Jack Chisnall knocked twice on the dark pew and the congregation stood. There was a short silence, the evening traffic beyond just audible. Then he started to sing. Alone at first, his voice mounting and clear, before the rest of us joined in. At this chapel, Pusey House in central Oxford, the psalms are recited antiphonally, those on the left singing the first verse, those on the right the next, the strange poetry of the Old Testament passing back and forth like information moving between the hemispheres of the brain.
Jack led us through the lineaments of the service – the Nunc dimittis (The Song of Simeon), the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer. Under his long black cassock, he wore a bright red short-sleeved shirt tucked into belted drainpipe jeans, a look that marked him out from the regulars in their blazers and ties of varying browns and greys. The way he sang, the way he held himself, everything about him suggested this was the place he was meant to be, as if had never lived another way. After the service, I leaned over to say something to this effect. He shook his head and sighed, “Thanks, but I fucked the Nunc.”
Six years earlier, Jack had not believed in God. Neither had his best friend from university, Josh Dolphin. Neither is sure who became a Christian first. How do you locate the moment of religious conversion? It’s like trying to work out the instant you started loving someone. It could have been the first time they entered a church of their own volition, the first time they felt moved during a service, the first time the empty tomb of Jesus Christ – the resurrection itself – became a plausible truth to their minds.
After they graduated in 2016, their greatest ambition had been to become comedians. They formed a double act, called themselves Moon, spent their weekends performing absurdist sketch shows in pub theatres, dressed in matching white boiler suits. It lasted several years, this dream of names in lights. But now neither of them wanted to be comedians. They wanted to be Church of England priests.
News about their religious reorientation passed in half-whispers among Josh and Jack’s university friends, myself included. The fact they were joining the priesthood was sometimes couched as an enigma, sometimes as a tragedy. We could not understand why they were giving up their futures for a dying tradition. Why they were choosing a life marked by cloisters and considerable darkness over being anything they wanted, over everything. And so, in early 2021, in the midst of a third Covid-19 lockdown, I decided to ask them.
Josh and Jack are in their mid-20s, which is young for priesthood. In 2020, the average age at ordination, when laity become priested, was almost 46 in the Church of England. The numbers of young people becoming priests is low partly because the number of young Christians is low, and continuing to decline. The majority of young people in Britain define themselves as having no religion at all. When the results of the new UK Census are issued later this year, the number of respondents who tick Christianity as their faith is predicted to drop below 50% for the first time. In other words, it is far from usual for two young British men from secular backgrounds to give their lives to the cloth in the 21st century.
It takes at least six years to become a fully qualified Church of England priest. This involves the kind of training that many jobs demand: academic study, practical experience and so on. It also involves a more profound kind of transformation. In the Book of Revelation, it is prophesied that Christ will return once more to Earth from the east. Most Christians are buried facing east for this reason, to rise from the soil at the second coming and see their saviour face to face. Priests and bishops, however, are buried facing west, to stand, as they did in life, before their congregations, guiding them onwards into eternity. Becoming a priest does not just alter a person’s mortal life; it is a role that extends beyond time itself.
The 19th-century Anglican priest and theologian RC Moberly described the priesthood as a “living sacrifice”. Your life is no longer your own; it is lived in service of a community of believers. One priest ordained in his 20s told me he spent his first two weeks as a minister in constant floods of tears. “Just walking up the street wearing a clerical collar made me feel so exposed and vulnerable,” he explained. “Like I had to represent the Church, God, all of it.”
On meeting, Jack and Josh experienced an instant affinity. They had grown up 100 miles apart, on the peripheries of hefty industrial cities. Jack was from Wigan, Josh from Cleobury Mortimer, a market town not far from Birmingham. Their dads had both started their careers on factory floors and graduated to soft management. They both had mums who were “good on eBay”, as Jack put it. They each had one sibling, a younger brother. Their granddads provided them with a diet of classic British comedy – Only Fools and Horses and Blackadder. They were good kids and high flyers, precocious to the verge of pretentiousness. Josh declared his favourite film to be The Godfather long before he’d seen it. In photographs from family holidays, Jack would be sitting alone on the beach, reading some enormous novel. No one in their families had been to institutions such as Oxford or Cambridge, but since they could remember, Jack and Josh were determined to end up there, gracing the same stages where so many of their comedy heroes had begun their careers.
