The Making of a Man of the Cloth
by Priestly Brook
The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with ‘Permission to Officiate’. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. For many years he’s been a well known preacher and communicator in the North of England.
It had taken me almost fifty years to get there, but following my ordination at Blackburn Cathedral, aged 65, I processed out into brilliant sunlight aware my family were thrilled to bits for me.
I also knew my late mum would have been proud of me too, so I looked up to the blue sky and thinking that mum could hear me I whispered: “Mum we’ve done it.” And came her instant reply in my head: “Well it’s taken you long enough!”
But let’s start at the beginning: It was just an ordinary morning in May 1958 that turned into an extraordinary calling. I was aged 16, swotting up for my O-Levels in my bedroom when I began to sense nervously the presence of someone speaking. No, it wasn’t my mum telling me to clean up my bedroom, but a strong masculine voice speaking in my head, which was saying: “Son, you are my beloved in whom I am well pleased! Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.” The words were so familiar to me for I knew the Gospels well. What I wasn’t prepared for was the intensity of God’s personal calling to what I assumed was ordained ministry.
Without hesitation, I left my studies behind and jumped on my bike to pedal as fast as I could to the next village to see my Methodist minister, the Rev Humble. I banged on his door and when he opened it I shouted: “God wants me to be a minister!”
Said he rather dismissively: “Calm down, I am busy just now so let me get my diary and see when I am free.”
“But God wants me now!” I declared. “I am sure God will wait,” came his irritated reply. I little realised that day it would take nearly fifty years.
The Rev Humble and I met a couple of times, to test my calling and to explain the procedure, which required me to go ‘on note’ with an experienced preacher for six months or more; the ‘On trial’ when I was allowed to preach on my own, but receiving supervising advice, while studying for and sitting the four local preacher’s exams, reaching a certain pass mark, with an anticipated time scale of three to four years; then considered for accreditation to be fully accredited Local Preacher, and should I still wish to be ordained, to be considered for training and if successful to train at theological college for three years, ordained and then on probation for a further four years!
I gasped for breath, and managed to say: “Heck, by the time I have done all that I will be past my best!” I smile today to think that God somehow eventually made me from that upstart to someone who served him and his people. And to cut a long story short, seven years later, then a local preacher, I was not selected for training because I had not waited to marry till after my training and the
selectors were not sure we could manage financially. I can’t ever remember being tested on my calling!
Thirty five years and hundreds of sermons later, now an Anglican, and retired as an investment broker, I could no longer continue to decline God’s calling me to ordained ministry. Over the years, although I served the church in many ways, I had managed that very well by arguing with God, that family, business and other activities should come first. But no longer now! So I applied to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England, but never got to selection. My bishop declined me once again not on my calling or my gifts of pastoral ministry or theological knowledge, but because I had been married, divorced and remarried!
But God is stronger than any man, be they bishops or not, when three years later, with a new bishop, a further application, an investigation, local selection (which I messed up on church law), followed by national selection with a recommendation to train, picked up by my bishop in a five-minute interview confirming I had his blessing to start training.
Incidentally, at the local selection there were three selectors and three candidates so we were interviewed in rotation. If one’s interview finished before the others, one waited in the adjacent passage where a grandfather clock stood. I noticed after the second interview it had stopped, and since I was the eldest in the building it rather concerned me to recall the lyrics of the song My Grandfather’s Clock: That it stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died!
At National Selection, candidates came from all of the country: A lady similar age to myself who had been told by her father, a vicar, many years ago that one vocation she would never hold was that of Priest; I hope she was selected. A man in his thirties, who had never doubted God had called him to priesthood, was there on his fourth attempt; I wonder if this time he was selected. Or the young man who was academically gifted but seemed to lack any common sense; I wonder if today he’s blossomed and is a bishop! And then there was me, trying to impress since I doubted at my
age there would be a second chance. Whatever, I was recommended, others not so.
My first day of training did not get off to the best of starts. Our tutor stood at the side door of the cathedral to receive us.
I asked if I should go inside. Her critical response was: “Well, you do not think I am lecturing from here, do you.” I then accidently brushed past her in the door way which received a further condemnation. “There is no need for that!”
My test paper set that week did nothing to enamour her to me; for we were all required to write a summary on a book we had read. I got no marks because the book I had chosen was secular. I had not heard her say the book had to be religious! I must have been talking rather than listening. Later I got to know her well and I was thankful that she was so supportive of me.
