As they sought to complete a discernment process during the lockdown, many of our new students made the decision to join Trinity’s community without ever being able to visit in person.
Last winter, Annabel Stott and her husband, Matt, scheduled visits to five theological colleges as part of her discernment process with the Church of England. Like so many other aspects of life, this careful planning was thrown into confusion as the country entered lockdown just days before the Stotts’ scheduled visit to Trinity. Along with many of the fifty-nine new students who joined the Trinity community this autumn, Annabel had to try instead to ‘meet’ the college virtually.
In lieu of traditional Open Days and visits, Trinity offered an online Open Day, with YouTube videos from Principal Revd Dr Sean Doherty and Tutor in Practical Theology Revd Dr Helen Collins on the college’s kingdom vision, programme options, placement opportunities, and more. Prospective students chatted on Zoom with Trinity tutors and current students. ‘I never managed to come to Open Day, to meet staff or faculty in person,’ Annabel says. ‘We didn’t visit our house ahead of time, or the college—it was like a blind date.’
New student Zoë Braven-Giles agrees. ‘We’d had the realisation that we were not going to be able to visit colleges. We would have to move sight unseen. We just decided that we would get as much information as we could.’
BAPS ONLINE AND BELATED COLLEGE DECISIONS
Meanwhile, prospective ordinands also needed to contend with Bishops’ Advisory Panels (BAPs) pushed back into July and August, whilst anticipating a potential August or September move to college if they passed.
Zoë struggled to prepare for an online BAP at home with three children—very different from the three-day retreat she’d prepared herself for, pre-pandemic. ‘My DDO gave us all practice BAPs on Zoom, and in both practice sessions it was difficult to complete the interview without interruption. My DDO was deeply supportive and offered me his house so that I could do my BAP in the quiet, completely on my own, with no other distractions.’
New student Joel Wells began his discernment process in January 2020 and found himself in the final online BAP appointment offered by his diocese at the end of July. It happened so quickly Joel didn’t have much time to consider colleges—after passing his BAP, it was suddenly August and he hadn’t applied anywhere.
This wasn’t the first time Joel found himself facing unknowns and needing to trust in God. He first considered ordination training whilst working as a youth pastor in Canada. That door unexpectedly and painfully closed when his and his wife’s visas were denied. ‘It was a real challenge,’ he says. ‘Rachel and I had no plan and moved in with my parents. It felt like a no on the ordination idea. But we felt God’s hand in the situation.’ The couple moved to Southampton for work and there felt God drawing them into the life of a church plant. Joel began to ask again whether God was calling him to ordination. ‘I felt God saying it’s time to push the door with a bit more force, and this time I just fell through it.’
Joel knew he wanted to stay at the Southampton church plant, and his DDO told him to look at Trinity’s dispersed learning (DL) option. ‘I looked at Trinity’s website and liked the community emphasis,’ he says. ‘Then when I had my online interviews with the tutors, I just had a strong sense of God drawing me to Trinity. The main thing I’ve been unsure about is studying. I never went to uni, and really struggled through school. I liked the idea of having a week to focus on study, rather than one day a week.’
Zoë and her husband, D.T., similarly wanted a place where Zoë could find the space to focus on her training. For her family, that was through residential training. ‘I need to be living in the context where I’m studying,’ she says. ‘I need to be able to get all my work done at college during the day. Here at college, I’m Zoë, the student. That means I can focus. Then I can juggle family needs in the evenings. We are hoping for a healthier, more balanced life here. It’s in my heart to be part of a community—I think that’s central to the church. It’s all about relationships with people.’
FINDING GOD IN THE MIDST OF UNKNOWNS
The process of making significant decisions in the middle of the pandemic wasn’t easy, but God provided the students with the encouragement they needed.
The late July BAP added complications to Zoë’s move as the family waited to hear about BAP approval and then moving arrangements just weeks short of the start of school for the children in Bristol. ‘It was incredibly stressful,’ Zoë says. ‘I had a moment of thinking, “I can’t do this.” I didn’t know where my kids would be at school. I didn’t have an address yet to apply for school places. Then, just one hour later, Rebecca emailed from Trinity to say she had lined up a house for us. I had the address, and then the school places came through quickly. It really helped once I knew my children had school places.’
‘We received handwritten cards to say that people at Trinity were praying for us. That was really special,’ says Annabel. ‘The small things weren’t skipped because of the pandemic. And it was really nice to meet people from college online, to ask all of our questions. They were honest about not having all the answers, not knowing exactly what would happen in September, but they were saying, “We will process this with you all. We will journey with you.” It gave that sense of family and community—that it’s not just a place to be trained, but a place to be supported in this next big step, where it’s not just about me, but Matt would also be supported.’
As Zoë and her family prepared to leave the home in which they’d lived for sixteen years, she found out that the brother of a friend was moving out of the exact house she was about to move to in Bristol. ‘He walked us through a virtual tour, and when I looked the house up on a map I saw it was just one street away from where my dad grew up. All these little connections helped it to feel like coming home.’
When they moved to Bristol, Annabel and Matt discovered that they share a street with another Trinity student, and the Trinity students who live locally to them have formed a WhatsApp group. ‘We have found socially distanced ways to get to know each other, and it’s been lovely. We have felt so welcomed, like we were meant to be here.’
TOGETHER IN PERSON
While the early weeks of classes may have felt and looked a bit different—with one-way systems, changes made to classrooms to maintain social distancing, lunches eaten in groups of six or less—these new students were still glad for the opportunity to meet together on-site.
‘I’m so grateful for the lectures in person,’ Zoë says. ‘That helps for getting the most out of it.’ Joel, who attended his first DL block week at Trinity last September, agrees: ‘I was glad to get to come in and actually properly meet everyone on the course. It would have felt weird if we met first online. It’s helpful to have the lectures in person, too.’
The students wonder how God might use difficult times to shape them for the ministry to which he’s called them. ‘I’m learning to trust God, trust in God’s calling, trust that he has us on a path, even when I can’t really see it,’ says Joel. ‘God knows where he’s leading us. We might think we know, but we’re probably wrong. I’m learning to trust that there’s a process, that this path is the right one even if it doesn’t feel like it at times.’
‘You think deeply about things as you go through the vocational process,’ Annabel says. ‘So with the pandemic, now you are thinking into that as well. What lessons can we learn from this? It’s a big question for me. What can we learn as a church and in our own relationship with Jesus? It’s exciting to be here, with others, learning and thinking together. I think about the group who will come out of this—pandemic ordinands. How will we as a group shape the church?’
Posted November 2020 as part of the Autumn 2020 Trinity News.