Their parents didn’t go to church. Still, neither Josh nor Jack remembers a time when they felt apathetic about God. Jack is a man of extremes. In his early adolescence, he was zealously religious. By the time he took his A-levels, he was an equally zealous atheist. Josh’s mind is less of a warring state than Jack’s. He was not religious as a teenager, but he has happy memories of spending time in the parish church. His mum was one of seven, and most of them lived locally, so there was a regular flow of family through its aisles for various christenings, weddings and funerals.
Josh arrived at Oxford in 2012 to study history, Jack in 2013 for English. Once there, Jack devoted himself to comedy. The first time Josh saw him on stage, he couldn’t get over Jack’s brilliance. After the show, he went over and said: “You should do a sequel of that, but with me in it, too.” Jack was quick and witty. But he was also more honest than other people Josh had met at university. No one else talked about how punishing it was. Likewise, Jack admired how straightforwardly, unapologetically himself Josh seemed. In each other they both discovered qualities they could not see were also in themselves: someone grounded and earnest, who reminded them of home.
Jack is taller, more angular than Josh. The first time Josh saw a Rembrandt self-portrait, he thought: at last, people who look like me getting some representation in art. He has soft features, a stooped posture and droopy eyes that suggest a melancholic disposition. This impression falls away as soon as he speaks. When together, Josh is the more animated of the pair. At any hint of a joke from Jack (and when I interviewed them as a pair, there were many of these – I, the waiter, any passers-by becoming audience while they tried out accents and characters), he throws his head back and slaps his knees appreciatively. Jack is more sensitive and self-critical. He sometimes disappears into himself without warning. We spoke every few months between 2021 and 2022. The deepening of his commitment to Christianity during this period meant that on each occasion we talked, the version of himself from our last meeting had already become an object of some disdain.
There are two distinct routes to faith among those who don’t grow up Christian. The first is person-led. One priest I spoke to followed a girl he fancied into a church. He walked in an atheist and came out a believer. The process isn’t always so quick, of course. One devout Christian, named Chris, told me that it had started on his gap year when he met a Pentecostal Christian in Huddersfield. Every day the two spoke about faith. At the end of the year, Chris went to visit his new friend’s church. There the friend spoke to him through the Holy Spirit. In that heightened state, he told Chris truths about himself no one else knew. After that, Chris could think of no further reason not to become a Christian.
Others arrive at church after trauma. One 19-year-old I spoke to found himself in a cathedral, having recently lost both his grandparents. There, in the partial darkness, the vast interior illuminated only by candlelight, the air thick with incense, as the choir sang the Magnificat, he began to weep. He could feel his grandparents beside him and was released. “Something had fallen into place,” he told me.
Neither Josh nor Jack found faith while at university, but the conditions for their conversions were likely set there. A major panic attack the night before Josh handed in his final-year thesis had led him to take a year out. It shocked his mum. She hadn’t realised the pressures he put himself under, how he judged himself in relation to all those private-school kids who seemed to pass through Oxford without breaking a sweat. “We’re still the same here. Nothing changes with us,” she remembers saying when Josh came home to recover. “But things are so different for you now.”
When he returned to Oxford the following year, Josh sought out ways to stave off another breakdown. He ended up attending morning prayers with a friend at his college chapel. It was not a conversion, but it provided a stabilising ritual, which seemed to open a new region in his mind – this could be somewhere you go when you’re in trouble.
Jack had a similar crisis of confidence in his final term. One evening he walked over to his tutor’s office and asked him: “What’s the point in literary criticism?” From there, it was a small step to “What’s literature for?” The questions kept unfolding all the way up to “What’s the universe for?” He sees this moment as the origin of his faith. His younger brother, Callum, considers it inevitable that Jack ended up at God. He had that kind of mind. “It was too big a question for him not to get his teeth into,” he said.