Four times a year we ordinands spent a weekend together at such idyllic locations as Rydal Hall in the Lake District. There would be a theme for the weekend with guest speakers. All were undoubtedly academically gifted and fortunately for me most were motivational and at the same time capable of giving an easy explanation. One bishop got our attention when he asked us our names in turn then at the end one by one repeated them. Not bad when there were thirty-odd of us in the room. If only God had given me such retentive memory skills?
We also had silent retreats, meaning that throughout the weekend, we, the students were not allowed to speak, but our tutors would lecture to us and our principal lead us in worship, ourselves silent.
It was intended as a time of reflection and contemplation. Some adored it but to me who loves talking, at first it was purgatory and somehow I was never comfortable till one Saturday afternoon, having been told that if we could not cope with being silent, we could speak with others if we left the hall’s grounds. So to escape the silence I drove a friend to Keswick and back. Because he felt a
greater sense of release than myself he talked non-stop all the time from leaving to returning to the hall. I never got a word in and was glad to return to silence!
Studies and submission of tests continued week by week, some of my fellow ordinands would get 70% plus in their submissions. I was rarely above 50% and if you were marked below 40% you had to do it again. I achieved such degrading distinction only once, thank goodness! Each tutor held different presentation skills and we had one tutor who was into spirituality and to set the scene he lit the largest candles imaginable. The cathedral had recently refurbished the room and bought conference furniture at great expense, but that seemed to count for little to the absent-minded academic when placing the candles unprotected on the expensive study furniture, causing burning from the residue of fat pouring from the candles. I wonder if the Dean found out who did it!
The principal was magic. He was so supportive of the likes of myself who were not academically gifted. But in my case since I was the eldest he would use me humorously as an example of a past relic in front of the rest of the group. By saying such things as: “Priestly only reads the Old Testament because he is not aware the New Testament has been written yet” or “He is that old he personally met Judas!” The class loved it and I did because I am vain and crave attention!
Once a year we attended summer school for ten days. This was inevitably with old fashioned student accommodation. I had forgotten what it was like to sleep in a two foot six inch wide bed with knees against the wall and one’s bottom overhanging the edge or to trail to the other end of the corridor in the middle of the night to visit the toilet.
That aside, it was great to be with fellow ordinands and enjoy the fellowship and joint study and worship. I will never forget the light-hearted banter which went with the concert on the Saturday night when everyone had to ‘do a turn’. Recitation and little singsongs and sketches were expected, but bagpipes and a Punch and Judy show? It just showed how multi-talented these tobe-priests really were, compared to my few pathetic humorous stories!
At one of the summer schools we spent ten hours on Myers’ Briggs’ personality type behaviour. What’s that you may ask? In principle it is to ascertain one’s personality including how extrovert or introvert we are. Following much explanation and tests, it was agreed that the individual results be put on the white board. Thirty one names appeared in different places many in the introvert section and some in the intermediate range of extrovert. I asked why my name had been not included and our tutor said that she wished to use me as a guinea pig! So she called on five of the introverts and myself to form a group in front of all the ordinands to plan a children’s service.
To me, the five of them took forever to consider every option while all I wanted to do was get the service together. I even lost my patience with one member of the group. The audience roared with laughter for unknown to me the tutor had placed my category on the board – ‘Extreme Extrovert’! The purpose was to show that when priests are introverts they had to be more decisive and me, the extrovert, more conciliatory and agreeable to share decision making. What a salutary lesson!
On reflection, the three years of study enabled me in theology and in that direction prepared me for a ministry of teaching through my future sermons and discussions and an understanding of the concept and presentation of liturgy. Incredibly, it was not intended to prepare me for the practical skills needed to serve in parish ministry, but that is for telling on another day!
But on that day of ordination as I stood in the bright sunshine with the clapping of that congregation still ringing in my ears and now hugged and surrounded by my family and many of those friends I knew so well, since I was to serve within the parish in which Christine and I lived.
I at last understood why my journey had taken so long. Because my many years of development and serving were significantly important and valuable in preparation to equip me for what I was now called to! I had gradually over the years learnt to fully trust God till now I was capable for being his priest by calling me to parish ministry in his strength and not mine. So should you be seeking a calling or a vocation, then trust God to direct you and may it not take you fifty years!