My journey into opera…

When I was a teenager, now quite a long time ago, I was into Heavy Metal – particularly Iron Maiden.  The very first album I bought was their ‘Number of the Beast‘.  To all the parents worried about the Satanic influences in Heavy Metal all I can say is that it didn’t stop me becoming a Vicar.  Then again, maybe that doesn’t reassure you…

Why did I like Heavy Metal?  Doubtless lots of reasons: it was a bit rebellious, it caused some consternation, it was fun to watch, the lyrics told stories (not always good ones), it was dramatic and over the top but, above all, it was visceral; the music moved you both physically and emotionally.  You couldn’t listen to it without some kind of reaction, you either loved it or hated it and I loved it, perhaps because others hated it.

Fast forward some 35 years (good grief) and I find myself in love with opera and, taking a cold hard look at myself, perhaps it is for many of the same reasons.  Think opera is just fat ladies in fancy dresses warbling until the curtain comes down?  Think again.  Opera is rebellious, it causes consternation, it is fun to watch, it tells stories (not always good ones), it is dramatic and over the top but, above all, it is visceral; the music can move you both physically and emotionally.  Remember those people who can break wine glasses just by singing at them?  They are opera singers.  Now imagine that you are the glass…

My first conscious encounter with opera was probably not Nessun dorma (although there is nothing wrong with that, I was just not into football) but was probably Ride of the Valkyries being blasted from loudspeakers out of helicopters in Apocalypse Now.  See, this really is the Heavy Metal of classical music.  I wanted to find out what that music was and, of course, this lead me to Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

I should confess at the outset that I have still never seen a live staging of the Ring Cycle.  I came close this year (2018) but the Royal Opera House sold out before tickets went on sale to the public.  I have learned my lesson on that front.  Nonetheless my journey into opera proper began about 12 years ago when Radio 3 broadcast the whole 16 hour cycle  in one go.  This was not just music, this was a challenge of endurance!  Of course I failed to listen to the whole thing (I had a young child for heaven’s sake) but it introduced me to a landscape, if not a world, that was new and exciting and needed to be explored.

In 2007 I saw my first ever live opera, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, at the English National Opera.  Obviously it would suit the course of this narrative if I said that this changed my life and turned me into a massive opera fan overnight.  Actually it didn’t.  It was a slightly underwhelming experience but, then again, I also found the book quite underwhelming, so perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me.

Nevertheless, my exploration of this new musical landscape continued and on those rare occasions when Vivienne and I went away I would always seek out the local opera house.  This led to some interesting experiences such as sitting in an opera house in Riga watching an opera sung in Italian with surtitles in Latvian and Estonian!  That may sound off-putting but the music, the spectacle and the sheer joy of the experience more than made up for the lack of comprehension!

Then, some 4 years ago, we went to Rome for our 20th wedding anniversary.  True to form I sought out a local opera house and I discovered a production of La Traviata which included dinner in one’s box during the interval.  It was a wonderful evening and, although probably too touristy, it really cemented my desire not only to hear opera but, more importantly, to experience it.

At this point it would be easy to be stymied by the, apparent, sheer expense of going to the opera, particularly in dear old England.   A quick look at the Royal Opera House website will show tickets on sale for hundreds of pounds a throw.  For some this is doubtless a drop in the ocean but for most people, including Vicars, this is a huge amount to spend on a night out and would preclude seeing much, if any, live opera.  However, when you dig deeper, there are many ways and means of doing this without spending a fortune.  The higher you sit the cheaper the seats (many ENO seats in the balcony can be had for £12), the ENO also sell ‘secret seats’ which have often got us into the stalls or dress circle for £30, I have stood at Glyndebourne for £20 and, as an MA student, have had great seats at the ROH for £10.  In short, if you know what you are doing, it is possible to go to the opera for less than the price of going to the cinema.  And, having mentioned that, it is often possible to see opera at the cinema, as many now do live broadcasts from the ROH and the Met. 

