Thursday, November 8, 2012
Useful experience for an ABC (No. 1): Been a Vicar
The Telegraph, 2001 ... Justin Welby, vicar of Southam, a small market town in Warwickshire. He admits, with some dismay, that he is addressed as Rector even when he's in his swimming trunks at the local pool.
His wife Caroline started a part-time job at a prep school in January, and cites as its main advantage the fact that while she is there she is 'just anyone'. Justin, 45, and Caroline, 44, were already active Christians by the time they met at Cambridge. Justin considered going into the Church when he graduated, but was advised by a bishop to do something else first, so he joined the oil industry as a financier working first for Elf and then Enterprise Oil. 'I had a stimulating job in a good company with people I liked, and I got hooked into it.' He and Caroline settled in Chiswick, west London and although they were very active within Holy Trinity Brompton (a place of great solace after their first child died), thoughts of joining the Church began to fade.
But then in 1987, having heard an American preacher explain why he had joined the ministry, Justin brought the subject up again. 'It came as a complete shock,' says Caroline. 'We had two children, we were very nicely settled and we knew enough vicars and their wives to have lost our romantic ideas about how nice it would be. It just seemed like a huge upheaval.'
The couple made a list of pros and cons and then prayed for guidance. 'There were so many cons, so many things we'd miss: home, friends, family, money, security. And the only pro was that if this was what God wanted us to do, all those things would be meaningless,' says Caroline.
This sense of calling is incomprehensible to those who haven't experienced it. 'About two years into the selection process - at a point when my job was going really well - a bishop asked me if I wanted to be ordained and I said, "Not really, but I feel an overwhelming sense that I ought to",' says Justin. 'He asked what I would do if they rejected me, and I said, "I'd take Caroline out for a huge dinner to celebrate." ' He was accepted.
The Welbys set off for theological college in Durham. While Justin struggled with becoming a student, Caroline adapted quickly. She exchanged one network of friends for another and, after an initial panic during which 'I counted every penny and we lived on chicken livers,' realised that student life outside London was comparatively cheap. 'I enjoyed it, but there were pressures. I had to get used to Justin being at home during the day, he battled with feeling de-skilled, and these things carried on into his curacy. He found it very hard never knowing whether he was doing a good job, and we both realised we had totally underestimated how hard the work - much of it dealing with life and death issues - would be.'
In 1992, Justin was sent to do his curacy in Nuneaton, a former coalmining town in the depths of a depression. It was a massive cultural shift for the Welbys, and it brought one of their major concerns to a head. 'When I was contemplating ordination my biggest single hesitation was that we wouldn't be able to educate our children privately,' says Justin, an Old Etonian himself. 'But it would have been impossible in Nuneaton anyway; it would have created an insuperable barrier.'
In retrospect, this is something they don't regret. There are now five Welby children, the eldest 17 and the youngest six, and they have all flourished in the state sector while, at home, they have grown used to the Church spilling into their lives. For the first three years that Justin was vicar of Southam, there was no church hall. Sunday School took over the downstairs of the rectory on Sunday mornings and a youth group on Sunday evenings; there were all sorts of meetings there during the week. 'With five children the place was never tidy, and I did feel the pressure of being on show,' says Caroline, who is very much involved in Justin's work. 'We see his ministry as a joint thing. He does all the upfront stuff but we pray together, discuss issues, balance views, think through our vision. I play keyboard at the morning service which is non-traditional. If a need comes up and I think I can contribute, I do.'
Caroline occasionally stares wistfully at the property pages and wonders what sort of house they might have bought had Justin remained in the oil industry; Adey laments the fact that Kevin no longer has a proper outlet for his writing, but none of the wives could think of any substantial regrets about their massive change of lifestyle. They have all learnt to live with the fact that, in an increasingly secular world, vicars are seen as a breed apart. The first time Peter Owen-Jones went into his local pub, everybody in it fell silent. He is often asked if he's 'allowed' to smoke and drink. Caroline remembers the introductory session of one Alpha course at which a participant remarked, 'I had no idea vicars were normal.' Turning the other cheek to this sort of attitude must be part and parcel of having a calling. I suspect Jacs, Adey and Caroline survive by having a rock-solid sense of self.