Vicar James look back over his first ten years with us!

Photo taken to mark the 10th anniversary, with Churchwarden David Challis presenting some "liquid gold" to Vicar James.  (24.07.11)

 

Our vicar, James, has been asked to give an account of his last ten years as Vicar of Shottery as he approaches the tenth anniversary of his collation on 22ndJuly 2011.

 "I came to Shottery in 2001 from a parish in Cornwall that enjoyed views of Plymouth Sound from the Vicarage to the south and views of the high ‘Tors’ of Dartmoor to the north. It was a real ‘outdoors’ kind of place with a warm microclimate such that many of the people who cycled to work in the naval dockyard wore shorts for most of the year. The inevitable question from some people here was : ‘what on earth made you apply for the job here when you lived in such a glorious part of Cornwall ?’  The answer, put simply, was that I came in response to what I believed to be God’s call. And, hugely importantly, my wife Jill also felt able and ready to move with Sarah and Hannah who were then both teenagers. It would mean leaving our eldest daughter, Victoria behind with Cornish husband, Matthew and with our newly arrived granddaughter, Chloe born in the June of the previous year. We priests sometimes rather glibly talk about the ‘sacrificial’ nature of following Jesus but it is a sacrifice for the vicar’s family too. And for married priests it is crucial not to allow the demands of the job to dominate the needs of his family. When you ‘live over the shop’ and in the ‘goldfish bowl’ of a vicarage (at Shottery the vicar’s home could hardly be any nearer the church than it is !) maintaining boundaries is always going to be an issue. By and large I think there is enough ‘give-and-take’ so that we have not felt too intruded upon even if I did get the PCC to put up a wooden fence between the garden and the carpark. But I do put out the church’s wheelie bins myself and have provided them with a location that was previously vicarage territory so that would be an example of what I mean by ‘give-and-take.’

When I arrived for the collation to the living of Shottery on 22ndJuly 2001I had just taken the longest holiday I have ever had in my ministry. It was a time to relax and to pray in Brittany and later Paris under blue skies and warm summer days.  It was just as well that I had taken this time because it soon became clear that Shottery is a very busy parish and a good number of things were waiting ‘on the desk.’  My diary for the first week tells me that I interviewed a couple for marriage, visited three families asking about the baptism of a baby, took my first funeral at Oakley Wood, chaired a Standing Committee (mainly about finance), took the Diocesan Architect around the vicarage to discuss a new kitchen and got myself ready to take the services on my first proper Sunday. The end of July and start of August are normally a quieter time in many parishes. But after an eighteen month interregnum the ‘build-up’ of requests had been considerable and with the new vicar in post the ‘floodgates’ opened. With Harry Ware, then St. Andrew’s Lay Reader, I began to see that life at St. Andrew’s would be continuously ‘on the go’ and sometimes more than a single priest could comfortably deal with if I hoped to retain my sanity ! As I think about it now from the perspective of ten years it is clear that God had a plan to grow the ministry team and I am grateful for all that my excellent colleagues do.

I still think that the authority structures in the Church of England encourage the idea that clergy know everything about any issue and as they are the ones authorised ‘from the top’ they must be responsible for everything that happens. Clearly, accountability must be put in place but there is also common sense and lay Christians should be given scope to develop their own ministries. If we wait for the overburdened clergy to re-evangelise this country we are going to wait for ever. So I really do believe in the laity and see baptism as the key sacrament in which the grace of God is given to every member for the exercise of the necessary gifts. This is why I have given permission to some of our ‘graduates’ from the Bishop’s Certificate in Discipleship to preach sometimes.  And I am particularly excited by the team of people who assist me in the Wholeness and Healing services we have successfully introduced in the last couple of years. We are all people ‘in need’ whether we show it or keep it quiet and these times of prayer with anointing and laying on of hands are a great blessing to us all. I was so pleased that after a presentation by Revd Norman Howes (formerly Vicar of Wellesbourne) the PCC completely backed my suggestion that we should start this ministry in Shottery. My hope is that we might learn how to minister to one another and of course this already happens in the small groups we have. It remains a goal that this aspect of St. Andrew’s should continue to grow so that learning, praying, supporting, sharing and even crying and laughing with others in small groups becomes the norm rather than the preserve of just a few.

