Sunday, 31 December 2017

Finding me

Crossing the Line - part 9

Bolton School took quite a bit of getting used to.

Compared with the church school in Blackrod, it was a different world.

I had never had to wear a school uniform and never carried a bag to school.  Now there I was on my first day in my grey trousers, black shoes, white shirt and school tie, with a blue blazer, gabardine raincoat and school cap, carrying a briefcase, gym kit and games bag.

We each had our own desk to keep our books in.  We sat in neat rows and each boy was assigned his own non-negotiable place in the class room.  No sitting with your friends here.

A school ‘Sergeant’ kept order in the corridors and bellowed with a drill sergeant’s voice if someone dared to run in school or disobeyed the strict one-way system on the stairs.  He was also the person who looked after you if you were ill or injured at games, revealing a caring compassionate side which was equally shocking the first time anyone encountered it!

Lunch was taken in a huge hall seating 450 pupils, seated at regimented tables of 11 with a teacher or monitor (prefect) at the head, keeping discipline.  Food came out to each table in serving dishes with 11 plates and was served by those at the head of the table to everyone else.  It was almost always meat or pies and 2 veg, with the occasional adventurous curry. Pudding was almost always hot; spotted dick or treacle tart with custard, or on bad days semolina or rice pudding.  There was never a choice and you had to eat everything before your empty place was passed back up the table to be cleared away.  More challenging was that the whole sitting had to be finished in 20 minutes, from arrival in the hall, through grace, two courses, clearing away, to the hall being empty again.  This was to allow time to reset everything for the second sitting of the older half of the school who repeated the same routine.  This left a lasting legacy in my life – the complete inability to eat slowly, even now, decades later.

Teachers often wore black teaching gowns.  Registration was in the style of Rowan Atkinson’s immortal sketch.  Discipline was strict and I remember coming home at the end of my first day and telling my parents with astonishment how quiet it had been.  I wasn’t used to silence in class.  I had also never had homework before, and remember sitting down at home with my first English homework thinking ‘what do I do now?’

For me, at nine years old, the whole effect was almost on a par with Harry Potter arriving in Hogwarts for the first time.

The ethos of the school was also determinedly secular.  We had assemblies with prayers, but it was done with a definite sense of “let’s get this over with”.  RE was relegated to the statutory minimum in the timetable and seen as an outdated irrelevance by all but one or two teachers.  The school was dedicated to achievement, competition and success.  Our termly school reports gave every pupil an exact statement of where they were in the pecking order by revealing not just a grade but also your mark as a percentage and your position in class.   This ranking system applied to every academic subject except RE where writing anything down or marking our participation was seen as superfluous.

I went straight in at 28th out of 28 in all the main subjects and stayed there for several years.  After being top of the class at the village school in Blackrod this was a bit of a shock and left me more than a little bewildered.  In the village school, I didn’t have to try to be at the top of the class.  Now I couldn’t get off the bottom, no matter how hard I tried!

To progress to the senior school at 11, we all had to pass another competitive exam with over 600 applicants for 128 places each year.  Boys at the Prep School were expected to sail through without any difficulty but a few months before the exam, my parents were called in to the see the headmaster.  It was not because I had been naughty but because the school didn’t expect me to pass.

Looking back, I think this was the wake-up call I needed.  It snapped me out of the state of shock I had been living in.  If I didn’t up my game now, I would be out.  Over the next few months, mum coached me in English and dad in Maths, and on the day of my 11th birthday, I sat the 2½ hour exam, determined to give it my best shot. I then waited to be called in for an interview, often used to sift the borderline applicants and when no invitation came, I was convinced I had failed.

So it was a huge surprise when some weeks later the letter arrived, offering me a place at the senior school.  I didn’t know how but I had made it.

My reasons for wanting to stay there were not about academic aspiration.  They were more to do with identity. At Bolton School I wasn’t the vicar’s kid, just another pupil.  The expectations on me were the same as on every other boy at the school, not tailor made with unspoken moral requirements or religious overtones.  No-none put me on a pedestal or eagerly awaited my fall from it.  I had begun to learn who I was, rather than inhabiting a persona which had been created for me, and I didn’t want to go back.

