29 November 2004
10 May 2003 is a date etched on the mind of Rachel Phillips. For it was on this day that the Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) partner felt called by God to become a priest and turn her back on the legal profession.
Explaining this extraordinary life-changing decision gives 39-year-old Phillips an enormous amount of satisfaction. She beams as she tells her story.
Although she felt the strong sign of Gods call on that spring day, she says that in another way her move into ministry had been bubbling under for a while.
Phillips has been involved in church activities since joining the choir at the age of 10 and learning the organ a year later. By the age of 15 she was a professional organist and is now director of music at her church.
Throughout this time, the idea of ministry had floated around in her head. She did not have a lifelong ambition to do anything particular, but remembers commenting as a teenager that she wouldnt mind being a woman priest. But back then women could not be ordained, so the wish was an impossible one (this rule was changed in 1994).
Although the idea never went away, after graduating with a law degree from Cambridge University, Phillips pursued a career in the legal profession and went on to become a successful City lawyer a career viewed by some as the very antithesis of priesthood.
The transition from being part of a brood of vipers, as Jesus once branded a group of lawyers, to the clergy was prompted not by a spiritual experience, but by, of all things, a work training programme.
Three years ago, when Phillips firm Paisner & Co merged with Berwin Leighton, she was made head of a work group and went on a week-long residential training project on leadership.
You had to do a talk about your vision for the rest of your life, which was videoed, and I said I might become a minister to test the water and test myself, and I discussed it with the people on the course, she explains.
After showing the video to her parents and sister to let them know her intentions in a roundabout way I had to leave the room, it was too cringey, she says Phillips did nothing for eight months. Then a new rector started at her church, which led Phillips into an unusual action in an effort to get a sign from above that ministry was for her.
At the service where she was installed I did a very stupid thing, she laughs. I made a bargain with God. You shouldnt do that, hell take you up on it. The bargain was, if you want me to get ordained, get her to ask.
Also with her rational hat on, Phillips thought that if she was right for the job, the new priest would notice.
And so it came to pass that a year later on 10 May the priest took Phillips aside and asked whether she had ever considered ministry.
I was completely knocked off my perch by that; and later that day I did have a very strong experience of God speaking to me. It was very comforting for me, she says.
Deciding to be a priest is one thing, but despite falling numbers of people applying for the priesthood nationwide, not just anyone can walk straight into it, so for the last seven months
Phillipshasundergoneatough selection process.
First, a wannabe priest must see a director of ordinance, usually a local priest in the diocese, to be quizzed on eight different aspects that are deemed necessary for making the step into the priesthood, such as leadership, spirituality and quality of mind. Another priest then double-checks the candidate on the same aspects. If you make it past here then a layperson (a regular churchgoer) again goes through the eight points with the hopeful.
In Phillips case, the layperson ominously referred to by the director of ordinance as his Rottweiler conducted the interview in her home.
ButtheRottweilerbarkedhis approval, so she moved on to the next stage, which was an interview with the bishop of the diocese, who then gave her the nod to go forward to the three-day selection conference.
At the conference there were 15 people ranging from young graduates straight out of university to those near retirement age, and six selectors whose job it was to make the final recommendation back to the diocese bishop on whether the attendees were fit for the priesthood.
But the process is still not over if you meet the selectors criteria, as the bishop retains the right to either accept or reject a recommendation.
Phillips found out she had made a successful application by speaking to the bishop on her mobile phone while standing under London Bridge just outside her firms offices. Ill always remember that conversation. I was thinking, hmm, my life has changed now, she comments wryly.
UnlikemanyotherNot2B candidates, Phillips stresses that her move was in no way prompted by feeling sick of being a lawyer. She adds that the church would not have chosen to ordain her if there was the slightest hint that she was looking for a mere career change.
But she admits that she has achieved what she wanted to achieve from the legal profession. After completing her articles at Paisner, she went on to work in the firms commercial property department as an assistant for seven years before leaving for Wilde Sapte (now Denton Wilde Sapte), where she broadened her experience by working in property finance. In 1999 she returned as a partner to Paisner and since the merger with Berwin Leighton has specialised in hotels and leisure real estate. Deals she has worked on include the disposal by Compass Group of its entire hotel portfolio for 3bn and the same groups disposal of Little Chef and Travelodge for 712m. Phillips is now listed as a leading practitioner in the major legal directories.
Yet she is giving all this up for a career that, although full of drama, responsibility and fulfilling aspects, can also be mundane. Phillips bemoans that she is well aware that unblocking the toilets on a Sunday morning and putting out chairs for meetings will be a feature.
She acknowledges that she could have stayed in the legal profession for more money and bigger deals, but since her calling the idea leaves her completely cold. In any event, Phillips says she lives fairly modestly she must be one of the few City partners to drive an N-reg Nissan Micra and never entered the profession for money and status.
But if I hadnt had the experience Im sure I would have been perfectly happy to carry on, she adds.
During the interview Phillips comes across as wholesome, good-humoured and even slightly bumbling (she admits that one of her vices is clumsiness) pretty much how you would imagine a vicar, really.
But she says she has traits that make her unsuitable to being a priest and more in tune with lawyering, such as being outspoken.
I know that I could come across as intimidating, but when the people you mix with are all like that its fine. But I know that when I get into a church situation Im going to have to moderate that. Theres going to be a period of unlearning, she says.
Some traits, honed through her legal career, will come in handy, though. Phillips highlights as a plus-point the ability to detach my brain and analyse situations without becoming emotional.
What has surprised Phillips is that hardly anyone has been that shocked by the news. Friends and family alike have been supportive of the move and she now gets lighthearted teasing about becoming the next Vicar of Dibley.
Handing in her notice has encouraged Phillips to be more upfront about her faith. Ive become more bold about it and I have the authority of the church to do it, she says. As a result, friends and colleagues have started to treat Phillips as if she were already a fully-fledged priest. Regardless of whether they are particularly religious, people are now confiding in her and asking her to pray for them, which she is pleased to do.
Some have also started to temper their language in front of her: she tells how a colleague said Oh God
in front of her, then followed the profanity with a swift, and to Phillips unnecessary, apology.
We may believe in higher things, but were still normal people, she says. Its not to say that we lead a debauched life, but clergy swear, drink and smoke, and I think if they didnt lead normal lives that would be worrying as they wouldnt be able to relate to people.
In fact, one of Phillips worries, when she leaves to start her two-year training programme at a specialist college in Nottingham, is young trainee priests throwing up and letting off the fire extinguishers at the halls where she will be residing.
By her own admission she will be living in a shoe-box-sized room. This is not because she is giving up all her worldly possessions (in fact, Phillips is keeping her house in North London and using it to store her stuff before renting it out), but more to get to know the 30 people on her course. Once the first term is over she plans to move into a small flat.
The curriculum for a trainee priest includes biblical studies, church liturgy and theology. There are also placements in local churches to be undertaken, a hospital chaplaincy and a two-week mission in a deprived inner-city community.
Once she has completed the course, Phillips will be ordained as a deacon and then as a priest after a year. However, she will have to work as a curatefor three years once her course is over, earning the relatively low sum of around 15,000, before being able to take charge of a church as a vicar.
But for now it is time to return to work, where she admits with a laugh that some of the assistants she trained are now treating her as a dogsbody, as she has started to cede responsibility to them ahead of her impending departure.
I certainly dont regret my legal career at all, she says, reflecting on what she is leaving behind. I think if Id gone into the priesthood at 23 and hadnt had 17 years in the law, Id have been a very different priest. I dont know which would have been better.