It is nearly 20 years since I entered Circuit (or started travelling, as they used to call it!). Yet this is the first time I have been through the official invitation process of stationing. As a probationer, I was directly stationed and then, two years later, I was phoned by the Stationing Committee and asked to move (three years early). I obeyed and duly relocated. Sadly, it turned out not to be the appointment I had hoped for and, after a very nasty period of homophobic allegations and prying into my personal life, I curtailed and sought an appointment outside the stations. For the next thirteen years, every position I got was through the standard employment practices of application and interview. I moved from chaplaincy work to lecturing and then into theological education.
I still remember the angst I went through in trying to put together a CV fifteen years ago. In the midst of the hurt, anger and confusion of leaving a Circuit appointment early, I felt completely demoralised and useless. The stress of an already complex appointment and dealing with rumours and accusations tipped me into a period of depression that left me devoid of energy and esteem. I was also trying to care for a toddler who needed my love and attention. When it came to trying to ‘sell’ myself, I really didn’t think I had much to offer. Thanks to the help and support of a much-loved friend who literally sat beside me and typed out my CV, I managed to put something together.
That period working for a University saved my vocation. My experience of the Church had left me feeling deeply unsafe and vulnerable. I found myself literally shaking when I thought about the experiences I had been through. It has become clear that I wasn’t even afforded privacy in my own home because it was provided by the Church. I had every intention of the chaplaincy being a temporary job whilst I sorted out what to do after I resigned my orders. What I found instead was a boss who line-managed me back to life. His acknowledgement of my skills and gifts helped me to see my own value. For someone who never thought they had done enough to justify rest, my appraisals gave me the evidence for my hard work and achievements. It showed me that good management was a liberative act.
Much to my surprise, I also rediscovered my vocation to ministry and this time, it was not divorced from my sexuality. Whilst I had kept the callings to love and to serve compartmentalised, I discovered how they formed part of the whole. My ability and desire to love was the fuel for work of ministry. In the context of a university, where I was protected by the new raft of equality laws, this was relatively straightforward. When homophobic abuse and bullying occurred - usually from religious students - the university stepped in to protect me. It was a world away from the experiences I had left behind in Circuit.
Of course, I didn’t cut my links with Methodism all together. I spent many weekends schlepping around north and east London taking preaching appointments in local Circuits. I pitched up to Synods and even took on a District role. I kept in touch with colleagues in Circuit and, I hope, offered them support. But I knew that, as I put on my cassock each time to lead worship in a local Methodist Church, it was hiding a precious part of me from the congregation. The old rule of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was very much in place and questions about marriage or family were still opportunities for obfuscation. I did find a sacred place where that wasn’t needed and I will be forever grateful to St Giles’ Cripplegate for taking in a stray Methodist and providing me with a much-needed home.
The decision to apply for a post at Queen’s was, if you like, my first attempt at dipping my toe back in the connexional water. I realised that my vocation was profoundly theological and so would need to place myself back in the orbit of Methodism. It wasn’t the job that caused me most worry, but the fact that I would have to move back into church accommodation. Living in a flat that was outside the control of the church had given me a renewed sense of safety, of home. Now I would have to put that at risk in order to serve the Church in this way.
I gained so much from my five years at Queen’s. It opened my eyes to contextual theology and missiology in ways that truly transformed my thinking. I got to tutor remarkable people from around the world, many of whom are still dear friends and colleagues. And it reminded me that working for the Church comes with a health warning. I took on a post that was much too big for one person (sound familiar?) and threw myself into it heart and soul. I didn’t realise immediately that the long hours, lack of boundaries and the constant uncertainty over the funding of the programme were exacting a toll. But more than that, I began to be aware that there was always a nervousness around my work within the institution. I could see and feel that I made others anxious and I remembered back to my last Circuit appointment when my Super had seen his role as chief kite-catcher, winding in the kites I was flying, trying to reign in my new ideas or thinking.
