Getting by without God?

I am now a few years into the life of an ordained minister, and have been taking some time over the last couple of weeks to reflect on the things that have happened, and to revisit some of what I thought was going to happen. This has been a complicated affair, but helpful. As part of my reflections I have been rereading a book by John Pritchard, now bishop of Oxford, which I read when I was exploring my own sense of vocation to ordained ministry. It is called "The Life and Work of a Priest" (London: SPCK, 2007). I was caught short a bit this week when I read the following description:

I once went on retreat and was met by a little bundle of holy energy who showed me to my room. I thought I better start in prayer but as I knelt before a crucifix in the room I began to feel worse and worse. I realised that I needed to do a lot of soul-searching. I knew that over the years I had accumulated quite a lot of experience of priestly ministry. I knew about pastoral ministry and mission; I served on synods and working parties; I knew quite a bit about church law and how to stay out of trouble. I'd been involved in parish work, youth work, theological education and was now an archdeacon, and I realised with growing horror that I could do all of these things, if I chose, almost entirely without reference to God, except as a code word or cipher. I had the experience and the skills to get by without God. Of course I didn't want to, but it was a stark warning that priesthood is much more than a set of competencies. No accumulation of skills impresses God. God is interested in the heart of the priest, more than in how impressive his or her CV appears to be.

Pritchard is painfully honest here. Many of us who train to be leaders in the church accumulate skills and competencies, and at the end of the curacy period we are assessed on these. But no-one assesses us on our prayer-life, or on our ongoing and growing desire to be friends of God - not least because it can't be done. We are left instead to answer this question for ourselves: what is at the centre of my life and work? It can be a painful task to search one's own soul in this way, But it seems to me after my few short years in this role, living this life, that it is a necessary one if I am to remain a person of faith – and lively faith at that, in relationship with God through Christ by the indwelling Spirit – and not some functionary of an institution.

It is not just for priests and ordained ministers to ask this question, however, but for everyone who calls themselves a disciple of Jesus Christ, and therefore friend of God through faith. God is not impressed by what we do, but by where our heart lies. The hidden danger to which Pritchard alludes is that the proof of the pudding is not always in the eating. There are many of us who walk the walk and talk the talk but for whom too often and too easily there is little substance underneath, not because we have ceased to care – on the contrary, for many of us our lives are taken over by working in and for the church – but because the work has become the end in itself. I feel this most acutely at the end of services on a Sunday morning, when my biggest sigh of relief is given because we have accomplished the service without any major hiccups – regardless of whether or not anyone has actually managed to engage with God, including me. It's not always like this, but it happens often enough for me to find a resonance with Prichard's statement.

So this week I shall be praying differently, and using my time differently. I hope to set new habits, that will help me keep my heart exposed to God and to make sure I can never get by without him.