When the calling is a mistake

Published June 1, 2005

The title caught my eye at once. As a bishop, one of my most important and challenging responsibilities is to participate in the process of discernment for those who believe they are called to ordained ministry. Beyond this, six years as the “ACPO Bishop” (Advisory Committee for Postulants for Ordination) with overall responsibility for provincial discernment weekends across Canada have given me plenty of opportunity to wrestle with the complex issues involved.

When I read that the author’s father was turned down for ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in the United States, I was really hooked. In my first attempt to be ordained, I too was refused in what seemed to be an arbitrary decision.

Having declared my specialized interest, I need to say that this book is one that will also appeal to general readers both within organized religion and outside it. The author is clear from the outset that she is an outsider, a secular Jew brought up in no particular faith tradition. She is startled to hear that her father believes he has a vocation to the priesthood and dismayed when he is rejected in the early stages of the discernment process. This book is the result of her quest to understand the idea of calling and the processes which religious groups use to decide who should be ordained.

The first part of the book traces her family’s roots to help us understand the background of her father’s decision. The author writes in a lively, readable style, using vignettes to draw us into her relationship with the father who moved away from his family when the author was young.

It is in the second section that she really comes to terms with the issue of vocation. The extent and depth of her research allows her to weave together a context in which belief in a religious calling is comprehensible to the outsider. She interviews bishops, rabbis, priests, members of religious orders and lay people and uses excerpts from these conversations to give us a variety of perspectives on the issue. Initially, I was enthusiastic about its potential as a resource for the clergy and lay people who constitute the ACPO assessors and diocesan candidates’ committees.

The final two sections made me reluctantly change my mind. There is such a thing as too much research and the book would have benefited from the work of a firm editor to prune the thickets of references and keep a steadier focus on the matter at hand. For example, immediately after exploring her father’s response to his rejection she launches into a long discussion of Virgil’s role in The Divine Comedy in order to begin an exploration of what it means to be a secular Jew. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

Despite these challenges, Do You Hear What I Hear is definitely worth reading by anyone looking for a thoughtful consideration of the call to ministry and the discernment processes which may eventually lead to ordination. Ann Tottenham is the area bishop of Credit Valley in the diocese of Toronto. She retires Aug. 31.


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