God's golden hello

Mark Rowe on the Christians who have swapped Mammon for the pulpit
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"When people get the call to come and serve God, they get the call, it doesn't matter what job they're doing at the time," said Church of England spokesman Steve Jenkins. Last week, Jim O'Donnell, chief executive of the stockbrokers HSBC James Capel in London, got the call.

Mr O'Donnell is to walk away from a pounds 1m annual salary to train as a Catholic priest - but he is not the first person to swap Mammon for Charity.

Increasing numbers of people are joining the Catholic or Anglican church as a second career, giving up posts as stockbrokers, footballers, solicitors, nightclub managers or, in the case of Frank Collins, that of an SAS commando who stormed the Iranian Embassy in 1980.

Second-career priests now outnumber theology graduates among applicants for the Church of England. In 1989, out of 436 people who applied to join the Church of England ministry, 154 were under 29 while 139 were aged 30-39. Last year, 453 people applied to join, of whom 89 were under 29 years old and 143 aged 30-39.

Carolyn Butler, of the Catholic Media Office, said second career people were encouraged to apply to the church. "Seminaries used to take people as young as 17. By coming in later, you minimise the risk that such people may have a mid-life crisis and leave.

"It is really encouraged that people go off, see the world and then still believe they have a vocation. Such people have been through the heat of the day and have a lot to offer the church."

William Agley left his job as a qualified solicitor in 1992 to train as a Catholic priest. He was ordained as a deacon at St Thomas a Beckett church in Wandsworth, south London, last summer.

"My family felt it was a good idea to do something else first and I did a lot of maturing at university and at work," he said. "But the sense of calling just developed at the back of my mind until it wouldn't go away.

"When I made the decision to train as a priest there was lot of uncertainty. It was nice earning money after being a student but I would rather have a lower income and be happy than earn a good salary and feel unfulfilled. I don't have any regrets."

Another secular worker who turned to the Church is footballer Alan Comfort, once a winger for Queen's Park Rangers, Orient and Middlesbrough. A knee injury forced his retirement in 1990 at the age of 25, but he is now Anglican vicar of St Stephen and St Elizabeth churches in Buckhurst Hill, east London.

"I don't look back and think I'm glad I had to retire early because it gave me a chance to serve God. I was earning significant amounts of money, had a car and a house, but they were all tied up with football.

"I play to my strengths, as I did when I was a footballer. I am aware that some people will identify with me and the Church more because of who I am than perhaps with the traditional image of a vicar."

Mr Comfort believes the Anglican Church has changed its approach to potential recruits enormously. "Training in Greek and other disciplines alone will not make you a good vicar. You need something else you can't teach. People like me bring an understanding of the workplace."

Gerald Reddington, in charge of St Barnabas in Ealing, west London, joined the ministry after spending 28 years in the city as a stockbroker. Mr Reddington was not struck by a revelation; he spent 10 years as chairman of Centrepoint, a centre for the homeless in London, while also holding down his broker post. "When you feel impelled by a love greater than yourself you respond to it. You have no option - you feel fingered by God," he said.

"I moved from a testosterone-oriented, masculine, aggressive world in the City to a post where I must be passive and help people cope with the stresses of the world. Everybody has the capacity for both environments.

"I am used to dealing with big numbers. We recently received a Millennium grant of pounds 425,000 to rebuild the church hall. Others may have found handling that amount of money a burden."

Money to Burn, Section 2