Summer Sermon Series: Canon Nigel Davies
A sermon by Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close.
Sunday 31 July, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity.
“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew,
circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian,
slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
The ‘renewal’ that Paul writes about has not yet come to the Church of England, or more specifically to Diocesan Vocation Advisors. How so – well because there has been a proliferation of ministries to add to Bishops, Priests and Deacons to which a person may feel God’s call. Ministries of various kinds, Lay and Ordained are now on offer and it must have made the discernment process more difficult for Vocation Advisors and Diocesan Directors of Ordinands. When I explored my call, things were simpler, vocation hadn’t been widened out to encompass everyone and everything.
My journey from the Pew to the Pulpit, was of its time and one that I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about, at the beginning – let me explain. I am a child of the Vicarage so grew up in and around all things church. I saw first hand what Ordained Ministry meant back in the 1960’s and 70’s and felt that it wasn’t for me. As I reached the end of my school days, I was often asked if I would go into ‘The Ministry’ and invariably would say ‘No’. So, I drifted into Teacher Training College, came out with a second-class Honours B. Ed. I moved to South Wales and to my first teaching post.
Moving so far away from friends and family in the north, proved lonely especially at Weekends. Saturday, I found my way into the local pubs in search of community and friendship. On Sunday I was initially pleased that I could have a lie in to recover from Saturday and didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t attending church. However, my new routine of church avoidance didn’t last long as I found that I wanted something that I recognised as being ‘Sunday’, so tried out the local Church in Wales and the Methodist Church. The Church in Wales was higher up the candle than those I had previously attended, and I found myself drawn into the life and worship of two local Church in Wales churches, as a server, plus the local Methodist Church in my village, where I went on the Reader’s Rota.
It was during this time that the influence of two priests, who became my friends, influenced my thinking and attitude to Church, so that I established a regular pattern of church attendance once again and saw what ordination meant for them, who came from a different tradition.
I moved back north to a new teaching post, bought a flat in Fleetwood and began attending St. Peter’s Church, where I became a Server and got involved in the Youth Ministry of the Deanery.
While I found increasing fulfilment in my life of faith, I was becoming increasingly jaundiced about my work in the teaching profession. I found myself questioning my academic duties, feeling that I would rather be addressing the Pastoral needs of the pupils I taught, who seemed to have more pressing problems and needs, which my subject Geography could not answer. Dissatisfied, I began to wonder if perhaps, after all, I might, just might, have a calling to the Priesthood or Full-time Ministry. It was something that kept coming up in conversation with family and my priestly friends. Rather than drift in an unsatisfactory manner through life, directionless, I came to the conclusion, that I would ‘lay the ghost’ of this imagine vocation and go to see the DDO.
Discussions with him set me on course to an ACCM (as they were known then) to test my vocation. I imagined that by attending one of these selection conferences, I would finally shut the door on Ordination and be able to move my career as a teacher in a different direction. Things didn’t turn out as I had expected.
I was not one of those people who had an unshakeable sense that God was calling me like some do, only to be devastated when they are turned down for Ordination. I wouldn’t have been devastated at all – please more like. I made no bones about this at the Selection Conference and after its conclusion returned to my day job relieved that now vocation was a thing of the past, as the selectors would have realised I was totally unsuitable.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened – I was recommended for training with the proviso that my suitability be reviewed after my first year in Theological College. I was not prepared to take the gamble of giving up my teaching career and my flat in Fleetwood (Dioceses made you do that then). So I prevaricated for a couple of years or so, but still had ‘the itch I couldn’t scratch’, as I had described it to one of the ACCM Selectors. I eventually and reluctantly went to the DDO and said I was prepared to train but discovered that as I had stalled for so long, I had to go to a Candidates Committee, because recommendations for training have a 3-year period of grace and mine had just run-out. So off I went to see three selectors in different parts of the country and after they had deliberated together, I was recommended for training, unconditionally. I wound up my life in Fleetwood and answered God’s call, training here in Salisbury, at Salisbury and Wells Theological College.
I don’t think that my story is in anyway remarkable, it just describes one journey to ordination that a person can take. Looking back on those days I now understand that what made me able to seek ordination was the fact that I knew who I really was, and it was that person that God was calling. I was, I am, Nigel – a person who was ordained, who became a priest – this me, this person, was welcomed, accepted and loved. I would inhabit a role; being me would inform that role; but it would be an authentic and integrated expression of the real me, without pretence or artifice – what you see is what you get.
That in my view is what God’s call to ordination is all about, ‘becoming real’ where you are, being authentic to those you serve, building them up as members of the body of Christ, welcomed, accepted and loved.
I am indeed fortunate to have returned to Salisbury, to carry out a pastoral role that I recognise, in a context that is largely familiar, a proper a cure of souls away from oversight and management speak.
These days I am afraid that I find it difficult to understand what being called, what having a vocation, is in the modern CofE. I wonder if the call to ordination is something that has specific time for each person who is called. I am a man of my time and that has informed my life as a priest. I am not as the epistle to the Hebrews would have it, ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’. I was and am a priest for my time, as many are and have been, a little wistful for what was and what has been lost, but that happened on mine and my contemporaries watch – sad to say.
Much as been written about Vocation and you will be hearing more on the subject from my colleagues, over the coming weeks. For me this poem by R. S. Thomas seems the most appropriate place to conclude the story of my journey, as a person who is also a priest. Strangely enough the poem is entitled ‘Vocation’.