Depressingly (dis)honest

Nik Wallenda walks over Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 2012, Photo by Frank Gunn

Walking the tightrope

Over recent years we have seen an increased awareness about mental health issues but how honest can we be when talking about them? How certain can we be that as well as more people talking about mental health issues more people understand them?

In a blog committed to being open and honest about what it can be like to discern whether I should be ordained it is perhaps strange to question the degree of honesty, but every disclosure brings with it a consequence. People disclosing their struggles with mental health can get sidelined and loose jobs.  I fear they might find routes towards ordination blocked too because of misunderstanding speaking louder than God’s will.

When completing my registration form for my first BAP (the time when the decision whether someone should train for ordination effectively occurs) I was told that what I disclosed was up to me, that if there was something I wasn’t prepared to discuss I shouldn’t even allude to it on the form. I decided that the undiluted truth was needed and that I should trust the BAP Advisors to understand the issues surrounding anything I wrote, and so I mentioned that at the time I came to faith I was severely depressed and suicidal.

My experience with the BAP Advisor who interviewed me on the pastoral collection of selection criteria left me thinking it had been a mistake to reveal my past mental illness in so much detail (see the Timeline of posts to read my BAP and post-BAP experiences). As the interview progressed the chain of questioning made me realise that my interviewer didn’t understand depression very well and I wasn’t helping to change that. And although my past mental health wasn’t the reason for not being recommended it contributed to the decision made. With the end of the discernment process almost in sight I find myself wondering how honest and open I can be about my struggle to avoid depression reclaiming its place as the controlling emotion in my life.

There are levels and degree to our honesty. However honest we claim to be we calculate what facts and emotions to communicate and what to hold back, and this blog is no exception. It is rare that we ever express everything that is on our mind without applying tact, diplomacy and sensitivity filters.

The motivation that lies behind our what we say and do not say are generally not ones of deception and dishonesty, although they can be. When a friend asks if they look good in an outfit we don’t say “no, you look awful”, we might lie and say yes or, hopefully, might find a tactful way of a expressing similar meaning but in a loving way. When we have bad news to deliver we don’t go in full-guns blaring or deliver it in a no-holds-barred manner, we select the words needed to convey the same facts in a sensitive manner.

Although I have talked about my experiences of depression, whether related to or caused by the discernment process I have had to think and calculate carefully about what I can disclose and how, even on this blog (I wrote about some of my experiences of depression in The Big D double-header blog post: It isn’t easy being green and I told you so!). Just as, thankfully, few humans are as interested as God is in our every thought and deed, too few exercise the constructive compassion that God does with that which we do share.

I would be irresponsible to my family if I exposed every feeling and fact (whether related to my discernment or not), I have to be sensitive to their right to privacy. Similarly with my church and diocese, to purposely identify people and places would bring unwanted focus on them and divert attention away from what is the key issue behind this blog series: that of highlighting the experiences and impact of the discernment experience, whether they be highs or lows, from beginning to an end of sorts.

Going through the Church of England’s discernment process requires being honest with yourself and, theoretically, with the church itself. As much as I cannot control the questions I get asked I can decide how I answer them. I can select the experiences I’m willing to talk about and those I’m not. I can decide to what level I will open myself up. The more I do the more the church gets to know me, the more they have to help them discern whether God is calling me to be ordained. But the flip side is that the more I open myself up, the more honest I am, the more vulnerable I am to any ignorance, insensitivity and tactlessness within those given the task to discern if I should train for ordination.

The discernment process is both an exercise of spiritual and mental introspection, and the lengthy nature of it makes it an experience of endurance. But it doesn’t happen in isolation, ‘normal’ life with all it’s own challenges and encouragements continues. Each thought, emotion and experience of everyday life mix with those borne out of contemplating ordination. Each one imperceptibly influences the other, adding to the challenge of maintaining a healthy balance between positivity that blinds us to the difficulties that must be faced and negativity that can drag us down into despair.

The issue of my mental health has been tested by the church to their satisfaction: I have been found to be healthy enough to continue to a BAP which means deciding what I disclose to the BAP Advisors. It would be nice to think that BAP Advisors, and the Church of England in general, understand and treats mental health with pastoral sensitivity, but my past experience suggests otherwise. And whilst seeing ordained ministers being open about their own struggles with depression is a source of encouragement, my past experience makes me question how open and honest I should be on the form that will tell my story to those who will discern and decide my fate.

