7. Ormskirk

Finding the right parish and vicar for your first curacy is important. I visited a parish in Sheffield, where a friend of Dad's was vicar, but thought it was too affluent, and besides, the vicar Laurie Sheath had had a stroke or was otherwise not 100%, and I thought I needed more help.

So I went to Bill Bailey in Ormskirk, Lancs. He was a mathematician by training, and the careful habits of maths spilled over into all his work, always properly thought out.

We met each Monday morning for staff meeting. One of the regular items was how many homes we each had visited over the past week. The aim Bill set was 50, but I never achieved that. He had taken the target from a vicar of his own, when he was a curate; but he revealed that that vicar never sat down in anyone's home. Not an ideal visit.

Quite a lot of my time went into visiting, including regular visits to a long list of elderly people. I got quite attached to some of them. One lady always told me the same things about her life. Boring, but maybe it helped her.

When I first went to Ormskirk I lodged with a schoolmaster and his family. When Jill and I were married in Auust 1962 we went to live first with a Mrs Parker, a widow who had a very lovely house and garden in one of the leafy roads. She helped me through a particularly nasty bout of glandular fever which put me out of action for months, I think. I fought all the time against a horrid sore throat, counting the minutes till I could next gargle with dispirin. Some kind person gave me a tray or two of small Guinness bottles to build me up when I was convalescing, and Dad and Mum gave us money to go for a few days to Southport.

Soon after that, we were allotted the bungalow that belonged to the church but had been occupied by the sexton and his family. It was not big. A central narrow corridor led on to the drawing room on the left and our bedroom on the right, then to my study on the right and the dining room on the left. Beyond the dining room, in a built-on bit, was the kitchen. The bathroom was at the end of the corridor. Jill was expecting Rowena.

Our first winter, 1962-63, was a shocker. I wondered whether I just hadn't noticed until I was a householder that you had to defrost pipes every day and clear snow each winter. But it was exceptional, and we were cold. When we visited my parents in their new centrally heated Northwood vicarage it was like heaven.

Rowena was born in May. At that time home births were not the thing, nor fathers present at the birth, so I had to keep ringing up the hospital to get news. It was a barn of a place, it now seems to me, and the maternity sister was strict. It didnt suit Jill a bit. She couldn't breast-feed properly under this pressure, and Rowena was not regaining her birth-weight, so they would not let her home. Finally I signed them out, took them home, gave Rowena a bottle, and all was well. The breast-feeding now became possible, with a bit of peace around.

The little built-on kitchen became a baby place, with nappies soaking and bottles in various stages of disinfecting in Milton and the new one being prespared.

Jill had quite severe post-natal depression. I used to soothe Rowena to sleep by carrying her around reading Milton's Paradise Lost to her. Good rhythm.

The parish bought me a bicycle to get around the parish. They chose me a Moulton, with tiny little wheels. Moulton designed the Austin Mini with its little wheels. I don't think it was an efficient system. I had a hill to ride up from home to the church and the centre of the town. It was nice to be able to freewheel home.

Two of my jobs, for which I was in no way trained, were the youth club and the boys' confirmation class.

It was the custom in Ormskirk for large numbers of young people to be confirmed. Methodists abandoned their own church for the time of preparation and got confirmed. Lots who had no history of churchgoing joined in. Bill Bailey cheerfully said "I take the girls; you take the boys." I met them, 50 or 60 of them, in a school hall, I seem to remember. I had been given no guidance at all on how to take a confirmation class, and I was fresh from 7 years of higher education, and used to thinking in a different way. I can't remember what I said to them, but it can't have been on their level. There was no riot, though, and we got through the classes somehow. Then came hours of personal chats with each boy. I think out of all in the classes over the years I was there, there was just one who really came through to faith through confirmation preparation.

The youth club met every Friday evening in a hall just outside the church gate. It was really just a couple of hours of hanging around with the Beatles in the background. I made several attempts to give more of a shape to the evening, with the occasional speaker, and an epilogue, but the young people liked to hang around. There was once great bad feeling when, foolishly, I shut the club a little early after a speaker had finished.

The big success was the Youth Service. I managed to persuade some of the leading boys - there are always acknowledged leaders - that it would be a good thing to hold a Sunday evening service for the young people in church, in which we would have the sort of music they liked, and the service in modern English. This was in the days of the Book of Common Prayer. We had guitarists and a drummer, who learned up songs, and a hymn or two as well, and three lads and I learned some Spirituals which I accompanied on acoustic guitar, to be sung during the sermon.