When I suggested to Rev Helen Fraser, the Church of England’s head of vocations, that many of the conversions I’d heard of were borne out of despair, I found myself immediately apologising. I imagined she might think I was undermining her faith – equating it with mindfulness, therapy, functional tools to cope with being alive. “It doesn’t sound negative to say you find God when you’re low,” she corrected me. “I would just say instead: ‘God finds you when you’re low.’” I had begun to understand that this reframing is part of what it means to be Christian: fate elided with faith, each experience reworked into further evidence for the existence of a loving God.
The place where Jack hoped to come to faith was St Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest parish church, which was founded in the 12th century – as if a church with a weighty past might more readily catalyse a conversion. It took him two attempts to get there. The first time he dressed smartly, got to his front door, then changed his mind and retreated back to his bedroom. He had graduated that summer, in 2016, and now he was in London, living with a set of close comedian friends. But the atmosphere in the house was miserable most of the time. A week before Christmas, they threw a house party. That night Jack struggled to get a purchase on conversations. To make matters worse, his ex was there with a new boyfriend. The next morning, waking to a scene of splayed bodies and spilt beers, something in him snapped: he ordered a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer on Amazon, promising himself he would start attending church in the new year.
His first service was evening prayers in the bitter heart of winter, January 2017. The whole thing – all that glass and refracted light, the choir’s voice resounding around Norman stone – struck him in a way nothing else had. He sat in the back row of the pews, trying to make sense of the vast, oppositional thoughts in his mind. Christians were supposed to be the ones who’d got it wrong. It was his friends, all those drunk, unhappy people from the house party, who knew how to live now. “Which team do I want to be on?” he remembered thinking.
Church services offered a system and order to Jack’s weeks. All those steeples interrupting the skyline, previously unnoticed because he had not needed them – they now took on a new meaning. He picked his team. He skipped the next few house parties and started going to St Bart’s most Sundays. There is a militancy to Jack’s character, his possible futures divided into either/ors, a portcullis slamming down as soon as one is deemed preferable to the other. If he was going to do religion properly, he decided he would need to wipe his slate clean and begin again. He shaved his head and put himself on a vegan diet. It was as if he perceived within himself some essential unruliness that could only be kept at bay by rigorous self-discipline. It was the way he’d attended to comedy at first. At university, he was an obsessive student of the form, submitting each line of each sketch to microscopic analysis until he ended up at the funniest possible punchline. But in professional comedy, at least, it was never enough: you could not study your way into comedic success. Christianity seemed to offer the control over his life he was lacking in his chosen career.
The style of churchmanship at St Bartholomew is high church, or Anglo-Catholic – a misleading name for what is, in fact, a branch of Protestant Christianity, though one with close ties to the Catholic origins of the Church. There is a solemnity to proceedings, the ministry dressed in smart, pleated cassocks, the congregation in suits, the services closely imitative of their “smells and bells” Catholic heritage. The type of church where a new Christian ends up is often down to chance – the one closest to your flat, the one your friend attends. Some find themselves drawn to a particular branch of Christianity – the accessibility and exuberance of evangelical churches, for example, or the prescribed rituals of Anglo-Catholicism – while daunted or dispirited by another.
That first year out of university, while Jack was in London, Josh was completing a history fellowship at Princeton. On one of their many Skype calls across the Atlantic, Jack mentioned to Josh that he’d started going to church – and Josh lit up. He had never felt lonelier than he did in the US. Some afternoons, he would find himself loitering outside the church at the centre of campus. But he found he couldn’t go in. It was strange. He’d never felt wary of churches before. Now it was as if just stepping over that sacred threshold might provoke some irreversible change in identity.
But with Jack lighting the way ahead, faith suddenly seemed a plausible option for Josh, too. For both of them, university was supposed to have been the key to a shining future. Instead, they had left feeling deflated, rudderless. Here, at last, was a way out. “Sorted!” Josh thought. “I’m sorted now.” It is much easier to remain convinced of your own choices when someone else is making the same ones alongside you.
