I became a Clerk in Holy Orders at the end of June 2006, just over 14 years ago.
When I was accepted for ordination I was working as the Foundation Anatomist in the new Graduate Entry Medical School of the University of Nottingham, sited in Derby. It was the plan that I continue in that job and in my “spare time” be an unpaid clergyman, a bit like the post-WW2 French worker priests (Mr Google will tell you more).
Shortly after beginning training in 2004 I began to feel that this wasn’t right. Given a personality with more than a few obsessive traits, I could see that I would want to do both jobs too well for my own good, and would therefore do neither properly. I applied for a change in status from non-stipendiary (unpaid) to stipendiary. After a bit of huffing and puffing and form filling I was sent for two more interviews at one of which the interviewer’s first words to me on opening her front door were “are you insane?” I was accepted for full-time ministry and in July 2006 I began as Assistant Curate – jargon for apprentice – in Wirksworth.
People confuse Wirksworth with Worksop. Wirksworth is an ancient lead mining village near Matlock on the edge of the Peak District. It’s a bit like a northern version of Rye in Sussex, full of nooks and crannies, curious houses (semidetached, one above the other, not next to it), tightly packed lanes and hills. It has a remarkable artistic presence displayed at the annual Wirksworth Festival. It attracts retired professionals, artists and academics thus providing a thriving intellectual life, far exceeding what you’d expect from a population of under 5500.
Hidden away in the middle of town (village really, but they have notions) is the large cruciform church. When you find your way through one of the ginnels you are confronted by a charming cathedral close in miniature, so unexpected it quite takes your breath away.
Here it was in 2006 where under the watchful eye of the Rector David Truby I began to learn the ropes of being a parish priest. Some Assistant Curates have a terrible time with trainers who are inadequate or feel threatened. Not so David – the prospect of having a trainee (me) seven years older fazed him not one iota. He knew his job, and I my place—and it was a good place.
Though a brief curacy, only 20 months, it was a time of extraordinary richness. It seems incredible that so much happened in so short a time. Without a doubt the highlight was the explosion of ideas at the theology discussions at the Curate’s House, and the gin afterwards. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I began to see that rather than a priest (whatever that means, and nobody knows in the C of E these days), but a rabbi and a prophet, comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. I have spent my entire working life provoking others to think and learn, and shake them out of their complacency, and – let’s face it – there’s no more apposite word for the C of E.
After about 18 months, the Bishop invited me to go as incumbent to parishes in west Chesterfield. Perhaps wrongly I felt that an invitation from the Bishop was not to be ignored – wrongly for maybe that post was not right for me. I recall being grilled at an introductory meeting by a host of posh people in twinsets, pearls and blue rinses (and that’s the men) and thinking “beam me back to Wirksworth” with a good few profanities thrown in. I could have said no, and maybe I should have, but back then I was more inclined to heed the “advice” of bishops than I am now.
West Chesterfield is wealthy and socially very conservative: expensive properties behind electric gates: they are inclosed in their own fat and their mouth speaketh proud things. Yes, I know I shouldn’t judge, but my response was visceral. I had a similar response – worse – when a couple of years later I applied for the post of Vicar of Helmsley and associated villages. After having been driven around the area and told of the local landowners – Sir This, Lady That, and Lord Howsyourfather, my guts screamed “get out of this hellhole”.
Despite the many good things and lovely people in west Chesterfield it would be true to say that I spent much of the time railing like an Old Testament prophet (Amos – read chapters 4 & 5). Paradoxically – and maybe because of this – my time there bore fruit in, I’m told, the loosening of attitudes, the widening of vision, the involvement of more people than just the elect few, and most particularly in the nurturing of vocations. I was moved at a Derby Cathedral ordination in 2019 to meet six Chesterfield people who said that I’d kicked them up the backside on the journey to ordination or readership.
We need people to stir us up, but it comes at a cost to the stirrer.
Unexpectedly, 2011 saw our daughter in Dublin having problems such that we felt we should be closer at hand. There was no point looking for a job in the diocese of Dublin: those jobs tend to be reserved for the up-and-coming with a great future in front of them, rather than a 61-year-old has-been with a great future behind him. However, the diocese that covers the south east of Ireland had a few vacancies. I contacted the Bishop and was offered the incumbency of Portlaoise, one hour from Dublin.
My intention was to stay there, for there is much about Irish life that is good: the Irish look forwards, outwards, onwards, and are well educated. Unfortunately I found myself in the midst of a huge row between one of my parishes and the diocese. I was aware that there was a problem, but in my arrogance I felt that my experience enabled me to handle it. I was wrong. You cannot begin to appreciate the bloody mindedness and bone-headedness of some Church of Ireland farmers. As time went by, with solicitors’ letters flying in every direction, and Susan becoming more and more affected by what it was doing to me, the writing was on the wall. The crunch came when the diocesan policy that caused the problem was rescinded. My work had been in vain, the rug pulled from under my feet. I was livid. My successor didn’t last as long as I did, and neither did his.
Fortunately, the post in Burton hove into view. It has been a good end. It has included civic and town centre ministry to which I took like a duck to water, never losing an opportunity to berate MPs and fat men in swords and uniforms on civic occasions. I also had charge of an Anglo-Catholic church in an urban priority area, where I developed a real sense of anger at the way in which the C of E – and society – ignores the poor, not least the white poor. To my great satisfaction the church became the venue for the Burton night shelter for the homeless. Despite all the goodness of my ministry in Burton, though, I felt that I could have done more: I’d been in post only 14 months when our elder son died. I was never the same again.
I was thinking of staying in post until I was 70 in June 2020 but I had such a bad chest infection in early 2019 that I reconsidered. When you’re single-handed in town centre parishes with schools, Advent and Christmas are relentless. So I retired in October 2019. I said to Susan that since she’d followed me around for decades, it was her turn to decide where we ended up. With friends in Burton, Derby, Wirksworth, Chesterfield and Nottingham, good train, air and bus connexions (this matters since my eyesight is very poor and Susan’s deteriorating) we moved across the road.
The C of E does not look kindly on retired incumbents staying in the parish where they were last at work because of the possibility of interfering with a successor. There’s no chance. I need seemly liturgy, decent music and thoughtful preaching. In today’s C of E you’re more likely to get second-rate game-show hosts who are purveyors of doggerel songs, playschool prayers and infantile preaching.
So I’m thinking of becoming a pagan.
It’ll take me back to maypole dancing at Langwathby May Day in the 50s and 60s, only this time naked. What a prospect.