Sunday, 17 December 2017

Not an easy village

Crossing the Line - Part 7

For all the charms of the vicarage at Blackrod, the parish was less welcoming.  In the past it had been a small mining community with a high mortality rate, and there was still a seam of hardness in many of its people.  A previous vicar had been chased around the church by a local man with a shotgun when an old overgrown corner of the churchyard had been turned into a small car park for the church.

We stayed there for over 12 years, but within a couple of months there were ominous signs of things to come.  PCC meetings (Parochial Church Council) had traditionally been held in the infants’ classroom at the church school.  The sight of adults sitting on tiny chairs for 5 year olds discussing church business must have been hilarious.  My father’s study at the vicarage was huge, and could seat 20- 30 people comfortably, so he invited the PCC to meet at the vicarage in future.

The night of the first meeting at the vicarage was surprisingly tense.  Church members arrived looked uncomfortable.  Then at the start of the meeting, someone stood up and said “I’ve been asked to act as spokesman”.  He went on to say that it wasn’t right for PCC meeting to be held at the vicarage and when dad asked him why, he replied, “PCC’s should be held on neutral ground”.  To say this was a shock to my father was probably an understatement.  Despite his newness to the village and the fact that he hadn’t done anything to upset anyone (as far as he was aware) he saw that the vicar was seen as the enemy in some long running war between church and people – and he had just been typecast as the villain!

Dad struggled on with the meeting until just before the end, when my mother came in to ask who would like a cup of tea.  For several PCC members, this was the last straw and they resigned on the spot with accusations of bribery!

That pretty well set the tone for our 12 years there – and I was not immune.  I made some good friends there in my teens but until then, things were not easy.

I discovered what it is to be the “vicar’s kid”.  At the church primary school, if I did something wrong, teachers would chide me with phrases like “I would have expected better from the vicar’s kid”.  Outside school, I had to be careful where I went because there were parts of the village where it was fair game to chase me down the road throwing stones at me because I was the vicar’s kid.  In church, parents expected me to set an example to their children in how to behave – no wonder so many children in the village hated me!  There was one boy from another school in the village, whose path I crossed every day on my way home from school.  As we passed on the street each day, he would punch me in the stomach and carry on walking.  This went on for the best part of a year until finally one day I gathered up the courage to hit him back.

Photo taken by the Daily Mail after dad was accused of telling
children there was no Father Christmas.
I also found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of people’s prejudice.  There was a travelling fairground which visited the village for a week each year.  It was an annual highlight for all the children of the village and used to set up on some empty land opposite the church.  Then one year, the land had been set aside to build a new library and health centre and when they arrived the local council refused them permission to use it. Tempers started to get heated and my dad stepped in to mediate.  He successfully negotiated for the fair to use a field by the cricket ground and all appeared to be well.  When I turned up at school the next day however, it felt like every child in the school was looking daggers at me.  Some of them had witnessed the heated exchanges between the council and the travelling fair and seen my dad there.  They made the assumption that the vicar was there because he didn’t want a fairground opposite the church, and was trying to drive them away.  All day, other children were practically spitting in my face and saying “Your dad has kicked the fair out of the village”.  Nothing could be further from the truth but the lie had found a home and nothing would change it.   I went home in tears but there was a silver lining.  When I went to the fair a couple of days later, on the field by the cricket ground, the fairground families wouldn’t let me pay for anything.  I went on all the rides for free and was even given a bag of change to play on the machines.  They knew what my dad had really done and this was their way of saying thank you.

In one sense I didn’t mind being on my own.  I was a bit of a loner and could always amuse myself.  I also had lots of toys.  My mother had gone back to work as a teacher when I started school, so there was money around - and I was an only child.  To any outsider I must have looked like a spoilt brat.  In this huge vicarage I had a play room as well as a bedroom.  In the centre of the room was the large Hornby train set made for me by my grandad.  In many ways they were right – I was precocious and over confident; I was too grown-up too young; I found myself not belonging, either at school with other kids, or at home among adults.  Physically I was a bit of a wimp and useless in a fight but I sounded cocky – not a good mix.

