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.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Shylvia Shishons

Granny holding David

Crossing the Line - part 3

My father didn’t have a good start in life.  A few weeks after his birth in 1932, David’s mother died of complications from the delivery.  His father John was heartbroken and retreated further into himself, which left granny to bring David up.

She was a formidable woman who ruled the household with absolute authority.  She was one of those strong working class Lancastrian women who had a matriarchal power which defied any gender stereotype.  And she was to all intents and purposes, David’s mum.

They lived in a working class terrace house in Bolton Lancashire, together with their extended family.

Things didn’t get any easier for David either.  When he was two, he developed a severe ear infection and in the days before antibiotics, David was taken into hospital.  Soon they were told that there was nothing that could be done but Granny was having none of it.  When the doctors had given up on him, she took him home against medical advice, and in a supreme act of will, nursed him back to life.

The trauma of the illness took its toll however. His hearing loss was substantial and lifelong.  He didn’t speak for over a year, only beginning to utter words again when he was 4 years old.   When he did start to speak he had a speech impediment and would say ‘Sh’ instead of ‘S’ – something which continued into adult life and led to more than his fair share of ridicule.

Anyone else would have simply been happy that he could speak again, but Granny didn’t give up there, pushing him into school and through school, believing in him no matter what.

When he was 11, she made sure that he was given a place at the Church Institute (now Canon Slade School) and he began to attend Bolton Parish Church.  This was his first encounter with the Church, and it planted many seeds which would grow later.  He sang in the choir but also loved the snooker halls opposite his school which resulted in him having to re-sit his A-levels before being offered a place at Liverpool University to study Physics.  Coming from a working class family in Lancashire, he was the first in his family to even dream of going to University, and Granny must have been so proud.  Her hard work had paid off.

It was in Liverpool that his faith grew and developed at the Parish Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas opposite the Royal Liver Building and Princes Dock.   He discovered the ritual and spirituality of the Anglo-Catholic tradition.  When a visiting preacher said, “The question is not ‘Should you be ordained?’ but rather ‘Why shouldn’t you?’” David knew God was calling him to be a priest, even with his speech impediment.

In his final year at University, he went to a vocations selection conference, where his vocation to the priesthood was confirmed, but he was thought to be too much of a ‘narrow minded scientist’ to go straight to theological college.  Instead he was told to go and spend a year ‘broadening his mind’.

They suggested working in a bookshop, but David’s rebellious side kicked in.  Instead of finding a nice comfortable bookshop in which to while the time away, he joined the Industrial Mission, moved to Sheffield and got a manual job on the shop floor in one of the city’s huge steelworks. There in the noise and heat of heavy industry, he lived out his faith and calling at the sharp end of working life.

His mind was broadened in more ways than one.   Despite wondering if he was called to a celibate life, he met Irene there.  They had a lot in common – they were both form working class households – both their lives had been touched by a deeply rooted Anglo-Catholic vision of Christian faith which embraced everyone in a deeply incarnational pattern of life – and both felt called to the religious life. 
(See “My mother was a nun”)

At the end of his time in Sheffield, David went to St Stephen’s House in Oxford (affectionately known as ‘Staggers’) to train for ordination but Irene was never far from his thoughts.  One Wednesday in his second year, he went to Arthur Couratin - his formidable college principal - and said “Irene is going into hospital in Sheffield for an operation and I need to marry her straight away.”  In the heavily cloistered, male environment of St Stephen’s House, he was more than a little surprised when Arthur said “Well you better go and marry her then!”

David phoned her on Thursday – having already arranged a special licence for the wedding - to tell Irene that they “were going to be married on Saturday” and could she get a wedding cake?  On Friday morning, Irene walked into Walsh’s (the big department store in Sheffield) to order the cake.  When she was asked for the date of the wedding she said “tomorrow” which caused more than a little shock.  After checking with the bakery however, they accepted the order as long as she realised that “the icing may be a little wet”.

