Susie Bishop will beordained as a deaconat Bristol Cathedral on Saturday 4 Julyby the Bishop of Swindon, Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield. Here she reflectson how she discerned hercalling to ordained ministry.
My journey towards ordination all started from a conversation with my Spiritual Director. I was having some difficulties with the way things were being done at church, and she asked whether I had ever thought about training to be a lay minister because then I could effect change.
I found myself replying that if I was going to do it, Id want to do all of it. And I was like, where did that come from? Ministry had never been something Id thought about before, although my Dad had been a minister in a house church in Taunton, so Id grown up in that sort of environment.
All that week I kept thinking about that conversation. In our church we often have a time for Words of Knowledge [prayerful insights from God which are offered up for testing] and during this time one of the ladies said, I think theres someone here whos thinking about ordination. That made me feel quite odd this idea was becoming more concrete. When I went up, she told me shed known that word of knowledge was about me, which I thought was really interesting.
So I spent a lot of time praying about it. I said, Lord, if this really is you, then please will you confirm?
The following week I received a letter in the post addressed to Revd S Bishop. This often happens in our house because my husband Steve is a tutor at St Johns College and people just assume he is a reverend. So, as usual, I assumed it was for him and put it with his post. And then later on, I dont know why I did it, I never ever open his mail, but I just had this what is this? feeling. I opened the letter, and it said inside Revd Susie Bishop, I thought, what is going on here?
I threw the letter away; I couldnt cope with the idea. I was scared. Id never thought of myself as being that kind of person; Ive only ever wanted to be a wife and mother. And thats what Ive spent much of my life doing. We've got three children. My eldest is 23 and my youngest is 17. Our middle child, Harry, died ten years ago. He was born with disabilities, so I nursed him for many years. So mothering was a very strong calling.
A short time later, another letter came. Itwas from the same people, another sales letter addressed inside to Revd Susie Bishop. This time I kept it. Ive never received another letter from these people. I just had those two and thats it, which is bizarre really.
I thought to myself, I need to carry on praying about this. The more I prayed about it, the more I started to recall things from my life; the things Id loved, the things Id felt growing up.
I remembered things like being at junior school and going to church and the minister welcoming me, and asking if Id like to do prayers that morning. I could only have been about eight. I said yes. I was already being singled out in a way. I loved going to church as a child. I didnt go to Sunday School, but stayed in church with the adults, just wanting to be in church.
All the way through our married life, I have always been very actively involved with the church; prayer ministry, all sorts of different things. A few times Ive felt called to give a sermon. I would go up to the vicar and say, Ive got this thing brewing can I speak about this? So looking back, I realised I was always putting myself out there. As I started to look back I began to seethat maybe this was more in me than Id first thought.
So my next question for God was to do with the fact I didnt see anyone around me that looked like a minister that I could be like. They were all quite strong, dominant males. And I thought, well Im not even a strong, dominant female!
One day I was in the kitchen cooking and praying, thinking about what I might be. And suddenly I felt it so strongly: "Reverend Mother". The moment I heard that, I thought, yes I could do that. Ive always wanted to be a mum. Thats all Ive ever wanted to be. And all my life, the way Ive been led has been about caring for people, being with people, journeying with people. I thought, I can do that. I can bring these two callings together. From that moment I didnt wrestle with it anymore. I could accept it and welcome it.
Next I started speaking to people about it. My husband wasnt surprised. Not one person I spoke to was surprised. Overwhelmingly I was told people could see me being a minister. It was only me that couldnt see it as clearly! Everyone was very supportive, especially Sam Rushton at the Diocese. She gave me fantastic support all the way through.
So then the formal discernment process started, leading to the Bishops Advisory Panel (BAP). It was daunting but I think what I struggled with most was if they said no to me, then how would I cope with the idea of having misheard the Lords voice? If Id misheard, then that meant I didnt know what His voice sounded like and that was quite an unsettling thought. That's whatworried me the most. How would I resume a relationship with God, and try to hear his voice again?
I went to the BAP and I thought, just be completely yourself. Dont try to be anything youre not. So I was. I had some brilliant advisers, they were fantastic but they certainly grilled me! And rightly so.
One of the things they grilled me on was that after the death of my disabled son, Steve and I had some difficult struggles; we found it hard to communicate. I think grief got in the way. We went to marriage guidance counselling, and they questioned me about that. They asked how strong our marriage is now. It was good. It was right and proper. But it brought back a lot of what wed gone through. Thats the right process though. You dont want to appoint someone to this role and then later find theres stuff that hasnt been talked about, hasnt been worked through.
It was all scary and exciting all in one to have my call to ministry finally affirmed by the BAP. Ive just finished at Trinity College. I only have one more essay to complete, which is on mission and what women have brought to mission. Its really struck me how all the women missionaries I've been reading about have been led and prompted by love. Thats been their overriding driver, their overwhelming love for the people theyve gone to minister to, even having new cultural names made up for them about love because they have been so generous with their love.
We cant do mission today if we dont have love for the people we are serving. These women are my role models. The opportunities they opened up simply through loving people, just as they were, just as they needed help. As a church we can have all the strategies in the world but they wont work if we dont love, 'they' wont know that were God's disciples. As the Bible says, by this shall all men know. If we genuinely dont have any love for the people in our parishes, how can mission work?
So now Im looking ahead to the ordination service at the Cathedral. It feels as important as a wedding. It feels very significant that mine is on the fourth of July, Independence Day the day I lose my independence! That feels a very fitting way to start my ministry, losing my independence and being utterly dependent on God for all he has in store.
Do I have advice for others considering ordination? Well, the words that have stayed with me all the way through are words that Sam Rushton said. Just take the next step next. If Id known some of what I know now Id have been so daunted, but because youre simply taking the next step next you just keep going. Then you look back and see how far you've come. Its a bit like Dory in Finding Nemo: just keep swimming, just keep swimming. For me its been: just keep trusting, just keep trusting. Thats been my mantra all the way!