Interview with Jemma Sander-Heys
(Ordinand at Mirfield College)
First let me ask you to tell me a bit about yourself, what your background is and something of your current life situation, apart from being at College?
I’m thirty years old, I met my husband Joel whilst studying French & German at Exeter Uni, and moved to Poole on the South Coast as that was where his family were from. I began to explore my vocation in 2005, on the advice of a non-stipendiary priest at the church I attended and have led children’s and adult’s drama workshops and music groups on and off for several years. In January 2009 I had a baby girl.
What lead you into a calling to be a priest?
Argh -what a short but complicated question? Could it have been the Sunday school I attended reluctantly as a small child, or the bible stories I read? Was it the way various preachers opened the scriptures, or the roles I was asked to take on in church settings? Was it the conversations with believing and non-believing friends that set my heart alight, or the still small voice when I sat alone thinking? Was it the fact that my whole family teach and I longed to teach what I love, or that God made me a bold chatterbox? Was it the day I realised the most frightening and dangerous thing I would ever have to do was to dare to love?
What is your theological background and why did you choose Mirfield as a place to train in?
My background is quite mixed, formal and informal anglican churches; lively evangelical student churches and Book of Common Prayer communion services; all form part of my church background, for most of my teen years I attended a Baptist church that my schoolfriends went to. Each tradition and setting has something to offer, from lively and life-affirming fellowship, to thoughtful teaching and tradition. I was drawn to Mirfield because of the prayer-life, which is such an integral part of the timetable here. No other UK Anglican theological college works, studies and prays alongside a monastic community, and I was drawn to the awesome reverence which one senses here. Having got to know God as Father and Christ as saviour and friend, I was overwhelmed on a visit here with a sense of God’s Almighty Sovereignty.
What have been the highlights so far at Mirfield
It’s hard to say, because the highlights are the strange, bright glimpses you catch of God’s amazing work in action, not things done by people, but things in which people play only a part -here I truly feel each day that the Kingdom of God is at hand – which is shatteringly humbling, but also thrilling and energising.
What have been the biggest challenges ?
Sheer exhaustion, the days are long and the focus is intense. We are all carried along at breathtaking speed through the study, and sometimes you look back and think -’well that’s enough for my brain this week’ and then realise that it’s only 2pm on Tuesday! You have told me you are married and with a young baby, on a full time course, is this a challenge to far or an inspired time for God to work in you? It is a challenge for my lovely, supportive husband, who is now a fulltime dad (and phenomenally good at it); for me, it is a sacrifice -I knew that the timing was God’s and that it would be do-able; and our little girl is (or so people are always saying) the most contented, happy baby they’ve ever met! But though I see her in the morning and at least once during each day, if only during a tea-break, I do miss both her and my husband, as there is so much work to be done. Several of the men studying here have left families behind in order to study residentially and live in college, and I don’t know how they cope (though I know they sometimes get home at the weekends). As for us, Saturday is our family day -so I roll around on the floor with baby Thea and her toys then ) MIrfield have recently changed their admissions policy to say that all students will have to attend the weekly eucharist, even if a woman is presiding.
Can you tell us more about that from a perspective of woman ordinand?
All change is painful, and I know that Mirfield has only been accepting women ordinands for five or six years. For me, it is a privilege, if you had told me five years ago that I would be training to be a priest, living and studying alongside a community of monks, I would have said you were talking nonsense. As it is, I am -and what an amazing blessing and resource the Community of the Resurrection are -I sometimes feel like a child eating fruit in a garden planted and tended by much better and wiser gardeners. But the changes have come much harder to some people who do not accept that God is also calling women to be priests in his kingdom; the most recent admissions change will not affect any current students, but perhaps it will put off some male ordinands who wish to train without coming up against the reality of women in the priesthood.
How are you being shaped as a person and future priest while being at Mirfield, what do you think it is giving you?
If I could tell you precisely how I’m being shaped as a person and future priest, then I’d be up to speed with God’s plan for me -as we all know from experience, that’s not how God works! But I can tell you what I thnk is beginning to happen so far; and that is, that a very strong foundation is being built, in an environment that is both Godly and realistic; pastorally challenging and very loving. I have no doubt that what is being built here will not crumble in the rain and storm of parish life and that, if I continue diligently, anything God wants could be built on top!
Are there any difficulties there as a woman evangelical?
Well Mirfield is every bit as accepting as any other theological college (which is to say that ‘loving thy neighbour’ well and truly trumps ‘insisting your way is the right one’) some folks say their ‘Hail Mary’ as part of the intercessions, and others (such as I) do not; some commemorate the inspiration that the lives of saints provide, and others ask them to actually intercede; some people cross themselves a lot and others never do. I think that until you experience the full spectrum of Christian worship and liturgy in depth, you cannot understand what is of value and precious in each tradition. What I find continually surprising is the way in which the Holy Spirit works through new (or very old) and unusual pathways -breaking through what might be percieved as cold formality like sunlight shining through ice -with startling and quiet brightness, as well as the way in which some apparent warmth and customary friendliness in other traditions, can seem cool next to ancient warmth. I suppose if I had to liken my own experience of anglican evangelicalism and anglo-catholicism, I might compare a lively beach party and bonfire with a shepherd’s hillside hut and glowing brazier.