Sunday 11 February 2018

Moving on

Crossing the Line - part 14

As sixth form progressed, I had to decide what to do next.

In one way this was easy.  I wanted to go to university.   When I was about 15, I had made the audacious statement that I wanted to go to Cambridge.  I say audacious because I had only just made it off the bottom of my class into the dizzying heights of mediocrity at the time.  Somehow, my teacher managed not to burst out laughing and told me that if I worked hard, why not?

I only said Cambridge because we had visited it on a family holiday.  The rarefied atmosphere of the colleges won me over, from the grand to the quaint.  The thought of living in one of these ‘other worldly’ quads captured my imagination.

This was all fine until I mentioned it to Lesley who was my girlfriend at the time, and she said, “But I want to go to Oxford.”   So when I saw a young vocations weekend advertised at Jesus College Oxford, I knew I had to go.  What a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – I could go to a weekend about ordination and see Oxford properly at the same time. 

Two things stood out for me over the weekend. 

First was the morning I spent with the chaplain at Oxford prison.  It was a time of extreme overcrowding in British prisons and the sight of Victorian cells designed for one or two prisoners, but crammed with up to four inmates was shocking.  There was so little space that if anyone needed to get to the cell door, the others had to jump on their beds to allow him through.  It was also in the days of slopping out where the toilet consisted of a bucket with a towel over it, which was slopped out each morning before breakfast.  The smell must have been unbearable at times.

Second was an afternoon wandering about the colleges of Oxford.  I decided that I would walk around as many as I could and see if any of them ‘felt right’.  This was not a very scientific approach for someone looking for somewhere to study maths, but as I have since discovered there is an intuitive side to my personality which sometimes has the upper hand. As I walked around the colleges, I came to a very definite decision that there was one which felt right.  Brasenose College was a smallish college on Radcliffe Square and as I walked around I could imagine myself living and studying there.

So I came back to Bolton and told Lesley the good news that I had decided to apply to Oxford – except that when it came to filling in our applications, Lesley applied to Cambridge!  Perhaps there was something she was trying to tell me?  Our relationship actually lasted over 3 years, ending during the summer holidays just after A levels.  It was a happy time and through lots of ups and downs we made it work – a romantic relationship between two Christians which helped us both to grow without falling into the usual teenage pitfalls.  Lesley applied to Cambridge, and I applied to Oxford.

Then came the question of what to do with the time I would have off between the Oxbridge exams in November and starting university the following Autumn (wherever that might be).  During childhood, another place we had visited often was Scargill House in the Yorkshire Dales.  Set in the picturesque landscape of Upper Warfdale, Scargill was a Christian community of about 30 people who ran a conference, holiday, and retreat centre for about 90 guests.

 For most people the words ‘Christian community’ bring visions of pious looking monks or nuns in religious habits, but Scargill was nothing like that.  Most of the community at Scargill were in their 20’s and wore jeans not habits.  When a member of the community was invited onto local radio to try to explain what it was like to live in community, he began by saying, “We do everything together; we work together, we eat together, we...” and everyone wondered what he was going to say next!  Thankfully he finished the sentence with “We pray together.”  This religious community was predominantly a group of young people who chose to live there for a time to find out more about themselves and deepen their faith, joining for anything from a few months to a several years.

Scargill Community 1982

 We certainly worked together and looking after the guests involved cooking, cleaning, as well as managing the 96-acre estate under the leadership of a Chaplaincy Team.  We also took turns to be on the Guest Team, leading whatever conference, retreat or holiday was on the programme for that week.  This involved making everyone feel at home, leading worship, drama or meditations, and accompanying our guests on walks around the Dales.

Scargill has the most beautiful modern chapel which somehow set the ethos for the whole place.  It is in the shape of praying hands under a huge wood shingle roof.  We sat around the altar on its large stone dais which doubled as a place to kneel for communion or as a stage for drama or dance.  Each end of the chapel was completely glazed in clear glass, revealing the beauty of God’s creation with views of across the dale or up into the forest behind.  Every morning we would meet there for prayers after an early breakfast.  It set the scene for the day.

I applied with excitement and got an interview.  It was the week after Easter and I borrowed my parents’ motor caravan to drive up in.  As I set off from Bolton it started to snow.  By the time I reached the Yorkshire Dales it was a blizzard.  The last 15 miles from Skipton to Kettlewell were going to be a real challenge, and one which proved too much.  I finally gave up when the snow plough I was following stopped because the snow drifts were too deep.  Returning to Skipton, I phoned Scargill in bitter disappointment, only to be told, “Don’t worry, we’ll pick you up!”

