I wrote this in April 2011 as an attempt to express something of the journey that took Kay and I from being a part of the Salvation Army to where we are today
I promised myself that one day I would write something about why I decided to leave officership (ordained ministry in The Salvation Army). For some reason, it feels like that day has arrived. It’s about 4 and a half years since the actual act of resignation, although I think my heart and mind had been up in about May 2006, so in reality it’s five years. The means that it’s almost 10 years since I started on my Timothy Gap year (with the predecessor of ALOVE, The UKT Mission Team). For me, that probably was the start of the journey that we find ourselves wandering (and wondering) along now.
So, what happened?
At the age of 18 I felt a very definite call to spiritual leadership within the context of TSA, to this officership thing. I’d been part of the Army all of my life. Even at University I had stayed faithful to ‘the regiment’, not tasting any other type of church. I can still remember the very night that I asked God to show me what he wanted of my life, and the very clear response that pointed me down this particular avenue.
So, post-Uni, having offered for officership and been through all the necessary (and possibly unnecessary Candidate’s interviews, I found myself on this Gap year, experiencing some incredible things, being released into the ministry that I felt my life had been building into, being given immense amounts of freedom whilst being clearly guided by some wonderful people.
Training College was the next step – and a little bit of a shock to the system. During my time there I would meet Kay, learn a heck of a lot and develop a whole load of friendships (who are still dear to me, even if I am rubbish at staying in touch with them!). I often tell people, when describing college, of my experience of ‘Spiritual’ interviews. These were important parts of your training experience, and in many ways the only way in which you could fail officer training. I was called up for several extra interviews by the Spiritual Programme Director over some really important issues. Well, I’m not certain how important they were, but basically – because I didn’t like shaving every day (no surprise to those of you who have seen my beard stages over the last few years), didn’t like wearing ties (especially nasty polyester ones) and had a liking for hoodies that weren’t regulation (although the right colour, they had the wrong logo…seriously!)…well, lets just say I wasn’t flavour of the day at times.
To be honest, I took this stuff on the chin, got my head down and focused on getting through college without to many problems and out to the ‘real world’ outside. People talk about jumping through hoops to get to the really important stuff – well, that’s what happened. It was all formative stuff, and in many ways helped me with the issue of submission, something I’d always struggled with.
Anyway, all that is a bit of an aside to why I’m going this far back. Entering college I had felt that God was leading me into the direction of doing ‘new things’ – planting church, or something along those lines. All the spiritual gift tests, experiences and missional learning we were doing simply confirmed this, and I was doing my best to describe this to the people who would decide where my future lay. However, fairly early on in college life, I, along with my good friends Matt and Sarah Butler, were asked if we would consider the role of Divisional Youth Officer (DYO) – something very different to what I’d entered college imaging the future would be like.
How do I describe this to the lay person? Well, the DYO role is a really interesting one – part of the regional support structure the Army provides, with a specific focus on providing support around the development of youth ministry in the local context as well as being a bit more like a youth worker for the whole area, running big events like Youth Councils and Summer School. Usually, this role had been part of the career development pattern for officers, being something that you got appointed to after 5+ years in the corps. The territory was trying something different, by appointing newly commissioned officers, but people they thought who brought some youth work experience into the role. At least that’s what I’ve thought all this time. However, I have always suspected that it had more to do in my case that they didn’t trust me to run a church!
So, having wrestled with submission, and believing very simply that when the Army asked me to do something that I should respond affirmatively, I said, “yes”. My thinking was quite simple – I had committed my life to serving God through the Army. And, to be honest, the idea of being a DYO was quite exciting. I have no doubt at all in my mind even now, years later, that this was the right thing to do. I met Kay because my summer placement in Anglia Division was shadowing the DYO and being part of the summer school staff. I wouldn’t have had a chance to do the MA I started on if I’d been immersed in Corps life from the start – a course the was crucial in my change of thinking later on. God wanted me in this place, at this time. It just wasn’t going to be what I imagined it would be.
You see, officership is a lifetime thing. You train, you sign your covenant, you get ordained and commissioned and you head out into the world. You serve in many varied appointments, potentially all over the world. You grow old, you retire. That’s life – at least from the perspective of a 20-something. No bumps in the road. No theological angst. No massive changes of direction. No God telling you to move into something new, because he’s in charge, not the covenant or the organisation.
