In September of this year I marked the 48th anniversary of my ordination by writing to my Bishop and returning the Permission to Officiate [PTO] that he kindly gave me when we moved into his Diocese some years ago. It seemed in some ways like a very small thing to be doing, although in other ways is seemed like a very big one, and it was one that I had mulled about for some time over the summer.
In part it was because I no longer need the permission he had given me: I am not being used in the parish where we lived; and I had asked for my name to be removed from the Diocesan list of spiritual directors as I no longer had confidence in the manner in which it is now proposed that it will be used.
But more importantly, I have been sensing that God is calling me to what I think of as the exercise of a feral priesthood to the whole of creation. An animal is deemed to be feral when it has escaped captivity or domestication, and I felt that I was being called to exercise my priesthood increasingly outside the institution of the church, and in a bigger context. Rationally there is no reason why I could not do that and retain my PTO, but deep down I knew that I had to let it go in order to feel free to explore where God seemed to be calling me. This has been a gradual process that has been emerging over some time but a number of things have happened recently which have brought it more sharply into focus.
A couple of years ago I had an operation for bowel cancer followed by a course of chemotherapy, and that made me very aware of my own mortality: that one day I will die. That in turn led me to review the question of the meaning of my life. Gradually I found myself wanting to pray for the dead: for people who have been important in my life and from whom I have received much, and who are now dead. When one of my daughters died suddenly earlier this year that prayer assumed an even greater importance, and now every night before I go to sleep I hold before God in love all the members of my family whom I have known, both the living and the dead, as well as the yet unborn. And I have been moved to realise that I am a part of a mutually supportive web of prayer that transcends death and even birth, and in which others are holding me in love as I hold them. Each night I also give thanks and pray for men and women of the past who continue to feed nourish and inspire me through their music, art, poetry etc. My shed where I pray is filled with books mostly written by people now dead, by visual images created by people now dead, and I listen to music composed and played mostly by people now dead. I am finding this a profound experience in which I know myself to be a part of a much bigger picture than the one I am usually aware of in everyday life.
This summer we stayed with our friends Anna and Adrian in Thirsk. I knew that Adrian has for some time been getting up to pray in the night and I was keen to join him while we were there, and he was kind enough to let me. We sat together in his garden for an hour, in the middle of the night, and prayed in silence together. It was very quiet and still. There was the sound of an occasional train passing though Thirsk, a car drove down a nearby road, and there were animal sounds, but mostly it was silent. The sky was pretty clear and I could see stars shining brightly, some of the light came from stars far away in our galaxy: light from stars which might no longer exist; light which set out on its journey to earth before humankind evolved here. I felt very small and insignificant by comparison. And as I prayed silently it seemed to me as if the trees, and flowers and plants in the garden were also praying in their own way, and I became aware of myself as a part of the natural world all of it praying in the silence and stillness. I am a small part of a much bigger praying picture. Our earthly concerns seemed trivial by comparison. It was a very powerful experience, and I am grateful to Adrian for allowing me to share it with him.
Since returning home I have found my own pattern of something similar. When my body wakes in the night, as it often does, and when I feel myself to be wide awake and not ready to go back to sleep, I go and sit outside. The silence and stillness into which I enter is often quite palpable, and I feel myself held in something much greater than myself, which I take to be God. I leave it reluctantly and feeling much enriched.
We live in a beautiful place, and there are places of silence and stillness within walking distance: by a river, on a hillside over looking the river, and in some woods. So when I’m at home I make time, during the day, to go and sit quietly in one of these places. The experience is much the same as my night vigils.
My time of prayer in the mornings, in my shed, has become wonderfully rich and in it I use a range of senses, and resources that I have acquired over the years. I light a candle, burn a joss stick and turn on a water feature. I use the simple outline of an Office, and incorporate music, Bible study, art, and poetry. I meditate on wisdom from across the centuries, mull on recent notes that I have made, offer up my intercessions, and pray by painting with colour, before keeping a period of silence. I love it and look forward to it every day. At night, as I lie in bed, I hold in love before God those both living, dead and yet to be born, who make up the vast web of humanity of which I am a part.
So, I have found myself called to be aware of this much bigger, richer, deeper picture. Being a feral priest frees me to explore it. I know that it wont always seem so rich and wonderful as it does now. In the future there will be times of darkness and emptiness as there always are. But my experience has taught me that when I trust my sense of being called into something by God, other doors always open, often surprising and unexpected doors. I have no idea what all this will mean or where it will take me. Indeed it is good not to know. I am excited by the freedom, and feel blessed to have been offered it.
One of the consequences is that church worship by comparison with my daily prayer, lacks, vision, creativity and depth. Often it feels tired and out of touch, and leaves me feeling depressed. I haven’t stopped attending my local church: I value taking communion, and meeting with the friends I have there. But I now go less often.
Much of the rest of my life and ministry will go on as before. There may be little noticeable change. Certainly my ministry of spiritual direction will continue, indeed I suspect that my feral calling may enhance it. I know from some of the conversations that I’ve had that there are others who share much of what I have tried to articulate here. There are clearly other feral priests about, each incarnating it differently. There are plenty of feral lay Christians. Indeed I suspect that there are feral men and women in every faith tradition and in none. There are also many who God continues to call to exercise their ministries within the institutional church. Hopefully we will find ways of cross fertilising what God is leading us each into, to our mutual benefit and God’s greater glory.