Sure enough, about 40 minutes later a land rover arrived driven by a member of the community who was an ex-royal marine commando.  I quickly learned that his strategy for snow drifts was simple; the bigger the drift, the faster you drive at it!  We arrived in one piece just in time to find that the power had gone out and there were 70 guests to look after.  It was an eventful weekend with the snow 2-3 feet deep in places.  After managing on emergency power overnight, the electricity came back on in the early hours of the morning and I spent most of the weekend in a team shovelling snow from the long driveway to make sure our guests could leave.

So it was that I was offered a place on the community and immediately after my Oxbridge exams, I left home on a new adventure.

Of course, nothing is ever what you expect it to be.  For me, the most important lesson of going to Scargill was to begin at the bottom again.  I left my church in Bolton and the youth group where everybody knew me and often looked to me for advice and leadership.  I arrived at Scargill where nobody knew me, and I didn’t know them.  The first week was spent washing up.  The second week, I was moved to House Team who cleaned the house from top to bottom every day.  Any romantic notions of the joys of living in community are quickly dashed when you are sent off to clean the 30 or so toilets around the house before 11am!  Then there was changeover day, when one group of guests left and another group arrived.  Every bed in 50 rooms needed changing, before cleaning and setting up just right for the new arrivals.  It was hard work and there was a ‘Scargill way’ of doing everything, from folding the sheets to arranging the furniture in the large meeting rooms.

Looking back, I learned there what it really means to serve people in Christian ministry.  Not up the front with everyone looking at you, like being a priest at the front of a church, but in the simple unseen acts of service which no one notices, except if they are not done – like cleaning toilets.  It was a good lesson for me to learn.

A few weeks after I arrived at Scargill, I had to go to Oxford for interview.  It was another cold and snowy few days, trudging through the snow from college to college for interviews.  When I looked at the other candidates I didn’t think I stood a chance.  There were only 6 places for Maths at Brasenose and there were 12 of us there.  All of them appeared to be much smarter than me.  At one interview, after we had talked about maths for a while, I remember being asked about my application.

He showed me two consecutive lines on the application form.  The first asked for my chosen subject – mathematics. The second asked what career I wanted to follow, and I had written “Priest in the Church of England”.  He looked puzzled and said, “So you don’t want to do anything with your maths after you finish then” quickly followed up by “So why do you want to study maths?”

I remember saying that I enjoyed maths and didn’t want to be the kind of vicar who didn’t know about anything apart from theology.  He smiled.

Looking back, I am sure that this question got me a place at Brasenose.  It was the only thing which set me apart from other applicants, the only thing which would have been memorable when the time came to choose who to offer a place to.  I think it was just after Christmas that I got the letter inviting me to Brasenose College Oxford.  It took me a while to really believe it.

The time at Scargill passed all too quickly.  As I got used to the work there it became more and more fun.  I shared rooms with Simon who was mad about pot-holing and climbing, even taking me down the wet and slippery Providence Pot on one occasion.    As a community we welcomed everyone from Bishops to borstal boys.  Music, art and drama were a normal part of our weekly activities alongside cleaning the house, day in, day out. I even got used to the ‘Scargill way’ of doing things.

During one summer house-party when I was on the Guest Team, we organised a cross between ‘It’s a Knockout’ and a commando course around the estate complete with being drenched by fire hoses and a zip-wire ride!  Everyone had to complete the course in pairs and it started with a three-legged race, tied up with strips of old pillowcases.  “Keep hold of the pillowcases when you untie your legs” I said, “You may need them to staunch the blood later!” - trying to add to the excitement.  Imagine my face then the guest speaker for the week arrived at the finish line needing several stitches with blood dripping from the old pillow case wrapped around his arm!

I did start to think that Scargill would be the place I would end up, but then some of my youth group from Bolton came to visit and said “No – you need to be out in the world.”  So in September 1982, I left for Oxford with something of a heavy heart.  It was like finding somewhere you felt you belonged, but then knowing you have to move on.

Scargill became somewhere I went back to many times.  The chapel there became the place where I would return when I really needed to hear from God.  In the stillness, enveloped in those praying hands, surrounded by the beauty and majesty of creation, I always knew I would meet God there. 

It is some years now since I last went back, but I hope to visit again soon. 

You never know, perhaps I will hear something new?

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