The year was 1969. It was the end of a decade of tremendous change and significant challenge for every aspect of society in Canada, and indeed around the world. Churches were not exempt.
The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada was meeting in Sudbury, Ontario. One of the things the members of synod heard from the house of bishops of the day was that they needed assistance in discerning who to ordain as priests in such a tumultuous climate. After considerable discussion, a resolution was passed establishing ACPO: the Advisory Committee on Postulants for Ordination.
ACPO was to be a national discernment process advisory to diocesan bishops, to be held annually in each of the four ecclesiastical provinces in Canada. It would evaluate all persons discerning a call to be a postulant for ordination to the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada and provide an evaluative report for bishops and those assessed. A typical ACPO report would advise the bishop about the “personal strengths and weaknesses of candidates, the nature of their personal faith, their present understanding and potential for Christian ministry, and their understanding of vocation.” In other words: call, character, and charisms (gifts for ministry).
Move forward to 1971. A national ACPO process had been developed and was ready to be offered in the four ecclesiastical provinces. A member of the provincial house of bishops had been designated by the metropolitan to be the ACPO bishop, and a provincial ACPO secretary had also been appointed to coordinate the provincial process. The secretary’s job was to train a pool of both clergy and lay assessors named by the provincial bishops, to put together an assessment team (balancing the dioceses in the province, clergy and laity, male and female) for each conference, to facilitate the conference, and to submit the letters of recommendation consensually generated by the assessors to the bishops of each ACPO candidate. The letter would recommend, or not recommend, the candidate at this time for postulancy, and offer pertinent observations based on what the assessors had seen or heard during the conference.
Could this possibly be construed by candidates to be potentially stress-inducing? Perhaps. And not unlike any program or process the church has designed over the years, there were many supporters and not a few detractors. Horror stories were told by candidates who felt they had been mistreated and/or unfairly assessed or not heard. And yet the bishops found ACPO reports very helpful and continued to value this discernment from the wider church.
Fast forward to 2019. For some 48 years, the ACPO process had continued to evolve, grow, and improve. Assessor training improved, candidates reported that the three interviews each received were less Spanish-Inquisitional and more pastorally caring and experienced as helpful in their individual discernment journey, regardless of the final report. Candidates were looking forward to coming to ACPO. Assessors were regularly thanked for the time and concern they took with the candidates. For the last decade of the 48 intervening years, the Ontario ACPO conferences have been held residentially for three days at the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine in north Toronto, where both the process and the people involved were upheld in prayer as worship was shared with the SSJD community.
At each conference, the ACPO bishop (currently our Bishop Susan) would be part of the welcoming of the candidates and acknowledge that the church was blessed by them and by the ministries they were exercising in living out their baptismal covenant. Candidates were thanked for offering themselves to the priesthood, the courage this took, and the plethora of feelings this may well generate. Nevertheless, they were encouraged to relax as best they could, be themselves, and let the assessors see the person God saw in them.
After a year’s pause in 2020 due to the uncertainty of the emerging pandemic, and a year in which a significant number of bishops reported seriously mis-sing ACPO reports for their candidates, in 2021, COVID-19 and its many variants necessitated that the ACPO conferences shift to an online format, replete with a whole new set of challenges. Four such conferences were held in Ontario last year. The assessors adapted and supported each other well as their interactions with candidates took on different forms. Candidates, who had not experienced a residential format, reported that their ACPO experience met their expectations and provided them with important feedback as they discerned the next steps in each of their lives. Assessors continued to hear from a number of Candidates: “You got me.”
What a joy it is to be part of a Spirit-led weekend process that allows assessors to meet and see the gifts of those who will potentially be priestly leaders of God’s ever-changing church in the world. What a tremendous gift it is to the church to help those candidates who may not in fact have the call, character, and charisms for priestly ministry in the present moment, hear that raised in the context of a caring community of peers and elders who want the best for their beloved church. Discernment is hard work. Discernment means not always hearing what we wanted to hear. Discernment is ongoing, in each of our lives. And the people of God respond, “Thanks be to God.”