So the last couple of years have seen a veritable explosion of opera-going.   I shan’t list them all now but personal highlights have included Salome at the ROH (they don’t come much more visceral then that) and Saul at Glyndebourne, which is completely hat-stand bonkers.


In addition to the ‘big’ opera houses I have also enjoyed becoming a Friend of Kentish Opera and I am looking forward to seeing their production of Carmen next year, as I enjoyed seeing their Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci earlier this year.  I am also particularly looking forward to seeing Faust at Glyndebourne next summer, which diabolical note probably brings us back to Iron Maiden!

The gardens of Glyndebourne

I am a long way from being an opera ‘buff’, whatever that means.  I don’t know all the composers, I don’t know all the operas or all the singers.  But I do know that I love this musical world and I look forward to exploring it more and more in the future.  In the meantime, if you hear of any tickets to see the Ring Cycle anywhere do let me know!

Letter from the Vicarage Sept 2017 – Canal Adventures

Letter from the Vicarage September 2017

Dear Friends,

It is traditional at this time of year for Vicars to write about the changing of the seasons, Harvest Festival, Remembrance Sunday and to even look forward to Christmas.  I know that I have done all of those things in the past, and will probably do them again in the future.

However, I am going to take a slightly different tack on this occasion and I beg your indulgence whilst I do so.  As you probably know Eve Griffiths is the editor of this august publication and I received her email asking for articles whilst I was driving a narrow boat around the Four Counties Ring (Shropshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and the West Midlands since you ask) and I decided that I would share with you something of my passion for the canals.  Being a Vicar there are some lessons to be learnt from life on the canal, and I will come to those, but principally I wanted to let you know why I spend most of my holidays in places not normally associated with holidays.

Actually, it is something of a miracle that I enjoy narrow boating at all as my first two experiences were not exactly auspicious.  My very first time on the canal was when I was a sixth former and went on a school trip.  My main memory of that holiday was motoring through the centre of Coventry, which looked extremely run down at the time, feeling quite hungover (this was the 1980s and the teachers seemed quite relaxed about sixth formers drinking on school trips) and seeing something dead and smelly float past.  I felt rather ill.  Glamorous it was not.

The second, inauspicious, trip was around the Avon Ring with my in-laws.  Let’s just say that there were quite a few people in quite a small space and that in such circumstances it is possible to be less than harmonious.  Whenever I got on the tiller I always tweaked the speed up in the hope that it would get us home earlier, but to no avail.

But, despite these early experiences, I still harboured a desire to give it another go and periodically pestered Vivienne about it.  She was a bit less keen as she also remembered the previous trip and, for a while, the children were both too young.  Eventually, when Henry reached the grand old age of 3, she was persuaded and we rented Gustavus for the week.

Our adventure for the week was to be the Stourport ring.  This started and finished in Worcester and went up into Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stourport and then back down the river Severn.  Although we had a marvelous week it was very much a ‘full on’ introduction to the world of canals as we had to tackle the Tardebigge locks, a flight of 30, on our second day and, it turned out, that this ring is better suited to a two week rather than a one week trip; this realization dawned on us about half way through the week and we ended up doing some long days motoring!

However, that is not actually as bad as it sounds. A day of motoring the boat could not be more different from a day of driving a car.  Firstly you cannot go more than 3 or 4 miles an hour – often less if you are passing moored boats or going through locks.  There is therefore none of the stress normally associated with travel; it is slow, you know it is going to be slow and you have no choice other than to fully enter into the slowness.  This, in itself, is a marvelous antidote to so much of modern life and is one of the reasons I would not hesitate to recommend this holiday to anyone who just needs to slow down a little.  The other major difference with driving a car is that you are standing in the open and often travelling through some wonderful landscapes, both rural and even post-industrial.  We have been through some traditionally beautiful countryside where the canal feels many miles from anywhere else, passed lock-keeper’s cottages which were so remote that they had no road going to them (Vivienne is still worried about how one gets deliveries there), but also motored through landscapes which used to be full of factories and warehouses (the reason the canal was there at all of course) and these are equally fascinating as you have time to ponder how different things must have been in their heyday.

