This is not a career choice as much as it is a vocation – I just had a strong sense that it was the right and appropriate thing to do with my life. I didn’t grow up in a religious household, and there was no great moment of a light on the road, or an angel appearing in my cornflakes. I just started thinking about my own identity and how I saw the world when I left home to go to university. I think at that age, a lot of people start to discover their own place in the world. To me, Christianity felt like the right worldview for me, and it grew from there.
No two days are ever the same, and in my current role in central Nottingham I get to see just about every type of person from every walk of life, which I love. But Sundays are the days that have most of a pattern. If it’s a Sunday where there’s a children’s service, I tend to start off by running around looking for glue or balloons, or whatever is needed for that week’s craft activity. After that, there’s the main Sunday service which has its own rhythm and speed. I get changed, do the ‘formal’ part of church and spend a bit of time with people. At the moment, like everyone else, it’s about trying to do the same sort of thing online. But it’s all a bit more stark and sparse than it usually is, particularly when it comes to just chatting to people and finding out what’s going on in their lives. Normally we can have a relaxed coffee and a chat, but now it’s a quick word while socially distancing. It’s like everything, you learn to adapt to circumstances, and the most important things still remain the most important things: giving people time, attention and love, and letting them know that their concerns are important and that there’s somebody who hears them.
Doing funerals for murder victims has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Not just the funeral itself, but trying to support the victim’s family in a compassionate and dignified way while dealing with what became a media circus, was very challenging.
Any death is painful for those that are left behind, but there are some circumstances when it’s particularly difficult. Obviously they are draining, but at the same time we’re built to cope with that. You have other colleagues and priests who are very supportive, and you share the things that you’ve been through, particularly the things that you wouldn’t want to bring home. I think it’s the same with doctors or police officers – there are some things that we see and do that are easier and healthier to only share with other members of the profession. What is harder is being confronted by some of the more unnecessary things that happen in the world, and you have to find a way of rationalizing that when there isn’t a good answer. For example, if you have someone in the community who is an asylum seeker who everyone has got to know, and they’ve arbitrarily had their application turned down for no reason. Things like that, where there’s no happy ending, can be difficult to take.
All Anglican priests are required to say their office twice a day, which are our prayers. That’s part and parcel of the coping strategy, as it’s a quiet time and an occasion to reconnect with God. That’s fundamental and important in keeping going. Then there are other things I do to relax after a difficult day, like going for a run or dancing. I love ballet.
There’s this idea that Anglican priests are all fussy, elderly men who spend a lot of time running around rural villages getting agitated about their nicely trimmed churchyard like something out of Postman Pat. Working in a context like urban Nottingham, it’s obviously not like that at all. People are often surprised by aspects of my life, like the fact that I sit and watch TV, or that I wear a pair of pink trainers to church. It’s not as if being ordained means I can levitate above the ground, so if it’s a muddy day I want to keep my formal black shoes clean.
After one funeral, I was driving back to the church when I came across a traffic accident. I was dressed in my black cloak, and joined by the funeral director who was also very formally dressed. We stopped to offer assistance, and I had the terrible feeling that the lady had been thrown through the windscreen. Thankfully, she’d had a relatively minor accident and fainted by the side of the road. It must have been quite surreal for her to wake up to a priest and funeral director leaning over her! If the accident hadn’t given her post-traumatic stress, seeing us there probably did.
Before I became a priest, I think I was incredibly näive about the variety of people that existed both inside and outside the church, and the things they get up to. I once did a funeral where there was a huge drama, as the man who had died not only had a mistress that his wife didn’t know about, but also a girlfriend that the mistress didn’t know about. Before I started this job, I would have thought that sort of thing only happened in books or films. But people really do have really colourful and complicated lives.
I think the Church is beginning to realise that things have changed, and it’s not all negative. In fact, quite a lot of it is positive. There was a Bishop who wrote an autobiography in which he spoke about his time as a young curate, which would have been before the Second World War. He started out before the Welfare State, when there were people who went to church because it was a potential source of food and help if they lost their jobs or needed a safety net. He wrote about how much happier he was towards the end of his time, when there was a Welfare State and people had another safety net, meaning that people came to church because they wanted to. It meant they could meet him on equal terms, like a human being, and tell him what they really thought without fear that they might need him one day. That struck me as being very moving, but also worries me, as it feels like the world is starting to become dependent on faith communities and the voluntary sector to fill gaps with things like food banks. It’s wonderful that organisations like that exist, but also sad and disturbing that they need to.
I enjoy everything about being a reverend. You have to love it, because it’s a lifestyle. One of the things I like most is exchanging ideas and perspectives with people, particularly children. They ask the most amazing questions, and really make you ask questions that you’d never think to ask. But if I could change one thing about the job, it would be to add an extra day to the weekend. It would be great to have a two-day weekend like everyone else.