Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Personal Journey 9: South to Bedford

In 1984, I had completed three years as a curate, the standard length for a first curacy. It was common in those days to do a second. Now there are fewer clergy to round so it is less common. However, I felt more and more strongly that my ultimate goal was to be involved in theological training for the ministry and I wanted to keep up my academic work. I thought it might be worth exploring the possibility of working as a Chaplain in a university or college.

Many of the posts advertised were at Oxford and Cambridge colleges. This is becuase of the historic ties between Oxbridge and the C of E. In many ways one of these would have been ideal for me. They were posts that combined ministry with the opportunity to continue personal research and even had the possibility of doing some minor tutoring. I applied for several posts but was not selected for interview for any. Now it probably is going to sound like sour grapes, but I was annoyed by this then and am still today.

I am older now and have been responsible for selecting and interviewing people for many different posts in and out of the Church. Looking back, I think I was at least theoretically qualified for these posts and met the criteria they claimed to be using. This does not mean that I think they should have employed me or that I was right for the post, but it would have taken an interview to establish that. And that’s my point, I qualified for an interview and I think I should have been given one. Why do I think I wasn’t? Because of the tendency in the Church of England, accentuated at Oxford and Cambridge, to base appointments on connection. Simply put, I had not been to the right school and did not know the right people. Am I being unduly bitter and cynical? Well, it is strange that the people they did appoint all seemed to come from a certain background.

Well enough of a rant – for now – at least. That I wasn’t entirely unsuited for such an appointment was confirmed by the fact that other colleges were interested in me. I was offered and accepted a post as Ecumenical Chaplain at Bedford College of Higher Education. This college was in fact three colleges in one. It had been formed by a merger of three very different colleges: a further education college offering vocational courses to people who were 16 and above; a physical education college offering sports and dance degrees or courses for those wanting to teach physical education or dance; and a teacher training college that had expanded also to offer general degrees.

Ironically and unintentionally, on my part at least, this was as different a college posting from the Oxford and Cambridge colleges as it was possible to get. One of the biggest differences, and in this Bedford was very different to many other universities and colleges, was that there was no chapel and no services on campus. The College was thoroughly secular. That there was a Chaplain at all was because of the personal faith and commitment of the then Principal who wanted a formal Christian presence on the staff and within the College.

The post was ecumenical, the Chaplaincy funded half by the College and half by the local churches. In fairness, the main funding on the churches side came from the C of E, and I was licensed and paid as a priest in the St Alban’s Diocese. It did mean, though, that I was expected to represent all the churches including the Roman Catholic and serve all the students regardless of religious affiliation. This undoubtedly gave a certain freedom and many opportunities.

The Chaplain functioned on a day to day basis as a member of the Student Services team. This was made up of health, careers, and counselling. The Chaplain’s role within this team was more as a counsellor than anything else. The people I worked with were great fun to work with and became good friends. At the end of the working day, we would gather for coffee and a chat to talk about how the day had gone. This was a great source of informal support for each other. It was an education in itself working in this area as a Christian minister. Pastorally, it could be very challenging. Let’s just say that people’s lifestyles and the corresponding messes that they got into could be very extreme and leave it at that!

As there were no services within the College, it meant that on a Sunday the Chaplain was free to attend a local church. Upon my appointment the Bishop suggested that I be attached, as had my predecessor, to Christ Church, Bedford, an evangelical Anglican Church. It was very near to where I was to live and I had no problem with this. It was understood that my responsibility was to the College. I was not on the staff of Christ Church, Bedford. Nevertheless, I enjoyed helping out with services and, in particular to being able to preach from time to time. My preaching seemed to be reasonably well-received, and I started making friends within the church.

However, in 1985, a change in Vicar brought about a crisis. The new Vicar wanted me to be more involved in Christ Church and gave me an ultimatum. Either I got more involved or he wouldn’t invite me to preach. I wish I could afford to reject clergy help so easily. I didn’t have any intention of diluting what I saw as my main role in the College to be more involved in a church, which already had plenty of ordained, and indeed lay, help. Indeed, no longer being committed to Christ Church on a Sunday meant that I had the freedom to visit other churches to which there were no shortage of invitations. I felt that being able to broaden my church experience was no bad thing.

In many ways nor was it. Christ Church was not always a popular church amongst other churches in Bedford so not being seen as part of the staff there certainly made me more acceptable to some who did not share its ethos. And it was quite nice to be free of the restraint. The Bishop and my support group, responsible for overseeing the Chaplaincy, were not bothered either. In retrospect, however, I think it was a mistake to lose the base that being attached to one church provided and that being a spiritual nomad was not good for me personally. Being honest, I think I lacked the maturity to know how to deal with a Vicar who was inflexible in his approach, and I am sure he did not shed any tears at losing me.

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