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?






Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Walsingham Baby

Crossing the Line - Part 4

Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.

My father never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with berretta on special occasions.  David and Irene were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.

After a second curacy in Doncaster, he and mum moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.  He was priest in charge of the church at Downley, a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.

The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious.  The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall.  Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment.  Irene took on her role as vicar’s wife and David served the village community as parish priest but kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.

There was one thing missing from their lives however.  Irene in particular longed for a baby but they tried without success.  Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did nothing to encourage them and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.

Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention.  They drank the water from the sacred well and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady.  They asked for a child.

The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in deep anguish “pouring out her soul to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1).  Hannah made a deal with God, that if her prayer was heard and God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life.  I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.

Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered.  From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Swanage, Dorset and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at The Shrubbery in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.

Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David chose a name with meaning.  They named me Benedict which means blessing.  Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady.  Often this was during the big annual pilgrimage in May, joining the other pilgrims in the great procession and the open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.

As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer before Our Lady at Walsingham.  Sometimes it feels like a secret joke between me and God when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality but it has also taught me an important lesson.  We do not always understand the faith and spirituality of others and sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong.  If God is happy to be at work through different expressions of faith, who are we to condemn them?

Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour.  His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”  Then his daughter would come up to him, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”   So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” but they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together.  Reasons like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”.  So he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he would also long for them to play tennis with each other.

So often that is what we are like as Christians, all wanting to play with God but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other.  We separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches and choose who we will play with, work with, pray with.  In the end, of course, we are all children of God.

So I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit neatly into my carefully worked out theology.  It reminds me that walking with God is much more messy than our well-ordered categories and that being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.


Sadly, my parents still had this lesson to learn.  Within a few months of my birth, their closed minds to other Christians would turn our lives upside down, and it would take 3 years of upheaval for them to understand the wideness of God’s grace.