Although I started there a year later than my classmates, I had begun to make friends who simply knew me as “Hazlehurst” (first names were almost never used) and I began to discover who I was and who I wanted to be.  I also toughened up.  Although I was never good at sport, the school’s rigorous expectations around football, rugby and cricket meant that I couldn’t retreat to the side-lines, away from the action.  I remember going back to visit the village school in Blackrod after a couple of terms and joining in a game of playground football with such vigour that they called me ‘Battling Ben’ by the end.

I had discovered a new me, or rather, I was discovering who ‘me’ was.  I didn’t want anything to drag me back into a school environment where others thought they knew who I was.  If I had failed the entrance exam, I would have received a good education at my local secondary school.  My best friend Chris went there and went on to read Law at university.  My desire to stay at Bolton School was deeper than that.

I needed to be free to find myself.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Best Christmas Ever

Crossing the Line - part 8

Celebrating Christmas with a young family is a bit of a challenge for most clergy. Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year.  Multiple carol services, Christingles and school assemblies all take their toll and that’s before the real festival begins.  Add to that a couple of crib services on Christmas Eve, a midnight Mass, a Christmas morning dash around the benefice and the pastoral work which doesn’t diminish just because its Christmas and most clergy are knackered by lunch-time on Christmas Day – which is the earliest they get to spend any time with their own family.  After lunch all they want to do it sleep.

My dad only had two places of worship to look after when I was a child.  Even so, from 5pm on Christmas Eve, it was almost non-stop until 1pm on Christmas day.  It would start with a Crib Service and move on to Midnight Mass which was always packed.  After getting to bed at about 2am, he would be up before 6am to be ready to lead services at 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 and 11am.  It was worse if someone died just before Christmas.  You can’t say ‘I’ll come and see you in a few days’ when it is probably the most tragic time of the year to lose a loved one.

Today, clergy often have a lot more churches to look after. In towns and especially in villages, vicars can easily have 4, 5, 6, or 7 churches to look after.  The pressure and the demands are huge.

So where does family fit?  Where do your own family figure in this pumped up programme of frenetic activity?

When I was a child my parents decided on our own family solution.  We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve.

After lunch, for every Christmas I can remember, my dad would go up to the parish church to set things up for the services later on.  He would take me with him to help.  I would put out Christian Aid envelopes in the pews and tidy the kneelers, while he made sure everything else was ready.

I did this happily because I knew what came next.  When everything was done, we would stand together at the altar step and he would say a Christmas prayer with me.  Then we would go home and when we walked into the living room, all the Christmas presents would have magically appeared under the tree (thanks mum) ready to be opened.  Mum and dad would pour each other a small glass of wine and our Christmas began!  During the two hours that followed, they wouldn’t answer the phone or the doorbell.  It was our little oasis of family Christmas and I got to open my presents a day early!  I also had two hours with my mum and dad, to set up and play with whatever toys I got – very important for an only child – before dad’s demanding Christmas timetable kicked back into life again.

There were some issues to face of course.  I have to say that I can never remember believing in Father Christmas.  That didn’t stop mum and dad taking me to see Father Christmas in the lead-up to Christmas, whether at the village Christmas Fair or at one of the big department stores in Manchester but I always knew that all the stuff about chimneys, flying sleighs and reindeer were just stories.  They were fun but not true.  I also knew that other children thought they were true and that it would be cruel to put doubt in their minds, so I didn’t!

One Christmas however, when I was 7 or 8, this all went very wrong!  At an end of term school assembly my dad was talking about Christmas as a time for being grateful, and he put in a line saying “Some of us know who to be grateful to for our presents at Christmas”.  He thought that would be sufficiently obtuse for the younger children, while also being capable of being understood by the older ones.  He was wrong.

A young girl went home in tears to mum saying, “The vicar said there’s no Father Christmas!”  She was heartbroken and unfortunately, her parents were among those who had objected to PCC meetings being at the Vicarage because they should be held on neutral ground.  Things moved rather quickly – amazingly quickly in an age before social media and tweets going viral.

The photograph taken for the Daily Mail.
Her parents phoned the Bolton Evening News who must have been having a slack news day.  By that evening it was in the paper – Vicar spoils Christmas!  By later that evening the phone was ringing almost non-stop, as other local press and then the national newspapers jumped on the bandwagon.  The next day the Daily Mail sent a photographer to get a photo of dad with me and some of my Christmas presents from the previous year.  The Bishop of Manchester was contacted and asked to comment on his wayward priest.  Apparently he replied that he was not aware that belief in Father Christmas was an integral part of the Christian faith.  In his defence, dad said only that he had talked about being grateful, not wanting to give the press anything which would add fuel to the fire.

