‘Your Cell Will Teach You Everything’: Formation In Lockdown

GUEST POST:// Lloyd Brown is a first year ordinand at Cranmer Hall. Before training he studied theology at Durham and spent two years as a Ministry Experience Intern in Belgium with the Diocese in Europe.

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One of my abiding memories of theological college will be going in to collect my belongings just before lockdown came into force. I put on gloves to open the college door and entered nervously into the dark, deserted building. Two things struck me immediately; first, the room to my right had a medical cross on the door and the words ‘ISOLATION ROOM.’ I assumed this was one of the places where college residents with suspected Covid-19 were being quarantined; it felt as if I’d stepped into a hospital. Second was the smell; the distinct odour of sickness hung heavily in the air. I instinctively held my breath and walked quickly to my office, collected the few books and notes still left there, and promptly departed, rubbing college-issued hand sanitiser into my palms as I walked home. I wouldn’t be back there for several months.

If I were to use the government’s militaristic language about the ‘war’ against coronavirus, I’d say our theological college had become occupied territory. It was no longer the place of stability, safety, and community that it had been when I arrived as a new ordinand just a few months ago. Though lectures have been able to move on-line with a degree of success, it’s impossible to virtually reproduce the bustle of the common room between classes, the friendly hubbub of the college dining room, or chats with course mates in the corridors. When we lost access to the college grounds, we lost so many of the binding ingredients of training; the organic stuff that can’t be reproduced, and without which the training experience is left a little flavourless.

At this point the university of which our college is a part has deemed it ‘highly likely’ that restrictions on our life together as a learning community will continue for at least the first term of next year. For myself and others on two-year courses, this means that at least a third of our time in formation at theological college will take place under lockdown or social distancing limitations. Both my Easter and Summer block placements have also been cancelled, and though some of this will be supplemented virtually, it effectively means that I will have had no block placements with a church during my training. The concern has been growing on me that by the time this is all over I will have missed some key building blocks of my formation for ordained ministry. Having lost the physical grounds of college, there is another sense of ‘losing ground’ as time ticks slowly on and more and more components of training are cancelled or curtailed. Will having missed so many formational experiences leave me under-prepared for curacy? Will I leave theological college half-formed? A rough first draft that didn’t have time to be completed?

I know that in answer to my anxiety about incomplete formation there will be a chorus of ‘but formation is always ongoing and never complete’, and I completely agree. However, I still feel moved to lament those formational experiences I’ve missed out on. By including them in our programme, there was clearly an assumption that they were important experiences to have for those of us preparing for ordination. There’s a reason theological colleges don’t just lock ordinands in a Carthusian monastery for two to three years as their formation (though some may want to make an argument for this). The Church of England understands that formation has vital public and communal aspects, and therefore requires ordinands to participate in practical activities like church placements, pastoral ministry, and leading services or preaching. When these cease to be possible, or are only possible in a limited way, it is quite natural to feel that one’s formation as a whole will be held back.

How I think about my formation for ministry has been closely tied to the forward momentum of the college timetable. ‘Formation’ has been the ghost in the machine of the whirring cogs of college classes, placements, and activities. Naturally, since that college machine has ground to a crawl, it seems like my formation has also fallen away. As I have already said, there is some truth in this, and lost opportunities to develop in ministry should be lamented. However, recently I’ve been unable to shake the question of whether my formation might still be in motion even when so many things appear to be standing still.

One of the pastimes that my wife and I have picked up during lockdown has been making improvements to our modest garden. As we dug flower beds along the back of the house, we were disappointed to find that the soil was full of large rocks and stones. We did our best to clear as many of these as we could, and put down fresh compost for the plants to grow in. However, it seemed unavoidable that as the seeds put down their roots, these would quickly run into the rocks. And yet somehow, just weeks later, the beds are full of scrappy little shrubs springing up out of the ground. My best guess is that when their roots did hit the rocks, they didn’t stop, they just grew in a different direction.

Like one of our scrappy shrubs, the roots I’ve been putting down in my formation over the last year have now run into a large rock that ought to have stopped them growing much further. Yet I’ve not felt like my development has been completely paralysed. Though training in a formal sense has halted, something is still moving beneath the surface, though perhaps in a different direction. Reflecting on this, I’ve seen my roots growing deeper into two areas that I hope will remain at the foundation of any future ministry I may have.

The first of these has been a call to deepening prayer. With so much that had previously kept me busy and on the move now having come to a standstill, I’ve felt challenged (and it has been a challenge) to get used to being still with God. To root myself in the experience of God not mediated by the roller-coaster journey of training, but in the simplicity of who God is in Godself. Making time to be still with God feels like the only antidote to my frustration at the paralysed stillness of life in lockdown. Bl. Columba Marmion wrote starkly, ‘believe me, whatever may be your talents, your knowledge, and your enthusiasm when you begin your ministry, unless you are people of prayer, you will do nothing worthwhile.’ If Marmion – and all the books I was given to read during discernment for that matter – are right, then perhaps one of the things God is calling us to at this time is to take the opportunity to be formed as people of prayer. We can’t do much right now, we can’t go on placements or to college, but we can pray, and remember that in the end God is the one who works formation in us.

The other thing that has come out of this is realising the importance of being rooted in community and in sustaining bonds of friendship. For all of us this has had to take some quite peculiar forms during lockdown, but two examples have been of particular value to me. First, the way our row of college houses and flats have been opening our doors at the same time every Sunday to sing hymns and songs together. It’s a limited form of what it looks like to come together as the body of Christ, but it has felt like a spring in the desert – to be able to see so many faces, and voices lifted up in song, not to mention the socially-distanced post-church chats! I’ve also found myself seeking out community in the virtual world. Not only on social media (though I think this has been one of those times when social media has shown its merits), but also in the way video calling has made it possible to journey together in community while we can’t be together physically. I’ve particularly valued the fellowship of my own religious community, the Sodality of Mary, who have managed to create several Zoom meetings every week to pray and chat, and even a virtual retreat!

I am convinced that these experiences of being prompted to seek deepening prayer and community life are ways in which I am still in formation even during lockdown. From all that I’ve read and heard, ordained ministry involves a lot of work that doesn’t have a concrete ‘end point’, and can sometimes feel as though it isn’t moving forward at all. Learning to find stillness with God in a time of apparent stasis in our fledgling ministries will, I’m confident, turn out to have been an invaluable formative experience for us. Likewise, the experience of being called to seek community during this lockdown strikes me as a vital vaccine against the tendency to become isolated which prowls about the vocation of priestly ministry.

This is not to diminish the disruption this pandemic and its accompanying restrictions have wrought on our training. It’s awful that our colleges have been paralysed and left dark and empty, and it’s awful how the all-pervading atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty is affecting those at an already precarious liminal moment in their journey of vocation. If I can venture another horticultural reference, we’re like trees caught in a strong wind as forces beyond our control exert their influence over our communities. Weathering this storm has given me an idea of how solid the ground is in which I’m planted. Some of it was not quite as rock-like as I thought and there have been days when it’s seemed to give way and left me uprooted by stress and anxiety. But in a way I’m glad to have been shown where the soil I’ve been growing in was weaker. It’s prompted me to delve roots into the stronger soil of prayer and community which I hope will sustain me through the inevitable storms of future ordained ministry. God who is the author of our formation gives us the living water that keeps us growing even through the storm. Despite everything, the old ordinand adage holds true, it really is all formation.

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Are you an ordinand? Would you like to write for ‘Confessions of a Trainee Vicar?’ Use the ‘Contact’ page to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you – and I know others would too!

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