I was a lawyer before I became a priest

The Reverend Tony Monds
The Reverend Tony Monds

‘If you’re called to be a priest, you’re called to be a priest. Whatever your current job.’

 It was another parishioner who told me, in slightly awestruck tones, that the reason our much-loved vicar was so organised was probably because he used to be a lawyer.

I had only just met him, having been to ask if my fiancé and I could be married in his church. But it wasn’t long before I realised that the Reverend Tony Monds is a man with quite a few surprises up his ecclesiastical sleeves. Not least the small camera he whipped out from one of them when, towards the end of our service, he captured what he whispered to us to be ‘our first selfie’.

And I like to think that, given the image was of us, not him, it’s a good metaphor for a man who clearly defines himself in large part through what he gives to others. Here he talks about his transition from solicitor to priest.

‘My father was a clergyman so we were brought up very much
with morning and evening prayers and church twice on a Sunday.

After a while you get a bit fed up with none your mates having to do the same, but I was sent away to boarding school at eight so then we only had chapel once on a Sunday.

I don’t think I sensed God in my life as a child, or otherwise God was so much there it was just a given. People often talk about a conversion moment, almost like a Damascean episode. I never had anything like that. In my late teens I just thought, ‘Yes, I probably am aren’t I,’ rather than, ‘Gosh, this is the day that I give my life to Jesus.’ Now it’s a way of life, not only because of my work, but it also sets the values by which I live.

The path I chose after school was very different to the one I’m on now. I studied law then joined a practice in Yeovil, working in the agricultural department. I was with the firm for 25 years, being made a partner in 1983.

I enjoyed being a solicitor: it was a nice partnership model with good teams. I had my own – our little gang, but there was also the bigger team of the firm, and then other teams you work with in serving your clients: accountants, land agents and others. I liked the camaraderie: an office crammed with people, all quite bright, so the wit is good as it flies around.

By the late 1990s I was in my forties and had been a solicitor for two decades.

The village I lived in was part of a group of six parishes and the vicar was obviously extremely stretched trying to get to every church. As I was already a church warden I’d been thinking that maybe I could help out with some of the services.

Then one day I was in a special service at Sherborne Abbey and in his sermon, the Bishop of Sherborne, John Kirkham, said to the 700-strong congregation that in percentage terms an average of four to six of us would become ordained. He said, ‘And if you think it’s you, you must explore that vocation because you just don’t know what you might be missing if you don’t.’ I literally started and thought, ‘That’s strange, it’s like he’s speaking to me.’

I didn’t do anything about it, but a few days later I went to my local pub and the curate of Sherborne Abbey was sitting in the bar, having walked the two or three miles out from Sherborne for a pint. I didn’t really know him but went up to say hello and he suddenly said, ‘When are you going to turn your collar around?’ Then a couple of weeks later a retired priest asked me when I was going to get ordained, and I thought, ‘Oh, these are piling up a bit and I was wondering about it anyhow.’ So I went to see the Vicar, who said, ‘Ah yes, I’d always wondered about you.’

So I joined a new project called the Ordained Local Ministry Scheme, designed for longstanding members of a community who wanted to become priests. As I was also still practicing law I had to do all my studying in the evenings and at weekends, when I also attended training in Salisbury.

I found those first few years quite difficult in some ways. After I’d become a deacon I delayed being ordained priest. I was worried that I might end up ricocheting around the six villages, just turning up to say Mass. And I didn’t feel it was the most useful thing, performing services for people I didn’t know. For me, a big part of being a parish priest is knowing the joys and sorrows of everyone in the village because part of the Eucharist is that you offer those individual thanks and needs to God.

Just like with any job, a religious calling can at times be

frustrating – it’s not entirely this opium of the people.

There have definitely been times when I’ve had a slight complain to God about things. Alan Ecclestone used to talk about ‘the silence we call Father’ and it sometimes feels like nothing comes back. Now I know it’s God’s time rather than ours. I think my life has been that whenever I’ve tried to kick a door down it’s just another hurt foot, but then other doors open for me and I must trust in that.