After the wedding, they were apart once more as David returned to Oxford.  Women were treated with great suspicion at St Stephen’s House – unless you were the principal’s sisters who acted as chaperone on the few occasions when Irene was allowed to visit.  Even though they were now married, Irene was only allowed to see David in the presence of Arthur’s sisters and was not allowed to stay at the college, having to sleep in a convent down the road instead.

On 16th June 1957, David was ordained deacon in Sheffield Cathedral, and went with Irene to Arbourthorne where he was to serve his curacy.  It was a large social housing estate on the outskirts of Sheffield.  David’s ordained ministry had begun.

On his first Sunday, David was asked to read the Banns of Marriage in the service.  He picked up the book and to his horror, he found that he had to read the Banns for “Sylvia Sissons, spinster of the parish of St Swithuns”.   The speech impediment from his childhood had been an issue all his life.  He had received speech therapy at theological college, but this was a test that few would relish.

Amazingly he read the Banns perfectly.  The 4-year-old boy who could hardly speak, yet who had become the first in his family to go to University and had followed God’s call to ordination, found that the God who had called him would not let him down.

First published after my Father's death in 2016.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

My mother was a nun

Crossing the Line - Part 2

Irene was born in the slums of Sheffield in 1927.  The first home she knew was Dragon Yard, a courtyard tenement where everyone hung out their washing together in the middle, under the smoke and pollution of the industry which surrounded them.  Steel works and foundries were the backbone of Sheffield but her small family never benefitted from the jobs the industry brought.  She was an only child.

Her father didn’t have a skill.  He worked as a casual labourer when he could get work and when he wasn’t too drunk.  Money was almost non-existent.  On the days when he got work, he would drink most of his pay on the way home.  On the days he didn’t work, there was nothing.  Her mother was a slight woman, less than 5 feet tall, who suffered regular beatings from her husband when he came home drunk.  For Irene, this was normal life.

If it had not been for the kindness of others, I am sure she would not have survived to adulthood.  There was a prostitute who lived in Dragon Yard too.  She used to give my mum money for chips.  There were also richer relatives who did what they could from time to time.  Her mother was related to Sir Henry Coward who founded the Huddersfield Choral Society – a choir of world-wide renown. One day, out of the blue, Irene remembered a car drawing up outside their home.  This was unheard of.  Out of it stepped Sir Henry and she was dumb-struck as he came to their house and had tea with her mother. Before he left he put half a crown in Irene’s hand with a smile.  She had never seen so much money.

She also had an older cousin, Madge, who lived in Manchester.  She had married a successful businessman and she taught ballet.  They had no children at that time.  Before Mum went to secondary school Madge had her over to stay.  She bought Irene a uniform for school and took her to the ballet school.  Mum was in heaven.  The visit finished with a professional photograph of my mum as a ballerina.

But then Mum went back to the daily grind of home.  At some point she was diagnosed with malnutrition and sent to a sanatorium for children recovering from TB.  For a term she lived there Monday to Friday and went home at weekends. Slowly she grew in strength fuelled by proper meals and fresh air.

When she was 12 her father died which set her free from the fear which accompanied his late-night returns after a night at the pub.  Around the same time war broke out and she learned to live in the shelters as bombs rained down on the industrial targets around her.  With her father gone, money was just a scarce, with her mother getting whatever piece work that she could.  It was never enough.

But around this time her life began to change.

The slums she had grown up in were cleared and the two of them were given a home in the recently completed council estate of Parson Cross.  Over the years Parson Cross has had its share of social deprivation, but it must have been like paradise to my mother and when I was a child she took me to visit the home which signalled this new chapter in her life.