It is not a question of whether to disclose my experiences of depression or not, for it has played a significant part in my life; the absence of any indication of having wrestled with it after my first BAP would also ring alarm bells at my second. Nor is it a barrier to God ministering through me, it is a weakness that He has turned into a strength: my experience of depression helps me to understand and reach out to those experiencing similar struggles, signposting them to the hope that Jesus gave me. It is more a question of how much detail I go into on the form and with my DDO who will write my sponsoring papers, a report collecting together the thoughts of my Bishop and Examining Chaplains with hers.   If I am as honest and open about my depression in the same detail as before I risk facing the same misunderstanding and ending this particular journey prematurely. Yet to withhold information and not expose my darkest moments to scrutiny feels dishonest, depressingly so.

I will continue to walk along the mental health tightrope and cry out to God when I feel myself slipping off it. God knows that I need to see this through and complete the process of testing my calling with others. He knows that I won’t find peace and fulfilment with not being ordained if I leave the path before the end, and He knows that I won’t feel peace and fulfilment with being ordained if I I have engaged in a calculated deception.

Guilty as not charged

A picture showing the police id parade and line up from the film The Usual Suspects

I am used to be one of the usual suspects

I know I’m guilty of something, I just don’t know what it is.

When a car horn is blown or its lights flashed in my direction I look to see what I have done wrong and, usually, find nothing. When my name is called out in the street I look round expecting to be admonished but see a child being called back into the safety of his parents instead. When my boss asks to meet with me in private I walk into the room expecting to told off but leave having been encouraged. Perhaps it is down to the suspicion that my time of reckoning for all the times I have done something wrong and got away with it has arrived. Continue reading

Today, I remember

Remembrance Day Poppy

11th November, Remembrance Day (Image © The Royal British Legion)

Today I remember my grandfathers who fought for freedom from the bowels of a boat in uniform and from the shadows in disguise.  

Today I remember families left behind, too often waiting in vain for their loved ones to return.

Today I remember those living under skies of fire in basements beneath bombarded buildings and childhoods lost in the rubble.

Today I remember those fleeing torture or death at the hands of their neighbours, those abandoned by governments local and global, and those swallowed up by seas of water and despair.

Today I remember a soldier’s ear healed by the Christ that cried out in pain.  

Today I remember lights in darkness, hope amidst hopelessness.

Today I remember sacrifice and a cross of salvation. 

Today I remember Jesus.

Today I remember life, fragile and eternal.

Today I remember to give thanks.  

Today I remember the part I must play to end war and sustain peace.  

Today I remember the need to share signposts to God.

Today I remember.

Who and what do you remember today?

Carry On Calling!


The path of discernment is a right carry on!

The discernment road can be a rocky one, a journey of soaring highs and rough and rutted lows. My journey has been more of the latter of late. The journey to my first BAP was pretty smooth, an enjoyable glide along an undulating path before gravity took hold and sped me into a post-BAP crash. Since then I have found myself being a willing but wary participant on a road to a possible second BAP with enthusiasm, scepticism, devotion and despair as travelling companions.

The Church of England recently ramped up their efforts to encourage people to come forward for ordination, in part to help fill the gap left by retiring clergy. The messages emanating from the church’s leadership and the advertising campaigns have been notable for their absence of anyone over 35, with the focus being on young adults. This focus hasn’t been limited to advertising, the changes in ordination training and funding announced recently also signify a shift of focus towards those younger than me. I was already starting to get the impression that prospective ordinands over 35 were not welcome or appreciated by the Church of England when a new recruitment campaign video was released. Although full of encouraging stories it reinforced my cynical suspicions that my life experience and age might a curse and not a blessing (see One Foot in the Graveyard). Continue reading

Comfort Blankets

There is a part of England where I will forever be trying to save a drowning lady, our hands stretching out towards each other within a storm that Jesus has come to calm.

A few years ago I had been ask to model for an artist leading a team of others designing and making a tapestry for their church. I was, apparently, a perfect match for the image of St James that they wanted to portray in a scene depicting Jesus calming a storm with His power and truth as He instructed the disciples to become fishers of men. As I set off for my third and final Examining Chaplain I diverted to the church to accept an invitation to see the completed work.

