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How do I know if I’m called to be an Anglican Priest?

One of the most famous stories in the Bible tells of the “call” of the prophet Samuel.  The young boy, sleeping in a religious shrine, hears someone calling his name.  He assumes that it is the priest, Eli, for whom he works, and he runs to see what the old fellow wants.  But it wasn’t Eli.  This happens a couple of times until Eli figures it out, and tells the boy to stay still and listen in case the voice calls again, because it is actually God’s voice, not a human one. 1

Another story, almost as well known, concerns the call of the prophet Isaiah.  While attending a ceremony in the temple, he has a glorious vision of God, mighty and huge, surrounded by wonderful angelic creatures.  God says, “Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?” and Isaiah, with his mouth cleansed by a hot coal from God’s altar, volunteers. 2

When we think of God calling to Moses out of a burning bush, or the voice of God telling Noah to build a giant boat, or the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she would become pregnant with Jesus, or the bright light and voice of the risen Jesus calling the apostle Paul into his lifelong mission, we can get the impression that God’s call is generally a pretty dramatic thing. 3

But it isn’t always dramatic, even in the Bible.  Think of King David, probably the greatest figure of the Hebrew Scriptures after Moses: his call came simply through being picked by a religious leader from among his brothers. 4  And Nehemiah, who began the rebuilding of Jerusalem after it had been destroyed in war, merely made a choice to do this difficult work after being at prayer. 5

Think, too, about the call of the twelve Apostles as described in the Gospels: 6 on the one hand, you could’t get more dramatic than Jesus, the Son of God, coming right up to you and saying “Follow me.”  And yet, Jesus called those people before he became famous.  There was no big flashing electric sign over his head saying, “THIS MAN IS THE SON OF GOD!  DO WHAT HE SAYS!”  Put yourself in the shoes of those first apostles: would you really quit your job and take a course in “fishing for people” from this Nazareth carpenter?  Perhaps you had heard that he did a bit of preaching in the synagogue last Saturday, but other than that...?

We should never forget that the people of Jesus’ day did not automatically recognize his divine identity.  Some of his neighbours thought that he was far too big for his boots.  Some thought that he was off his rocker.  Some thought that he had evil powers.  Why would any sensible person quit their job and follow a guy like that? 7

The decision to follow Jesus must have been based on some pretty subtle inner processes on the part of Peter, James, John and the others.  Something deep within must have alerted them.  Their eyes took in what Jesus looked like, the tone of his voice, the words he used, but it had to have been inside, in their hearts, that they realized they were in the presence of something way more significant than what appeared on the surface.  Their inner selves, touched by the finger of God, said “yes” to a man who otherwise had few visible credentials.

I am convinced that God’s call usually comes like that: subtle, ordinary-looking, capable of being taken more than one way.  Maybe it’s a “call,” maybe no.  Hard to tell.  Of course in rare cases it comes more dramatically, like the audible voice that the boy Samuel heard, but most often it is an ambiguous thing that needs to be examined, and thought about, and prayed about.

I’m also convinced that God calls absolutely everybody... to something.  I believe that before we are even born God has a plan and purpose for each one of us, and it is our most important duty in life to find out what that is, and then to become it and to do it.

Occasionally one person or another is called to be a priest.  But because I believe that everyone is called to something, the fact that you have a sense of God’s calling does not automatically mean that it is a call to priesthood.  It might be a call to become a person of prayer, it might be a call to go into public life and make the world a better place, it might simply be a call to be just a little nicer to your husband or your wife.  When we begin to sense that God has a purpose for us, it is just the beginning of a process of discernment.  God calls everyone, now we need to find out what it is that God wants from us.

Admittedly, this is an essay about God’s call to the priesthood.  If I tried to cover all the ways that God can call people, the resulting work in printed form would be fatter than the New York telephone directory.  So from here on, I will assume that you can’t shake off the idea that your call is a call to priesthood.  That is what we’re now going to try to figure out.

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Components of a Priestly Calling

There are four components of a priestly calling: (1) The Inner Voice; (2) External Cues; (3) Aptitude and Interest; and (4) The Voice of the Church.  When you have all four pointing in the same direction, the chances are that you have a genuine calling.

The Inner Voice

You probably would not be reading this unless you’ve already sensed some sort of internal prompting.  Deep within the heart, the idea forms: “I wonder if I’m called to be a priest?”

If it comes, then goes away, it’s probably of no consequence.  However, if it becomes persistent, you should try to notice the context in which the thought occurs.  For instance, does the idea become more noticeable when you’re at prayer? or when you are reading the Bible? or when you are attending a church service?  This sort of context would reinforce the idea that perhaps God is the source of the thought.