It would have been quite a small-scale affair, but when I took the music to choir practice just a week or two before the event, thinking that the choir would find it all very easy and take it in their stride, I was surprised at the shock it gave them. Some of the men were members of the Men's Bible Class, an elderly group that met in the church on Sunday afternoons, few of whom came to ordinary services. Apparently the Sunday afternoon after that choir practice there was a huge protest meeting, and the local paper led with "Jazz in church starts revolt." I was telephoned by a Southport journalist, who tried hard to make me say that the guitar was all to do with sex and even by the Sunday TImes. There was also contact from the TV in Manchester.

It was the TV appearance that did it. The singing lads and I went over to the studio and they sang 'Standing in the need of prayer.' It was simple, and the TV bods were obviously disappointed, hoping that we were ging to be their musical spot for the evening - it was the local news magazine programme, called Look North or something. Anyway, I was interviewed, and pointed out that it was all very simple and harmless - I'd only come on with the proviso that it wasn't going to be a heavy confrontation. I'd also bargained to be taken back to Ormskirk by taxi - normally guest appearers were left to find their own way home, but Jill was singing in a music competition that evening, and I needed to be back to accompany her. She won her class, singing Schubert.

And on the Sunday of the Youth Service the church was packed to the doors. To be fair to the local press, they gave a very good write-up new issue. And it all did go very well. I tried to squeeze too much into the sermon, including a visual aid of FAITH - Forsaking All I Take Him, and several other such sentences - as well as the spirituals, that all fitted into the message. Bill Bailey said it was a clear Gospel message. Newspapers guessed the congregation at anywhere between 500 and 800.

Bill Bailey told me that one elderly man who had been most vocal against it beforehand was quite converted by what happened. I got one anonymous letter, from outside the parish, accusing addressing me as Vicar or Judas. Otherwise everyone seemed favourable.

There was a general election while we were in Ormskirk, and, inspired by Prism magazine, a radical Christian journal, I tried to organise a meeting in church with the candidates when they were asked about issues that concerned Christians. The local paper went sensational on that, before it happened, so Bill cancelled the meeting. Wise move, probably.

Another thing I organised was a visit by the Feed the Minds Exhibition, a joint venture by the ible Society and some Christian lierature organisations to promote Christian reading in the Third World. That was quite a success. Robert and Jill and I followed it up by giving a fund-raising recital.

The Lancashire experience was really interesting. As far as church was concerned, the attitude of both churchgoers and others was very traditional. The huge detached Sunday Schools and the Men's Bible Class were really glimpses of the past. The Whit Monday parade through the town streets was a recent memory when I arrived. The great confirmation classes were a hangover from other days, it seemed. New mothers used to come to church after the regular Wednesday morning Holy Communion to be 'Churched', and most of them went on to have their babies baptized.

The vicar was one of the local hospital chaplains, and I was an assistant too. This was real traditional co-operation between the church and the medical world. I visited two or three wards each week, and was on 24-hour call one week in perhaps 2 months, which meant that I was called out sometimes in the small hours to pray with a dying person or to baptize a baby in danger of dying. I used to pull my trousers over my pyjamas, put on a shirt and clerical collar, and pedal up the hill for all I was worth. Once during the day I was called to a dying man, and had to speak in a loud voice because he was hard of hearing. It felt very public, but I tried to lead him to repentance and faith in a few simple words, and afterwards another patient was kind enough to say I had done very well. I took a turn in broadcasting a hospital service from a tiny studio with a microphone, a turntable and about 3 shellac recordings of hymns. I don't know how many people heard the service over their headphones. I had no way of checking that the service was actually going out, until I could go to ask someone afterwards. We were also sent, every week, by the hospital, an envelope of little cards, each with the details of someone from the parish.

On days off we sometimes took the bus to Southport and walked by the sea and had lunch in a nice restaurant that catered for babies and little children.

Jill had a teaching job for a short time. It was a bit difficult to juggle travel and childcare and so on, but I thought it was good for her and did my best. I well remember the first time I took Rowena in a child seat on the back of my own upright bicycle. I felt so responsible and was extra careful. I also remember the first evening when I stayed home and baby-sat while Jill was out. Rowena was suffering from colic every evening at that period, crying all the time, and I got near desperation in trying to keep her content. I even told myself that I began to understand why some people hit their babies. Needless to say I never got to that!

We had an au-pair when Trevor was born. She was a help, but she didn't stay out he time. I think she was Swiss. She confided in a friend of ours, also Swiss, that she was unhappy in our home, and the friend warned me.

With Trevor's arrival we went back to kitchen full of soaking nappies and all the rest. But we were a little better at it, I think.

The time came to think of moving on. I heard from Dad that a parish he knew in Suffolk was building a brand new church centre on a housing estate, and they would need someone to take charge of it. It sounded a super challenge, so I wrote to Malcolm Sutton, the rector of Beccles, and applied to be his curate.