It was at Parson Cross that she first came into contact with the Church.  There was a Church of England mission church, St Bernard’s, on the estate which was staffed by Kelham Fathers and Wantage Sisters.  The Kelham Fathers were monks from the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham in Nottinghamshire; and the Wantage Sisters were nuns from the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, Oxfordshire.  Together they opened up a brave new world for my mother.  A world of caring, where the monks and nuns put the needs of others first.  A world of community, where people of faith gathered together, supported each other and celebrated life and faith.  Her faith grew, as did her determination to escape from the world in which she had grown up.

Florence & Irene
When she left school at 16 with her school certificate she enrolled at secretarial college and learned a skill.  This skill led to work and new horizons opened up.  She had made a close friend, Florence, through Guides at church.  Together they had wonderful adventures as they escaped from the smoke of Sheffield and travelled the length of England on cycling holidays, staying in Youth Hostels and finding themselves surrounded by hopeful young men on more than one occasion.  They became life-long friends. 

Then when the opportunity came to train as a teacher, her horizons grew again and my mother now had another ambition – to join the convent at Wantage and become a nun.  It was partly her faith which led here there; partly the desire to emulate the nuns who had been such a positive influence on her life; and partly the egalitarian life of the convent.  As a nun you could be sat next to someone in chapel who had been born into the aristocracy, but as sisters together you were equals.  For someone who had been looked down on for all her early life, either in disdain or in pity, this was deeply attractive.

In 1948 she left her home in Sheffield and made the journey to Wantage in Oxfordshire to teach at the local school.   She lodged with a lovely couple who worked in the convent and lived only a field away from its hallowed ground.  Two years later she became a Postulant of the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin.  After several months scrubbing dishes in the convent kitchen, she progressed to the Noviciate, receiving her habit and a new name, Sister Irene Bernard.  As a novice she was posted to a mother and baby home in North London, looking after single mothers and their children.  She was put in charge of cooking the communal meals which terrified her, but at the end of the first evening meal the sister in charge said, “I knew you could do it – you’re from Yorkshire.”

Three years passed and she came towards the completion of her time as a Novice.  Soon she would take her final vows which would commit her to the lifelong task of poverty, chastity and obedience.  She felt she had found her niche in life – her calling – and as a full sister she could expect a varied and demanding life including postings to Africa or India to work in the mission field.
But as she approached this landmark everything changed.

Back in Sheffield, her mother had never adjusted to life without Irene.  Her health had never been good and as Irene’s final vows came closer she became convinced that she was dying.  Reluctantly Irene found herself leaving the convent she loved to look after her until she died, intending then to return and take her vows.

As time went on however, her mother didn’t die.  Irene soon became trapped in the role of carer to a woman she increasingly resented and unable to go back to the convent she loved.  The sense of disappointment must have been unbearable.  She had almost escaped.  She had got so close, but then found herself dragged back to everything she had worked so hard to escape from.  I don’t know how she coped.

Caught in this prison, it was her faith and her friends that kept her sane.  She continued to be active in her local church, got a job and carried on as best she could.

Then a little miracle occurred – one of those coincidences behind which it is possible to discern a greater hand at work.  She was asked by her vicar to go to an Evangelical church to talk to them about Anglo-Catholic spirituality with a young man who was going to train for ordination.  Like her, he was a committed Anglo-Catholic and he had also considered a monastic life (with the Kelham Fathers who had ministered in Irene’s parish).

David was living in Sheffield for a year before going to start his ordination training at St Stephen’s House in Oxford.  He had come to Sheffield to work in a steel-works with the Industrial Mission after his university degree, but he was also from a working-class home.  Going to University had been his escape and now he was on the path to becoming a priest.   They had a lot in common and after David went to Oxford to start his training, they kept in touch.

I have never been quite sure if they actually had a courtship.  When they both met Irene didn’t think priests should marry and David thought he was called to a celibate vocation, but at some point David decided to ask Irene to marry him.  Apparently, his proposal was so inept that Irene thought he was asking her for advice about marrying someone else and when she finally realised that he meant her, she turned him down.

