It has happened. I am a Vicar. Sitting on my desk in front of me are the documents that prove it. I have been instituted as the Clerk to the Benefice of St Peter’s West Harrow, by the Bishop of Willesden. He has invested me with “all the rights and duties of the said Benefice”, committing me to “the Cure of Souls of the Parishioners therof.”Two contrasts, juxtapositions if you like, strike me as I take in this new reality.
The language is formal, archaic even; in fact the tone of the whole service of Institution was objective and legal. Wearing a rather monastic alb and stole, I gave an oath of allegiance to the Queen and an oath of canonical obedience to the Bishop. I was installed by the Archdeacon; who took me to a plastic folding chair on stage that was pretending to be a real priest’s chair. He then took me to the doors of the church and gave me the keys before I read the church notices for the first time. These are the symbols of Institution in the Church of England. They could perhaps be a little more inspiring. It felt more official than emotional and I was not expecting that. I still remember watching the Vicar’s Institution during the first episode of Island Parish over a decade before and bursting into tears as I felt the surge of the Spirit stir my soul with a nascent call into Anglican ministry. Somehow, this time, it was a recognition of something outside of myself, an objective reality experienced at a distance. I suspect that is how it is supposed to be. I am a Vicar not because I feel like it. I am a Vicar, whatever I might feel about it, perhaps even, despite how I feel about it.
All that was in stark contrast to my preparation during the day and the joy of worshipping God in a room full of most of my favourite people. Despite the move from man-to-man marking to zonal defense with three children, I managed to make time to escape to a nearby church to pray. There were no bibles in the church, but there were plenty of Prayer Books so I read “The Form and Manner of Ordering of Priests” in which the Bishop reminds his deacons about to be ordained priest “how weighty an office and charge ye are called” and “how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood.” These archaic words struck me with real force. There is an emotional intensity here that brings to life what it means to be given the ‘Cure of Souls’ of a parish alongside the Bishop. It was this privilege and responsibility to care for the bride of Christ that warmed my heart that morning. No wonder the Bishop of London always addresses the church as “Beloved.”
Of course, the bride of Christ, the church, is an historical reality, and it’s here that a second contrast strikes me. The Institution service felt like a lifetime of ministry squashed into one room. It was my own timeline of flesh and blood. Friends, colleagues and church members from every Anglican church I’d ever been part of were there, together with those I’d trained with and been ordained alongside. One of them was there when I was formally welcomed into the Church of England. On that occasion, he’d given me a Prayer Book with the inscription “Welcome to the big picture.” I hadn’t even invited him, but he was there too. A colleague of mine from the East End had said to me when news of my appointment broke “Your entire life has been preparing you for this ministry.” So, in one sense, it was the climax of a journey, a long process.
In another, very real sense, it was a new beginning. Since moving to Harrow in October, I’ve been looking forward to the start of my ministry here, and slowly but surely ideas and plans have been accumulating in my mind. I know I have to pace myself and take the time to do things well, but I was feeling like an athlete at the beginning of a race, muscles and sinews tense, straining, ready for the pistol to fire. On Thursday night, finally, it fired. My focus now is the future, my posture; one that leans in, pushing towards what is yet to happen.
Thursday night then was a strange, potent mix of the objective and the subjective, of an ending and a beginning.
It has happened. I am a Vicar. Pray for me.