Recently Jack has started picturing his life as a great house comprised of many rooms. There are rooms for your friendships, your love life, your career, rooms that you put signs outside declaring: I do not want this changed by my religion. Gradually, though, God starts knocking on the doors of more rooms, asking to join you in there, too. “And it’s difficult and painful and annoying,” he told me. But God’s presence also changes your experience of the rooms. You realise this was how they were supposed to look all along. You realise they have become brighter.
After Josh came back from the US in the autumn of 2017, he moved into the house with Jack. While Jack continued going to St Bart’s, Josh settled on All Saints Margaret Street, an ornate high gothic, Anglo-Catholic church in Marylebone in central London. It was like acquiring a new language. Jack started with apologetics – the problem of evil, the reliability of the Gospel, seeking out arguments to defend aspects of his new religion as he discovered them. Josh found it easier than Jack to throw himself into the embodied aspects of faith, attending as many services as possible, memorising prayers and when to bow his head, kneel, cross himself. At first, setting out on a religious life is about establishing new habits, repeating these until they become automatic.
Outside of religion, most of their time together was spent dreaming up sketches for their comedy double act. Their first Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 was a success – a set of interrelated skits that darted between the weird, the brutal and the unashamedly silly. One joke involved a cosmetic surgeon who accidentally performs a facial reconstruction on a client that makes him look exactly like John Prescott. “This Is England, but sketches,” was how they liked to market it. Everyone said it was impossible to get noticed your first year at the Fringe, but they sold out their shows, received a host of five-star reviews and ended up performing a run at Soho Theatre in London.
A month after Edinburgh, in September 2018, Josh celebrated his confirmation, the Anglican rite in which the believer, normally in early puberty, makes their first serious commitment to God since baptism. (Jack did not get confirmed until 2021.) It was around this time that Christianity started inflecting their comedy. “What can we depict that is actually consistent with our faith?” Jack would ask during rehearsals. He wasn’t sure whether there should be smut or swearing any more.
Joining a religion is a disruptive act. The more Josh and Jack remodelled their lives towards Christ, the more out of place with their peers they found themselves. When Jack admitted to Harry, one of his best friends, that he was looking into religion, he had initially framed it as a joke: a period where he’d briefly gone “really Christian” to get through a bad patch of mental health. But once they moved into a two-bedroom flat together in 2019, Harry realised it was not a phase. Jack was fretting about the ethics of one-night stands. He was talking about virtues as if they had acquired capital letters. Every morning Harry would come down to find a new copy of the Church Times on the kitchen table, or a new doorstopper of Christian apologetics. Those books piling up seemed like a wall rising between them. Harry – who asked me not to use his real name – had been brought up in a strict evangelical Christian household, but had lost his faith in his early 20s. It was disarming to watch Jack transition from someone “so self-aware”, he explained, to someone rewriting every aspect of their lifestyle “to match this calling, as he would describe it”.
For now, though, Jack was still operating within the outer rings of his new faith. He could not imagine actually ending up ordained. At the same time, Josh was rapidly moving towards the centre of his religion. On Shrove Tuesday 2019, Josh began discernment, the process during which Anglicans ascertain if God is calling them to ministry.
Last year, I met a priest named Brutus Green at his church in Putney. We sat on a bench looking out over the church lawn, where teenagers were sunbathing. A few years ago, Green published a paper on priestly formation, the process ordinands go through at theological college. He argued that “formation” implied a simultaneous deformation of one’s past self, a rupture between who you were before and after your ordination – when the bishop lays his hands on your head and confers into your body the authority of the Holy Spirit. It can take a while to get used to this change. I heard of one young priest who, on his first day wearing a clerical collar, was carrying a broken microwave out of the vicarage when someone called out: “Morning Vicar!” He was so shocked to be addressed that way, he let go of the microwave and it crashed to the ground.
Training for priesthood usually takes six years, and follows distinct stages: discernment (roughly a year); ministerial formation, usually at a theological college (two or three years); then, after ordination, three years of practical training as a curate (equivalent to an assistant priest), first as a deacon, then as a priest, at a parish church.