Their friendship continued to grow however and on 24th November 1956, they were married at St Cecelia’s Parson Cross at just 36 hours’ notice.  Irene was going into hospital for surgery and they desperately wanted to be each other’s next of kin when she went in.  After a one-night honeymoon at the Nag’s Head in Castleton, David returned to the cloister of his theological college and Irene returned home to look after her mother, but it was the beginning of a profound and unexpected chapter in their lives.

They became life-long Oblates of the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage, thus continuing Irene’s relationship with the convent.  The years that followed saw Irene have a successful career in teaching, becoming head of department in a large comprehensive school.  She studied for a BA with the Open University, and trained as a Lay Reader in the Church.

Contrary to the rumours which circulated following their ‘quick marriage’ it was another seven years before they had a baby, and to this day I remain proud to say (with a wry smile) 
“My mother was a nun”.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

My Grandad drove a tram

Crossing the Line – Part 1

So where do I start? 

Perhaps with the people who made me and brought me up.  We were a small family.  I am an only child of parents who were both the only child in their families.

I only knew one of my grandparents.  The others were all dead before I was born.  And for the first 8 years of my life I hardly saw him either.  He was so totally different to my parents (or so it appeared) that it was sometimes difficult to believe that they had anything in common. 

A while ago, I remember doing one of those rather frivolous on-line quizzes which are supposed tell you something about yourself.  In a few questions, this one purported to reveal what social class you were, and my result was “Solidly Working Class”.  I laughed.  I am a clergyman, educated at Oxford, from an independent school, born of a vicar and a teacher.  Surely you can’t get much more middle class that that?

But as a thought about it, I also remembered that my parents were not from middle class homes, far from it, and neither were their parents.  Perhaps this frivolous quiz was revealing something about me which I had not identified before?  Perhaps I was more working class that I realised?

Grandad (back left) with friends before the War
My grandad was staunchly working class, deeply proud of his Lancashire working man’s values.  My parents had climbed the social ladder.  They had moved beyond their working class roots, aspiring to something more refined.

He lived in a rented bedsit in the same neighbourhood in Bolton where he had always lived.  We lived in a huge Victorian vicarage with a tennis court, bluebell wood, orchard and rose garden.  Our vicarage had old servant’s quarters in the attic which were bigger than his entire home.

He was a man of few words – preferring to keep his thoughts to himself most of the time.  He smoked 40 cigarettes a day and collected his Embassy tokens for treats or presents from the catalogue.  My parents were always talking – their jobs required it – and hated anything to do with smoking.

He loved working with his hands and the tool bench which he had made, contained the tools of his trade.  When my dad had become the first person in the family ever to go to university, grandad made him a beautiful desk out of old ammunition boxes.  By the time he had finished, no-one would have guessed the wood’s former purpose and today the desk is where I often go to write sermons or blogs, having been passed down to me, by my father in turn.  It still shines with that deep dark lustre of mahogany that has been lovingly worked to perfection.

He also made radios, and other ‘modern’ gadgets.  He did the whole thing, from designing the circuits to combining the components and making the cabinet which housed them.   I remember one in particular.  It had something like a liquid crystal display above the tuning dial with two glowing bars which came together when the radio signal was strong and drifted apart as the signal faded.  “To find the best signal” he would say, “you tune the radio until the bars are as close to each other as they can get”.   It was like magic to me.

When I was seven he gave me a model railway – not in a box, but laid out on an enormous table with a station, goods yard, village and level-crossing.  It was like my own small version of Legoland but made in wood and metal, and painted with loving care. 

When I was about 8, ill health brought him to live with us, and he made a 36” racing yacht for me, engaging me to help him at every stage.  I remember being given the awesome responsibility of pouring the molten lead into the mould he had made for the keel.  I remember him showing me how to steam strips of wood so that they would bend around the frame he had made to form the sleek lines of a racing hull.