And there was another problem.  My mum loved being a teacher, and I was her star pupil.  She instilled in me a curiosity about the world for which I am grateful for to this day and she taught me to read well before I went to school.  This might not sound like a problem, but it set me apart from most of the other kids at school.  Arriving at school age 5, able to read books for 9 year olds, put me far ahead of most of the other village kids.  The teachers didn’t know what to do with me and I kept being put up an age group into the older classes above.  By the time I was 8, I was facing 2 years in the oldest class with 11 year olds, having already repeated a year in the class below, just waiting to be old enough to go to secondary school.

As I grew through these formative years, I also saw the cracks in my parent’s relationship.  Dad was a workaholic, often working 7 days a week, for weeks on end.  Every Saturday morning, they would have the most almighty rows – shouting and screaming at each other like clockwork, before storming off in opposite directions.  Dad desperately wanted to fulfil his calling to be a priest in this difficult community and mum wanted a husband, not a workaholic vicar.

By the age of seven, I had decided that being a vicar was the last thing in the world I would ever do and I was waiting for mum and dad to split up.  By eight, I had decided that they wouldn’t get divorced because, even though neither of them were happy, they couldn’t live without each other.  By my ninth birthday, I was becoming obsessively neurotic about things that didn’t matter and often found myself sitting on my bed in the evening with a knife, wondering if I had the courage to kill myself.

I was brought through all this by three things:

Benny and Chris - some years later
First there was Chris.  In those formative years he was the only long-term friend I had.  He was different and he wasn’t fazed by the big vicarage.  He arrived on the doorstep one Saturday morning to play and came round every Saturday from then on without fail.  He was 18 months older than me and wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was winging or being a brat.  He was also hugely trustworthy.  He heard my parents shouting and screaming at each other every Saturday and he never told a soul.  In fact he understood - his own home had its problems too.  Chris gave me someone to be with and to trust.  He was also the person who staggered with me through the streets of Blackrod after midnight the first time I got drunk (some years later) shouting “Hey everyone – this is the vicars kid and he’s drunk!” – but that’s another story.

Second, I changed schools. Faced with years of repetition in the village school, I took the exam for an independent prep school, a few miles away in Bolton and somehow I passed.

The difference was dramatic.  I went from top of the class in Blackrod to bottom of the class at Bolton Prep School and it took me years to recover.  It had a strict uniform policy where the village school had none.  There was military style ‘Sergeant’ who kept discipline and there was definitely no running in the corridors!     It was also miles away from the village.  Almost no-one from the village went there and I didn’t need to be the vicar’s kid anymore.  No-one there cared who my parents were or where I lived.  I could be myself – or rather, find out who ‘me’ was. 

Third, I discovered willpower and decided to change.  I learned to face my neurotic compulsions head on and discover that they didn’t have to rule my life.  For example, I could not sit in a room with the door open – it had to be closed.  It is hard to describe the emotional agony which something as simple as an open door can create.  Over time, I learned to face this fear by sitting on my bed night after night staring at an open door until the pain faded away.  I also put the knife away.

Then overarching all of this was my faith.  As a child I always knew God was part of my life and I know that he was a big part of helping me to face my fears.
I never minded going to church. Sundays were church days – I knew that and accepted it.  I enjoyed our annual stay in the convent at Wantage and one year, the nuns gave me huge collection of Bible comics from the USA which had been bound together to make a kind of multi-colour graphic novel of the Bible.  I read them regularly back in Blackrod.

The only time I put my foot down and said ‘no’ was when I went to Sunday School for the first time. Like many churches it was held during the morning service and soon I was old enough to go.  At the end of the first hymn I filed out with the other children across the road to the Church School.  The only problem was I hated it, and I mean I really hated it!  I can’t remember why but I can still remember the feeling.  I came home after my first Sunday there and said in no uncertain terms, “I am not going there again!”  My parents looked at me and they knew that I meant it.  After a few moments of awkward silence they replied “Ok, you don’t have to go” and that was the end of it.   I didn’t go to Sunday School. 

