17 August 2023
Bradly Billings, Truly Called? Vocation in the Anglican Church. Mulgrave: Broughton, 2023.
Books on the nature and ministry of priesthood abound. Bishop Brad has added a most useful volume to this body of work. His book provides a not only theological introduction to the nature of vocation, discernment and holy orders within the Anglican church, but also a focused, practical guide to the steps involved in the process. It further provides appendices including the creeds, 39 Articles, the ordinals and specifically Australian materials, which should be the foundational texts for any potential candidate to reflect on their call to ministry.
The first part of the book addresses vocation and calling, the second the nature and experience of orders within the Anglican tradition. A second, crucial, point of difference is that this book specifically describes the Australian experience of such phenomena. It further provides a neat precis of the history of the Anglican Church in Australia, and its peculiarities. In this respect, it is very much an original contribution to the extant literature given to aspirants and ordinands.
The work is the product of much reflection, practice, and reading on the processes of discernment, vocation and orders within Anglicanism. As such, it provides a valuable tapestry of quotations from both Scripture and secondary literature which speak into these processes, by reference to both theology and experience. Much of this necessarily comes out of English experience. But Bishop Brad avoids both cultural cringe and the potential pitfall of adopting the Church of England’s establishment identity as the church of the nation, which remains alien to almost every other expression of Anglicanism. (No matter how much some may wish or pretend otherwise).
Bishop Brad also rightly points out that theological education and formation must combine theoretical, reflective, and practical matters to enable an adequate depth of theological understanding to sustain ministry. He further points out that learning is not completed with formation. This in itself is nothing new and always stood behind the old practice of compulsory training curacies which lasted for periods of two or more years, and risks being lost. It is further affirmed in the promises made at ordination to pursue lifelong learning.
A book of this type cannot delve into the intricacies of the different positions within Anglican understandings of holy orders. But Bishop Brad does explore the differences between functional (doing) and ontological (being) understandings. These often distinguish functional (evangelical or low-church) understandings from the ontological (Anglo-Catholic). He notes that both aspects are present within received Anglican understandings, even if they remain a point of contention.
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A possible solution to this enduring tension does, however, exist within Orthodox thinking. John Zizioulas expresses the tension between ontological and functional understanding in Being and Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, suggesting that a communitarian understanding of personhood obviates the problems which the promotion of individualism over personhood causes. This communitarian approach – best and most simply expressed in the Swahili proverb Mtu ni watu (a person is people) – means that the source of our being is grounded in the existence of the church, the eucharistic body of Christ, not ourselves as individuals. It has the merit of grounding our true being and nature in the “being born from above” of baptism, rather than the simple fact of existence. It affirms, as Bishop Brad and the term “baptismal ecclesiology” do, that baptism matters more than ordination. It is an additional reminder that this communitarian understanding explains why discernment of vocation is ultimately the decision of the church rather than the perception of the candidate, no matter how strongly felt. And, it also addresses well the old dictum that vocation and location go together, which is well-known in Anglican circles. A person is not ordained without a place in which they may function being identified.
This extremely worthwhile volume will be indispensable for candidates for ordination, not least because of the relevant material gathered conveniently within a single set of covers. It should also be on the shelves of clergy who are either encouraging laity to think of ordination, or walking with them through the processes.
The Reverend Dr Fergus King is Farnham Maynard lecturer in Ministry Education and director of the Ministry Education Centre, Trinity College Theological School.