When I started wondering about discernment there were two mental maps in my mind of what the process looked like. The first was based on my experiences, growing up I lived near London School of Theology and at my church we would frequently have theological students come and worship with us. When I was older and at university I lived near Moorlands Theological College where I got to know a number of the students and would go to the same church as some of them. The model seemed to be that these individuals had a calling on their lives, they sought training, and would then seek a way to realise that. Some ended up in the Church of England, some ended up in Independent Churches, some became Missionaries, and some never found a way to realise their hopes. Other options I’ve heard of in the UK include Union School of Theology, Spurgeon’s College, and Oak Hill College.

This model was also something I heard a few times in the discernment process within the Church of England itself, that if God didn’t call you to serve in the CoE he might be calling you elsewhere. I attempted to, at a high level, map what this process looks like and the results you can see below:

The onus, for me, seems to be largely on a combination of the individuals desire and trying doors until something opens. The idea of calling is also something that features, in my experience, in discussions around women’s ordination. If God calls a particular woman aren’t you speaking against God? If God is calling women shouldn’t we ordain them? It doesn’t really matter who the person is, they could be a man or a woman, but that the Church should acknowledge and affirm the call God has placed on a persons life. This question is one I’ve had put to me repeatedly, are you called by God? In a way, it makes sense because when 1 Timothy says:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.

1 Timothy 1:3

It’s clear that desire is a part of the discernment process. Do you want this? Yet Paul, in his letter Titus also writes:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.

Titus 1:5

Which states that Titus was the one appointing and I guess to me this makes a bit more sense to me. Yes those who aspire to be a bishop or overseer desire something noble but it is for the church to collectively appoint elders. One presumes that to be an overseer one must first be an elder. We read in both Timothy and Titus a list of criteria that elders are expected to possess, so it isn’t just a question of calling but fittedness too.

To me, the first model seems to be putting the cart before the horse. It places the individual’s sense of calling above the ability of the church to call. The calling is an attribute stemming from within the individual at times completely independent of the tradition in which they find themselves. It is subsequently an obligation upon the church to acknowledge. This is rather than the church identifying people and placing obligations upon them. In my reading of the practice of the early church it seems much more common for people to be called, sometimes against their will by the church, rather than they feeling a calling independently and seeking to realise it. The first piece I want to mention is the Didache. It reads:

Appoint bishops for yourselves, as well as deacons, worthy of the Lord, of meek disposition, unattached to money, truthful and proven; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.

The Didache

The Didache claims to speak in the voice of the apostles to the nations and when it talks about ordination it seems to be something that principally starts with the body by its addressing the statement to the plurality. This is rather than the individual. A latter text, which also claimed to speak for the apostles, but dates to the 4th century says similarly:

I Peter say, that a bishop to be ordained is to be, as we have already, all of us, appointed, unblameable in all things, a select person, chosen by the whole people, who, when he is named and approved, let the people assemble, with the presbytery and bishops that are present, on the Lord’s day, and let them give their consent. And let the principal of the bishops ask the presbytery and people whether this be the person whom they desire for their ruler. And if they give their consent, let him ask further whether he has a good testimony from all men as to his worthiness for so great and glorious an authority; whether all things relating to his piety towards God be right; whether justice towards men has been observed by him; whether the affairs of his family have been well ordered by him; whether he has been unblameable in the course of his life. And if all the assembly together do according to truth, and not according to prejudice, witness that he is such a one, let them the third time, as before God the Judge, and Christ, the Holy Ghost being also present, as well as all the holy and ministering spirits, ask again whether he be truly worthy of this ministry, that so in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

Apostolic Constitutions. Book Eight. Section 2.2 Concerning Ordinations

So a bishop is a person ‘chosen by the whole people’ and mentions later of presbyters this prayer of officiation which I’ll include an excerpt of:

…Now look down also upon this Your servant, who is put into the presbytery by the vote and determination of the whole clergy; and replenish him with the Spirit of grace and counsel, to assist and govern Your people with a pure heart, in the same manner as You looked down upon Your chosen people, and commanded Moses to choose elders, whom You filled with Your Spirit. Do Thou also now, O Lord, grant this, and preserve in us the Spirit of Your grace, that this person, being filled with the gifts of healing and the word of teaching, may in meekness instruct Your people, and sincerely serve You with a pure mind and a willing soul, and may fully discharge the holy ministrations for Your people, through Your Christ, with whom glory, honour, and worship be to You, and to the Holy Ghost, forever. Amen.

Apostolic Constitutions. Book Eight. Section 3.1 Concerning The Ordination Of Presbyters — The Constitution Of John, Who Was Beloved By The Lord.

Which again places the emphasis on the election on what appears to be the vote of the presbytery present and draws a parallel with Moses appointing, not priests, but the elders of the tribes of the exodus. This is found in Numbers 11:16-30 when Moses asks for help from the Lord in carrying the burden of judging and leading the people of Israel. 

We also see more explicit instances of people being called by the Church in some biographies of great Churchmen. The first I want to mention is Ambrose:

After some few years Auxentius, the intended Arian Bishop of Milan, died, a.d.374, and it is said that during the discussion as to the appointment of his successor a child cried out in the assembly, “Ambrose Bishop,” and, although he was but a catechumen and so canonically unqualified, the multitude immediately elected him by acclamation.

St. Ambrose did all in his power, even, if we accept the statements if his biographer Paulinus, probably a clerk of Milan, resorting to some questionable expedients, to escape from the dignity laid upon him, but when his election was ratified by the Emperor Valentinian, he recognized his appointment as being the will of God, and insisted on being baptized by a Catholic priest. Eight days later, December 7, a.d.374, he was consecrated Bishop.