Looking back, I am so grateful to them for that moment of wisdom.  If they had forced me to go, the seeds of resentment would have grown and I am quite sure that I would have longed for the day when I could put all that church stuff behind me forever, consigned to a file in my brain called ‘unpleasant childhood memories best forgotten’.  As it was, I went to church quite happily every Sunday and God continued to be a part of my life in a natural, unforced way – a way which ultimately helped me to break free from all the other knots which were tied around my life.

As I look back now, too much of my life was ruled by fear – fear of failing – fear of not being the perfect vicar’s kid – fear of authority – fear of being found out – fear of being singled out for being different.  It was in those years before I was ten that I began to learn to face those fears and became determined not to be ruled by them.  I know that God was in that, holding me, protecting me, and slowly setting me free.

Now I was ready to be myself, whatever that was!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Turning a corner

We are taking a pause from ‘Crossing the Line’ this week.

Alongside looking back and reflecting on the past, life carries on.  Treatment, family, faith and work continue.  My own journey continues and I this week I would like to share something positive in the present, rather than reflections on the past.

In treatment, I am now into my second cycle of palliative chemotherapy, and I have benefited from a short course of radiotherapy.  After the first hormone therapy failing, I am now on a different course, and the drop in my PSA count proves it is being effective.   My third cycle of chemo was due to start on Christmas day.   Strangely, the chemo ward only wants to deal with emergencies that day (I can’t think why) and so I will have 2 extra days of feeling better over Christmas before getting hit with the next infusion.  I think that’s good timing.  J

As a family we are looking forward to Isaac returning from his first term at University next weekend.  Iona has her mock exams this week and is working hard at her new part-time job to buy the components to build a gaming computer.  Mel has changed her hair for a ‘Curly Girl’ look.  She is beautiful as always.  We are praying for everyone to be free from colds over Christmas, especially as the cold Mel has at the moment has meant us sleeping apart to protect me from infection.  L

It is in my faith and work however, that I feel I have turned a corner.

When I first wrote about my diagnosis, I said that my most uttered prayer has been “Really God?”  I felt cheated on all kinds of levels, and of course that feeling still continues in various ways - plans, hopes, dreams - but there was one area I didn’t mention in that first blog post.

For the last two years, my ministry has been in encouraging vocations to Christian ministry.  It is a tremendous privilege.  I get to hear the stories of what God is doing in the lives of the people I meet, with a depth and clarity that is often breath-taking.  I am often astonished at how people exploring vocation put their trust in me, opening up their life stories, sharing their deepest experiences in faith, and their doubts.  It takes great trust to make yourself that vulnerable, and I am continually humbled by the experience.

What is more, it is the first role for many years where as soon as I saw the post advertised, I knew it was what God wanted me to do.  I have felt in the right place at the right time and closer to God as a result.  I had been prepared to commit 10 years to it, taking me almost to retirement, and it has been going well.

In my earlier years of Christian ministry, I was blessed with a very clear sense of what God wanted of me each step along the way.  I found it easy to trust him.  I knew I was walking in the footsteps he had prepared for me to walk in.  Whenever I faced change in life, things would fall into place (sometimes last minute) and I knew I was walking with God.

As time went on however, in the complexities of life and a number of disappointments, I have found it more difficult to hear God’s clear guidance each time I came to a place of decision on a new post, role or ministry.

In some ways, of course, this is simply growing up.  Walking by faith is not always accompanied by clear signs and calling.  That is why it’s called faith!  The less clear the future, the less clear the sense of call or direction, the more we must simply trust that the way we go is God’s will for us.  I accept that and much of the last 17 years has been walking in that kind of faith, rather than in absolute certainty.

At times it has been hard.  At times it has felt like navigating at sea without compass, sextant, or GPS.  I trusted that I was heading in the right direction.  I prayed and in the absence of a neon sign from heaven, I headed towards what appeared to be God’s path for me.

Then three years ago, I saw the advertisement for Vocations Coordinator in Salisbury Diocese, and for the first time since 2001, I knew this was God’s appointment for me.  When I was offered the post, I was delighted to once again have that sense of certainty.  I have enjoyed the challenge of encouraging more people to consider lay and ordained ministry.  I am one of the few priests working in the CofE who has a defined numerical target for growth attached to their job description.  When I was asked at interview how I felt about this I replied, “I’m fine with that – as long as God knows!”