These were the things he had done with my dad when he was a child – model train sets and racing yachts were the pinnacle of their relationship, but my father had left these far behind as sixth form led to university, and then on to theological college and ordination.

That is not to say that grandad didn’t have his faults.  He could be deeply moody and his few words could move almost imperceptibly to sullen depression at the drop of a hat.  His dark moods could last for days when he would shuffle around in a world of his own, speaking to no-one. 

When he came to live with us for the final 5 years of his life, his smoking drove my mother mad, and his working class pride was the antithesis of everything she aspired to.  It wasn’t that her upbringing had been pretentious or snobbish – far from it.  In many ways it had been significantly harder than my dad’s.  Her father had been an unskilled, alcoholic labourer in Sheffield.  Work was casual and unreliable, and when he did get paid, he would drink the money on the way home before beating her mother savagely.  My mum had a childhood characterised by poverty, fear and malnutrition in the slums of Sheffield and I don’t know if she would have survived but for the kindness of a local prostitute who used to give her money for chips.  Where grandad enshrined working class dignity, she only knew working class misery and she had fought with everything she had to leave it far behind.

Perhaps the reason they clashed so often was that he reminded her of the things she had escaped from.  He didn’t drink, but his room was always thick with smoke.  He would watch ITV - she watched BBC.  She had a modern cylinder vacuum cleaner – he loved his old upright Hoover and he would tell me over and over again how and why it was different and better than these modern plastic gimmicks.  He was content to sit quietly in his chair in his room with his ashtray and his telly.  He didn’t care if he was on his own, and resented coming downstairs to family meals.  She wanted to go to dinner parties, talk to educated people, and develop her career to get as far away as possible from the origins which he continued to represent.

 And when he got moody, he really got moody.  I am sure that part of the reason for building model train sets and yachts with my dad, was to avoid really talking to him.  He was a very guarded man who had seen almost everyone he loved die, and he had built a wall around his heart to stop it ever being broken again. 

After his early 20’s were stolen in the trenches of the First World War, seeing his friends and comrades die, he was one of the very few of those who enlisted early to return home.  He then married but his wife died after giving birth to my dad.  He withdrew within himself more and more.  Then my dad almost died when he was 2 years old from an ear infection.  He was only saved by his grandmother taking him out of hospital when they had given up on saving him, slowly loving him back to life.  

He did eventually allow himself to love again, but could not show it, because his love was for his wife’s sister, also widowed.  The taboos which remained about such relationships were still strong in his community – when he was born it was still illegal to marry your dead wife’s sister and it was expressly prohibited in the Prayer Book.  Although that changed in 1907, the stigma and disapproval of such relationships was still strong, and it was only after the death of his mother-in-law many years later that they dared to express their love and get married.  She then died only 3 or 4 years later.

I suppose that his job as a tram driver suited him for that very reason.  Isolated in his cab, he could just get on with life without having to engage with other people.  He simply got the tram from A to B and back again as the world went on around him.  I think he started on the horse-drawn omnibus, moving to electric trams with the advent of new technology.  But when the trams were replaced by buses, he was unwilling to make another technological leap by learning to drive.  Instead he became a bus conductor for the rest of his working life.  I can imagine him as a character in the TV comedy “On the Buses” – suspicious of change, proudly working class, resentful of authority, and resistant to anything which would threaten his fragile status quo.

As a child, I do remember that whenever I got too close – whenever I started to penetrate the wall which he had erected around his heart – he would quietly distance himself again, not in a cruel or manipulative way, but to shore up his self-defence.

He died when I was 13.  The smoking finally got him and he had a stroke, aged 81.

After 3 months of an air purifier running non-stop in his room 24 hours a day, it still smelled of stale cigarettes, and when we took the pictures off the wall, they left clear rectangles like oases in the darkening layers of tar and nicotine which surrounded them.

Yet I learnt so much from him about enduring adversity and about retaining the right kind of pride & dignity, no matter what anyone else thought. 