Anyway, at the end of the Stourport Ring the bug had well and truly bitten and there was little doubt that this was something we wanted to do again.  The problem was how.  Narrowboats in the summer are not cheap and stipends are not high.  We had largely paid for Gustavus using several years worth of Tescos Clubcard points, but this is not something one could rely on annually.  Fortunately I had spotted a boat sporting the livery of the ‘Canal Boat Club’.  Through the power of Google I discovered that this was a timeshare style company that allowed you to buy a week on any of their boats for much less than a traditional hire.  This we duly did and, for the next few years, we had one week each summer on board a different Canal Boat Club boat.

During this time we had some great trips on the Leicester Arm of the Grand Union Canal (Foxton locks, Market Harborough), along the Oxford Canal (including Brauston Turn where we met a boat covered in about 20 clowns, really), the Stratford-upon-Avon canal where we moored near the RSC theatre, the Kennet and Avon canal during which we moored both in the centre of Bath and in the Floating Harbour in Bristol, opposite the SS Great Britain, and the Llangollen canal which including driving over the Pontcysllte Aqueduct, which is basically a long trough of water suspended 126 feet over the River Dee by Thomas Telford’s engineering.

Whilst these trips were all great we began to hanker for the ability to take longer trips and perhaps on a slightly more personal-feeling boat.  Again the question was how.  It was obvious that we could not have our own narrow boat but was there another way to give us more time on the water without breaking the bank?

Again using the power of Google we discovered the joys of boat-sharing.  This involved not buying a week’s timeshare (where we never own anything as such) but joining a syndicate of like-minded people and buying an 8% share in an actual boat.  This gives between 3 and 4 weeks use of the boat each year, again for a fraction of the cost of hiring, and sharing all the running costs between you.  After much research, and a trip to a freezing Nuneaton in February last year, we discovered Tottleworth.  She is a 60 foot long, six berth narrow boat, of whom we are now part owners.

Last summer we took Tottleworth for a two week trip down the Oxford Canal and spent some time moored amongst the dreaming spires.  I also spent some time diving down to the bottom of the canal looking in vain for Vivienne’s glasses, but that is another story!  In the Autumn we motored up the beautiful and remote Ashby Canal.  This was our first time on the boat ‘out of season’ and, although it was quite chilly at times we were comforted by the log burner and frequent applications of hot chocolate.

This summer has seen us cruise around the Four Counties Ring (as mentioned above) and, in October, it looks as though we will be heading up the Bridgewater Canal and mooring in the middle of Manchester, for something of a contrast!

There are over 2000 miles of navigable canals in England & Wales and, despite all these trips, we have only just scratched the surface – there are still all the Pennine canals to tackle, including the ‘Everest’ of the canal system which is Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.  This involves a climb of 29 locks, a passage through the tunnel which takes almost two hours and a descent of 20 locks.  Can’t wait!

So what do I really love about being on the canals?  Well, it is neither the luxury nor always the weather (although we have often been lucky).  I love the pace of life which cannot fail to unwind you, I love both the remoteness of some canals and being in the centre of cities on others, I love the fact that we have explored so many parts of the country which so many people (especially from the South East) would never venture, I love being amongst both wildlife and human history but, above all, I love the sense of community and ‘otherness’ which pervades the canal world.  People will talk to complete strangers and exchange stories and tips as they pass, people will help each other through locks or out of tricky situations, children (and adults) love to wave at boats as they pass by.  The canals are a real community, and it is a diverse and interesting community.  It contains everything from wealthy retired couples living on their brand new gin-palaces to those who have dropped out of society and live on floating wrecks, and everything in between.  But it is a place where people smile and where people have time for one another.  That seems like a lesson worthy of translating into everyday life.