Everyone has a kind of receptor that God uses to contact and guide us.  Most commonly it is called the “conscience.”  Many people think that the conscience is just an inner moral traffic light – ie: this is good, so go! this is bad, so stop! – but it is much more than that.  For example, when you pray, and you begin to feel a sweet sense of inner peace, this is the conscience-receptor at work.  God has used this almost physical faculty to communicate something like, “Thank you for taking the time to pray.  It is good to be with you.”

The conscience is connected in some way with our emotional system: “I feel good about that,” or “I feel at peace;” or “I feel ashamed,” are very often signs that God has communicated with us.  As St. Paul puts it, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control” are all the effect – or the “fruit,” as he calls it – of God’s Holy Spirit.  You can see how many of Paul’s words refer to emotions.

So the idea forms inside you that you ought to be a priest, and if it is more intense or distinct when you are engaged in Christian activities, and if it is accompanied with a warmth, a peace, a sense of rightness, then it might very well be a message from God.

But be careful.  The conscience is a part of our physical makeup, just like our sense of smell, or our emotional system.  And, just as some people are hearing-impaired, or vision-impaired, and some have imperfect tastebuds, so some people’s emotions, and their very receptors for God’s messages don’t work correctly, and are misleading. 8  That is why the Inner Voice alone is not a guarantee that one is called to the priesthood.

External Cues

Suppose you’re in school and audition for the school play, and someone says, “You’d be good in the role of the priest!” – that’s an external cue: someone who, without knowing much about you, just “happens” to say that you look like clergy material to them.  God is quite capable of setting cues like this in your path.

If the people who do know you and love you – parents, siblings, good friends – think that you ought to become a priest, so much the better.

Then there is your spouse.  If you are married, or engaged, the attitude of the person who is walking down life’s road with you is one of your most important external cues.  If nothing else, your calling is going to be in some ways their calling too.  If they are decidedly not called to be the partner of a priest, it may be that priesthood is not your vocation!  Their opinion and voice counts incredibly when you are trying to discern what God wants you to do.

Aptitude and Interest

Elsewhere in this website I published a chart of the things that all parish priests must be able to do.  Read it, and ask yourself, “Am I naturally good at any of this?  Is there a chance that I would be really bad at some of it?”  A person who is not a good public speaker, or who is afraid of hospitals, really ought to think twice about becoming a priest!

In my part of the church, many people have felt called to the priesthood because they are naturally kind and caring souls.  This is an admirable trait, but in my opinion it is not an indication that one should be ordained!  Visiting the sick and caring for the distressed can by done by many Christians; the role of the priest is to preside at the table of the Lord, 9 so an ability to conduct worship, an ability to lead others, an ability to help people work together, and an ability to inspire – these are central to the priestly vocation – far more than is pastoral care – and we ignore them to our peril.

Are you fascinated by liturgy, and care for having it done well?  If you are at a congregational meeting, do you find yourself considering how the mechanics of the meeting might be improved?  Do you long to call the congregation to some great act of Christian service?... these are all good indicators that God has formed you for the priesthood.

Having a thick skin isn’t a bad idea, either.  Christians can sometimes be very hard on their clergy, and with good reason: a poor priest and preacher can often wreck an otherwise healthy congregation.  And, since you’re not going to please all of the people all of the time, how will you feel when Mrs. Witherspoon is overheard saying that your sermons are dreadful?  Will you be able to love her, and minister to her anyway?

Which brings us to the fourth and most important component of a priestly calling:

The Voice of the Church

Priesthood – indeed any form of ordained ministry – is a designated position within the organized Christian church.  You cannot be a priest by yourself and alone; a priest has very specific functions that only exist within the fellowship of Christians.  So your call, if it is genuine, sooner or later has to emerge from within the church and be ratified by the Church.  Indeed the act of ordination is a ceremonial way in which the Church, believing itself to be guided in the matter by the Hand of God, says publicly, “We confirm and announce and enact that God has called you to be a leader and presider in our midst.”

So right at the outset, you ought to find hints of your vocation from within the fellowship of the faithful.  If God is calling you, sooner or later at least one member of the congregation where you worship will tell you, “I think you should become a priest; you’d be good at it.”

In time you will have to ask the Church to say so officially, but at the beginning little hints to your vocation should keep cropping up from both clergy and parishioners.

Eventually the next and greatest test will be to declare yourself to the Church and see what happens.

Again, I have described elsewhere the almost bureaucratic processes that candidates for ordination must go through.  If you come out of those processes with a “yes,” and your Inner Voice, plus the External Cues around you, plus your Aptitude and Interests all say “yes,” then it is pretty much a certainty that God has called you to this work and ministry.

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If only it were always that simple

What if that Inner Voice says that you’re called to be a priest, your friends and family all agree, and you have all kinds of aptitude for it, but the church throws up a roadblock?  A number of people with a clear sense of calling have come out of the church’s screening processes with a “No.”