I still have the yacht.  The train set went when I was a teenager because I needed money and space for a settee and a hi-fi.   But I still have the yacht we made.  When I look at it, I see a man who took pride in what he did – a man who was self-contained and resilient – but also a man who cut himself off from others out of fear of getting hurt again.

My grandad drove a tram.

Grandad, mum and me

(With Thanks to Sam Emms for the title graphic - thanks Sam!)

Click here for an Introduction to Crossing the Line

Monday, 23 October 2017

Coming soon... Crossing the Line

One result of reflecting on life and my cancer diagnosis over the last couple of months, is a desire to write an account of my days, starting with where I came from, the family I was born into.  I know I am not alone in wanting to do this at a time like this.  It may be vain, even presumptuous, but I am going to do it anyway.   I am going to publish it on my blog, a bit at a time.  Don’t worry, I don’t expect lots of people to read them.  I am doing this for me.

Part of wanting to do this comes from my personality.  I like to be ready for things.  I don’t like having things sprung upon me.  I remember a time in my teens when my friends organised a surprise party for me before I moved away.  For the first half hour, I was furious, because I had other plans for the evening!  So perhaps I am preparing for the possibility that one day, my life will flash before my eyes, and I don’t want any surprises! 

But I also want to do it because I am constantly in awe of the things that God has allowed me to experience in life.  I don’t even pretend to understand the verse in Psalm 139 that says, “all the days ordained for me were written in your book, before one of them came to be”, and like the Psalmist, I find myself echoing his words, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain”.  I am deeply grateful for the wonders He has shown me, and that no matter where I have been, or what I have been doing, I know God was there.

I have thought long and hard about what to call this series of blog posts.  “Confessions of a turbulent priest” came to mind, but my life can’t even hold a candle to Thomas Becket, the original ‘turbulent priest’.  I also thought of “A life less ordinary” but again, that has already been taken by someone who has moved mountains rather than my paltry molehills.

In the end, I am going to call it “Crossing the Line” inspired by a song by American Christian band, Superchick.  As I look back, my whole life has been about crossing lines, as were my parents’ lives.  Refusing to be pigeon-holed, refusing to be confined by ‘the norm’, refusing to back down when principle was involved.

As the song says,

‘Try to change the world, they'll think you're out of your mind Revolutions start when someone crosses the line’

Not that I have changed the world in any significant way, but I am proud to have played my small part alongside many others who have been determined to do the same. 

For me, this has been life in all its fullness. (John 10:10) and I thank God for the opportunity to live it.  The song has another lyric which I hold dear.

‘Everybody dies, but not everyone lives!’

Even though I am facing the prospect of a much shorter life than I had imagined, I am proud to say that I have definitely lived.  Despite my failings and inadequacies, I have seen and done things which still bring a smile to my face, or make me pause to reflect.  God has taken my rebellious personality and used it for His Glory and I am truly grateful.

The last thing which confirmed this for me were some of the kind comments which people wrote on my recent Facebook posts about having cancer.

 Sam wrote:

“In my mind’s eye, you're still in training at St Paul's, twenty plus years ago, breaking all the stereotypes of what a prospective vicar should look like as you revved your way to the services on a motorbike & donned in leather & Mel, again breaking stereotypes of what a vicars wife should be, as you walked down the aisle in a plum red wedding dress.

The pair of you have broke from convention times over & consequently have touched & spoken into so so many lives, who otherwise wouldn't have heard of this Jesus dude & all that He is & brings.”

And Charlene (who I have never met outside of Facebook) wrote:

“I was so disgusted with “God speak” of angry-call-themselves Christians, but treat whole groups despicably, when you became my Facebook friend and I felt like there was sanity again in Christendom for me.  And I felt like it was ok again to have a bit of faith - faith and trust in the power of prayer.” 

So thank you Sam, Charlene and so many others who have encouraged me and crossed the line with me over the years.