Whenever I mention going on the canals people nearly always say to me “I have always wanted to do that.”  If you fall into that category then do give it a go – it may be the start of a love affair that will change your life!

Yours in Christ,

Rev’d Paul


Holy Land trip 2016

Dear Friends,

Some of you, I know, followed my recent trip to the Holy Land on Facebook but I also know that many of you were not able to do this. I therefore wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some of the ‘flavour’ of that week, to share some of my favourite photos and to encourage you to think about joining a parish trip there in Spring 2018.

On 22 June our party of pilgrims (a group of clergy from Rochester Diocese) arrived in Jerusalem in the late afternoon after a long day of travel. The hotel was called ‘Golden Walls’ and it was well named as it was opposite the Roman era walls, specifically the Damascus Gate.

Damascus Gatejpg

That evening, after dinner, a group of half a dozen of us ventured into the city for an initial exploration. It was an incredible experience. The streets in that part of Jerusalem are a maze of narrow, mostly covered, walkways with open fronted shops on both sides. This is the suqs, or souks, or marketplaces.

It was crowded and hot; the smells of spices, sweets and food were overwhelming and it was a real labyrinth, with every corner and every street looking exactly the same as every other to the untrained eye. It was marvellous. But we were reminded that this was also a place of tension as there were many groups of police around. And these weren’t police as we may think of them, rather they were very young people with machine guns. Although this was a slight shock at first it was interesting that as the week went on how quickly this became the ‘new normal’.

Although it was a labyrinth fortunately one of our number had spent some time in Jerusalem previously and so led us, almost unerringly, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Sadly, it was closing time, and they were just shutting the door and posting the ladder back through the letter box when we arrived. A proper exploration would have to wait for another day.

The next morning I was awoken at 4am by an explosion outside my window. As you can imagine this did cause something of a ‘frisson’. Then I remembered that we had been warned the previous evening that because it was Ramadan there would be such explosions both morning and evening every day to mark the start and end of fasting for the city’s Muslims. Unfortunately the mosque from which the explosion was detonated was right behind the hotel. It looked like over-sleeping was not going to be an issue this week.

This proved to be a very hot but quite wonderful day. We boarded our coach (the “Nazarene Express”) and headed a short way out of the city and uphill to the Mount of Olives. The tradition is that Jesus spent time ministering here as it was where many of the ‘outcasts’ from Jerusalem would have lived. From here we walked down a steep hill to the Orthodox Church and Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene and then onto the Garden of Gethsemane, where there are olive trees said to date from the time of Jesus (they certainly looked very old) and a most church which is bathed perpetually in the purple light of Lent.


Then onto the ruins of the pool of Bethesda (the site of Jesus healing a man in John 5) and then we followed the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus walked on the first Good Friday to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial and, at the foot of the cross, there is a stone on which Jesus is believed to have laid after being taken down from the cross. Above this place icon lamps burn continually. This is a fascinating church with a numinous atmosphere and history but also an interesting present: It is looked after by a number of different Christian denominations but, in order to stop them squabbling, the ‘key holders’ of the church are local Muslims. Have a Google.   I love the story about the ladder.

We then went to the ‘Garden Tomb’ which is an alternative (i.e. not traditional) site for the place of Jesus’ burial. The rather evangelistic guide spent much of the tour trying to convince us that we ought to live out our Christian faith publically. Then someone told him we were all Vicars.  He was a bit more subdued after that. The Garden Tomb was certainly interesting but our guide from McCabe told us that his Master’s thesis was written on the subject of why the Garden Tomb was not the real site of the burial but was a mere modern interloper. I have to say that I much preferred the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The following day (after another 4 am wake-up explosion) we left Jerusalem on the short drive to Bethlehem. Although it is only a short drive it is still a significant journey as it involved crossing from Israeli controlled territory into the Palestinian controlled area. The long, graffiti-strewn wall which separates the Palestinians from the Israelis is remarkable.