That “No” must be taken seriously – prayed about, and discussed with family and with other deeply spiritual Christians.  You may discover within yourself an aspect of your personality that would be destructive to yourself and to the Church if you were a parish priest.

But maybe the sense of vocation only grows stronger with such a rejection.

I know a priest who was born into a clergy family.  When he was little, parishioners would say to him, “Are you going to grow up to be a priest like your daddy?” and he – when he entered normal teenage rebelliousness – decided in his heart that this was the last thing he’d ever do.

But the inner Voice wouldn’t go away.  He tried running from it, like Jonah in the Bible, but everything he attempted to do with his life just didn’t feel right.  Finally – now an adult and married – he bit the bullet and applied.  And was rejected by a church screening committee.  All those other career paths he had tried were thrown back at him, for (said the committee) they must indicate an inconstancy and a dilletante personality that wouldn’t be able to stick at ordained ministry.  There is also a chance that church politics (yes they exist!) played a role: people who didn’t like his father may have been on that committee, and came disposed to dislike the son.  Or maybe there were people on that committee who had simply got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning (yes, the church has those, too!).  Whatever the reason, the screening committee rejected his candidacy.

But he went out of there more convinced than ever that his call was genuine.  His wife encouraged him (remember? the spouse is one of the most important “external cues”).  She agreed that he could apply in a different diocese, one that was far away, even though it meant a move and a change of jobs for her.

So that is what he did.  And despite being rejected in his home diocese, he was snapped up by the new one, and sought after by even more.

He completed seminary, was ordained, and has never looked back.

That all took place nearly twenty years ago.  Today he is the Rector of a large parish, a Regional Dean and a Canon. 10  His vocation is unfolding as it should.

An old saying has it that the church is “a hospital for sinners, not a rest home for saints.”  We humans are sometimes quite a sorry lot, but we’re all that Jesus has to work with in building the Kingdom of Heaven.  And so, to its shame, the Church has internal politics, and it has plenty of people who get out of bed on the wrong side.  A priest’s vocation is to live and work among God’s difficult children.  In the end, sometimes the bumps and hurdles that come in the process of being screened for ordination are God’s way of saying to you, “Can you handle this?  There is plenty more where that comes from!”

Still, you can’t get ordained unless the church says you can, so that fourth component, “The Voice of the Church,” is essential, and required.

The ‘Inner Voice’ may simply be a call to prayer

Since God very seldom speaks to us in actual visions, or in spoken words, it is possible to mistake what God is trying to say.

Many people think that because they derive great joy from prayer, and from Bible study, and from the church’s worship services, that this indicates a call to priesthood.  It could just as easily be a simple call to be a person of prayer.  All of us must practice prayer daily, but there are some for whom this is a particular gift; a particular ministry.  They pray readily and well and often.  They are, arguably, Christianity’s greatest hidden asset.  So, if you almost always sense the presence of God in your prayers; if an hour of prayer can go by and you hardly notice... then perhaps prayer in itself is your vocation.

Parish priests have intense interaction with people; they have to be concerned with budgets, and interpersonal tensions, and organizational issues.  A person who is a true contemplative would find such pressures distracting, and, as a result, might not make a very effective priest.

A priest must be a person of prayer, but a person of prayer need not necessarily be a priest.

In some cases, particularly if you are single, and comfortable in your singleness, you may be called to become a monk or a nun.  There are Anglican monastic orders for men, and there are Anglican monastic orders for women.  In North America I am aware of The Sisters of St. John the Divine and the Sisters of the Church (women’s orders); the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and the Order of Holy Cross (men’s orders).  There are Anglican Franciscans, as well, I believe. 11

Keeping the conscience in good working order

Our capacity to listen for the Inner Voice, if not exercised regularly, can get out of shape.  Just as an athlete who stops working out can become quite flabby, so the conscience can lose its abilities.

If you think God is calling you, but in fact have not recently spent much time in prayer or Bible study; worse, if you have disobeyed a clear signal from your conscience and have “done those things that you ought not to have done” 12 (without repenting and making amends); then quite possibly God’s message will be muted, or distorted, or heard incorrectly.

How does one keep the conscience in good working condition?  There is a very simple prayer that runs, “Oh Lord, help me to understand that nothing is going to happen to me today that You and I can’t handle.”  Can you go through a day where you check for the Inner Voice in all your decisions, large or small?  Questions such as, “Should I take a coffee break now or later?” or “Should I phone or email that person I’ve been concerned about?” or even something as banal as, “What should I make for dinner?” are all questions that are worth putting to the Inner Voice.  Pray the question, then “listen” intently for any sort of emotion or thought that might be God’s response.  There will be one, it’s just a matter of “hearing” it.  And, as your ability to hear it improves – particularly if you try to follow the advice that you seem to be getting – in time you’ll hear the Inner Voice even without asking for it: “Don’t you think you should call your friend who was worried about her father’s health?”