The first step towards discernment is recognising God’s call. For evangelical Christians this is often literal. Joshua, an ordinand in his 20s, was filling out job applications during a family caravan holiday when God spoke to him. He said three words: “Be a priest.” It was not how Joshua imagined God would sound. “There were no thunderclaps,” he explained. “His voice was gentle, quiet.” Mostly, though, the call is mediated through other Christians. Your priest might come up and ask if you have considered priesthood. It is difficult to overemphasise the significance of these interactions – one of those rare questions that has the power to entirely reorganise not only a person’s future but their very being.
One day last year, I visited Trinity College Bristol, a residential theological college with a mostly evangelical student body. I was placed in a circle of seven ordinands in an airy room, and told I could interview them simultaneously. One by one, working clockwise around the circle, they told me their names and why they were becoming priests. Though only 23% of ordinands who began their training in 2020 were under 32, those present were all in their 20s and early 30s. Annabelle, the quietest of the group, described finding her old school year book the other day. By her name was written: “Most likely to be a priest.” At this the chorus of ordinands oohed.
The ordinands I encountered during the course of my reporting were smiley and assured – those from evangelical colleges, especially, bordered on the angelic. They often shared similar mannerisms. Quoting from the Bible, their eyes would drift up to a point on the wall above my head, their speech would triple in speed and turn somewhat robotic, as it tends to do when you’re retelling a story for the hundredth time.
Ordinands complete a core curriculum (modules on Bible studies, ethics, spirituality, etc) as well as carrying out placements at local churches. Trinity Bristol has an “introduction to preaching” module, with assistance from a voice coach. At Cranmer Hall in Durham, there is a module on death and dying, where ordinands practise writing eulogies for people they have never met. A student at Trinity Bristol described a recent lecture they had on “the pull of the collar”. Wearing a clerical collar, they told me, can make you more attractive to those around you. It’s why a lot of them didn’t like the second season of Fleabag: the way the “hot priest”, played by Andrew Scott, abuses his position. In the class they were taught how to avoid taking advantage of this newfound appeal.
After graduating, you are ordained as a deacon, then, a year later, as a priest. “A priest has completely broken cover,” Josh told me. “They become a walking sacrament.” Only priests can absolve sin – though absolution is better associated with Catholicism, Anglican priests may provide general absolution to their congregation – bless people and consecrate the eucharist. New priests describe their first eucharists as a blur of nerves – each recalibration of self, each difficulty faced over those half-dozen years, all preparing for this moment, when Christ is encountered through the bread and wine.
Alongside the transcendent moments, the job is often mundane. Priests have endless admin. Theological college does not prepare you for the “brutal facts of ministry”, warns the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, in his book On Priesthood. You have to maintain the church buildings, organise volunteers, run after-school clubs and food banks. You deal with pastoral visits throughout the week from members of your parish – 5% of your congregation take up 95% of your time, one priest told me. The afternoon I spent in the back office of Rev Georgina Elsey’s church near Hyde Park, she had three hour-long meetings with members of her congregation, one of whom, an elderly woman, wanted to discuss the details of her impending death and funeral. “You are engaging with people from their birth to their death,” Rev Green said. “You’re not worshipping for yourself once you’re a priest – you worship for others.”
Leaving comedy wasn’t a struggle for Josh. Alongside discernment, he was working as a learning support assistant at a Church of England school in London, and he felt happier and more rooted than he’d been in a long time. For Jack, it was harder to let go of his dream of becoming a “hot-shot comedian”, as he put it, even though he found it increasingly annihilating to stand before a crowd of stony-faced men, who demanded and often failed to be entertained by his increasingly arcane and theological monologues.
Seeking a way out, he applied for a postgraduate diploma (a qualification similar to a master’s degree in kind, but shorter in duration) in applied theology at St Stephen’s House, a theological college with Anglo-Catholic leanings. In September 2020, he moved back to Oxford to begin his new studies there. It was the midst of the pandemic; even if he’d wanted it, there was no comedy stage for him to return to.
