Theology college: an unexpectedly Queer experience

Ben Bloom writes about his experience at theology college, and how it’s been one of the Queerest experiences of his life.

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Happy Pride month, my dear SJP friends!

Amazingly, as I sit to write this, I find myself at the end of what has been one of the most unique experiences of my life: my first year at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, training for the Priesthood in the Church of England. It seems like only yesterday that I was on my knees being prayed for as I left SJP for my last Sunday before becoming an Ordinand. I have taken those prayers, and your love, with me to Mirfield, and it has sustained me throughout the year. You are always in my prayers, and I am proud as punch every time I get to tell people that my sending parish is St James’s Piccadilly (this is something that gets asked of Ordinands all the time!)

When I started college, as well as the academic studies I knew I’d have to undertake, I was eager to understand what the ‘Priestly formation’ was that I’d heard a lot of people talk about. If I’m honest, I don’t think I really had a concrete understanding of what my own ‘formation’ at college might be. I knew that I wanted to build a foundation and practice of praying the daily offices that would sustain me in my future ministry. I knew that I wanted to be able to take time for silent contemplative prayer and grow in my relationship with God. I also knew that I was looking forward to being able to spend each day growing in the God’s calling on my life that I was now living out. However, I could not have known that the reality of ‘formation’ can leave one feeling like a block of clay on a potter’s wheel that gets smacked about a bit before it can take a more graceful shape.

The truth is that residential training is a difficult undertaking. Choosing Mirfield was, in part, down to the fact that it would probably be the more difficult option for me. With it being far from London, away from my usual entertainments and distractions, and away from friends and family, I had a notion that it would call on me to rely more and more on God through prayer (and lament!). All of that has been true.

The surprise of formation has come from the interior work it has asked of me. Here are just a few examples of the things God has had me working on these last 9 months:

– Living, praying, studying, serving, worshipping, and working alongside 13 other ordinands means that any and all conflict that might arise between each other has no place to linger. It must be let go of, so that you can continue to live, pray, study, serve, worship, and work alongside each other. Grudges cannot be left to fester, and I have had to drop my propensity to write people off who I disagree with. It is healthy and helpful to have boundaries, but I forever reminded that I am called to love and allow myself to be loved by people who are outside of my own ‘tribe’. If nothing else, this has led to me becoming a more demanding child of God because I find this very difficult and am constantly calling for God’s grace and mercy to help me!

– Living, praying, etc with 13 other Ordinands is like living with 13 mirrors. The things that I find annoying, hurtful, or unpalatable in others usually has some kind of home in my own personality too. For example, I was at one point upset after a conversation with someone who had put forward an intolerant and prejudiced view. I challenged them, which was the right thing to do, but the experience was soon followed by revelations of my own very different intolerances and prejudices, which I was also forced to challenge. It was like a real-life splinter/plank of wood in the eye lesson. I have realised that even the most mildly annoying things about others are usually more about me than them, and residential college offers the lesson to look at my own stuff as a priority every day of the week, which can be exhausting. This is not about beating myself up but is about asking God for my forgiveness and grace.

– Living, praying, etc with 13 male Ordinands has left me really missing the company of people of other genders. Mirfield is a mixed College usually, although it is all male this year, and the vast majority affirm and uphold the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. Coming from SJP, and also having had women Priests and Bishops minister to me throughout all of my Christian and church experience has meant that I have previously taken the fact that not all Priests and Bishops are men for granted. In this last year we celebrated 30 years of Women’s Priestly ministry, and next year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first woman Bishop in the Church of England. Having no women at Mirfield this year has resulted in my own reflection on how important and vital women’s ministry is to me personally, and to God’s Church. Not only do I believe it is right from a Biblical perspective, but it is also right from an equality and human rights perspective. Studying alongside a very small cohort of Ordinands who do not share this view has been an incredibly challenging part of my experience, but one that has ultimately led to my finding a way to respectfully adhere to what is required of me as an ordinand and future Priest, whilst still personally advocating for equality and celebrating women’s ministry in the Church of England. I am also happy to say that we have some women Ordinands joining us in September!

So, theology college has been very challenging, and very confronting, and that’s even before I’ve had to do any essays! But it has also been so fruitful. Not only has it been a time of learning and instruction, but I have also been able to learn some hard lessons and uncomfortable realities that I am confident will help me navigate the ever more polarised, toxic, and disconnected world that I will be ministering in.

In some ways, and appropriately for Pride month, coming to Mirfield has also been one of the Queerest decisions I’ve taken in my life. Not because I get to wear the gender-neutral cassock much of the day, or because, I’m happy to say, there’s an inclusive understanding and acceptance of all human sexuality here. For me, being a Christian is about fundamentally acknowledging and living out the fullness of who we are, that is who God made us to be, in the knowledge and confidence that we are loved unconditionally by our creator. It is from this place that Christ encountered the world, and it is from this same place that we are being called to encounter the world, to love it and nurture it.

As a Queer Christian, my own queerness and that of the community to which I belong, is another lens through which I see myself, see the world, and see God. By taking myself out of my tribe, out of the familiar, and out of the comfortable, that Queer lens becomes sharper, more focussed, amidst the differences surrounding me, and I am able to challenge injustices and more readily reflect upon those things which really matter to me. The things that make me me, are ever more present, and ever more vital. God’s guidance and healing is ever more available through prayer, and my own compass is clearer on the direction of God’s call in my life. I feel, in a weird way, more centred in my Queerness than I have ever done.

I believe that if you allow yourself to be vulnerable, open, and available to listen, God will tell you about the precious and beloved child he knows you to be. From that truth, life will in turn highlight those uncomfortable realities where we forget ourselves and act out of fear or pain. At college, I don’t have to go far at all to find some reminder of God’s love for me, whether that’s in the quietness of prayer, or joining in the Gregorian chant of the Community of the Resurrection or receiving the daily Eucharist. I similarly don’t have far to go to allow my impatience to take charge and become frustrated at someone, often for no other reason than being in a bad mood. In that, ‘Priestly Formation’ then is the training ground for the annoying reality that exists for all of us, by giving us (and hopefully others) another way to see and engage with the world.

I am happy to say that actually any downsides to residential training diminish in comparison to the joy, love, and formation I am enjoying here. I love my fellow ordinands like a dysfunctional family loves each other, and we are so fortunate that we get to unpick and chew over all these things in the most wonderful of settings, alongside the most wonderful monastic community. We’re also very well fed, and the cake is great!

Please pray for me as I continue this crazy journey and look towards my second and final year.

Ben x