What is more, the role has been going well.  Numbers are growing, people are coming forward and I work in a wonderful team.  Two years in, I was beginning to thrive again.

And then cancer. 

“Really, God? What are you playing at?”  Just as I had rediscovered that clear sense of being exactly where I was supposed to be, it was all being taken away again.  I felt cheated, like I was being played with.  Really, God?

More recently though, I have turned a corner.

I have reflected that most of my Christian ministry has involved conflict, and mostly with his Church!  Whether in fighting ‘Churchianity’ which only makes the religious more religious while putting everyone else off; or in fighting the Church Commissioners on social action and responsibility; or in campaigning for a greater openness in the church on issues like sexuality; or in standing up to bullies in the church who were used to pushing others around; I have been in the midst of conflict for much of my ordained ministry.

I haven’t minded this.  I knew it was coming ever since I read Ezekiel chapter 3 and knew that God was calling me to the same ministry – to speak whether God’s people listen or refuse to listen.  I have been unyielding when I needed to be.  My forehead has been harder than flint, and I have not been terrified when called to say unpopular things.

But now, working in Vocations, I have the privilege of playing a purely positive role, building the church rather than challenging it, a role of encouragement rather than discomfort and it has been so refreshing to be free of areas of conflict for once. 

Crucially, I now realise that far from cheating me, God has entrusted me with this positive, uplifting task to complete as my last role in his church.  Instead of feeling cheated, I now feel grateful.  Instead of being angry at God, I simply want to serve him in this last role for as long as I am able to do so.  Instead of carrying on working with a heavy heart, I now value being part of a team who are identifying and encouraging the next generation of priests, lay ministers, chaplains, pastors, pioneers and worship leaders.  What a privilege to be able to do this as my last role in his church!

So I have, in this respect, turned a corner.  From anger to gratitude; from despondency to inspiration; from feeling cheated to feeling honoured.

Even though I did not know what God was doing, he did.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

From rubble to a garden

One corner of  St James' Church Collyhurst 1966

Crossing the Line - part 6

Collyhurst was a bit of a shock.

When dad was a teacher in Rochdale, we lived in a cul-de-sac of bungalows at Hollingworth Lake, each with a front garden and no fences.  It was a great place for the children of the Merlin Close to play.  I remember having a tricycle there and riding it up and down the pavements and driveways with other children while mums sat and drank tea and chatted – I was three years old.

But when dad returned to the Church of England, I think that the Bishop who allowed him back wanted to test his commitment – and so we were sent to St James Collyhurst, about a mile from the centre of Manchester, in the middle of a slum clearance area.

The rectory was right next to the church and surrounding it for hundreds of yards in every direction there was just rubble.  The layout of the old terraced streets was still there, but where the terraced houses had once stood were simply piles of broken bricks left by the bulldozers when everything else had been wiped from the map.

We lived in the rectory which was a solid Victorian house with a small back yard that smelled of piss, and a big brick wall.  There would be no playing outside here and there were few children to play with.  My father’s role there was to minister to the dwindling congregation until the church to would close and be demolished too.  In the end, that didn't happen until 1971 but after a year there, I think the Bishop had got the assurances he required.

There are two memories which are still vivid in my mind from the year we spent there.

The first was being burgled.  While we were out one day, just before Christmas, a man broke into the house by climbing the large brick wall at the back and then breaking one of the large kitchen windows to get in.  The only problem was that he cut himself on broken glass on the way in, so we came home not only to find the house turned upside down but also find trails of blood in drops and smears, ranging all over the house.  The police were called and within a few hours they had caught the burglar trying to sell mum’s jewellery to passers-by, in a street half a mile away.  I remember how mum was deeply upset with the sense of violation which often follows such an experience, but also remember how I simply accepted it as part of life in a place like Collyhurst. 

We were told of a vicar nearby who was moving to a new parish.  A couple of days before he moved, he was sat at the desk in his study when the shattering of glass heralded the arrival of a house brick, which landed on the desk in front of him.  He got up to look out of the broken window only to see a young boy whose face instantly changed from triumph to acute embarrassment.  “Sorry Father” he shouted, “I thought you’d gone already”.  The triumph was being the first kid to lob a brick through one of the windows. The embarrassment only came because he had miscalculated and Father was still there!  That was Collyhurst.

