As I eat my breakfast this morning, I am remembering that twenty-five years ago, 23rd April 1994, almost to the minute, I was eating breakfast with a group of women at an hotel in Coventry anticipating our ordination service in Coventry Cathedral. We were the first, the first women to be ordained priest in Coventry Diocese, amongst the first to be ordained in the Church of England. It was an overcast day, not like the warm spring weather we are enjoying as I write.
We were by turns, nervous, excited and apprehensive. The world seemed to be watching these events unfold, the Church of England ordaining its first women priests, the local media were waiting and so were we. Many people had been waiting a long time for this.
This movement had been resisted for so long and in some places still is. Which is ironic considering that the first preachers of the Easter story were women.
Twenty-five years later this still amazes me. It still amazes me that I was selected for ordination in the first place. People ask me, ‘what made you want to become a vicar?’ The title ‘vicar’ simply means that you have responsibility for leadership in a church. I’m always tempted to reply, ‘I never wanted to be a vicar, it happened by accident!’ But I rarely say that because it would undermine something much more profound. Though there is a truth in saying that I never envisaged myself as someone charged with ‘the cure of souls’ or with responsibility for leading a church community.
I offered myself for ordination because I felt God had given me something to say to the church and on behalf of the church something to say to the world. I wanted to be part of a movement in the world that would remind people that Jesus is alive, and God loves them. This vocation grew out of my first vocation to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. So, the foundational question is, why did I become a Christian?
I was raised in a Roman Catholic School and there I learned many of the gospel stories, so I knew about Jesus, his death and resurrection. But as it is with so many people, I abandoned any practice of churchgoing at the age of 11 and through all my teenage years I didn’t go to church, I no longer considered myself a person of religious faith. I also thought I had become not good enough to return to church, even if I wanted to. Then during a year when I was working in Switzerland a friend persuaded me to go with her to mass at the English-speaking Catholic Church in Lausanne. The experience was profound, the warmth and welcome of the priest caused me to feel that I had come home and consequently I spent the entire service in tears. This led to a rediscovery of faith and I became a Christian because someone told me about a God who loved me and who I could meet in Jesus. I became a Christian because I experienced God meeting me.
I knew all the stories about Jesus, but it was not until I met him for myself did I know the power of the resurrection that would change my life. I still need to meet him every day.
So, the answer to ‘why did you become a vicar?’ is the same. I became a vicar because someone told me about a God who loved me and who I could meet in Jesus. I became a vicar because I experienced God meeting me.
It still amazes me. Grace still amazes me. That in his grace towards his world God calls us to return home, to the heart of his love and trusts us with his work in the world.
Twenty-five years ago, I had no clue what lay ahead. Tonight, I will visit a couple to prepare them for their child’s baptism in a few weeks’ time. Who knows where that first step on the Christian journey will lead for their baby girl?
My journey as a Christian also continues, my vocation has taken a new direction as an artist but underpinning it all is the call to follow Jesus. I am held in this relationship, this vocation, not by my own efforts for at best my love is weak and changeable. It is the powerful love of God that holds me. When my sense of inadequacy or anxiety threatens to overwhelm, I call to mind this song:
‘Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger, my love is stronger than your fear.
Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger, and I have promised, promised to be always near.’
This Eastertide, why not join me?