‘They’ve seen my arrival as a sign of hope for their church and the Church’
The Church is no longer a lifelong career for many of today’s vicars, who arrive at their vocation via myriad routes–pop music, neuroscience and journalism, to name a few. Alec Marsh meets an inspiring new generation of reverends
WHETHER you’re High Church, Low Church or of no church at all, the mental image most of us have of a Church of England vicar has been fairly settled for about 150 years and was formed in good measure by one man: Anthony Trollope. That was until a few years ago, when another Anglican priest hove into view— one who embodied the human frailties of Trollope’s finest, but did so in the person of Adam Smallbone, the vicar of an innercity parish played by Tom Hollander in the BBC series Rev.
At about the same time, the Church of England started to confront the demographic cliff edge it teetered on, with the retirement of thousands of its priests on the horizon. It soon came to the conclusion that it needed a Rev revolution of its own and began actively encouraging ‘gifted and committed young men and women just like you’ to become ‘church leaders of the future’.
Among those who heard the call—if not from Lambeth Palace, then from a higher place—is the individual who is regarded as the inspiration for the BBC series, the original cool curate. A member of the 1980s duo the Communards—most famous for their hit Don’t Leave Me This Way— Rev Richard Coles gave up the synthesiser for the organ in 2003. After training, he served two curacies and arrived at his current parish of Finedon in Northamptonshire in 2011, subsequently being appointed vicar.
‘I describe myself as a simple country parson with my tongue in cheek,’ remarks Rev Coles, now 54, whose voice is known to millions thanks to his Saturday Live slot on Radio 4. ‘It’s not entirely facetious because I’m a vicar of the parish; there’s one church, one community. It’s that tried-andtested model of how we do it in the Church of England.’
‘It’s the best job in the world,’ continues the man who last year published his second clerical memoir, Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years as a Priest. ‘You don’t always think it when you’re doing it, but when you look back at the end of the year, you realise what an extraordinary blessing of grace it is. It’s all worth it.’
A more recent addition to the Anglican priesthood is Dutch-born Janneke Blokland. Formerly a research scientist in Berlin, the 34 year old decided to swap physics for metaphysics after attending the Anglican church in that city in 2010. By 2012, she was in Cambridge training for the priesthood and is now a curate at St Mary’s in Marlborough, Wiltshire. ‘What really appeals to me in the Church of England is the parish system,’ explains the Rev Blokland. ‘It’s a church for everyone, not just the people who come on a Sunday. That’s one of the great things we have in this country.’
Having the time to ‘really listen’ to people leads, in turn, to a deeper connection between faith and community. ‘It’s quite difficult to express,’ continues Rev Blokland, who completes her curacy at Easter. ‘When you put the bread into people’s hands on a Sunday morning, you know a bit about what those hands have been through—the person behind the hands.’
Inspiration can strike in the unlikeliest of places—former journalist Matt Woodcock
heard the call on the A19, on his way to Selby Magistrates Court to cover a case for the Yorkshire Evening Post in 2007. A couple of years later, he was training to be a priest and has been at Holy Trinity, Hull, since 2011. ‘There were times when I was training that I thought “you can’t be serious, God”,’ recalls 41-year-old Rev Woodcock, now a pioneer minister at the church. ‘The idea that I’d be walking around Hull with a dog collar on was crazy.’
The priest, who detailed his career change in the book Becoming Reverend, adds: ‘What I’ve come to realise is that journalism and being a vicar aren’t so different. It’s all about people: how you relate to people and how you encourage them.’
In his case, this has taken the form of holding real-ale festivals in the church to draw people in and running prayer groups in pubs—whatever it takes to engage the community. ‘It’s a dream come true,’ enthuses Rev Woodcock. ‘It’s so special. You get incredibly privileged access to people in the most joyful moments in their lives, but also the saddest times, and we can impact on them for the better. When I get my dog collar on, I think “who am I going to meet today?”.’
A dream come true is an apt description for the path of Rev Penny King, the vicar in Newchurch, Lancashire, who knew from the age of 14 that a life of the cloth was for her. Now 30, she became vicar last July and is assisted by her border terrier, Buddy, who also contributes a ‘Paws for Thought’ column to the parish newsletter.
As with many congregations, Rev King’s has an older profile. ‘They’ve seen my arrival as a sign of hope for their church and the Church,’ she explains. ‘They’re quite delighted with new ideas, new forms of communication such as Facebook and Twitter and the energy I bring. I probably wear them out a bit,’ she laughs.
Rev King knows she’s not alone. ‘The Church moved away from young people for a long time and kept sending people off to go and get life experience,’ she says. ‘Now, the tables have turned and it’s recognising the gifts of the young. We’re a good investment—i’ve got a lot of years’ service in me yet.’
At just 31, Joe Roberts is another Anglican cleric with plenty of miles on the clock. The former pub landlord had ‘a seven- or eight-year’ journey to achieve his ambition of becoming a priest and is now a deacon at Marston Green in Solihull in the West Midlands. ‘It’s surreal,’ he says. ‘Training can never prepare you for what
it’s like at the grass roots.’ Fortunately, the community is welcoming and the Church’s position within it is well established, so it’s been a positive experience, but it’s still ‘immensely scary—especially the first time you’re standing in front of a bunch of 300 kids, trying to explain what Christingle is,’ admits Rev Roberts.
Even though he isn’t yet a vicar, wearing the collar means that, for many, that’s what he effectively is. ‘When you’re taking a funeral, you can’t say to the family “sorry, I’m new to the job”. You’ve got to get on with the role.’ Despite the fact that it can be daunting, he considers himself a lucky person, to be ‘doing this and getting paid for it’.
Former neuroscientist Rev Dr Ed Bampton says he spent eight years resisting God’s call. Eventually, however, he gave up his ambitions of Nobel Prize glory for the priesthood. ‘I can honestly say, after 31∕2 years of full-time ministry, I love this even more,’ smiles the curate for the town of Shepshed in Leicestershire. ‘There’s nothing that can compare to the privilege of walking alongside people at different stages of their faith and lives.
‘One of the questions people sometimes ask is “do you worship when you’re leading worship?” and, for me, the answer is definitely yes—i’m participating in it, I’m part of the whole body of people who are worshipping with me.’
What would he say to his former self who, all those years ago, ignored the call? ‘I would tell myself to listen more carefully,’ he says. ‘When you’ve got that sense that God is asking something of you, go with it and don’t resist— the benefits are beyond belief.’
Rev Richard Coles started his career playing synthesiser for 1980s duo the Communards (left) before taking up the cloth in 2003 (above). Facing page: Rev Penny King with her faithful Buddy
The last sip: in 2007, Rev Matt Woodcock gave up his career as a journalist to become a minister at Holy Trinity, Hull
Rev Janneke Blokland swapped physics for metaphysics and is now a curate in Wiltshire