In a couple of days it was all over.  Normality returned.

But the very best Christmas I can remember, didn’t occur until I was 19 years old.

It was my first year away from home.  I had joined Scargill House in the Yorkshire Dales – a community of mainly young people who welcomed up to 90 guests at a time for parish weekends, retreats, creative breaks and holiday house-parties.  Christmas was one such holiday time and 2 or 3 days before Christmas the house was full with a variety of people from older people who lived alone to young families getting away from it all.  The whole community had been rehearsing a Christmas play for weeks, telling the Christmas story in a more contemporary style to present to the guests. The whole house was decorated for the season.  As Christmas approached the temperature dropped, and by Christmas Eve there was a couple of inches of snow on the ground.  It was going to be my first white Christmas! 

On the evening of Christmas Eve, everyone went to the Midnight Mass in Kettlewell Parish Church.  A beautiful candlelit service in a picture-perfect Christmas card scene.  The sky had mostly cleared with just a few clouds providing intermittent snow flurries.  The moon was almost full and moonlight reflected off the snow covered hillsides making the whole valley shine with a silvery glow.

To get to the service, my roommate (Simon) and I got a lift into Kettlewell in the community Land Rover along with four of our older guests who didn’t drive.  They were all in their 70’s and 80’s and we crammed into this Land Rover in close fellowship to get there.

At the end of the service however, we had a problem.  With the largely clear skies, the temperature had dropped to around -5oC and as we all got back into the Land Rover, the driver put the key into the ignition and tried to turn it.  It wouldn’t move.  Not being one to give up, he applied a bit of brute force… and the key broke off in the ignition.  We were stranded.

Everyone else had already gone by the time this happened, so the only solution seemed to be for the driver to walk the mile or so back to Scargill, wake a couple of people up who had cars, and ask them to come and pick us up.

After he set off it soon became apparent that staying and waiting for him was not a good plan either.  The Land Rover was freezing cold, even with us all huddled together in it. Simon and I would have been ok but the elderly guests began feel the cold even more than we did.  Then one of them piped up “I’m not going to sit here and freeze.  I’m going to walk!”  The others agreed and Simon and I were left with the dilemma of what to do.  We couldn’t stop them but we were worried that walking over a mile along snow covered roads was also a risky business for the four older people in their 70’s and 80’s.

As they all got out, we knew we needed to go with them.  In the starlit peace of the early hours of Christmas morning, the six of us walked back along the snowy lanes in crisp moonlight with the occasional snow flurry to make the winter scene complete.

The guests were absolutely amazing.  With Simon and I linking arms with the less mobile to steady them, a kind of Dunkirk spirit kicked in and we walked slowly through the snow singing Christmas carols.  We got almost all the way back to Scargill before the headlights of cars appeared to take us back the rest of the way.

We all went up to the main house and made Hot Chocolate and Horlicks to warm everyone up.  Far from complaining, they were elated by their Christmas adventure and their victory over the elements.

When Simon and I finally went back to our room in Community House at the bottom of the drive, it was about 2:30am.  When we trudged up the stairs to the room we shared at the top of the house, we found two Christmas stockings of presents hanging from our door handle.   It was a complete and lovely surprize and we sat on our beds unwrapping chocolates, novelties and two miniature bottles of scotch whisky.  We chinked the bottles together and drunk the lot.  Some of my friends know my love of Single Malt Whisky but will not know that it began on that night.

We finally settled down sometime after 3am for a few hours sleep, before getting up to help prepare for breakfast and wake the guests by going around the house singing Christmas carols at 8am.

No Christmas has ever come close to that.  The beauty of the moonlit night; the snow on the ground; the spirit and determination of those four elderly guests and the camaraderie they found together in adversity; the unexpected presents hanging from our door handle;  they all came together to make that the best Christmas ever!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Not an easy village

Crossing the Line - Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was brought through all this by three things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Turning a corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then cancer. 

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

More recently though, I have turned a corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 December 2017

From rubble to a garden

One corner of  St James' Church Collyhurst 1966

Crossing the Line - part 6

Collyhurst was a bit of a shock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for an Introduction to Crossing the Line

Saturday, 25 November 2017

To Rome... and back

Crossing the Line - Part 5

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

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

What was the issue?  Methodists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.