A Long Slow Night Walk Home.
In 2004 I made the decision to relinquish full-time parish ministry to focus on what I believed I should be developing - an art ministry. I had sensed even before I was ordained to the priesthood that I was a round peg with no hole within the Church of England and that I would need to forge my own way forward. I had come to this conclusion in part through working in a parish as a pastoral assistant and observing and experiencing the running of a busy west London church.
The church was a good training ground for this future priest and was led by a faithful and hardworking vicar who taught me a great deal and even though I came to love parish ministry especially after I was ordained there was a deep sense of knowing that the creative/artistic itch in me would not go away and would need to be expressed. Enrolling at theological college I sort permission to miss mass on a Tuesday so I could attend a life drawing class. Permission was granted praise be!
I knew in time the demands of parish ministry would require a great deal of commitment but I wasn't willing to let go of the artistic skills I had learned and developed over the years. I believed they were too important and could be used within a priestly ministry. So after completing my curacy and after much soul searching I gave up my stipend and became self-employed. A few art commissions thankfully started to come my way and I continued leading art and religious education projects in schools and churches. Initially my income was tiny so I did house for duty for a couple of years but again this had its restrictions so eventually I stepped down from all parish duties, which also required me to give up my flat. Along with this I ended up giving away most of my material possessions and stepped out into the world to see where the creative spirit would lead me.
Sounds crazy and it probably was for not only did I give up a roof over my head, a stipend, a pension, security, but also a community role, a church family and a little status. Nevertheless, I held onto the advice a priest friend once gave me which was to remember that priesthood is not defined by parish ministry, wise words that some priests should really meditate on.
I say this because it has become quite clear over the years since I have stepped back from parish ministry that some clergy are quite dismissive of what I am doing. Some are envious and some are strangely threatened and undermining. For the ones who have been dismissive I believe their actions are motivated by ignorance and perhaps a little pomposity. For those who feel threatened, try to bully or undermine I would suggest are operating from a place of insecurity. To all of them I would say I am not out to prove anything and that the work I do is not really way out or "unchristian" it is just different and hopefully it opens people's eyes to the gospel in different ways. To allow one self to be creative often means taking risks. Is this not the role of the priest? Are we not called to share the gospel and step out in faith? The little white collar we wear is only made of plastic. It doesn't offer much protection to shelter or hide behind and certainly doesn't indicate immediate trustworthiness of the wearer. That really does need to be earned!
But I am thankful for clergy who have supported and encouraged me along the way. One's confidence does need a boost every now and then. These men and women are beacons of hope in what at times has been a difficult and dark journey. I can only admire and give thanks for clergy who selflessly, creatively and tirelessly continue to serve while retaining a sense of humour, vision and hope! I understand that ministry can come at a cost indeed some of the most hurt and damaged people I have met have been in religious orders. Is it their religion that has not served them well for cynicism and bitterness to prevail? I am not sure but thankfully for many, including some stung by religious institutions the priesthood is still regarded as an honour and the ministry of service as a privilege. As I see it, if as followers of Christ we believe in a creative God, a God who created the universe then surely we ourselves must be creative and hopeful!
So where to from here for this artist/priest? Well the 'itch' hasn't let up and I am about to start an M.A in Fine Art. One rather probing but apt question asked by the lecturer interviewing me for a place on the course was "are you open to change?" My reply? "Oh yes!"