So, I started out – fresh, new, full of ideas. Divisional Youth Officer for the South-Western Division of TSA, based in beautiful Exeter. New house, new marriage, new life. Summer of 2004 was an incredible time – straight into summer school virtually as soon as we got back from honeymoon. I loved my work, I loved the young people, I loved the region.
Every few months, though, I would go through a faze of uncertainty – was I in the right place? After all, God had called me to be a church leader, a church planter – at least that’s what I thought. Although the job was great, I spent most of my life at a desk. I was supporting mission, but not doing a whole lot of it. Hence why I managed to find time to start the MA. Basically, I had a load of time on my hands, and wanted to do something with it.
The MA is fundamental here, simply because it opened for me a whole new world of theological and ecclesiological conversations that I’d never experienced previously. I was mixing with people from all over the church, and learning some great stuff. One day, we were having one of those coffee break discussions when the issue of membership of the church came up. We all explained how things worked in our world, and all I could see is that all of the ‘other’ churches, two basic things counted (as well as lots of other little bits and pieces, of course) – baptism and communion. Baptism could be one of many things. Likewise, communion could take many shapes. But, simply put, these two things, things that Jesus had instructed his followers to do, seemed to be the way in which we marked how we belonged to the body of Christ.
To those who don’t know, the Army is non-sacramental, in that it doesn’t practice the sacraments as understood by the majority of the church. Children are dedicated to God, and then there are various ways in which membership is acknowledged throughout the age and faith development of the individual. Communion is not practiced, largely due to a historical argument which had never really been resolved, but which had developed a theology of its own (as do many practices over the ages) rather than being profoundly rooted in any biblical or theological position.
The more I wrestled with this, the more I struggled with the Army’s position. Although non-sacramental was the official designation, more often than not this became anti-sacramental in Army literature, as writers sought to explain the position, quoting the often problematic issues over what kind of baptism, or how communion was practised, and what it meant. That position often rested on the argument that these were never meant to be ‘means of grace’, but acts of remembrance and therefore were not necessary to Salvation (I think this is the correct position argued). But to my mind, taking an Augustinian position that a sacrament was an ‘outward sign of an inward grace’, the Army had exchanged one set of sacraments for its own. For what is uniform? What is dedication? What is soldiership? What is the mercy seat? What is the flag? The list could go on….it just didn’t seem right that we had left behind Christ ordained things and taken up our own ‘tradition’. I couldn’t reconcile it all.
At the same time as this theological unravelling was taking place, the old twinges of struggling with submission and, in particular, the hierarchical structure of decision making within the Army was beginning to cause grave doubts in my mind. I suppose sitting at Divisional headquarters you see lots of things. Things that it wouldn’t be right to talk about, but things that make you wonder who is actually in charge. I can only really talk openly about my own decisions – and specifically the decision about my future service in the Army.
The way that decisions are made in the Army about where officers should serve is taken by the hierarchy, not really by the local church, or even by the officers themselves. There has been increasing attempts made to introduce consultation for all involved parties, but essentially, if ‘the Army’ decides to move an officer, it will happen. Basically, a bunch of guys sit together at a conference and discuss the ‘moves’ – a bit like a massive chess game. I have absolutely no doubt that God moves through this process, and that these people are really wanting to do his will, but increasingly it felt like God was having to do his best with what he ended up with in whatever appointment, rather that it being God-inspired and ordained in the first place. I suppose I looked at this and felt that I wasn’t confident that this was the right way to do things. Sounds arrogant, I suppose, forgive me for that. But it’s how I felt, and still do today. I have seen too many good friends sent to appointments that just weren’t right, and left them and the appointment broken.
I was coming to the end of my third year in post, and it was likely that we would be moved on to another appointment. The thing was, we felt strongly that God wanted us in Exeter. Everything we were experiencing, all that God seemed to be opening up for us and confirmed by other voices, not just ours, was shouting this out at us. I know I can’t be certain that we would have been moved, but I had picked up murmurings, and felt sufficiently concerned enough to be thinking seriously about my future with the Army.
So, put together the theological wrestling and the concerns with ‘the system’ (on several fronts) – all of this came together around May of 2006. At Roots, if I remember correctly. I had a conversation with my parents over a drink when I said the words – “I think I need to think about resigning”. People who know me well know that I would never say those words lightly. I think too deeply. That’s one of my big problems. I agonise over things that I don’t need to. I know the power of words. I don’t want to mess around with this kind of stuff.
