‘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

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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

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