Near the end of his first year at St Stephen’s, Jack went through a breakup. They had been going out for a year, and were in love. Her lack of faith seemed no obstacle at first. God had not entered that room of his house yet. But the further he progressed into a Christian community, the more difficult it became. He wanted to be with someone he could pray with, someone to share in the new set of principles redefining his life. Eventually, he came to believe that the most loving thing he could do was not be with her anymore.
To his secular friends, the breakup made no sense. Harry sent him a long, concerned WhatsApp message. “You’re throwing away something that makes you really happy for the sake of your religion,” he wrote. “I’m worried about you giving your life to this thing.” The reply he received from Jack was vague. Something like, “Grateful you said this. We should chat,” Harry remembered. In reality, Jack was taken aback. Did his friends think he’d lost it? Had his actions really become that inexplicable? They never met for the promised conversation.
There are other topics that Jack and Josh find hard to broach with their friends. Both of them now define themselves as “pro-life”. Their positions on this issue are new, still in the process of crystallising. When I asked Jack about abortion while visiting him in Oxford in early 2022, he rubbed his eyes hard with his fingers and did not speak for 10, 20 seconds. As we discussed the subject, he seemed to be trying to figure out in real time what his faith might require of him, and how far that might separate him from me. Later, I raised the same subject with Josh, and under the shade of a tree in Regent’s Park, he sighed and pressed his face into his hands. Just as Jack had, Josh quoted Genesis: “All life is sacred.” He was reluctant to give a definitive answer; he had not received any training yet on the issue from the Church. All he would say is that people ought to think carefully about their decision. But, he pressed on, “Whatever decision they come to, God is with them. God does not give up on us.” Both Josh and Jack said they would not advocate for abortion to become illegal.
For some in discernment, reconciling one’s own identity or beliefs with the Church of England proves impossible. One woman I spoke to, Susannah, left the discernment process after a year. By her second meeting with a Church vocations advisor, she was already being asked to talk about her sexuality “in awkward ways”, she said. Same-sex marriages are not permitted in the Church of England and gay clergy are expected to remain celibate. As a gay woman, Susannah knew she could not agree to that.
Plenty of gay clergy find their way around the guidelines. When we met, Rev Elsey wore a sleeveless clerical shirt that showed off the thin rainbow bands tattooed across her upper right arm. She suggested that many gay clergy see the vows they make to God as separate from the guidelines that are set out by the bishops. It is possible that a bishop might ask a gay priest in their diocese if they are having sex. But, Elsey joked, what counts as sex? There is no fixed way. While working on this article, I met unmarried priests, queer priests and priests married to atheists, like Rev Brutus, who suggested his congregation quite enjoy that the vicar’s wife is a non-believer.
Jack has also begun refashioning his views on sex, choosing to be celibate before marriage. (This isn’t a prerequisite of priesthood in the Church of England, though it is preferred.) Watching Josh and Jack’s views migrate over lines I had not imagined they would ever cross made me nervous. Sometimes I envied the certainty that faith gave them, but sometimes I worried that that certainty had become a barricade between us. How can a person travel from one ethical standpoint to another like that? How can you have no belief, and after only a few years see the Christian faith as the gamut by which you live your life? Sometimes as we talked, I wanted to ask if this was their final conviction, if there might not be another shift to a new worldview in five, 10 years’ time.
“Have you considered that one day you will look back at the 27-year-old Jack and be amazed he could believe what he did back then?” I prompted. Jack laughed. He compared it to being in love, a topic that came up in our conversations almost as much as religion. When you’re in love, you say all these things to a person. And you really mean them. But after that relationship has ended, you ask yourself: “How can I reconcile the fact that I really meant them, and yet, I can’t say them, or don’t mean them now?” It is frightening to acknowledge our current feelings might not last. Then he paused, working the image to its end in his head before articulating it. Loving Jesus Christ, and wanting to make your own life as close as possible to that of Christ, is not the same as the love between two humans. God is unchanging, so to live as a Christian is to provide a ceiling, an upper limit to your future. “Of course,” he added, “it may be the case that in 20 years I’m saying, actually it’s Allah I believe in, and now I want to be an imam, or something.” But even as he said it, I felt he didn’t mean it.