Creating anxiety, envy, conflict in others has never been my intention and I have borne the guilt of that for far too long. It has forced me to question and even doubt myself, to blame myself for the lack of trust or confidence others place in me. The last few years have helped me hugely to re-evaluate that response and to understand that I cannot take responsibility for other people’s reactions. But it also showed me the kind of working environment/ministry context I need in order to flourish and that it is built on transparency, honesty and trust. Hardly news, I know, but as I reflect on the last twenty-five years, I see how often those foundations were missing. Confidentiality has become a convenient way to withhold, often, vital information or to spin narratives that are designed to mask reality. Control has increasingly replaced trust as the modus operandi of oversight. At its worst, this creates a toxic environment of ‘Do as you’re told’ and ‘Don’t ask questions’. I recognise too my own, sometimes, gut reactions to that kind of environment, deliberately acting up in order to provoke a response. Too often, my actions have retrospectively justified the over-caution with which I am treated.
Depression got another foothold whilst I was at Queen’s. There were a variety of factors at play, not helped by my own tendency to ignore the symptoms until it was too late. I am still dealing with the depression that began at Queen’s and feel that I have, for the first time, begun to recognise it and take it seriously. The paranoia I felt, the distancing from good colleagues, the oversensitivity, the exhaustion and lack of focus, were/are symptoms that should be warning signs to me to stop, scale back, seek help.
The move to Coventry and then to Circuit was easier than I thought and has been, on the whole, excellent. I have begun to recognise the kind of guilt that accompanies all pastoral ministry and the need to self-affirm and filter. That is definitely still a work in progress, and the depression means an over-analysis of encounters that is never productive. I have had my fair share of comments and criticisms, but am beginning to see that they tend to come from the same direction. This time, however, I do not feel alone with these problems. A great Super and a very understanding partner make the load more bearable. I also have the fantastic support of the SWF team and, with their help, I am slowly working through the bi-vocational nature of my calling. I have also become more secure in my writing and feel that it is helping me to process, reflect and alter my ways of thinking.
These last few months have forced me to confront uncomfortable questions about myself and the guilt and hurt I have carried for the past fifteen years. It has really only dawned on me that the thing that has changed markedly during that time was my acceptance of my own sexuality. Having been encouraged to play the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ game, when it come unstuck, I was left to pick up the pieces virtually single-handed. When I resolved to be open and honest about who I was, regardless of the consequences, I can see now that attitudes towards me changed.
Much too late, I realise that my deep desire to be valued, recognised, fêted even, has been misdirected and opened me to needless pain. My sexuality, my relationship and, above all, my honesty have become barriers and will continue to be the real reasons why I am deemed unsuitable to some.
Where does that leave me? For the Israelites, freedom led them deep into the wilderness and that’s not a bad metaphor to conjure with. What does wilderness living look like for me? It means, first and foremost, looking to God for the recognition that I have previously sought elsewhere. Like manna and quail, locusts and wild honey, God will provide the sustenance I need, no strings attached.
There is also something about wilderness living that entails a nomadic existence. I have been a guest of the Bedouin in the Judean wilderness and heard the stories of their families’ travels right across arabia and north Africa. The wilderness will not sustain a static existence, nor will it tolerate excess baggage.
‘Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.’ Proverbs 5:15
Over millennia, the Bedouin have devised a system of caves and cisterns to collect the rain when it comes. That means a guaranteed water supply during the dry months. Their movement is therefore not erratic but carefully plotted from one cistern to another. Drinking from our own wells is key to flourishing in the wilderness.
Finally, the wilderness is a place of extraordinary beauty in its sparceness, but it does not afford many distractions. It is a place to examine motivation, divest oneself of attachments and focus within. That is what makes is scary, the idea of being alone with oneself without masks or illusions.
A trusted friend and colleague described the Stationing Process as an ‘Agonising Necessity’ for ministers. As a description of the wilderness, and of where I currently feel myself to be, it rings true. But it also feels like a spiritual renewal, a chance to begin the next chapter of life free from some of the illusions that have weighed me down for years. This ‘truth-living’ is painful, often exhausting, and deeply dangerous in the eyes of others. But I trust, even in the dark place, that these are birth-pangs and the end will be a fuller, richer, life.