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6 March 2007

An unlikely journey

This week's Faith Column is written by Professor Mike West, chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, who rev

By Mike West

Perhaps the unkindest reaction to my announcement at the age of seventeen that I felt called to be a priest in the Church of England came from one of my close friends who laughed so much he pulled a muscle in his side.

In fairness to him it was a piece of communication for which he was entirely unprepared. The fact that I didn’t go to church and had never thought of doing so may have been partly to blame.

The fact that I had not experienced one of those dramatic conversions could also have added to the confusion.

I also have to say that my life style and my appearance at the time would not have lessoned the impact of the news. Pictures of the period reveal that I looked rather like an unkempt hippy with an attitude problem and that’s almost certainly how I behaved.

I could argue that I was a child of the sixties, but in truth the sixties never really penetrated as far as Suffolk. Ipswich may only be about eighty miles from central London, and even in those days only about an hour and a half by train, but attitudes don’t travel as fast as rolling stock, or as far. I was just angry with life in general and I couldn’t be bothered to get my hair cut.

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I think I gave the vicar at the local church something of a turn when I arrived on his door step to impart the good news.

To his eternal credit he didn’t seem phased by the somewhat unlikely story that I wanted to be ordained, but did gently point out that if I wanted to be a priest it would be quite a good idea if I started to go to church.

It would, he argued, be rather awkward otherwise. And, he added, being baptized might also be a good idea, after I’d found out whether I liked the whole church thing.

Now I’m not sure I’d bargained for this. The problem was that I had come to the firm conviction that I wanted to be a priest rather on my own. I’d been unable to take English, History and Biology for ‘A’ level because of difficulties with the timetable, so I’d opted to swap Biology for RE, on the basis that it was probably a soft option.

I was convinced at this time that I was destined to be a novelist and had thought about journalism as a career, so biology wasn’t essential to my plans. The problem was that I had encountered John’s gospel in my RE lessons and had rather fallen under its spell. It had left me with this firm conviction that I was being called to give my life to this cause, but without any clear understanding of how.

My mother of course was waiting for the fad to pass. She didn’t say so, but my early life was characterized by sudden enthusiasms which lasted for a few months and were then replaced by others. But it didn’t happen this time.

My unlikely sense of calling turned out to be a more enduring fad which has lasted forty years to date and still won’t go away. I was ordained in 1974 and have served as a priest in the Church of England ever since.

Indeed, many would see me as an establishment figure now. Being the Chancellor and Canon Theologian of an ancient Cathedral foundation rather lends itself to that. But in truth I have never been really comfortable with church culture.

My commitment to Christ hasn’t faltered and I have spent many years in theological education helping others discover and fulfill their vocations to lay and ordained ministry. However, that mainly strengthens my unswerving belief that God has a sense of humour, and more profoundly, a well developed sense of irony.

I suppose that I have come to realize over the years that the Christian community, with its worship, its scriptures and its doctrines bears witness to a God whom Christians know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

However, I have never lost the sense of being an outsider in the church, a person called from outside the orbit of the church to work in it and on its edge. Perhaps that is why I have tried to be open to what God is doing in Christ outside the community’s life. On the other hand, it might be because I haven’t really stopped being a bolshie teenager.