In May 2021, Jack finally entered discernment. Having spent eight months at St Stephen’s living among ordinands, priesthood no longer felt so remote. I visited him around that time, at his flat in south-east Oxford. An ordinand from St Stephen’s joined us for dinner. She asked if Jack would say grace, and the three of us bowed our heads while Jack extemporised a prayer. His friendships at St Stephen’s are much like his old ones, characterised by silly jokes and idle chat about music, sport, he said. But most lines of conversation that night led determinedly back to faith.
A few days previously, Jack told me, St Stephen’s had held a movie night. Someone chose Hereditary, a horror film complete with hauntings and satanic rituals. One of the ordinands kept gasping and averting his eyes. At first Jack thought he was doing it sarcastically; he was astonished when he later found out that the ordinand actually had a pronounced belief in demonologies, the doctrine of demons acting on the physical world. A year later, when I brought this anecdote up with Jack, he admitted that he no longer discounted the possibility of demons, either: he has learned to take seriously Christ’s warning about spiritual warfare on earth.
The next time I visited him in Oxford, Jack had moved out of his flat to Pusey House, the Anglo-Catholic establishment in the centre of the city, comprised of living quarters, an elegant gothic-revival chapel and an extensive library of theological texts. He slept in an attic room with a single bed. On his mantlepiece was a postcard of Grünewald’s Crucifixion, displaying so vividly the agony of Christ, next to a pop art photomontage of the Beatles. It was November 2021. For more than a year, Jack had been living away from those places where faith rubbed up abrasively against the rest of his life.
This was when I saw Jack leading evening prayers, and was struck by how at home he seemed before a congregation. A few hours later, we returned to the small chapel so he could prepare for compline, the last service of the day. I understood now why Jack had found it hard loving someone who didn’t pray with him. Prayer was no longer a distraction in his day. This was where his life happened.
I had never witnessed the moments preceding a church service before. The vaulted space feels less sacrosanct with a stepladder before the altar, where, on this occasion, Jack was balanced precariously trying to light the candelabra. His colleague arrived to burn black tablets of incense in the thurible, the metal container suspended from chains that is commonly used in Anglo-Catholic services. As he swung the thurible, the chapel began to lose its edges. Look, he gestured to me, and performed a whole orbit over his head, leaving behind a hazy ring of smoke. The priest came over to ask Jack which parts of the services he would be leading, and then retreated to a pew to scroll through his phone. Then the electric lights were extinguished and the congregation entered holding candles and we began to sing once more. In those moments before and during the service I saw the extent of an active faith: the mundane and transcendent, the two drawn so close together.
Not long ago, I went to visit Josh, who is now a history teacher at the Church of England school. His journey towards priesthood had stuttered the last year. Midway through 2021, he put his discernment on hold, deciding that teaching was a sufficient call on his life. That summer, he went through a period of spiritual aridity. At that time, his faith felt less plausible. He found it harder to concentrate on what was happening during services. But he kept going to church, kept praying for consolation, and over time his faith was restored. Amid the “mirth and turbulence of relationships” that being a teacher provides, Josh finds he can feel God’s presence most closely. As I watched him in front of his class of cool, anxious sixth-formers, he seemed to gain in stature, to grow more assured. After class, he told me he had started on discernment again. He wants to become a chaplain in a school. He and Jack might even end up at Oxford together again for theological college.
The day after visiting Josh, I went to see Jack one last time at Pusey House. We sat on deep red armchairs in an opulent study, Jack reaching up now and then to play with the tall lamp beside his chair. He told me that the other day he was asked to assist the priest with the Sunday high mass for the first time. Standing before the altar, as the bread and wine were consecrated, all he could think was: “Look where I am now, on top of the mountain.” He told me he’s dating someone new. They pray together. They’re keeping to their vow of celibacy, which is not easy. They go on dates in public places to avoid getting too close – long walks, golf. They’ll probably end up at an owl sanctuary soon, he joked. But it feels more intimate than any relationship he has had before. God has knocked and come into another room, Jack said. And as he did so, he twisted the lamp shade again so that the emanation from the bulb shone out rather than down. And then there was a little more light.