Crossing the Line - part 20
The ancient parish church with its lych-gate, the duck pond with its distinctive white Aylesbury Ducks and the cottages which line the green, make it an idyllic scene.
By the 1980’s the population had grown well beyond just a farming community, attracting commuters with new housing and direct trains into London Marylebone. The parish church was thriving with a large congregation, a gentle kind of charismatic renewal and a lively youth ministry.
The quaint, Victorian village school was now the church hall and next to it, on the village green, was the Old School House.
As the end of my time at University approached, I started to find myself worrying about what I was going to do next. My housemates were all kick-starting their careers, while I was trying to find something useful to do for a couple of years before starting theological college.
I wasn’t short of ideas but my dreams kept getting dashed by reality.
I wanted to spend some time overseas. I had met someone who had spent time delivering aid with the UN in Ethiopia. That sounded like a life changing experience, so I started investigating how I could do this. Unfortunately, the civil war in the region was getting worse and the UN was starting to pull staff and volunteers out, so that came to nothing.
Driving HGV lorries across Europe was something I also liked the idea of but found that it was impossible. Haulage companies didn’t take under 25’s because of the high cost of insurance.
Perhaps I could be an air courier? Flying all over the world delivering letters and parcels seemed exciting so I wrote to several companies, only to be told that at the age of 22, I was too old!
It wasn’t long before all of my friends seemed to have something sorted, except me. I started to have words with God. “OK – if my ideas won’t work, what do you want me to do?”
About a week before my final exams the phone rang.
It was Lawrence Hoyle – a Church of England priest who ran a group called Anglican Renewal Ministries (ARM). Lawrence had founded the ministry to promote Charismatic Renewal in the Church of England and we had first met when ARM came to lead a weekend conference in my dad’s church in Bolton. I had helped to lead the worship for the weekend with others from the youth group. At the end he invited me to spend a summer working at Lamplugh House, a small conference centre which he and his wife Margaret had set up in the beautifully named village of Thwing in East Yorkshire.
I spent a happy summer there, helping out around the house, designing publicity, and leading worship for the groups who came.
Now he was on the phone with a new job offer. Anglican Renewal Ministries was moving its offices to Haddenham in Buckinghamshire. Lawrence was looking for an assistant to support him in their office work, conference ministry and parish weekends. He also said that the local church in Haddenham was looking for a part-time Youth Worker in return for providing accommodation in The Old School House on the idyllic village green by the duck pond.
Initially, I was hesitant. I had wanted to travel and see the world or else, I wanted a down to earth secular job before theological college like my father had done. Now I was being offered a church job, just 15 miles down the road!
As I reflected though, I began to realise that I was being more than a bit churlish. After asking God to show me what he did want me to do, I was being offered a job which would take me around the country helping to organise Charismatic Christian conferences while living in a beautiful village! What on earth was I moaning about?
I accepted the job and got ready to move to Haddenham in the summer.
As the time approached however, I began to realise that it would have been a good idea to get more information first. Everything with Anglican Renewal Ministries was fine, but the church youth work was turning out to be a real hornets’ nest.
First, I was told that the old Youth Worker had lost his faith before he left. Then I was told that he had also left his wife and children. Then a few days before I was due to move in, I was told that I couldn’t, because his wife and teenage children were still living in the Youth Worker’s house – the house I had been promised.
When I asked a few more questions, I discovered that the church was in the process of evicting them so that I could move in, and that the two teenagers were leading members of the CYFA group I was there to lead. Things were going from bad to worse.
Instead of moving into the Old School House, I found myself being put up by Lawrence and Margaret in their spare room with a pull-out bed above the office.
And it didn’t stop there. As if the CYFA group didn’t have enough reasons to hate me already, I then discovered that the old Youth Worker had been accused of having an affair with a member of the church before he left – someone who I had to work with in another area of church life. Whether this was true of not, I never really knew, but the suspicion was enough to evoke all kinds of feelings of anger and betrayal in the CYFA group.
While there were several aspects to the youth work, the most significant was the CYFA group for teenagers. They were a good group of young people, but the experience of losing their old Youth Worker – and for two of them, seeing their parents split up and their dad move away – had left deep pain which could easily develop into scars. Adolescence can be volatile at the best of times, but adding in the hurt and anger took this to a whole new level.
Within a few weeks of starting I was on the receiving end of both tantrums and tears, which were quite understandable. I began to see that these teenagers needed someone caring and dependable, but also consistent and firm. What was needed was a cushioned brick! Someting they could kick out against, but which would offer love and care to them, whatever they said or did.
It was hard work and as I look back, I am so grateful for one family in the village who offered me care and support in the midst of the early chaos. Pat and Ron had two kids in the youth ministry. Their son was in CYFA and their daughter in the younger Pathfinders group. Pat worked part-time as the vicar’s secretary and I think she saw how I had been ambushed. They regularly had me round for coffee, meals and place to crash. Without them, life would have been so much harder.