One of the great things about staying in one post for a decade is that you get to know families quite well when they ask for the church’s ministry. This kind of pastoral sensitivity, personal knowledge and continuity of approach is built up over the years, each year like one of the layers of rock in this island’s geological history. It is one of the great strengths of the Church of England’s pastoral approach, where the vicar or priest-in-charge is an ‘anchor’ for people in times of stress as well as times of joy, and it means that trust develops. The call of God, as expressed in the ordinal, is that priests are ‘called to be servants and shepherds among the people …. And to feed and provide for the Lord’s family.’ I don’t think that the ‘job description’ could put it more clearly: service of God, his people and the wider community are at the heart of how I understand Christian ministry. There also has to be something of an oversight role where looking ahead as a shepherd one might discern better pasture for the flock or a pathway leading to a dangerous cliff which would be best to avoid in the first place ! The servant side and the shepherd side have to go hand-in-hand but they do require time and, of course, the co-operation of God’s people. Shottery has been extremely supportive of me and my calling, enabling me to grow as a priest and giving me a huge sense of fulfilment and this climate of encouragement means that I remain as excited about being vicar today as I was on the day I started. To a large extent this is due to a succession of excellent Churchwardens and members of the Standing Committee and PCC over the decade. I am well aware that this is not always normative and there are parishes where dysfunctional relationships produce an unhappy congregation and probably an unhappier priest. Thank God that Shottery has no history of such goings-on !

When I look at what might be called our ‘corporate identity’ as a Christian community I think there is no doubt that we are firmly in the Anglican mainstream and although I think issues of churchmanship are largely unimportant we would be classified in the central tradition with a big place given to Eucharistic worship. I still believe in book based services although we do use visual media fairly frequently.  There are robes for those exercising special ministries and indeed vestments are used; we continue to follow a lectionary for our readings and there is a seasonal approach to telling the story of Christ at Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and in the Trinity season. All this must mean that the word ‘traditional’ applies to Shottery. I very much believe though that it is possible to use traditional forms and still be alive to the Holy Spirit and to keep things joyful. There can be a lightness of step as we dance with God Sunday by Sunday. That is why it is wonderful to hear the congregation laughing occasionally during sermons or even in the notices ! God has given us a sense of humour and what a delight it is to actually use it in church. This is something that people living in Shakespeare’s home town ought to appreciate, for his plays reveal a warmth of humanity and a sheer love of humour that can have you rolling in the aisles even as he tackles the great issues like power, jealousy, grief, madness and anger.

Traditional, then is a word I am not afraid to embrace as long as it does not mean ‘stick-in-the-mud’ or simply repeating things because we have no imagination to change them. It is crucial for the Christian community to be imaginative in its approach and especially with regard to our ancient buildings. Within a year or so of taking up the appointment I decided to find out how serious the PCC was about building an extension to the church building. After all, it was something that had been talked about before my arrival and the need for a bigger worship space had been recognised as the population continued to grow. There had been huge support for the building of a parish centre when a leaky portacabin was all that had been provided and the money for that project had come rolling in like a tsunami, I was told. Surely, we could extrapolate from that and the money for building an extension to the church would roll in too ? I don’t think many people doubted the need. On Sundays when there was a baptism at 10am you physically could not get into the building and needed to get there very early.  But there is a difference between replacing a portacabin and tearing down part of the fabric of a Victorian church !  My diary (and I have kept one daily for the last ten years) records that on Thursday January 22 2004 there would be an Extraordinary Parochial Church Council Meeting. Its one agenda item would be to determine once and for all whether we were going to go forward with raising lots of money for the ‘Open House Project’ or whether we were going to abandon it. The truth was that the money had not come in as it had done for the Parish Centre some years before. It had proved a much bigger ‘ask’ to change the much loved worship space and the ambivalence in people’s minds had kept their cheque books firmly closed. The ‘Extraordinary’ meeting proved to be exactly that ! Unbeknown to others I had received news a few days before that a single donation of £25,000 had been given to the Open House project. We were in a far better position than many had thought and suddenly the mood changed.                    

It was Bob Macvie who summed it up, asking the meeting that if we had climbed nine tenths of Mount Everest were we going to stop now ?  The overwhelming feeling was that we must press on and so I called for an Easter Gift Day to be held. On Saturday 10 April 2004 I was in church to receive gifts and I would announce the total given the following Easter Day. At the lovely cooked breakfast that always follows the Dawn Liturgy I was handed a piece of paper. It said that gifts so far totalled over £54,000. I had to ask whether I was reading the total correctly !

