Halfway Through?

Today is the 20th anniversary of my ordination. I still remember it like yesterday - the Reception into Full Connexion in Huddersfield Town Hall, the Vice-President’s address, the map-cap drive to Skipton for the rehearsal. I remember the fox we saw on the way to the church, helping the Bishop of Barrackpore into his vestments, and the excellent sermon from Brian Beck. But what I remember most is the huge weight I felt when hands were lightly placed on my head.

Twenty years on, I’ve been reflecting on reaching a milestone in ministry that used to mark the half-way point. It will, God willing, still be true for me, having at least another twenty years ahead of me, but it is now the exception rather than the rule. Like most theological college students, I spent far too much time discussing the future and pondering my own path through ministry. Looking back, the things I have done and the places in which I have found myself have been amazing and entirely unexpected. Yet, with each step, sometimes actively chosen, usually thrust upon me, where I have ended up has made complete sense of all that has gone before. That is less so, at the moment, but I am no less confident that God is at work, putting right the mistakes of others.

I have been pondering, over the last few days, how things have changed in the last two decades since I was a twenty-something ordinand. Here are just a few things I wish I’d known back then:

  • That being in the closet is not only bad for your health, but damages those around you.

I arrived in a rural Circuit freshly divorced and the father of a toddler. I was also gay, but had taken the advice of my elders and betters to keep that info to myself. That decision led to five years of loneliness and misery, took an enormous toll on my mental health and, in the end, got me into more trouble than if I’d been open and honest. I know so many other LGBTQ+ people in the Church who still live in the ‘twilight zone’ of don’t ask, don’t tell, and many others who have faced open hostility and vicious homophobia. Many have been told to suffer in silence. I wish I’d known that being true to self was the primary calling of every Christian.

  • That the Church won’t be saved by overwork or good ideas.

Boy, I wish I’d left my superhero cape and pants in theological college! I think back to the enormous energy I put into saving the Methodist Church and trying to prove myself through activity and it makes me smile as well as groan. The arrogance of a messiah-complex! It has taken me far too long to realise that, even if the Methodist Church can be rescued, it is certainly above my pay-grade to do it!

  • That the Church is not a meritocracy.

Many years ago, when I was an aspiring local Councillor in London, the Leader of the Group took me for coffee and pastries (it was islington, afterall) and explained how the Labour Party worked. ‘Getting selected,’ she said, ‘Is almost identical to a job interview - only it has nothing to do with merit!’ I started out in ministry trying to get noticed. I thought that when others saw my gifts or talents, they would want them used to the full. Twenty years on, I have been privileged to know countless Methodists, lay and ordained, with extraordinary gifts that have remained unused by our Church. Likewise, I have also seen too many folk put into positions of responsibility for which they are completely ill-equipped and unsuited. I still wonder how we create a Church that truly celebrates the gifts of all its members and is not threatened by talent or excellence.