Revd John Richardson
It’s not there anymore. All that remains are the memories of those of us who were students at Lichfield Theological College. It all began in 1962 when I became a student there. Those were exciting times: the discovery of theology; the emergence of Bonhoeffer and his new way of looking at the Christian journey; the writings of John Robinson and his famous book Honest to God; being taught by a renowned New Testament scholar; the joy and fellowship of residential training; the expectation of ministry; the friendships which have endured for a lifetime.
For three years we worked hard, studied hard and even played hard. (There were no less than 57 pubs in the small Staffordshire city.) Ordination in Guildford Cathedral by Bishop George Reindorp marked the beginning of parish life where I have spent most of my ministry. Somehow theological college bore little relation to the parish into which I was thrust, being confronted by a world for which three years training had hardly prepared me. Fortunately, I had worked in a secular job before, so was not totally unprepared. And yet, on reflection, I know that my time at Lichfield left an indelible mark on me, for I discovered that my time there was all about fellowship, about community, and about belonging, not just about book learning or theological argument or high church or low church, important though those things might have seemed at the time.
"I soon discovered that the things that really mattered in parish life were those same things as at college – fellowship, community, belonging"
I soon discovered that the things that really mattered in parish life were those same things as at college – fellowship, community, belonging – and that if we could create and build on those things we were on the way to becoming the Body of Christ in the world. As a curate, the parish of Chessington presented me with a steep learning curve, not least because the vicar thought I was the ideal person to run the church youth group. I have still not discovered where he got that idea from. It was the last thing for which I felt prepared. And yet that group of 30 or so rebellious teenagers has been a great blessing. Today they still meet regularly, not to talk about their latest girlfriends or boyfriends, but about their grandchildren and how much they are enjoying retirement. On Trinity Sunday Bishop Andrew came to St Mary’s Cuddington to share in the celebration of my 50 years in the priesthood, and there were six members (three married couples) of the Chessington St Mary’s Youth Fellowship to share this special day with me.
The years in between took me to rural Norfolk and a group of nine parishes, four of which I looked after, together with four PCCs! When I arrived I was told that I would not be accepted until I had lived there for 50 years, but I soon discovered that Norfolk people were the salt of the earth with a strong tradition of church going and community, all of which added up to an experience of church and community life which is sadly lacking in so many places today.
Four years in the suburban parish of Stoneleigh followed, where I live now (50 yards outside the diocesan boundary). To say that Southwark Diocese was a complete contrast to rural Norfolk would be an understatement. Kingston upon Thames was a great experience, with its grand parish church in the town centre, serving as a civic and community centre, with a magnificent choir and a strong musical tradition.
"I next ventured into retirement – but what to do? Why not look after two rural parishes on a ‘house for duty’ basis in Sussex where there were 50 times more sheep than people?"
I next ventured into retirement – but what to do? Why not look after two rural parishes on a ‘house for duty’ basis in Sussex where there were 50 times more sheep than people? Two days’ work a week plus two Sunday services sounds about right. But alas, it never quite works out that way! In many ways Sussex was the best of times. Looking after two lovely villages of 150 people each, well off the beaten track, with a wonderful sense of community, was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.
What about a second retirement? A single phone call launched me into what was almost another career: administering Guildford’s Clergy on Call, providing locum cover for the parishes of the diocese where the vicar was away, sick, on holiday, on sabbatical, or just not there. Once again, I was brought into contact with so many wonderful people throughout the diocese.
"As I look back over those 50 years, I am filled with gratitude for the people who have shared ministry with me."
As I look back over those 50 years, I am filled with gratitude for the people who have shared ministry with me. Parish ministry for me has been about people; about glorying in a shared vision and rejoicing in the spirit-filled community, empowered to carry out together God’s work in the world, but at the same time accepting differences and agreeing to share different understandings as expressions of that same vision.
Maybe we’re not there yet. But for me parish ministry is all about holding onto that vision and seeing how it can be given expression through the life and witness of all those wonderful people who have been part of my ministry.