Monday, April 09, 2007
Call and Vocation
Changing the country which is my base of operation for the second time in my life has, as you might imagine, been much on my mind in the last few weeks. Among other things I have thought a lot about the way God calls, guides, and leads.
In the midst of the crisis of the last few years I have found myself thinking a lot about the nature of vocation, and have a number of times wondered whether God is calling me to leave the Episcopal Church. I have watched others who I love and respect doing something similar, but a tension deep inside has prevented me from crossing that threshold.
Unraveling the reason for this has taken time. Certainly it has to do with creedal belief and ecclesiology, but I think it has also been because I understand vocation to be a call of God to do or be something, not the call of God to walk away from something.
Folks will now be saying, well, aren't you now walking away from the Episcopal Church? In a way I suppose that is so, but this is purely because I cannot be in two places at once. Actually, I have told my bishop and congregation that I will not be ceasing to be a priest of the Diocese of Tennessee, and I will certainly try to play my part in the life of the diocese even with an ocean in the way.
However, I will certainly not be engaged in the daily life of the diocese as I have been involved in the past. Some of this comes as a relief. Being involved in the internal battles of the church is important, but it hasn't done much to edify my soul over many of these years.
The call from God has been to something, and that inevitably leads us to back away from something else because cloning is not an option! Since my early fifties I have had this sense that a component of the latter part of my ministry would in some way be involved in training the next generation of leaders. I do not believe that us old guys should stick around forever standing in the way of up-and-comers, but I also believe that part of the stewardship of senior leadership is to insure that there are faithful men and women to take their place.
I served for a good few years on the Commission on Ministry of the diocese, taught a few adjunct courses, gave the occasional counsel to folks considering leadership and ordination, but that was about it. I had reached the point last year where I reckoned that would always be the level at which I would fulfill my responsibility in bringing to the fore younger folks to be tomorrow's leaders.
Then came the approach from Ridley Hall, Cambridge, as out of the blue as any that I have ever had in nearly forty years. Just as the call to move to the United States was unexpected when it was first mooted in 1975, so the call to return from the United States was a similar curve ball. From June until February we prodded it, tested it, and jumped through the various hoops that had been placed in front of us by a cautious theological college and the regulatory mindset of British employment law, prayed, talked, got cold feet, got warm feet, and so forth.
If God was going to slam the door in our faces, he would have done it in those months. But he did not, and while I have certainly had anxieties about the call that I have accepted, I am very much at peace that we are faithfully attempting to follow the path that Jesus Christ would have us walk. I have been called TO something, and that means letting go of other things here, which is the painful business in which I am involved at the moment.
During the next few years I will be Director of Development at Ridley Hall at a time when the seminary is rapidly expanding. Ridley has gone through a metamorphosis from being a troubled theological college with an uncertain future because of low enrollment a dozen years or so ago, to a vibrant place today that is bursting at the seams and planning to double in size during the next four or five years.
I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity, which is truly a gift from God. It seemed to me before Ridley came along that the best option I had was to take an early retirement, do a little interim work, write, and wait for my wife to end her career as a college professor before returning to the arms of our family in Britain. Bits of the above scenario attracted, but it seemed a waste that I still had health, energy, and some tread left on my tires. Then came this option which God had been preparing us for, a task whose job description could have been written with us in mind.
There is another side of this, too, and that is the deepening sense of burden that I have had for Britain during the last few years. While there are places in Britain where the Christian faith is remarkably robust, there is also this strong secular undercurrent that has radically reshaped the nation's values and mindset over the last few decades. There surely is in much of Europe a walking away from its Christian heritage and this leaves a frightening vacuum. The Britain to which we are returning is certainly not the country that we left as thirty-one-year-olds.
I have wondered over the years as this burden has increased, what someone like me could do to contribute to helping turn things around. Other than ministering to the elderly or, perhaps, taking a small parish or chaplaincy, I couldn't see that there was much that I could grab hold of. Ridley Hall altered that altogether.
British seminaries have always been hand-to-mouth operations when it comes to financial resources, something that raises huge stewardship issues (but that's another story). Ridley is forging ahead seeking to train leaders who are skilled and appropriate for post-secularist times likes these, but to train them properly there is a need for fresh resources and new facilities. The theological college is functioning out of the same buildings it was using when Queen Victoria was on the throne!
Now, there's a challenge for a seasoned guy like me to get his teeth into as his active ministry begins to draw to a close. Not only would such a resource help train new leaders for this time, but it would keep on giving and train leaders for several generations to come. Perhaps some of those coming through Ridley Hall will be the folks who will shape the post-secularist Christianity that will work in Europe in the 21st Century and beyond, as well as present a gracious face of truth to the advance of Islam.
When I was working in New England thirty years ago, I heard an old Baptist minister talk about finishing well, and how difficult that is. One of my prayers in the years since then has been that God would give me the strength and capacity to finish well. I give thanks to the Lord that an opportunity has been given to me that will, I think, give me a shot of doing just that.