And I was ! By the end of that Easter Day the total was over £60,000. The Stratford Town Trust, on hearing the congregation’s commitment, promptly made it £70,000. In fact, the tsunami had happened and we signed contracts with the builder, abandoned the church for nine months to hold services in the Hall and on 10thApril 2005 Bishop Colin Bennetts came to officially open Saint Andrew’s extension and re-ordered church. At the same time a completely new roof was added, a new heating system installed, a new lighting scheme employed and everything paid for with something left over. It was hard to believe that this was the dead-and-dying Church of England the press often writes about. We all enjoyed a fantastic moment of celebration and patted ourselves on the back. Some four Easters after my appointment here was the much bigger and much altered Shottery Parish Church right in front of my eyes. But it is clear that this was but the beginning of birth pangs. With a bigger space came the challenge to do things with it and to fill it. And although the mood of celebration continued for a while it did not stop the tragic and the sad from happening, as is common in all parishes, and I found myself handling all kinds of personal tragedies and trying to hold people before the mercy of Christ on many occasions. In the end a building only provides a context for worship, prayer, teaching, exploration of the scriptures, social activity or whatever is being organised. It is the people of God and the kind of people that they are which really matters and so building people up, encouraging them, supporting them, listening to them and giving them the opportunity to use their talents is a crucial task for any priest. I have been delighted to see some of our church members looking beyond the UK and being prepared to go to places like Chile, India and Thailand to serve the poor and marginalised, and also to see how well supported the Fairtrade movement has become.

The ministry team has been expanded with the addition of two priests with Permission to Officiate (Alan Boddington and Alison Hampton), a Licensed Lay Reader(Kay Dyer) and a Curate (Paul Edmondson), and I have been involved in teaching for the Diocese as well as becoming a reviewer for clergy who are now under the terms and conditions of Common Tenure.

So, ten years have flown by and I am now 57 years of age. Had I remained in teaching I would undoubtedly have been thinking that in three years time I would take my pension and retire, as many of my dear friends and contemporaries have already done or are about to do. However, for those who retire who are also ‘in Christ’ there is always a new opportunity for service and further fulfilment. You never ‘retire’ in God’s service. When you sign on with Jesus Christ it is a total commitment – on his part to you and on yours to him. It is certainly the toughest challenge to be a follower of his and there is plenty of failure in it, for clergy quite as much as for lay Christians. But I wouldn’t choose any other pathway and will go on in the ministry here until such time that I am directed elsewhere.

I do have one big question in my mind that exercises me and one that I still don’t know how to answer despite having tried hard over the years. You might guess what I have in mind : how we can do better in attracting children and young people into the life of faith ? We have some brilliant people who run our children’s work and youth work and the time and energy they put in is magnificent. I thank God for all that they do in our parish. And yet Shottery can recognise the picture that was drawn at a recent General Synod in York about the increasing age of Church of England congregations.  I quote : “The perfect storm we can see arriving fast on the horizon is the ageing congregations. The average age is 61 now, with many congregations above that…. (The Year) 2020, apparently, is when our congregations start falling through the floor because of natural wastage, that is, people dying.

 “Another ten years on, some extrapolations put the Church of England as no longer functionally extant at all.”

This is clearly a negative picture and I do not introduce it to make anyone feel that the situation is hopeless or that everybody should work twice as hard to prevent it from becoming a reality. Indeed, much of the picture that I have painted of the last ten years here flies in the face of such a gloomy prophecy and Shottery is regarded as a beacon of light in the Diocese or we would not be asked to train people for ministry. Our record of giving over and above what it costs to have a vicar of our own is one of which we can be rightly proud. The facilities and services which we provide within the community are of high quality and people speak well of the church. Best of all, God is in this place and many find his healing love here.

 And yet, wearing my ‘shepherd hat’ of looking ahead for the benefit of the flock I can agree that the issue of ageing is a real one. It is not even one that can be solved by employing a young ‘expert’ to go out and bring in lots of young people into church, supposing such a thing were possible or desirable. This is something that is bigger than any quick fix. The whole people of God, the culture in which we live and move and have our being, the very spiritual ‘fabric’ that makes Shottery what it is, will have to be involved if a solution is to be found. We will have to hold in our hearts a degree of courage to follow the Holy Spirit which we will allow nothing to shake. In this respect our common experience of the ‘climbing of Mount Everest’ in 2004 and 2005 will be a powerful example. Then we climbed the mountain of finding about £300,000 to create the building we believed the Lord was asking us to build. In the end, and with the benefit of hindsight, the climbing of that mountain was not all that difficult. But climbing the mountain now, in 2011 and into the future, is about being a church for all kinds of people that currently don’t ever come to church or cannot imagine what goes on here. It will be about being a church for the young, the middle aged and all ages in equal numbers. Climbing a ‘mountain’ like that is not something I have any experience of and no formal training to help guide me. But then I remember 2004 to 2005 and think the same applied then, and look what happened on that occasion ! The mountain was conquered !

I will happily forget I ever suggested going mountain climbing again, unless you tell me that you think the Lord is asking this of us all. Over to you – the future is yours to shape quite as much as mine.

 

James."

 

15.07.11


Vicar James Warren
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