As time went on the old youth workers family found alternative accommodation nearby and I moved into the Old School House. It was empty and I didn’t have any furniture, so I was dependant on people in the church donating bits of furniture they didn’t need. The CYFA group helped me move things around and make a home and we started meeting there. They even helped me in my home-brewing! We did things together and gradually the wounds began to heal. Smiles and laughter began to replace the frowns and suspicion.
One of the best things we did was a Custard Election to raise money towards a CYFA activity holiday in Devon. For those who don’t know, a Custard Election is the most corrupt form of democracy ever. We had four candidates and after church for several weeks, we sold votes for each candidate. People could buy as many votes as they wanted and after an agreed time, the candidate with the most votes would be unceremoniously drenched in custard.
The candidates were John the vicar, a CYFA member who was also a Sunday School Teacher, a retired priest, and me! Every Sunday we would announce the running total and then encourage people to buy more votes for the person they would most like to see covered in custard. It was a big financial success.
In a final twist, someone handed us a blank cheque in the final seconds of the election, with the instruction to level up all the votes. We were all going to get covered in the wet, yellow, sticky stuff!
The following Sunday, the CYFA group arrived at The Old School House very early. We had gallons of custard to make! On the old cooker in the kitchen we mixed, stirred, and poured custard into bucket after bucket. Then after the morning service, the whole congregation gathered on the village green for the spectacle. It was wonderful mayhem and despite the mess, the cold, and the stickiness, it brought us all together.
There were other good moments there too. St Mary’s Haddenham was the first church where I rode my motorbike up the central aisle of the church during a family service one Sunday (to illustrate a point in my sermon, of course!)
It was also where I learned that when preaching, it is better to quit while you are ahead.
I was preaching on the church as the Body of Christ and we had an old overhead projector with a big screen. I got all the children to join me at the front around this OHP and asked them what I needed to draw a body. I then drew their answers on the OHP, gradually forming a body on the screen. It all started well – two legs, arms, a head, eyes, ears, etc – but just when it was complete enough for me to say thank you and move on, I asked one too many questions; “Is there anything else we need?”
There was a young boy who was stood right next to me, and his mouth was right next to the radio-mic clipped to my shirt. As he opened his mouth, the mic amplified his voice many times over, and his words boomed and echoed around the church; “A willy!” There was a moment of awkward silence followed by raucous laughter around the church. This gave me a moment to think, and I quickly drew a belt on the figure on the OHP, saying the only thing which came into my head, “He’s wearing trousers!” I got away with that one.
The first thing was starkly obvious – don’t do that again! Don’t underestimate the problems which may lie under the surface of an idyllic, picturesque village or a successful church. Always look carefully and ask lots of questions before saying yes. It would be lovely to think that all posts in church ministry are honestly and accurately described by parishes, archdeacons and bishops. Unfortunately, that is very rare in my experience.
When advertising to fill a vacancy, churches are just as prone to give into the temptation to ‘spin’ their story as politicians making a speech, or estate agents describing a bijou property. Accentuate the positives and play down the problems – worse still, don’t mention them at all.
This is particularly true when looking for a new vicar. I have nothing against open recruitment but by its very nature it is competitive. Each parish tries to write a more attractive profile than competing parishes, and applicants try to present themselves as better than the other candidates. It is much better to have an open and honest appraisal of both the parish and the clergy than to shadow-box around facades. Having found out what lies beneath, God may still be calling a particular person to a particular parish, but at least everyone commits with open eyes.
The second lesson is not to give up on people who are hurting and angry. Patient, persistent love can change situations, even lives. It won’t always work, but that is ultimately up to them. The CYFA group in Haddenham put aside their anger and found a new joy. Not everyone will be so open, but Jesus brought together a group of diverse men and women with lots of reasons to be dysfunctional and angry with each other. Through his patient love, all except one found a better way of living.
Haddenham’s final lesson for me was much more recent – just a couple of years ago in fact. I was visiting the headquarters of CMS (the Church Mission Society) in Oxford to find out more about their work. During the day I was introduced to a woman who suddenly went into a kind of quiet shock before saying, “You’re Benny Hazlehurst?!” She then went on to tell me about one Sunday morning when I had gathered the children round me in the service at Haddenham. I was playing my guitar and leading a song, and that was the moment when, as a young child in that group, she decided that she wanted to be a youth worker. Now, having been a youth worker for many years, she recalled that moment and it brought me such a blessing. I had no idea that I had inspired someone in Haddenham towards ministry until that moment, many years later.
The lesson? Never underestimate what God can do through you, even in the difficult times, and even when you may never know.
Next week – Anglican Renewal Ministries…