Could it be you?

In a church riven by rows about homosexuality, women priests and the Nine O'Clock Service, where the standing of the local vicar is ever more devalued, what kind of person, asks Andrew Brown, obeys the call of God? Someone like Chris Rowberry, overleaf, a one-time chef who dreamed of emulating C harles Forte. Photograph by Matthew Donaldson
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Stephen Carter was steering his Land Rover around a roundabout in Dodoma, Tanzania, when God told him to become a priest. It was not, perhaps, as dramatic a moment as when Bertrand Russell was riding his bicycle and discovered he no longer loved his first wife; but it must have been disconcerting none the less.

"It happened very clearly," he said. "After a few days I told my bishop what had happened and what I sensed God was saying, and, in good African fashion, he told me to go away for a few days until he had had time to think about it. The few days extended to ten before he called me to see him. 'I don't want to lose a good engineer,' he said, 'but I think God is calling you, too. Go, with my blessing.'

"I came home to the UK in April with nothing organised. By September I had found a bishop to sponsor me; I had a college place on offer, and a home to live in with my family." That was in 1982. Now he is the Team Vicar of a parish in Wolverhampton.

This is one way to tell the story of a vocation: God makes his wishes known, his servant follows them, and the way opens up through all obstacles. It is perhaps the classic way of telling the story. Yet things are never so simple, as every Christian church has discovered. It is not enough for anyone to believe that they have been asked by God to do something. That belief may well be mistaken. So all Christian communities have had to evolve ways of sifting, balancing, and judging the people who present themselves as having been chosen by God.

Sometimes mistakes are made. Chris Brain, who led the Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield first to success and then to a scandalous collapse, leapt swiftly through all the hoops that the Church of England puts up to prevent unsuitable candidates to the priesthood. Later, he blamed some of his own behaviour on the ease with which he had been ordained, for he had to do only two years' training instead of the customary three. But Brain was a special case. Everyone involved thought that he had been selected by God to do great things for the church. When only the candidate believes this, churches have an easier time erecting defences. The process of discerning vocations turns out to have little to do with individual judgement or trusting individuals; in practice, no individual is deemed to have heard God's plan unless large numbers of other people hear the same thing.

In the Church of England, and the Roman Catholic Church in England, the selection of candidates is made largely by committees. Bishops, or their advisers, appear at the beginning and end of the process. Only bishops can ordain and, in the last resort, an Anglican bishop may ordain whom he likes; in both churches, anyone who gets as far as the selection committee has to have been recommended by a bishop or his representative. This represents a compromise between the old, monarchical model for exercising authority and the modern, managerial one. The real selection is made in the middle, when candidates are accepted for training, and afterwards. Catholics are selected by the seminary staff; Anglicans are chosen on residential courses, which turn down around half of the candidates. Bishops are not bound by the recommendations of these courses, though they tend to behave as if they are. But, if they are dissatisfied, they can send a candidate back twice, each time to face a different committee of four examiners, who must reach a unanimous decision.

Psychological testing is used already by the Catholics, and will be introduced next year by the Anglicans. This is a tricky area. Hearing God clearly is not generally considered to be a sign of balance: but at the same time the churches cannot allow themselves to be guided entirely by worldly wisdom. God has called some remarkable eccentrics in His time. Neither denomination claims to rely on psychological testing. For Catholics it is more a matter of checking candidates for stability and balance, under the considerable stresses which celibacy can impose when it is not coupled with authority. The official teaching is that God, if He really calls a man to the priesthood, will give him the grace of celibacy, too; but this seems to be in short supply at the moment: only 52 new Catholic priests were ordained last year, compared with about 400 Anglicans.

Celibacy is not the only problem. In both churches, the changing role of a priest, and the loss of respect directed at his office, make difficulties for selectors. The Ven Gordon Kuhrt, the secretary of the Church of England's Advisory Board for Ministry, says, "30 years ago, the clergy were treated with considerable deference. That has largely gone. Instead of a clergyman being apparently omnicompetent, he or she now is much more the leader of an orchestra than the player of every instrument. The clergyperson may not be the best preacher, chairman, liturgy teacher or any of those things, in the parish."

The social aspect of priesthood comes out a great deal when talking to Anglicans about their vocations. The Rev Andrew Spurr, who is now in charge of a group of suburban Essex parishes, trained for the priesthood in the Seventies at Cuddesdon, outside Oxford, one of the two most prestigious Anglican theological colleges. He remembers a classmate sending out invitations to his ordination which invited people to celebrate "the completion of his transition from social group E to social group A".

"A lot of people at Cuddesdon were playing a game, living in a big, camp old rectory; many of those who got vocations in the early Seventies wanted the England of the Ealing comedies," he says. It is this tendency which the machinery of the Church of England at the moment is set up to oppose. Older candidates are definitely preferred; the average age on entry is now 32. Often a selection committee will recommend to a candidate that they widen their experience, rather than turning them down flat.

Archdeacon Kuhrt was not at all happy with the idea that his committees, or even the bishops they advise, should ever tell anyone that they were mistaken about what they thought God was telling them: "It ought to be expressed something like this: we have prayed and thought and consulted and investigated, and it appears to us at this moment that we cannot endorse the calling that you feel you have to the ordained public ministry; we encourage you to investigate your lay vocation. However, if you and your close colleagues continue to feel that very strong vocation, then do come back."

Yet there are some candidates to whom the system can only say that they are mistaken. Gays who do not feel called to celibacy - and even some who do - will fail the present tests if they are honest. And throughout the Eighties, a huge backlog built up of women who felt called the priesthood, but knew that they could not be ordained. Gisela Raines is Dutch and grew up in a church where women could be priests without fuss. But in 1981 she married an American, ordained in the church of England, which would not accept women priests for another 13 years.

She had started to feel a call to ordination when she switched her university studies from Dutch literature to theology: "I remember distinctly doing this deal with God: 'I'll read the theology, and we'll talk about the ordination later.' And the idea never went away. There were no flashes of lightning; no fingers from the sky; just a growing sense that that is where I should be. If I tried to walk away from it, it never actually went away."

So after coming to England, and attending a selection conference while pregnant with her first child, she was ordained a deaconess in 1984. It was to be ten years before she was ordained as a priest; she found it very hard to bear the injustice that her vocation could not even be considered before then, because she was a woman.

"What kept me going in those ten years," she says, "was the idea that this was something that I had freely committed myself to.

"If I wanted, we could have gone to the States; we could have gone to Canada. I could have been a priest in either country, but I had chosen not to, and that knowledge enabled me to stay with where I was. It was not just that God had called me, but that I had said yes to it."

Her vocation turned out to be not just that of priest, but also of priest- in-waiting. This twist in the story may approach the heart of the question. "I think people have vocations to different kinds of things," says Mrs Raines. "It is certainly not about God saying he wants the Church Commissioners to pay your salary. That would be limiting God. He can have all sorts of plans outside the Church."

This brings out one of the most important qualities of a vocation. The more I talk to people who have had them, the more obvious it becomes that the experience they had was not uniquely, or even specifically, religious. Making choices, or finding out which choices we have already made, maybe unconsciously, is not something that only priests do. The Christian would say that God has a vocation for everyone; and that everyone should listen to hear what their role is meant to be. But even atheists listen for an answer to that kind of question. Whether we experience life-changing decisions as a feeling of gradual pressure or as a sudden voice, it is part of the story that makes us who we are. It's not a mark of holiness: it is much more like falling in love, or out of it