Part of my training involved doing a placement in a setting very different to my normal one, so I went to Yeovilton Royal Naval Air Station to work with the chaplain there. Naval chaplains are notoriously brusque, and the one there, now my friend, called my prevarication ridiculous. “If you’re called to be a priest, you’re called to be a priest, not as and when you can see your whole career path mapped out all the way to Archbishop of Canterbury. You should just accept God’s call, be ordained and then once you are, God will show you where he wants you to serve.”

So I went to see the woman in charge of ordinations, who said, “Oh Tony, I’ve been trying to tell you this for the last ten years.” So then, nearly four years after being made a Deacon, in 2000 I was ordained as a priest. And it was wonderful. A real sense of elation and, ‘Yes, this is what I’m meant to be.’

At the time I discussed becoming ordained with the chairman of our law firm, querying whether some clients would feel awkward, but he didn’t feel it would be a problem. After all, as he said, ones stock in trade as a lawyer is your integrity and honesty – and that had always been very important to our firm.

But there’s no doubting that once you’re ordained and people

know you only as a priest, then you are regarded in a different way.

They didn’t treat me any differently in my village as they’d known me before, but once I’d become a full time vicar, with my own parishes, I noticed how people hold you at a slight distance, regarding you as ‘the vicar’. People are always friendly, but it’s a slightly different relationship. Or they think ‘and him, a vicar…’ Said as if they’re expecting more of us than anyone else. We’re just human beings, but people seem to think we’re not subject to the same vices and things that other people are. Yet there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be. We should certainly try to live our lives by a strict moral code but, being human, we all fail at various times.

Now, 15 years on, I prefer being a vicar to a lawyer. I find it more fulfilling, and I love the pastoral work. The risk with it is that a lot of us have this worry about the motivation – are you doing it because you want to feel needed or because you’re really trying to help people in times of trouble – with bereavement, marriage breakdown, sickness or something like that?

If I know someone’s in hospital or otherwise in need then
I’ll go and visit them – whether or not they are churchgoers.

There are times that I don’t go – especially if I’m aware they’re not madly keen on religion. And I’m aware that sometimes it can look like the undertaker’s turned up. Especially if someone’s terminally ill – then I worry that they might think I’ve come to measure them up for the funeral. So you have to make a judgement. But a lot of the time is spent talking to people, and it’s a part of the job that I really like.

I don’t consciously use my lawyer’s training although I think a legal background does give you a way of approaching problems. Some people expect lawyers to be terribly pedantic but I think a lawyer would say, ‘Well what’s the downside, does it matter that it’s against the law? What’s the worst that could happen? It’s about risk management.’ I’m not sure it’s completely transferred to my role now, but once you’ve done the training it is a bit how you look at life.

Photo courtesy of Susie Lawrence Photography
St Mary’s Church, Piddlehinton, Dorset – photo courtesy of Susie Lawrence Photography

When people hear I was once a solicitor they think it’s a very different life. But I’m not sure it is. As a solicitor you try to look after people’s needs and that’s what you do as a vicar – you just don’t get paid as much. Although I happen to think that we get paid very well. I thought I might miss my salary when I left the law – that it would be tough, but it’s not. Obviously if you’re a vicar with a big family then living on £25,000 a year can be hard. But then lots of people earn that kind of salary, or less, have big families and don’t get a free house and working expenses. I’m always very clear that it’s a stipend, enough to live on, not a salary commensurate with your responsibilities, what you do and the hours you work.

People always think the Church of England is hugely wealthy, but it’s not. My stipend is paid by the worshippers. Every parish has to pay what they call a share, assessed by who your members are and how much the Diocese says they need from each parish. It’s about £400 that every regular worshipper should pay. Well, we get billed for that whether they pay it or not. We encourage people to give by standing order. It’s a bit like being a member of a golf club – you pay your sub even though you might not play all year round. If you’re a member you should pay your sub – if you’re just guesting you should pay your green fee.