Even lifetime Christians can fall into sin, or simply drift away from the regular practice of prayer, and then their ability to hear the Inner Voice begins to diminish.  But, if the “what shall we do together today, O Lord?” habit is resumed, it slowly strengthens again.

A spiritual director or mentor

An important tool in learning to understand what God is saying to us is a spiritual guide or companion: someone who you believe has walked a fair distance down the road of faith, someone who appears to be a person of deep and regular prayer.  Approach this person, and see if they would be willing to examine with you your sense of calling.  If he or she agrees to do it, then trust this person; don’t hold back; tell him or her everything that’s on your mind.  A spiritual mentor’s responses can definitely be God’s way of guiding and directing you.  In some ways such a person comprises a little bit of the “External Cue” and a little bit of the “Voice of the Church” components of discerning vocation that I mentioned above.

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So there you have it: if the Inner Voice seems to be calling you into ordained ministry; if the people you care about, particularly your spouse, suggest that this may be so; if you have an aptitude for leadership, or speaking, or teaching, or management, or compassionate caring, and a bit of a thick skin; and if the various voices of the Church, both individual and structural, confirm the call, then very likely yours is a call to the work of a priest.

Be careful to keep your Inner Voice receptor, the conscience, in good working order; make sure you are not simply being called to more deeply committed Christian living, or a more intense and intentional life of prayer.  And, if your sense of priestly vocation is really strong, be prepared to put up with the slings and arrows of God’s sinful children.  And may your life and ministry be a blessing to the Body of Christ.

Two brief sayings to finish this off:
“If you can do anything else besides be in ordained ministry, then do that, because the commitment level and obligations of priestly vocation are that serious and intense.” (edited; an Internet correspondent sent the gist of this to me in an email about vocation).
“If you are not called to ordained ministry, then being ordained will be painful and distressing beyond belief; but if you are called to it, then nothing else will ever satisfy.” (this is my own saying)

'Tony,' handwritten

(The Rev’d Canon) Tony Harwood-Jones
July 18, 2012

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© 2012, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this essay in whole or in part.


1  The story of the call of Samuel can be found in the Bible at I Samuel 3:1-21.
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2  See Isaiah 6:1-8.
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3  Bible references:
Moses and the burning bush: Exodus 3:1-10.  Noah’s Ark: Genesis 6:11-14.  The angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary: Luke 1:26-38.  The call of the apostle Paul: Acts 9:1-8.
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4  The call of King David: I Samuel 16:1-13.  Note that while Samuel certainly seems to be hearing God’s words, all David gets is Samuel’s choice and an anointing.
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5  Nehemiah 1:1-11.  Nehemiah had a position at the court of King Artaxerxes of Persia, but in prayer and fasting decided to seek a leave of absence from this position so that he could go to Israel and arrange for the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, which were in ruins.
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6  There is an account of Jesus’ call of the first apostles in all the Gospels; I’m following Matthew and Mark here, which is arguably the most familiar version (see Matthew 3:17-22, and Mark 1:14-20).  In Luke, Peter is fairly well acquainted with Jesus prior to being invited to become a follower (see Luke 4:36-38, and Luke 5:1-11).  In John, we read that the best-known disciples had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, but people like Philip and Nathaniel are called, as it were, out of the blue (see John 1:35-51).
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7  For “big for his boots,” see Mark 6:2-3.  For “off his rocker,” see Mark 3:21.  For “evil powers,” see Mark 3:22.  John 10:20 combines “off his rocker,” and “evil powers.”
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8  Although I am quite certain that Samuel and the other Biblical figures really did hear God speak, and that people in our own day can have genuine divine revelations, it is also true that mental illness frequently manifests itself in messages from angels, devils, and even God.  All too commonly schizophrenia and other psychoses attack the emotional system and the conscience.  So, when someone tells me that they have experienced God’s voice, I take it very seriously; but I do not rule out the possibility that they ought to be discussing the matter with a psychiatrist.  The possibility of mental illness is one of the reasons why the other three components of Vocation – external cues, aptitude, and the voice of the Church – are so essential.
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9  See the sermon on the ordination of priests elsewhere in this website.
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10  For the definition of “Rector,” “Regional Dean,” and “Canon,” see the Glossary of Anglican Clergy Titles elsewhere in this website.
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11  The worldwide Anglican Communion maintains a list of Anglican religious orders at http://communities.anglicancommunion.org/index.cfm.  As of July 2012, it seems to be a couple of years out of date, but much of the information is probably still valid.
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12  This phrase is, of course, from the general confession in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which begins: “Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us....”
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