Although the wall is an oppressive presence in many ways I was reminded that walls here are nothing new – witness the Roman walls outside our hotel. We were also told (slightly later in the week) by the Dean of St George’s Cathedral that we should refrain from picking sides in this complex dispute. Rather we should pray for all in the Holy Land and, most especially, for peace.

In Bethlehem we visited first the Shepherd’s Fields, the place where the choir of angels appeared to the shepherds on the night of the Nativity, and we celebrated a special Christmas Eucharist in the church there. Our tour leader (Rev’d Chris Dench) made the point that most clergy never get to enjoy worship at Christmas, for obvious reasons, so he invited us to enter to enter into the Christmas spirit. Despite the searing June heat it was a treat so to do.

But the highlight of this day was, undoubtedly, a visit to the Church of the Holy Nativity, built above the place where Jesus was believed to have been born. Sadly much of the church was undergoing a restoration, but this did not affect the grotto itself. Earlier that day I had purchased a Russian icon of the nativity and, when we went into the grotto, I had an opportunity to place my icon of the nativity on the place of the nativity and to spend some time in prayer. This was probably my spiritual apogee of the week, although an event of later that afternoon came a close second.



In the middle of the star there is a hole through which you can put your hand and touch the rock which is believed to have been the ground on which Jesus was born. Rocks and stones actually form a large part of this pilgrimage. There was the stone on which Jesus lay in the Holy Sepulchre, this rock at the Holy Nativity and there are still more to come.

That afternoon we returned through the Israeli checkpoints and back to Jerusalem. The last item on our itinerary was a visit to the Western Wall, aka the Wailing Wall. This is the last remaining part of the Second Temple and the Jewish people pray at the part of the wall that is closet to where the Holy of Holies existed, prior to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. The Holy of Holies was the central part of the Temple where the Ark of the Covenant sat and where the presence of God dwelt. Of course this place is holy not only to the Jewish people and to Christians but also to Muslims as the Dome on the Rock is built (and named after) the rock on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac and, according to Muslims, the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. In the early days of Islam Muslims prayed towards this spot, as the Jews still do, rather than towards Mecca. The Temple Mount therefore features heavily in all three ‘Abrahamic’ faiths and many view this place as the centre of the religious world.

Anyway, we arrived at the Western Wall and were told that there was no problem with non-Jewish people praying at the wall. I donned a kipah (skull cap) and, feeling rather self-conscious made my way through the Orthodox Jews to say a prayer. I prayed for a while and then decided to put both my hands on the wall. I can honestly say that I felt a real ‘zing’ of something more than mere heat from the stones and I was flooded with a real sense of blessing. Not least I felt blessed that in the course of one day I had laid my hands on both the birth place of Christ and on this holy place. And, once again, it reminded me that the places we talk about almost in the abstract are real physical places and that our faith is not simply ephemeral but came through real people who inhabited this real space.

The following day was slightly less ‘holy’ but was nonetheless interesting: we headed out into the Judean wilderness and into the 40 degree plus desert heat. Leaving Jerusalem we drove east to the Qumran National Park. Qumran is the site of a Jewish ‘monastery’ and the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946.


We then headed south along the coast of the Dead Sea until we came to Masada. This is the desert hill-top fort, created by Herod the Great, and according to Josephus the place were the first Jewish-Roman war ended in the mass suicide of some 960 people, although modern archaeologists seem to dispute this story.

Finally we continued along the road south to our final stop at the Dead Sea and a chance to float in the unique water. Definitely a ‘bucket list’ moment.


This is the lowest point on the face of the earth. The land on the other side of the sea is the Kingdom of Jordan and Chris Dench was worried that I might be floating there at one point!

The next day was Sunday and we visited St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem for the Eucharist. It was a wonderfully international affair, as the liturgy took place in both English and Arabic and a visiting choir from Maryland sang for us. A great reminder, should it be needed, that Christianity does not just belong in rural England. In fact we were reminded that the Arabs became Christian long before the English – have a look at Acts 2:11.


