Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Seeing a priest like me... reflections on first vocations and the dissolving ageism of the Episcopal Priesthood.

A key thing about my trip/class to England at the start of the summer that continues to stay with me was finally encountering a celebrant of the Eucharist of my generation and age demographic, aka late twenties and early thirties, in this case also a white male. I do not know if I had ever really thought about it until I looked up at a Eucharist and there was a presider in whom I could see myself reflected back. It caused a strange shift inside myself to see, God willing, this resonate image of my call.

Growing up priests were always people my parents age, always. I had no concept of priesthood being anything but a second career, a calling to a special form of retirement, a thing people did when they got bored of whatever they had really done and made their mark. I know now that this was not a fair assumption, but I was fourteen at the time and filled with bad assumptions about the world. The reality is that at the age of fourteen my assumption was I could never think of ordained ministry or discernment for thirty years. The few times I brought it up to others, my parents and my parish priests, my assumptions were reinforced.

There was an exception. At about this age I started attending a conference, which on many levels was exceptional. It was an Anglo-Catholic conference with conservative leanings, ones that would be highlighted as the decade progressed. There I was introduced to a theology that viewed woman's ordination as invalid and called all homosexuals to celibacy. It was there, however, that for the first time I was encouraged to discern a call to ordain ministry in the here and now as a teenager.

To be very clear this conference gave me the community and support to keep me going through some of the darkest days of my life. My home environment and my internal struggle around my sexuality had me on the edge of suicidal ideation. There were many nights when I did not sleep, I stayed awake crying very quietly, clutching a rosary, and thinking of the love and community of St. Michael's conference. There my internal call was affirmed, there I was "out" (in the confessional booth) and promised support and love in dealing with my sexuality, there I was caught up in a community and faith that connected me to a God I knew loved me.

This was compared to a moderate liberal episcopal church, with female and male priests, who saw my growing sense of call as a childish flight of fancy and in which the topic of human sexuality was so taboo as to never be mentioned. A place I assumed held the same basic approach to sexuality as my mother, as she was on the vestry and I had overheard her and one of the priest talking about such, a place that would be ripe and ready to send me to ex-gay camp (a fate far scarier to me than a monastery) at the near mention of my sexuality. I think it understandable why I thus began to lean towards conservative Anglo-Catholicism.

Now in college a few things happened. First I found my first LGBTQ affirming theology deep in the works of Martin Thornton in his speculations around Thomists Theology. This began my steady growth to more liberal thinking theological waters. Secondly I encountered a priest, a woman, who expressed positive views about young vocations and human sexuality. It took me quite a while to get over internal fears and baggage but one Ash Wednesday grace transpired a transformational time of confession and reconciliation.

This, and a few other key events, brought me to begin discerning a call to ordained ministry in university. I was told from the start it would be a near impossible journey. I spent several years in internships, helped found an emergent worship group, worked for several churches, acquired non profit and social service jobs, kept discerning. At this point I began to encounter the rare Generation X priests.* All of them still spoke of having had another vocation, they spoke of the difficulty of discernment before the age of thirty, there was closeness but a gap. They were older cousins but not quite peers and siblings.

Now in seminary I find that something has shifted. I am finding myself one of many trailblazers along a path with ever widening doors. First vocations coming straight out of college or a much shorter series of internships than my own. I had seen pictures of people my age, younger, that I knew, that were my friends, presiding at first mass before that Sunday in England. It is an amazing time, one that is going to be something new for most of the church.

This is something we have not seen since the first days of ordained ministry of some of our eldest clergy. An inter-generational clergy is going to bring about a whole series of new experiences, points of conflict, and change. The end result is that some of us are going to finally be seeing a priest more like us up at the altar and many will be forced to see a priest who is not what they expected up at the altar... and that in all the permutations of diversity, can only be a good thing.

*Some of these individuals were in their mid thirties but at the time I was in my early twenties and there is a resonate barrier there.

1 comment:

  1. Ben, this is interesting, but it's also very well written. I'm proud of you. :) XOXO Sarah