GUEST POST:// Kicking off a brand new blog series ‘Confessions of a Trainee Vicar’ is Ruth Holmes, Cambridge graduate, Wycliffe Hall ordinand, and mixed mode student whose placement is St Frideswide, Oxford.
I finished university in 2012 but didn’t move away. I thought I might join the civil service one day, work for a Think Tank, probably get a masters along the way. I’d end up in London, of course, when I had the guts. That’s what graduates do. I found a job and I joined the youth team at my church.
It was a time of growth. Suddenly, I had to articulate the mysteries of God to those a little younger than me and from a totally different background. I had a small group to love and look after. There were team meetings to get involved in, visions to cast, teaching programmes to comment on, socials to engineer for equal amounts fun and community building. There were many weekends away and Christian festivals. We were encouraged to meet with our small group one-to-one as I’d done with students in the years before. There was a team to “do life” with. All this alongside a full-time job in the secular world.
I’d led small groups at university, too. Through those combined years, I had the privilege of hearing many stories of pain, and hurt, and confusion, and brokenness. I sat with people in many situations that rendered hope distant. And had the greater privilege of praying and ministering and seeking the God-of-all-hope faithfully at work in what seemed desolate. Some of those stories were hard to hear. Some of them resonated with stories I had lived through or had witnessed others live through. Some had to be referred to professionals. My mentors and friends often had to sit with me as I expressed my feelings of despair and confusion.
I had struggled with anxiety attacks and sadness for as long as I could remember, and in those years the weight could be unbearable. Life only made sense because of a promise hidden away in Revelation 22: “And the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations”. God was going to make all things new! Josh Garrells, in a song called Rise, phrases it like this: ‘Only through your love, my Lord, all we’ve lost, will be restored’. Those quotes were on a post-it sat on my Laptop for years. Things are falling apart, things are not as they should be – we know it in our very bodies -, but this Jesus made a way for all things to be healed.
Our Youth Pastor developed a unique strategy of pastoral care: the Twirl Bite. Long my very favourite chocolate bar, the Twirl had been recently re-fashioned – with Whispa, et al. – and he exercised them to their upmost potential. After many a catch-up I’d find a bag of Twirl Bites tucked away somewhere. It was a piece of genius. Unbeknown to him, they spoke to my need to be known; they gave comfort without any intention to fix the un-fixable. Things did not make sense. But God was still good, and there were small breakthroughs in the lives of those I pastored.
The Twirl Bite became synonymous with: ‘we are doing this in community and there is still Hope’.
At the end of first year I nearly changed degree. I was studying English Literature and it turned out I wasn’t all that excited about reading. Particularly if that meant concentrating for more than a hundred pages. It was Shakespeare term; it was sunny; and my faith was blossoming amongst a messy, arrogant, 19-year-old, postmodern-ish metaphysic that decided belief in meaning demands belief in God. I found people fascinating and I missed the certainty of structures (exclaiming ‘I’m jealous of the medics’ at various points; a view that four years working for the NHS certainly squashed). So, it was going to be Social Anthropology. But then I found out that, really, words and books and poems and plays were just a way to talk about being human. Shakespeare term meant thinking about power, and gender, and theology, and whether words mean anything, and whether we can know anything anyway. I was hooked. It all ended two years later with Medieval Visions and Dreams, an exploration of whether tragedy can ever be Christian, a lot of literary philosophy, and a dissertation on whether birds and humans can claim ontological continuity. Going back to the real world was going to be a shock.
My sister came to my university church with me once. She was 18, and the first thing she said after the service was: ‘You have to be really clever to be a Christian, don’t you?’. My heart broke. It started a different pattern of thought about what being human means.
We grew up in a place where Russell Group educations and ‘professional’ careers aren’t normal. We had many an encounter with those on what they call ‘the fringe’ – back then, of course, we were all just people: these were people who do not (cannot) think logically; those who experience the world in a way we call ‘psychotic’; people who couldn’t access education like I could. Some friends battled against early experiences warped by abuse and neglect. People’s parents were in prison, it wasn’t unusual to see or hear of someone arrested. Abuse and neglect continued for many. People died too young in heart-breaking ways. We knew people with literally no money. We had seen our parents give themselves away for those who do not have the privilege I have. We had our own troubles, for sure, but we were so undeservedly lucky.
I started seeing a Vocations Advisor in 2016, having been thinking about ordination for about two years. A friend had heard me tell my story-so-far while on holiday over summer of 2014 and mentioned how similar it was to her own journey towards ordination. We started to talk regularly about youth work, and through her and many others I moved slowly towards wanting to explore full time ordained ministry for myself. It started as a job I might do in the future, and over the course of two years became more than a career. It became an exploration of what it means to be ‘me’. And it became something which united the two worlds I had experienced thus far: those being the oft forgotten, bleak east coast of Lincolnshire and leafy, well off Cambridge just down the road.
There’d been various prophetic words about being a ‘blessing bearer’ spoken over me in the years before, and I began to connect that with a call to ordination. I had some big questions for the church about how we bless those outside the doors, and I knew I was complicit in lots of the cultural norms of big, evangelical church that made welcoming those not-like-us really hard. I’d started a Masters course called ‘Culture and Society’ looking at the pervasiveness of class bias in the UK. I didn’t finish studying, but it had started to give me words to explain my frustrations with the way we can make God something the middle-class and educated ‘do for’ everyone else if we aren’t careful.
So – long story short – in Summer 2015 I stepped out of the youth ministry I so loved and moved down the road to my parish church. It was similar in theology, but worlds away in style and in congregational diversity. I got involved in a ministry to local vulnerable adults and was quickly put on the rota for Sunday mornings. It was there I officially started ‘The Process’.
Skipping forward eighteen months through meetings with the Vocations Advisor and then with the DDO, it was agreed I would attend a Bishops Advisory Panel in Spring 2018. I found the whole thing to be an empowering process, and on reflection the core for me was integration. As I prayed and talked, I found God starting to draw together the threads of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reconcile the feeling of being from two worlds that are geographically close but socially far removed from each other and, in this vocation, God started to reveal an answer. This calling seems to be one that can use the experiences of my upbringing, the privileged education I received, my own mental health struggles, the ways in which I’ve been learning to pastor amidst my own mess. I started to see Jesus as the place of ultimate integration; God-in-flesh who held all it can mean to be human together. The One who made the way for us to wait with confidence for that day when all things will be healed and we will dwell in eternity fully known by God.
I am now in Oxford, studying at Wycliffe Hall. As it turns out, the process of integration has not yet finished. People talk a lot during the discernment process about this thing called ‘formation’. Right now, the best way I can describe it is as separate threads coming from different directions and held in immense tension, being spun together into a strong whole. It is disintegrating, moving from a place you’ve inhabited for nearly a decade. It is disintegrating working out how to let people get to know you. It is disintegrating working out if what you believe about God works in this new place around these new people. But I believe in a God who works all things for our good and God’s glory, and that means that for every disintegrating moment there is greater integrity to be found.
Life living on site at vicar school makes this process all the more intense. And then, the other day, there was a bag of Twirl Bites in my pigeon hole. We had baptisms at my placement church the following Sunday and it was so beautiful I cried. And next week I get to preach on Revelation. Some things echo through life, some things God uses to remind us how very known we are. One day, all things will be healed and restored and we will live fully know by a good and loving God. For now, there’s the promise of Revelation 22 and there are Twirl Bites.