Standing some distance away from the tapestry my likeness shone out like a reflection, but as I drew closer I became fixated on my fabricated eyes which were locked onto the unseen face of the lady fighting for survival in the storm. The tension in the tapestry was palpable, yet despite the turbulence threatening to envelop the situation my expression was calm, emanating from a security found in Christ that was being extended to the lady in the water. I wanted save the lady in the physical world but Jesus’s presence hinted at a saving in which I would be simply serve as a link between the lady and Christ.

Continue reading

Do Worry, Be Happy


Your thoughts will be discerned

I am an advocate for worriers. I know that Jesus told us not to worry about tomorrow but to concentrate on seeking His Kingdom (Matthew 6:25-34), so worrying about the latter must be okay!

Worrying is a matter of perspective. One person’s worry is another person’s preparation, and so it has been with me prior to each Examining Chaplain meeting I have had. Last week I had my second of three, and it was the one had most reason to worry about and prepare for: the Examining Chaplain I went to see had seen and interrogated me before (see A Tale of Two Storms). She reminded me of Miss Marple as her likeness in age, look and character could hardly be separated from the infamous character. Continue reading

Shown the door


Doors closing or opening?

I’m not paranoid, I know people are watching my every move.

As you try to discern if God is calling you to be ordained it can feel as the Church is watching and analysing your every move: CCTV cameras trained on you, hidden cameras in place to catch you unaware, spies and informers reporting back to headquarters. Of course that is nonsense, there is no need for the church to watch or inform you because you will be informing on yourself, and willingly so.

Continue reading

One Foot in the Graveyard


Moving age-groups not houses

Shortly after finally making contact with the DDO (see Communication Breakdown) I attended a workshop for those on the discernment path. I had been to several before, including one a year ago which covered the topic this was to cover: the dreaded and artificial BAP Pastoral Letter Exercise. Back then I had spoken to the other candidates not just about what it was like to go to a BAP but what it was like to be rejected, or not recommended as the Church of England like us to call it. Giving the talk had left me unable to focus on the Pastoral Letter Exercise so a second opportunity to do so in the company of others, and with the insight of the DDO and a particularly caring and constructive BAP Advisor, was to be welcomed.

The time I had spent over the past year picking the brains of those with good pastoral experience and skills, coupled with the thoughts of others present on the day, meant that I finally felt I understood what BAP Advisors expected to see in a candidates response. Even more encouragingly I felt like I might be able to write one that would at the very least be acceptable and not spat out like a rancid piece of food. That was just as well for the DDO dropped a bombshell into the conversations that shook several of us to the core.  There was no sugar-coating of the pill, there was no precursor of pastoral sensitivity, there was just the bare facts: the funding and training pathways for ordination changed. The facts came with no explanation, reasoning or justification, they were just injected into the day’s proceedings.

Continue reading

Communication Breakdown


Communication breakdown
It’s always the same
I’m having a nervous breakdown
Drive me insane!
Led Zeppelin

I started the summer waiting to move into the next stage of the discernment process: meetings with Examining Chaplains and a Bishop to decide if I should go to a ordination selection conference (the BAP). I was still waiting by the end of the summer.

I had suspected my Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) had been a little optimistic in his planning for the next stage of my discernment journey but I had no reason to question his judgment on how the next stage would progress. Prior to heading off into retirement my DDO was handing those he was guiding to the remaining DDO , for her to arrange the meetings.

Whereas when I reached this stage before I had been asked to write 3 essays to give the Examining Chaplains an insight into my mind, personality and faith (see Rescued from the darkness; Defining Ordination is harder than you think!; and Challenging and Exiting Times). This time though things had changed, and sensibly so.

Continue reading

Ground Control to Major Tom



It is time to prepare for re-entry

There was a time when exploring ordination felt like being on an express train: things happened regularly and quickly. Each week there was something new, some new issue to wrestle with, some new emotional struggle to document. More recently it has felt like being on a canal boat or the International Space Station: slowly drifting along, detached from the goings on of life. The detachment has been somewhat comforting. Like astronauts left alone on the International Space Station I have been able to observe the fragility from afar, whilst similarly connected to it by the sporadic communication from the Ground Control that is the church. But the time has come to re-enter the world of ordination and face the fire that comes with it. Continue reading