As a lawyer I was measured by fee income; as a vicar, when I asked the question at interview, I was told my success would be judged through bums on seats. I think that’s too easy a way to measure. I think ‘quantifiable’ is a business-way of looking at it, and I don’t think the church is a business.

For your own personal satisfaction you like to think, ‘Wow, I’ve increased the congregation’, that would obviously give you a buzz. But you can end up with a cult following a personality – whereas a church should carry on whether the vicar is there or not. You shouldn’t go to church for the vicar, you should go to church to worship God.

I also think it’s more about how the community feels about itself and is it a better, more caring for each other, more spiritually aware community than when you first came? Although I do believe that in rural villages people do a lot of the pastoral care themselves anyway – and it’s wonderful to observe. One of the reasons I wear a suit and collar six days a week is for it to be a deliberate walking sign – to nudge people’s thoughts towards spiritual things, and associate them with God, hopefully!

The emptiness of our churches can be a bit depressing, but more people are starting to attend festivals and combined services are fun. If we were starting again we wouldn’t have three churches with three and a half miles between them. And Sundays have become a greater leisure day. There are lots of family attractions competing with traditional worship. But things are changing. The Catholic Church now has its first Sunday Mass at six on a Saturday and some churches are having their Sundays on Wednesday afternoons. They’re good ideas to help adapt to how society is changing.

I think that, for someone who doesn’t go to church,
to start going is quite difficult because it’s so public.

All the doors are shut. You can’t see behind them, just slip in unnoticed. It takes a long time before people will, if ever, come to church. And the fewer people in church then the fewer there are to do what needs to be done. Many services rarely get past double figures now. But it’s a different kind of worship – a very intimate one.

My typical day doesn’t have a nine to five aspect like the law did. I seemed to spend a lot more time talking in my old job. And it was a lot more sociable. I find the life of a vicar quite insular by comparison as I have no immediate colleagues. Our local clergy do get together once a month for a couple of hours over lunch. But it’s not uncommon to feel a little bit lonely as a sole priest. Obviously there are the church wardens and the congregation, so you’re not lonely in that sense, but these days I don’t have anyone to have staff meetings with. Then again, like most clergy, I’m fairly intraverted on any Myers Briggs scale and I enjoy my longer, quieter periods of contemplation.

Overall I’m so glad that I made the switch from the law to church. It’s a very fulfilling life. Very fulfilling, with a real sense of contentment. I feel slightly bad that I can’t say my faith gives me an euphoria of love – that’s not very good selling is it? There are some people who exude saintliness, they just do. There’s a joy in their lives that’s obvious. And I do think that comes from their faith.

I think that seeing the world as infused with God is a wholly different way of looking at it. I think that God only wants the best for us, and it gives me great joy when I look around. Sometimes, if I’m on my own and I hear the birdsong, it’s almost as if it’s singing for me. And I like to think that’s one of God’s blessings. I drift through life in that funny sort of way.

I’d love everyone to be able to sense what I do – although you’ve got to be very careful about how you go about things. You have to establish relationships, engage trust.

I don’t think, ‘Hello, do you know Jesus?’, is
a very good way of bringing people to faith.

But for me, it is the bedrock, the foundation… it’s the rock where you end up on and I think it’s immovable.’

Tony became the Parish Priest in the Benefice of the Piddle Valley in 2007. In July 2015 he moved to Salisbury to take up the post of Chaplain to the Bishop, one of his roles being to act as a stimulating theological companion. I have no doubt he’ll do it brilliantly.


One thought on “I was a lawyer before I became a priest

  1. So refreshing to see things from the other side of the fence (altar rail). How often the ‘handles’ that attach to us become labels that seal the jar and when the jar contains something unknown it stays sealed for too long. The message which streams out from this is how approachable he is with oodles of quiet counselling to offer from his life experiencea.


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