"Society has changed so much that it is now comparatively rare that someone holds down the same job for over forty years. And the church is no exception. I am always struck by how many ordinands come to ministry in middle age or beyond, in many cases having had one or more careers or occupations previously. And I think that trend is likely to continue.
I was ordained Deacon at twenty-four in September 1982 and Priest in 1983. I served two curacies, at St. Margaret’s Leytonstone and St. Margaret’s Leigh on Sea, and my first incumbency at St. John the Baptist Tilbury Docks. Our move to Chelmsford in 1996 saw the beginning of my ministry as Chaplain to the Chelmsford campus of Anglia Ruskin University, when I also became an honorary associate Chaplain of Chelmsford Cathedral. This started an association with our mother church which has continued with my post as Vice Dean and Canon Pastor in 2010. This means that in one way or another I have spent over half of my professional life at the cathedral, and all of it in the Diocese of Chelmsford! I feel privileged to have had this settled and long-term experience, not least because it has proved so beneficial for my family. For a wife able to pursue her own career in the NHS and in the hospice and the University environments, and four children fortunate enough to have gone to the same schools and seen through their education without disruption. I realise that this might be the exception rather than the rule, and for many clergy required to go where they are sent it involves relocating not once but several times. But I have been clear that for clergy with partners and families, any vocation to serve in the church cannot be separated from family which is or becomes part of that vocation, and I have always felt that where I have gone, and what I have done, has always involved a wider and deeper plan that I have not necessarily realised at the time. Hindsight as they say is a wonderful thing!
I have also felt privileged to have worked for all these years in the much-maligned County of Essex! The enormous Diocese of Chelmsford contains within it all the diversity and richness of human life; a geographical, socio-economic, cultural, historical panoply which is a microcosm of national life and the call to mission and ministry of the Church of England. There is everything here: and opportunities and challenges for ministry almost as diverse as there are vocations to serve. And of course, living and working in one area for so long, one is particularly aware of all the societal changes which take place. How different life, the Universe and everything is now compared with 1982! When I was ordained priest in 1983 it was at St. Mary’s Great Baddow, because the cathedral was going through its re-ordering; the biggest and most staggering change ever to befall the cathedral, which has governed and directed ministry at the cathedral ever since!
And finally, the greatest gift of the longevity of a forty-year priestly ministry is the accruing of wisdom. So often in life you must watch and wait, frequently to endure stuff which can be painful and unclear at the time but trusting that one day it will make sense. Ultimately, a lifetime’s experience of Christian faith and service which produce, finally, rich insights and perceptions not only about one’s own experiences but those of all the people one is called to serve.
Over the last six years I have been fortunate enough to be able to write two books: ‘Songs for the Soul’ in 2017, and this year, 2023, ‘Six More Songs’. As I reflected on how we might use secular pop songs as potentially exciting new resources to look again at the Christian faith and to attempt to re-discover the sacred nestling within the secular, I came to realise that these books and especially ‘Six More Songs’ were the fruit of over forty years of pastoral ministry, and contained within them little bits of that ‘wisdom’ which just wouldn’t have been present in 1982! In a sense (although I think and hope they are more than this!) they are a kind of autobiography of who I have become, what I have experienced and what I have learned, and more importantly, why.
I will close with a quote from my introduction to ‘Six More Songs’:
‘So many of the insights and arguments proposed in this book spring from reflections on [forty] years of priestly ministry and personal experience, and I would be the first to admit that for much of what I have reflected on here, it has taken that long to wait for some kind of wisdom to gestate enough for me to have confidence enough to write these things down. Many would say I am a slow learner, or as my secondary school was fond of saying, ‘a late developer’! And yet as I reflect on why I have chosen the songs that I did for this book I think the interplay between wisdom and waiting is something which all the characters, the heroes of the songs share, and which may have played their part in drawing me to them’.