After some superb coffee in the courtyard we set off on the Nazarene Express, heading towards Jericho for lunch. Jericho is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world. Perched high above the town is a Christian monastery and, evidently, there are caves all around that monastery inhabited by hermits who rarely, if ever, leave their caves and exist on a meagre diet of dates and bread lowered down to them in baskets. As we sat eating our lunch I couldn’t help thinking of those hermits perched in caves above us and the fact that they were still there. And, as I write this now many weeks later, they are still there. Sitting in a cave, eating dates and engaged in constant prayer. It is worth thinking about from time to time…

From Jericho we drove north, along the length of the Jordan river to our new home for the next three nights, in the town of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The next day (Monday) we visited the ruins of the town of Sepphoris, which would have been a wealthy Roman town in the days of Jesus and, as it was only a few miles from Nazareth, would have been a place where many builders and carpenters (perhaps Joseph and Jesus) would have plied their trade. From Sepphoris we headed into Nazareth itself. Firstly into the Synagogue Church, which is where Jesus is believed to have read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:16) and then to another of my favourites, the Church of the Annunciation. This is a rather modernist structure which is not overly attractive in itself but which is built over the site of Mary’s house, in which the birth of Jesus was announced to her. For me this was another particularly holy moment, kneeling in prayer here as the Franciscan brothers and priests carried out a short service of thanksgiving and the bells rang out.


Tuesday was our final full day and this was centred around the Sea of Galilee itself. This is, of course, the Sea on which many of the early apostles fished before they were called by Jesus and which plays an important role in many biblical stories, not least when Jesus calmed the storm (Luke 8:22). We started the day by also crossing the Sea by boat but, fortunately the weather remained calm. What I found particularly beautiful here was that, unlike the other places we had visited, this was largely unchanged from the time of Jesus. Being on the water and looking at the surrounding vistas was, once again, to place oneself squarely within the story that we inhabit.

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We then celebrated a Eucharist in an open air chapel overlooking the sea (and one would really struggle to find a more beautiful spot so to do) and then finally we spent some time at another rock.

This was the Mensa Christi, or the table of Christ. It is a very large flat rock on the shore of Galilee over which a small church has been built. This rock is where Jesus and the disciples ate and spent time together both before and after the resurrection and, importantly, where Jesus commissioned Peter to be, you guessed it, the rock on which his church would be built. (John 21).

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This trip was an important moment in my continuing journey of faith (it doesn’t stop when you get ordained, or at least it shouldn’t) not least because it made so alive, so physical, so rock-like so many places that we think we know but have never touched. To be there, to feel the heat of the sun, the crowdedness of the market places and the sand of the shores of Galilee between your toes is to enter into the story of Jesus in a wonderful way. It also, perhaps unexpectedly, really brought home to me the Jewishness of Jesus and his surroundings and I suspect that we would benefit hugely by recapturing something of the Jewish roots into which we are grafted. But more of that in due course.

For now I hope that I have been able to convey something of that week in the Holy Land. I dearly hope that it will be possible to arrange a parish trip there in Spring 2018 and, if we do, I dearly hope that you will be able to join the trip because it has the potential to be life-changing.

Finally I just wanted to share one of the most touching things our guide said on our first day in Jerusalem. He said: “Welcome home.” And the more I dwell on that the more real it seems.

God Bless,




Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, is coming to St Mary’s Hadlow to speak about his life and ministry in Iraq.    It should be a fascinating and inspirational evening, hearing about Christian ministry being exercised in a frequently hostile and violent environment.  Canon Andrew is coming to St Mary’s Hadlow on Tuesday 2 July at 7.30 for 8.00 pm start.  St Mary’s is in Church Street Hadlow, TN11 0DB.  However parking is limited so please park and walk if possible.

