Evan Cockshaw writes: I could feel the nausea building in my stomach. Sweaty palms. Heaviness in my chest. I got out of my beat-up Volvo and parked next to an array of cars from all walks of life parked side by side on the gravel of the car park. I remember thinking my car was by far the worst one in the place and I chuckled to myself thinking perhaps they wouldn’t have a place for me—but how desperately I wanted to be accepted. My rusty Volvo 340, bought from my best friends at Uni, had got me to this grand old building in the countryside. Stone walls covered in ivy rising up to three storeys. Gravel paths, manicured lawns, and people milling around looking posher than me. I notice one woman in a floaty hippy skirt. Maybe she’s a bit like me. More of a misfit and an outlier than the rest. Maybe she wants to be accepted too, but also has that rebellious streak. My heart races again as I walk to the grand front doors and sign in. “Welcome, are you here for the selection conference?” With that I introduced myself, signed in and found myself with about 30 other people eating canapes on a lawn wondering what the hell was going on.
I was 22, fresh from the mission field overseas following a year out after Uni and following a calling to ordination. This was the gateway moment. Over the next 24 hours I would be interviewed three times, invited to dine, chat, pray and worship with folks who I would never be sure if they were testing me or not, and engage in a range of group work activities designed to bring out leadership qualities. Then I would leave knowing nothing about how I had done until I might get a letter in the post to tell me my fate. To get this far I had already endured seemingly endless interviews with the DDO—Diocesan Director of Ordinands—who himself appeared to live on a different planet, surrounded by books and iconography, finery of high churchmanship and the title “Prebendary” (I had no clue what a Prebendary might be … and still don’t really). I’d never met the Bishop but I had exchanged letters—always nice to get a letter from a “palace” to make you feel at ease. And finally I had been deemed worthy enough of being tested at this selection conference. My palms were sweaty as I reached for another canape on the lawn. Who were these people? Should I have been wearing a blazer? Why is everyone so much older than me?
The lead up to getting here, the hurdles, form filling, interviews, books read, endless conversations and finally the invitation to attend all created a sense of otherness—an exclusive club with ridiculously difficult entry requirements. A different world I was being beckoned towards, but one which wasn’t sure it wanted me. So I needed to be tested. It is not good practice to give the punchline away so early, but I will skip a few heart-wrenching weeks and tell you that I was indeed selected, and duly sent to train for ordination in the Church of England and ordained when I was 26 years old. My future set. I had made it. I had been accepted. Casting off all that was before and fixing my eyes on thelifelong career of being a clergyman. I’d read the books, I knew what lay ahead. I was excited and daunted, but I was choosing to partner with the Church of England, called by God, selected by the hierarchy, and given the stamp of approval that I belonged!
There would be more conversations, now with bishops and archdeacons, college principles and tutors. All of them said the same thing in different ways “This is a whole life calling. The Church is your family. We will love you as you serve. It will be hard, but at least you have theChurch to rely on”—or that’s what I thought they said. There followed 3 exciting years of “spiritual formation” at theological college in Nottingham. I was awarded a distinction in my Theological Studies MA by the end of year 2 and then I was selected by some Rev Dr in Oxford to be a theological educator for the C of E. I went on in my 3rd year to start an MPhil and I was elected as Student President of the college. In short, I was a C of E darling! I was fully in with the in crowd. Canapes for breakfast if I wanted them. Then there were the ordinations (Oh the Ordinations! My word what a fanfare!) and the curacy training and the post-ordination training. All of it saying one thing “We want you! We are excited about you. We are investing massively in your future and your ministry!”
This was a whole life commitment and it was amazing. I was searing the very flesh of my heart and soul to the gigantic ship of the Church of England. And it felt like they were receiving and accepting me absolutely, and completely. A bond for life. They invested in me. I invested in them. We were locked in now for ever—partnered for life. Over the nearly 20 years which followed from those canapes on the lawn, I gave up any career anywhere else (I had been offered a lucrative contract in IT to stay at the job I was doing rather than quit and pursue the church), and at my young age I gave up any hope of buying a home and paying a mortgage. I gave up stability as the rigours of college then curacy then first posting would move us around the country. I gave up normal working life and identity for that of a clergyman working tirelessly to love and support communities and churches. I tithed. I led. I cried. I preached. I visited. I prayed. I met. I minuted. I chaired. I sang. I even wore the ridiculous clothes of an 18th century cleric.
And then when all was said and done, I left. Not because I wanted to, although part of me had wanted to for a long time I think, but because I had to. Life happened and I was broken. When I had to leave my experience was “Please return your license to the Bishop’s office. We will arrange a time for you to return the keys to the diocesan property manager. Turn the lights off on your way out please.” That was it. That is the fullness of what happened. You’ll be thinking to yourself something along the lines of “Well no, it wouldn’t happen like that. Someone would have been there to ensure you were ok. Someone would have talked to you a bit and worked things through with you to ensure you knew how to get support and how valued you were still.” But no, nothing happened. Nothing. Silence. Sense of embarrassment more than anything else.
Everyone in any position of power simply keeping as far away from me as possible until I had left. Church wardens were told not to speak to me. Church advised to leave me alone. Removal day came and went, and that was it. I was now pushing past 40 and I was burnt out. My marriage had fallen apart. I was a single dad with three kids. My car was now at least vehicle number 6, 7 or 8 since that Volvo 340 on the gravel driveway but was no less knackered and rusty. Now it was a people carrier. Now my wife had run off with another bloke and I was a single dad going through a complete breakdown. I was leaving. The C of E has invested a huge sum of money in me being trained and ordained and no one was in the slightest bit worried that I was leaving? A few years before I was being lauded as a wonderful example of cutting edge ministry. Now? Now they just wanted me to quietly return my license and my keys.
