that, after some initial hesitancy- my parents were fully accepting of, once they realised I was really serious about them. And they’re both things that, in an age before the internet, I found out about largely through reading, before ever plucking up the courage to actually try talking to anyone about either of them. Being a gay person in the Church, ordained or not, can be a lonely road at times- but I took heart early on from this- quite dramatic, it seems now! but also hopeful- passage in Jeanette Winterson’s early novel Oranges are not the only fruit (1985), that I read around that time: “Where was God now, with heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord overthrown? I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought that once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky.” (p.164-65).
For me responding to a call to ordination was, as it turned out, something that challenged everything I thought I knew. Whilst I was training, I had a Christian Aid prayer card, with an illustration of the burning bush and prayer written by an early Dalit Christian in India, pinned up by my bed that I saw every morning when I woke up. It said simply, “O great God, who art thou? Where art thou? Show thyself to me.”
In the absence of anything else that you might feel you have to offer or to say about God, I would recommend praying that prayer, and praying it lots of times.
I don’t know what your calling is, or what God will reveal to you about who you are and what you should do, but I do know that, in asking God to show you Him- or Herself-, this will reveal something, if you keep asking. In the path that ordination has taken me on, I haven’t always found it easy. I certainly haven’t done everything perfectly. But this is who and what I’m called to be. And now, over to you. What is God calling you to be and to do? What new thing is He revealing to you? “O great God, who art thou? Where art thou? Show thyself to me.”