At this stage, though, I think I was still in the middle of too much angst, with too little faith. God was clearly doing something, disrupting my comfortable pattern of thinking. More than anything else, one thing kept coming back to me. I had come across plenty of colleagues who had been tapped by officership for all kind of reasons, who were decades into service and were broken and hurting. I didn’t want to be like that. Likewise, I had come across colleagues who had decided that baptism and communion were theological imperatives, and were practising them whilst holding off the Army structure. I just knew I couldn’t do this, as I believed that as an ordained and commissioned minister I had given my word to not do this. I don’t criticise them, I just state where I found myself.
Neither was I holding my breath and stamping my feet so that I would get a better appointment. If I hadn’t had these questions in my mind and the Army had decided to move us, we would have saluted and gone. As it were, I had resolved that the God instinct within me (and us) was pushing us towards the door. We knew something ‘other’ was happening, and we had to be faithful to it. No matter what appointment came our way, the future wasn’t with the Army. However, life continued, another summer school came and went – an immensely successful one as I remember it.
I still remember the moment clearly when I actually decided to resign. We’d had a lovely weekend with our dear friends, Andy and Verity, and I had to go out and lead worship in a tiny corps in the division. It hadn’t gone well – and I was questioning again why I was doing all of this. We went out to a pub for a drink that Sunday evening and we talked about life, about the future, about everything. Kay asked me some really important questions – I hadn’t a clue about what I would do with my life…to my mind I wasn’t qualified to do anything really. I remember thinking that if I had to work in a supermarket or a bookshop then I would do it, rather than stay in a world that was clearly where I wasn’t supposed to be. The next day I had my appraisal with my boss, Carol Lockhart. Her first question was “how’s it going”. I gave her the honest answer. She put down the paperwork and the whole story emerged. After that, more conversations with valued friends ensued, but more and more it became apparent that resignation was the only outcome that lay ahead.
At the same time, the job for ‘Diocesan Youth Work Adviser’ for the Church of England in Devon had come up, as my good mate Steve Jones had decided to move on. Something inside, I guess my ‘God instinct’, was telling me to give it a go. So I did. I put in an application, fairly sure that I wasn’t going to get it, but still certain that I would resign whatever the outcome of the interview process. We’d also started going along to services at ENC when we could, and had increasingly viewed this as a place that we wanted to be our spiritual home in the future. Life seemed to be starting to fit together in a way that only God could be working out.
So, the interview came and went. I walked out of the building absolutely convinced that I had screwed up, and a little unsure about what the future – how would I ‘provide’ for my family? I guess despite believing that God was in this, and he would look after us, I was being my usual, thinking too deeply kind of person. The phone call came later that day. The job was offered. I accepted. Two nights later Kay and I sat with the Divisional Commanders (Bishops!) and told them of our decision to resign, that it was final. God was doing something. We had to follow. I tried to explain all that I’ve written above. I’m not sure what it sounds like, but I could see God weaving his way through all of the mess. Something new, something different, something completely unexpected was going on. I don’t know how this sounded, but it’s what we had to do.
I think the greatest shock for all concerned (other than us and family) was that the decision was final. There was no conversation, no negotiation. No haggling over appointments. It could be taken as being hugely disrespectful to a system that had invested in me, trained me, given me a home and a career – but I felt it was even more disrespectful to take all of that and keep on going despite the stuff that I was convinced about theologically, organisationally and even ecclesiologically. Forgive me that arrogance.
So, here we are.
I suppose I’d want to say a few things. I miss my young people immensely. Sharing in their life was simply the most beautiful thing. I miss my colleagues. I was part of a lovely family. I miss the Army at times. Strange things will come into my mind at the weirdest moments, things that we Salvos would all smile at (humming marches for goodness sake!). Friends will know that I’ve wrestled with leaving behind what I have. It hasn’t always been as clean as I’d want it to have been.
I don’t miss lots of things. I guess that’s how I’ve lived life – looking forward most of the time.
My theology of church has changed. My theology of ordination has also changed massively. My theology of life has moved on.
Through it all, God has been immensely faithful. He called, we followed. He calls, I try to follow. This new life has been full of blessing, and so many full of so much confirmation that I have the utmost certainty nowadays that we’re in the right place.
I want to close this stupidly long story with words that have crucial to my journey throughout the past decade and beyond even. Words from Paul:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
God calls. We simply have to follow. Wherever, whenever. Simplistic, I know…but the story of the ages from Abraham to the disciples to us today.