The second memory was of bonfire night.  To mark the 5th November, dad had put together a small bonfire in the rubble by the church and we were standing there with sparklers watching the gentle flames when we heard bells and sirens.  Looking up, we realised that there was a much brighter orange glow in the sky.  We walked around the outside of the church to investigate and immediately saw that the old derelict cotton mill on one edge of the clearance area had been set alight.  I guess someone thought it would make a really spectacular bonfire and sure enough it did, with flames shooting into the sky from this four-story building.  It was certainly the biggest bonfire I have ever seen!

So when the Bishop asked dad to look at another parish a year later, we were all curious to see what he had in mind.   We travelled north about 20 miles in our Morris Minor to the old Lancashire mining village of Blackrod.  The name allegedly came from the description ‘Bleak Road’ which aptly described the windy hill on which Blackrod was built.  The church was right at the top, standing resolute against the bleak wind.

Blackrod Vicarage, painted by my father.
But when we came to the vicarage, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Surrounding this substantial Victorian edifice was almost an acre of gardens, complete with bluebell wood, tennis court, orchard and rose garden.  I remember just running round and round the garden trying to take it all in.  There were terraced rockeries with staircases and paths built in, rhododendron bushes big enough to make dens in, and the grass in the orchard was so high that it was above my 4 year old head!   I felt like an intrepid explorer in the jungle as I cut a path through it.

The contrast with Collyhurst could not have been greater.   I felt like a caged bird being set free to fly for the first time.

When we were leaving I remember asking mum and dad, “Is that going to be our house?”

“Yes” they said.  I went to sleep that night with all the excitement of a child and sheer exhaustion from all the running I had done.

At the time I didn’t know the Bible verse where Jesus promises that those who have given things up for him will receive 100 times more in return but that is how it felt that night, and I have seen that principle at work more than once in my life.  Dad and mum gave up that safe, cosy home in Hollingworth Lake and stepped out into the unknown because they trusted where God was leading.  On that first visit to Blackrod, I think he kept his promise.

Click here for an Introduction to Crossing the Line

Saturday, 25 November 2017

To Rome... and back

Crossing the Line - Part 5

I was three months old when my parents left their home, job and ministry, taking their baby with them into an uncertain future.  They left without telling anyone in the parish, leading to a headline in the local paper, “Vicar disappears with wife and baby!”

What prompted this rash action will seem almost incomprehensible to most people today but in 1963, for conservative Anglo-Catholics, it was an issue on a par with women priests and bishops more recently.

What was the issue?  Methodists!

In 1963 the Church of England and the Methodist Church appeared to be nearing agreement to come together and be united as one church.  While for many this was a cause for joy, the idea struck horror and fear into the hearts of those whose identity lay in seeing the Church of England as the true ‘Catholic’ Church of England.  For them it was not politics or the Reformation which defined the Church of England.  Rather, it was its Catholic heritage with orders of ministry handed down by Apostolic Succession.  After all, Henry VIII’s faith was thoroughly Catholic.  His treatise “Defence of the Seven Sacraments” in 1521 against Martin Luther, earned Henry the title Defender of the Faith, bestowed on him by Pope Leo X.  Whatever his political and marital motives, Henry was no Protestant!

Unity with the Methodists would put the Catholicity of the Church of England in jeopardy.  In England, Methodists had no Bishops and their theology was methodically reformed in its nature.  There was no Apostolic Succession and they had ministers, not priests.

For my parents, this would be the end of the Church of England as they knew it.

My father wrote to his Bishop to announce his resignation and intention to convert to Roman Catholicism.  The Bishop’s reply was polite but to the point – if you are going, go quickly.  I have the letter, and it almost reads like Jesus’ words to Judas at the last supper (John 13:27).

So that is exactly what he did.  Together they left without a word.  They took nothing with them except a baby and a couple of suitcases.  They stepped out into the unknown.

Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Converts Aid Society had a plan.  They offered us a room in Top Meadow, a house in Beaconsfield left to the Roman Catholic Church by author GK Chesterton in his will.  He was after all, a convert to Roman Catholicism himself.

There were others at Top Meadow too, beginning a new life having ‘gone to Rome’.  It was a kind of safe-house for defecting Anglican clergy.  While there, we were all baptised again (at the time The Roman Catholic church didn’t accept any other church’s baptism as valid) and my parents were confirmed.  In more mischievous moments, I have teased my Baptist and Pentecostal friends by telling them I have been baptised twice.  They would invariably nod with approval, assuming that I mean once as a baby and again as an adult when I was old enough to do it properly.  I usually wait a moment before spoiling it by saying that both were as a baby and one was as a Roman Catholic!

After a few months there, the Converts Aid Society found David a job as a Maths teacher in a Roman Catholic school in Kirkby, Liverpool.  David could not be a RC priest, of course, with wife and baby in tow.  We moved into Kirkby and settled into our new life.

I’m not sure when it began to dawn on David and Irene that this wasn’t the promised land they hoped for.  I think they had high hopes in joining the ‘mother-church’ and finally being able to be as Catholic as they pleased.  Now they were there, perhaps it wasn’t everything they had envisaged.

In any case after a year in Kirkby, David decided to find his own job as a teacher.  He was offered a job in a local authority school in Rochdale.  We moved to Hollingworth Lake on the edge of the Pennines and David started work at his new school, only to find that the Head Teacher and the Deputy Head were both Methodist lay preachers! 

Whoever said that God doesn’t have a sense of humour?

Over the next two years, they had a profound effect on David’s life and attitudes. Having ‘jumped ship’ and left his church, his vocation, and his ministry on account of Methodists, he could have simply jumped ship again and found another school to teach in.  Maths teachers were in demand, but something made him stay.

During his time at that school David came to the conclusion that they were two of the finest Christians he had ever met.  Their pastoral care and dedication to all the children in that school, from the most able to the most troubled, made a deep and lasting impression on him.  He began to see that there were more important issues than Apostolic Succession or Church labels.

For Irene, it had not been an easy transition either.  She went from vicar’s wife in the CofE to an oddity in the Roman Catholic Church and no-one knew how to treat her.  A former nun, married to an ex-Anglican priest with a baby!

I don’t think I helped either.  Mum told me of one occasion at Mass when I was about three years old;  I fell asleep during the sermon and started singing in my sleep.  Unable to wake me, she ended up walking out of the church with me in her arms, still singing the Flanders and Swann song Mud, Mud Glorious Mud at the top of my voice!

By 1966, David knew what he had to do.  He went back to the Bishop who ordained him and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.  Can I come back?”  Graciously, the answer was yes, albeit with a challenging first appointment to test his resolve.

From that moment onwards, David and Irene were committed to a very different form of Christianity.  Their theology had not changed.  They were still Anglo-Catholics, steeped in sacramental faith.  They still went to Walsingham each year.  They continued as Oblates at the convent in Wantage but from then on, they refused to be sectarian Christians and were always open to expressions of Christian faith different to their own.   The most important thing was recognising Christ in others, whatever our disagreements might be.

That is the Christian home where I grew up from the age of 3½ and these values have become a deep and intrinsic part of who I am.  At times they have been tested by the intransigence and prejudice of other Christians, but the roots run deep and were forged in the fire of those difficult years in my parent’s lives.

I experience a variety of feelings about their decisions in my early years.  Although my memories of that time range from sketchy to non-existent, I had 6 homes in my first 4 years of life.  We were constantly on the move, not knowing what would come next. 

I admire them for their courage to act on principle, even if they later regretted it.  Faced with similar dilemmas, many people just stay and grumble. This usually results in their impotent moaning sapping life from those around them and provides no opportunity to be challenged or changed.

I admire them even more for being willing to change when they realised they had been wrong - for being willing to admit it and say sorry.

Crossing the line doesn’t always lead us in the right direction, but when we do it in good faith it gives God the opportunity to do something in our lives and bring us to where he wants us to be.

Perhaps we may all need to be more like that sometimes?