Radical Vocation Conference Brings Reflection on the Priesthood

09.26.18 | Homepage | by Kimberly Durnan

    The Radical Vocation Conference drew an international crowd of young adults as well as other interested clergy and laity to gather for three days of reflection on the priesthood. The group was given a unique opportunity to hear from top leaders in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion about vocation in the priesthood.

    Speakers included The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Ephraim Radner and Oliver O’Donovan. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council were also in attendance. The Conference, which was sponsored by the Communion Partner Bishops, the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, attracted 400 people.

    Bishop George Sumner welcomed the guests during a solemn evensong service. “We who are longer in the tooth hope this weekend will be a powerful moment of encouragement and discernment for a new generation of leadership in our church,” he said. “Be assured you are daily in our prayers that in the words of St. Paul, ‘you might continue to be ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through you – be reconciled to God.’”

    Welby delivered an eloquent sermon creating a mood of prayerful discernment and encouragement when he said that priests are “called to be children of light” to the world. He told the crowd of young discerners that they should be radical, the extremists of love who turn the whole world upside down. He also spoke about the importance of vocation because of a declining number of faithful in the western world. Welby said the priesthood is radical “because we follow the revolutionary Christ,” and “confront the darkness at every point which causes trouble.”

    Attendees prayed, worshiped, and listened to lectures and panel discussions as they studied how they were being called to serve the Kingdom. Hauerwas spoke about the church and pastoral care and how it is not only the work of the ordained. The care that Christians give one another stems from the reality and realization that Jesus is Lord, he said.

    A breakout speaker, Elisabeth Kincaid, spoke about virtuous leadership and the priesthood. The goal is to become the kind of person who makes appropriate decisions naturally, and to use reason to determine how to live in the community harmoniously. Virtues needed for this are temperance, modesty, humility, prudence and courage, she said.

    O’Donovan’s humor and frankness during his session was hugely popular. “His lecture on the importance of good preaching was just excellent,” said Ben Davis, an attendee from Kansas.

    O’Donovan advised against starting a sermon with a personal anecdote, entertaining story or news item. Instead, the preacher should make the connection between the church and the text of scripture; to search and discover what the congregation needs to hear. He said the scriptural text can be challenging, “the passage you are given from an Epistle may begin with ‘Therefore’ so be sure to explore the context in which the passage is given.” He noted that it takes about six hours of preparation for a 20-minute sermon. “The scattered contents of your mind need to be cleared away to discover that golden thread God has given you,” he said. “Let the text speak to you as though you have never read it before.” 

    Wright spoke about the sacramental ministry of the priest and how that means standing at the fault line between heaven and earth and “knowing the dangerous joy of sacramental life.” Wright was emphatic that we can’t divorce the sacraments or sacramental life from the biblical story. “If you take the symbol out of the story…the whole thing falls apart.” The priest needs to remember with every gesture that “you are playing music written in heaven… and (God) wants his song to be sung well.”

    Vendors, mostly from seminaries and divinity schools, also attended the conference in hopes of attracting students. “People are interested in our Master of Divinity program, said Barbara Jenkins from Wycliffe College in Toronto. “We also have a lot of students and alumni here so it’s good to reconnect.” Dallas Theological Seminary let folks know about a new Anglican/Episcopal track, and Oklahoma Christian University set up a table to tell attendees about their online MA in Christianity and Culture. Jim Mathes from Virginia Theological Seminary said he enjoyed talking to people about their vocations and noted the diversity of attendees. “The mix is not surprisingly eclectic when you put the words Radical Vocation in the program.”

    The conference was a huge success, said Canon for Vocations, the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Bergstrom. “I couldn’t be more grateful that work done by our diocese could point so many to Jesus Christ, and encourage them to ask the question, 'Is the priesthood for me?’ Please pray that Christ would use this to persuade many to enter into discernment for the renewal of our church."

    Prior to the conference, Welby and Curry participated in a question and answer session at Saint Michael and All Angels, an event sponsored by the Anglican Centre in Rome. The two were reunited just a few months after serving in the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and joked like old friends. At one point, Curry quipped that he was Welby’s sidekick. The two talked about Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding and how it made worldwide news. “On the way to Windsor Palace the Archbishop told me, ‘Don’t hold back.’ I wanted Michael to get out of the way,” Curry said. “This was God’s moment. That’s what I prayed for.”

    Welby spoke about the Anglican Centre in Rome and how the Anglican Church and Roman Catholic Church need to work together for the common good. It’s the outpouring of love that brings the churches together, he said. Welby noted that reconciliation is an Anglican strength and spoke about how the lack of a central authority, like a pope, is a blessing for Christian relationships. “We have to come to our agreements [ourselves] and not by someone saying this is what we are doing….”

    Overall, the three days brought serious thought and discussion about the consecrated life. Sumner summed up the Radical Vocation Conference when he told the group, “my hope for each person attending is that you will hear the Gospel afresh, learn more about the apostolic tradition conveying it, of which the Anglican way is a part, and consider anew the call of the ordained and their life in the service of both.”