There will be a collection taken to support Canon Andrew’s ministry and more details about that work can be found here:


I would rather be boating…

Annabelle on Gustavus 2011

Annabelle on Gustavus 2011

Although the weather is still perishing outside the days are getting longer and I am hankering to get back on a boat.

My first love is sailing (having been introduced to yachts by doing the North Sea Arctic Challenge in 2001) and my idea of heaven (in the non-technical sense) is a summer’s day sailing around the Isles of Scilly.  However, although sailing may be my first love, I have also become enamoured with narrow boating and I can’t wait to get back on the cut this summer.

My first experience of narrow boating was about 25 years ago (good grief!) when I went on a school trip on the Warwickshire Ring.  My prime memory of that week (apart from the underage drinking!) was of seeing a dead dog floating in the canal in either Coventry or Birmingham.  Isn’t it interesting what makes an impression on the young mind…

A number of years later Vivienne and I had a holiday with the in-laws on the Avon Ring and that was interesting, but there were too many drivers and not enough tillers!  I was determined to have a boat ‘of my own’ but this didn’t happen for a while; the huge price of hiring a boat for a week in the summer (about twice the price of cottage) coupled with having very young children made it impracticable.

In 2011, when Henry was five and Annabelle nine, we discovered that it was possible to use Tesco Club Card vouchers to book canal holidays and we duly booked Gustavus and had a great week thrashing around the Stourport Ring, with our friend Arg as extra crew.

Gustavus, driven by Arg, 2011

Gustavus, driven by Arg, 2011

Annabelle & Henry on old lock gate 2011

Annabelle & Henry on old lock gate 2011

During this holiday I knew that I had been seriously bitten by the narrow boating bug but it was not possible to save enough Club Card Vouchers every year to have a serious impact on the price.  So, in order to feed my habit, I would have to do some research to find a cost effective way to get on a boat every summer holiday.  I remembered passing a blue boat emblazoned with the words “Canal Boat Club” and a quick bit of googling took me to their site.  I was very impressed with what they had to offer and we decided to get a one week time share in a six berth boat and we enjoyed our first year with them last summer, going from Market Harborough to Napton.

Mucky Duck in Foxton Locks 2012

Mucky Duck in Foxton Locks 2012

I also took my RYA Inland Waterways Helmsman Certificate, on the Chelmer and Blackwater canal, partly in order to learn to drive properly and partly to get another day on the water.

This August we are picking up our boat in Alvechurch and having a gentle poodle to Stratford upon Avon and I really can’t wait…however, I am starting to worry that one week a year may no longer be enough!


How can a Priest also be a Magistrate?


I started sitting as a Magistrate or Justice of the Peace (JP) on the East Kent Bench in December 2010, whilst still a curate in Woodchurch. The Magistrate’s Court is the first tier of the English criminal justice system and deals with about 98% of all criminal cases.  The vast majority of magistrates (like me) are part time volunteers, some are retired but many have other day jobs; I trained with teachers, journalists and others.

Before being ordained my first career was as a solicitor and, although I did not practise criminal law, I felt very ‘at home’ in the legal system.  I wanted to be a magistrate as I felt that it would be an interesting way of serving the wider community (i.e. beyond the parish boundary) but that it would also enhance my parish ministry by exposing me to a whole part of society which may otherwise not appear even on a parish priest’s ‘radar’.  I am really pleased to say that for the last two and a bit years my experience of being a magistrate has ticked both of those boxes and more.

However the range of reactions to a priest being a magistrate has been very interesting.  When I was being selected the interview panel was split between those who were worried that I might be a wet, liberal, vicar who would want to let everyone off and those who thought I might be too ‘old testament’ and want to have everyone stoned to death!