A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series Translated Into English With Prolegomena and Explanatory Notes. Edited by Philip Schaff. Works and Letters of St. Ambrose. Prolegomena to St. Ambrose. Chapter 5: The Life of St Ambrose

I find this story remarkable because Ambrose, on paper, was probably the last person you could imagine being made a bishop. One normally thinks they must be atleast a presbyter, elder, or priest beforehand. At the very least the person considered should be baptised. Yet by great acclaim he is made bishop, despite his attempt to escape this. He is loved, and clearly seen as talented, by the people and is appointed in a way which lends context to the process outlined by the Apostolic Constitutions. The call originates in the Church body even if the recipient is initially sceptical. A similar, albeit a less public, example is the account John Chrysostom gives of his call to ordination alongside his friend Basil (later Basil the Great). He writes:

We were both of us disturbed by a report suddenly reaching us that we were about to be advanced to the dignity of the episcopate. As soon as I heard this rumor I was seized with alarm and perplexity: with alarm lest I should be made captive against my will, and perplexity, inquiring as I often did whence any such idea concerning us could have entered the minds of these men; for looking to myself I found nothing worthy of such an honor. 

John Chrysostom, On The Priesthood Book 1.6

Chrysostom alludes to the fact that this call was against his will. Yet Chrysostom himself feels guilt because if he refuses his friend Basil will also refuse and thus deprive the Church of a great strength. So John hides from those sent to ordain him into the church and Basil is subsequently ordained against his will, having been lied to by the Church authorities that the reason John is missing is because he willingly went to ordination. Basil upon finding out that John literally ran and hid from the Church is dejected upon finding this out. John is actually happy about this because he realises Basil will be a blessing to the Church but doubts himself. Yet is eventually convinced to be ordained himself.

One can legitimately question the motives of the Church here. Chrysostom writes that Basil was “hindered by distress of mind and inability to express in words the violence to which he had been subjected” after the process but we can see the call originated in the Church. Not in Ambrose, not in Basil and not in John. It seems the opposite of what most forms of discernment take today.

I’ve tried to map out this process and it seems much simpler than the first method:

One of things I’ve wondered with the first model is that if the call originates in the self – the legitimacy of that individual in their own eyes is based on their own self-belief and I think there is an argument to be made that, particularly in independent circles, this is a contributor to the celebrity culture prevalent in some of these churches. Even in more formal associations, this can serve as a licence to depart from the church’s historic teaching because you served by your own personal sense of calling (which the church affirmed) rather than at the privilege of the church body. Now I think in its healthiest expressions laity do play a roll in this selection process, the bishop represents the congregation.

I guess I write this because I make no bones about the fact that I think the second method is healthier for the church than the first. Whenever I was asked about my own sense of calling a part of me always wanted to respond “does the church need me, does the church want me, could the church use me” because I was willing to serve at its discretion. So when I was told to potentially explore ordination elsewhere it just doesn’t compute for me, it was an impossibility. You serve where you are found and if you are called by the church you are called. God appointed elders to distribute the burden of Moses and Christ, like all rabbi’s, chose his disciples to follow him. If we believe the Church is Christ’s body it makes sense for the call to be that of the community to the individual rather than that of the individual to the community.

In closing, I find it hard to tell whether John Chrysostom’s humility in his writing On The Priesthood is genuine or a sort of over-egged modesty. Yet, when I was in this process and contemplating it I really resonated with his reaction of “looking to myself I found nothing worthy of such an honour”. That was what I felt when I examined myself. So maybe my stumbling block was rather that I felt it arrogant to believe the Church had an obligation towards me in this regard. It never really made sense to me as an idea.

4 thoughts on “A brief autopsy of the methodology surrounding discernment and calling

  1. I also think of St Spyridon who was a godly shepherd in Cyprus. When the local bishop died, it was determined that he was the holiest person around, so he was ordained bishop, and later went on to attend the Council of Nicaea.

    I have a friend pursuing ordination in the Episcopal Church of the USA, and it seems that the process, at least, is a bit of both, in that his bishop decides whether he is suited to the role, rather than asking him about whether he feels called. Also, I once heard a sermon arguing that the only ‘call’ God makes in Scripture is the general call to all believers. Which would reinforce the idea that it is the body of believers and the bishop who make the call, not my own feelings of vocation.

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    1. Yes something similar happens in the CoE. The process seems to be, broadly, that you enter into a process of discernment before going before the bishop. They say yes or no which opens the way for formal training – after that you are ordained as a deacon and after a year in service are ordained as a priest and apply as a curate at a parish somewhere. I guess the latter stage still very seems like a regular job-hunt wherein I seem to get the impression that the call is contextual and people from a community are generally called to represent it rather than being abstracted as a class independent of any relationship to a particular congregation. It also creates the situation I know of with some people who are ordained but can’t actually find a role in a parish and are effectively benched. Being called in a specific context I think mitigates the likelihood of that happening?

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      1. Yes, I think so. It also makes ministry sense to be called in a specific context. But that’s how we do it in remote areas of Canada because the clergy have to maintain a regular, non ecclesiastical job to live, so many of them are local people who are called up to serve in their home communities

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      2. It’s not without its downsides but I think one of the interesting things is how its contextualises and roots the clergy. Often with the first model the clergy is abstracted from the congregation and I think this can obscure the more interconnected relationship between the two offices.

        I’ve recently been reading Optatus’s writings against the Donatists and one of his criticisms of Parmenianus, the Donatist bishop he writes to, was that he was a peregrinus aka ‘not from round here’ which is taken in a negative sense. One of Optatus’s arguments being that his tradition represents the continuity position of the local area and this isn’t just in the continuity of the local christian population but, he goes on to state, the continuity of the infrastructure of the Church. All of it is intertwined and Optatus’s argument in part rests on him being a local who represents the beliefs of the local orthodox congregations.

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