Before all this happened I had reached out to the bishop to say I was in a bad way. The response from his PA was that I could make an appointment to see him in the next few weeks. That was an hour’s drive. I had 3 kids at school. I was barely functioning. I hung up the phone. What I needed was a bishop on my doorstep to see me for a cup of tea and a chat. I needed someone to talk to. I needed the shepherd. I thought that’s what the deal was. But no. So I spiralled out of control and crashed and burned. Instead of the bishop turning up to see how I was, I found myself summoned to his office months later and being asked to resign. So I left. Foolishly I thought I would get a letter. Or a phone call. Or something. Foolishly I had thought that an organisation whose primary message is “love” would appoint someone somewhere in the C of E whose job it was to check in on clergy who dropped out. Someone caring. Compassionate. Someone whose job it was to say “Hey, are you ok?” Someone who had seen this happen 100 times before and could say “These are some great organisations to help you adjust to life on the outside” or “Here’s some really good financial advisors who offer their services for free to clergy needing help” or “Here’s some counsellors” or even “we would like to sit and chat with you to find out what you think we could do better and why you’ve come to the place you’re at now. We need to learn what we did wrong.”
The phone didn’t ring. Not once. No letters came in the post. Other clergy and friends were wonderful. I did have some fabulous conversations with clergy who knew me and who cared. But they were all doing so voluntarily and from a place offriendship, not power. A place of humanity not organisation. No one official ever noticed my leaving. From the organisation who brought me canapes on a lawn and trained me at huge cost for three years at residential theological college and four years of curacy, there was silence. I was simply no longer wanted. No more canapes for me. I had gone from poster boy to persona non grata.
Once I had settled far away back in my home town where I grew up, now living with my parents and my kids (not a situation I suggest to anyone in their 40s) I got myself back on my feet and thought I should approach my original sending diocese for PTO so I could help out in ministry. I had thought I would be approached by someone. Someone would know I had moved and settled there and being a priest they would probably want me to help somewhere. But no. Nothing.
So I plucked up the courage to see the bishop there. Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. Eventually after about a year of trying I got a meeting. Eventually I got PTO and I was able to start doing little bits of ministry again. I was very much on the outside though. Never invited to diocesan events or training or anything. Not in the system—just kind of skulking along next to it. Begging to be used—not being asked to be useful. I was still very much not wanted. So it felt.
And my experience of now not being wanted is not unique. Through my own journey I have heard many many stories of clergy in the same boat, for different reasons. None of the ex-vicars I know have ever received a phone call or a letter. They have all just simply left. And having left have found no one knows who they are, where they are, or what they can do. They are suddenly a nobody. How do we get from the canapes on the lawn to the return of the license and the keys and walking off into the sunset without so much as a wave? How does that happen and why?
Jesus found Peter, fresh from his betrayal just a few days before and said to him “Do you love me?” That broken man, ashamed, guilty, feeling like crap most likely, encountered the resurrected Jesus who smiled at him and wanted to know just one thing “Do You Love Me?” And Peter did. With that encounter Peter’s life was transformed and his ministry renewed. “Do you love me?”—“Feed my sheep!”
Being ordained is a lifelong calling. But it is something which can be abruptly cut short and curtailed as soon as you slip through a crack. The Church of England doesn’t have cracks—it has chasms. If it is going to thrive as a church in the next generation on reduced clergy numbers then it had better start sorting itself out in terms of how it cares for its clergy. Right now clergy are cannon fodder—thrown to the front and left to die. We need to be loved, protected, valued, honoured—not just with the fanfare of an ordination service in a cathedral but by a bishop turning up on a doorstep when the vicar’s wife has run off with another bloke and you’re left with three kids and a life in tatters. Or when you’ve been signed off with mental health issues. Or when you have succumbed to alcohol because of the stresses of ministry. Or whenever you drop into a chasm, that’s when a bishop should drop everything and go and find that lost sheep. The sheep should not be making appointments tocome and find the bishop. That is not the deal we signed up to. That is not what was sold.
As I left full time ministry I had to ask the question of both God and the church “Do you love me?” and I had to ask “Do I still love Jesus?” The whole experience and that of my broken marriage led me to a place of deep searching. Did the church love me? No. Not at all it seemed. Did I still love Jesus? Yes, I think I did—but only just. I was hurting badly and it was hard to love someone who had called me to such a place of pain, even though I had preached 100 times the message of suffering when we follow Jesus—I just thought we were meant to suffer at the hands of the world, not the church.
Do you love me? I wonder what would happen to the church if clergy were bold enough to ask this question of the establishment, or if not the establishment then just their individual bishop. Are we in the business of Human Resources legislation, or are we in the business of being a loving community of fellow disciples?
This is a little part of my own story. I would be very interested in hearing from anyone with asimilar story to share. I hope to compile some stories covering a range of settings and from different perspectives which can then be shared with bishops and clergy well-being groups.
If you are interested please contact me at [email protected]. Thank you.
Evan Cockshaw is now very happily re-married to the lovely Paula and thriving in his new life, with their children and businesses including this which offers design and printing services for churches https://www.facebook.com/Eve2Media/, and part of a local Anglican church family.