The interesting reactions continued while I was going through the process of moving on from my curacy to being a vicar.  The most extreme came from a very angry sounding lady (who was part of a panel of 16 interviewers) who asked how I could be a magistrate when the bible says that we should ‘not judge others lest we are judged ourselves‘ (Matt 7:1).  My reaction was that this applies to all Christians (not just priests) and that if we took her point to its logical conclusion it would mean that no Christians could work within the criminal justice system and, in my view, that would be detrimental to the system.  This is not to mention that the bible also contains plenty of ‘laws’ and even has a whole book called Judges!  Maybe that makes me a little ‘old testament’ but it seems to me that God brought order out of chaos and that the proper rule of law, with a seasoning of Christian compassion, probably trumps a text taken out of context.

Although that was the most extreme reaction (and one that stays with me, as you can tell) the most common reaction was concern about a priest spending any time on an activity outside of the parish.  One interview panel seemed very proud of the fact that their previous Rector had to give up all his outside interests because the parish kept him so busy.  I said that this sounded very unhealthy both for the priest and the parish; I didn’t get that job!  However, it was quite illuminating to see, time and again, both a generalised concern about the vicar having a role away from the parish and a more particular concern about whether a vicar should be a magistrate in the first place.

Fortunately the people of St Mary’s Hadlow were not overwhelmed by that concern and I continue to believe that being a priest helps make me an even-handed magistrate and that the experiences I gain from being a magistrate makes me a better parish priest.

Long-distance Lent

Today I have doubled the number of services I have taken at St Mary’s to a grand total of two.  This morning’s family service went really well and Clifford did a great talk on the falling tower of Siloam, aided by some cardboard tubes.  After the service we hot-footed it down to the ‘tin tabernacle’ in Golden Green for another family service and then a quick ‘question time’ for the new vicar.  I had to confess that I do not play the guitar or sing so we may need to rope in some musical support in the future for that one.

We should be moving into the Vicarage in Hadlow straight after Easter, when the work on the house is finished.  Until then I remain a long-distance vicar, driving about an hour each way to the parish.  Whilst everybody has been absolutely fine about that (at least within my earshot) it does feel distinctly ‘odd’ not being present in the community.  In fact I am doing the absolute opposite of what I thought and imagined I would be doing at the start of a new ministry, which is basically being everywhere and seeing everybody.  As my training incumbent always said: “Man proposes, God disposes.”  In other words God looks at our plans, has a little chuckle, and does what He wants to do with us.  I suppose this time of transition is both helping to ease us out of our beloved, adopted, Woodchurch, whilst reinforcing the value and importance of a priest being present in their church community – to use the phrase – ‘incarnating’ the gospel.

On the home front (still in Woodchurch) Annabelle had a big day today as she rode her bike for the first time without either stabilisers or daddy holding on.  I know it probably should have happened years ago but, nonetheless, today I had that rather poignant moment of stopping running and watching her cycle down the road on her own, willing her not to fall and feeling very proud but still missing the ‘holding on’.

Back to Hadlow in the morning for a meeting with the people at Hadlow College for a talk about chaplaincy work there.


“Welcome to Hadlow”


These are the words ringing in my ears today.  As I stood outside the church door this morning saying goodbye to the congregation following my first 10.00am service the welcome was wonderful.  The service itself went off without too many disasters and there were about 120 communicants, although that may have been slightly higher than usual as people were coming to see the new Vicar.  And, of course, the slightly weird thing is that today was my first service as a Vicar, rather than being a curate.  Whilst the change in title does not affect my priestliness it does mean that the buck is more likely to stop with me when things go a bit Pete Tong…

Although my Vicaring has started in Hadlow we have still not moved into the Vicarage whilst we wait for some bits and pieces to be done there.  Whilst that is not too much of an issue it did mean a very early start this morning (5.45am) in order to get there for the 8.00am service.  However, as I keep telling myself, lots of people with ‘proper’ jobs commute all the time.  The more important issue is that it is hard to be a priestly presence when one is being a commuter and not being present in the community.  Still, I shall try to be there as much as possible and, before too long, we shall be there more fully.

So, how do I feel after being installed on Tuesday and having done my first services?  The answer is that I feel well and truly welcomed and I look forward to getting properly stuck in!