9. Woodbridge 1968-73
I don't know who put me on to Woodbridge, possibly the Bishop. There are two C of E churches in the town, St Mary's, the mediaeval church, rather 'high', and St John's, built as a daughter church in the 19th century and rather evangelical.
The Rector was Canon Paul Wansey, one of three clergy brothers, Peter and Christopher being the others. He was an old-world gentleman. Brave, too. He won an MC as an army chaplain, not a regular occurrence. The idea was that the two churches work as a team, with me as team vicar.
Canon Wansey invited me to meet him at his London Club. That sort of man. We agreed that I should come as his team vicar, but I think we each had rather different ideas of how it might work out. He was more thinking of having a curate, who would also just keep St John's ticking over, while I was thinking that two such different churches each needed a full time person to put energy into them. It rather turned out my way. Paul got himself another curate, and just occasionally it became clear that he thought St John's was an unnecessary church. He once said in public that it was only flourishing because of my 'superhuman efforts', which was rubbish. You should see it now! Really alive and flourishing.
My immediate predecessor had made enemies by a rigourist policy on baptsm, and maybe marriages as well. As my father's son, I take the view that baptism is first and foremost a sign of God's undeserved love, and that it depends on his far more than on our response, which anyway, in the case of infant baptism, can only come later. If the parents are real believers, great. If not, then the church congregation is there to supply the faith on the child's behalf. Anyway, when I was interviewed by the PCC they were worried about the matter and I think I reassured them. They also asked about my wife, and I told them she was a member of the MU, which satisfied them for the moment.
The vicarage was a barn of a place. You could fit a small bungalow into the hall and stairs area. There were two giant reception rooms to the right of the hall, the first of which I took as my study, and the second was the drawing room. Their huge windows were fitted with wooden folding shutters, but there were no curtains. The widow of the last but one vicar, a greatly beloved man called Hodge who died in harness, was still living with her daughter in a small terrace house facing the church, and she very kindly found the curtains they had used, and gave them to us. When the Bishop came to license me, he commented ho nice we had made the place look. Beyond the hall was a door to a back hall, and beyond that again another large room, built on for parish use I think. The kitchen, pantry, washroom were all to the left of the hall. There was a cellar, which later got rot, cured by boring two little holes in the door nd letting air circulate.
Upstairs there were many bedrooms, including an extra one formed from the end of the landing. Yes, the house was vast. There was a back stairs leading down from a servant's room to the washroom by the back door. When Mum visited she quoted from a children's book called Puck and Blossom:
There were pantries and dairies
Charlie was born in Ipswich Hospital in 1968. I had hoped to be there for his birth, after being there for Barbara, but I arrived to see Jill one day and she said "Do you want to see your son?" and there he was. A nurse told me that fathers would not have been allowed in anyway. Horrid reactionary rule.
Convenient for fairies.
So what was the work there?
I visited the homes of the parish a lot. It isn't done these days, and few people are at home in the daytime, but then it was a good thing to do. I had a warm reception, the only complaint being that they hadn't seen a vicar for years.
Various new things I pushed, I shall put down as they occur to me.
The PCC was divided into four sub-committees, like Rotary, and the idea was that full PCC rubber-stamped the sub-committees' decisions. It usually worked well, and important matters got more time.
On the subject of PCC, it soon became clear that the membership was old and unrepresentative. With my help, one year the Annual Church Meeting elected a lot of younger members and left out some of the really rather impossible old diehards. It wasn't popular with the diehards, but it was necessary if we were to make progress. I wrote what I though was a kind letter to those who were voted off, saying that I inked them for their service and was sure they were pleased that there were younger people in the church ready to take responsibility. One reply was poisonous. Can't remember the details, but I remember being shocked.
With the new PCC in place we started a monthly family service that we called Family Focus. I had nice invitation cards printed, and it went well, though the churchwarden had to remind me to keep the services short.
The Youth Group that grew out of Confirmation Class was strong. They met in the vicarage on a Sunday night, I think. I sent a small group of them off to a conference, where the leader poured out good ideas for running a parish. They came back and told me about them, and said "We told him that we already do all these at St John's!"
I instituted a large-scale baptism follow-up scheme. Each baby was allotted a church member to continue caring, and we had a series of rather well-designed American sheets for the carer to deliver once a month over two years. They (the printed sheets) gave general child-rearing advice as well as Christian training.
I gave several special courses of sermons. One of them set out to answer a set of questions: "I said to the vicar .... and do you know what he told me?" As well as advertising this on the church notice board, I took out small ads in the local paper, and people talked about them.
In fact I think most people associated me with sermons. When I announced my leaving, it as in a sermon, and at my farewell the churchwarden said that this was characteristic. I hope the sermons were all real.
We held at least one flower festival.
I believe that I was the first vicar of St John's not to be a Freemason. The churchyard had many gravestones with masonic symbols on them, which I didn't even recognise as being masonic. One man said he wouldn't push me, but if I wanted to join he would back me. I have never had the slightest desire to be a Freemason. I was shocked by the funeral sermon of a Freemason clergyman in Ormskirk, when the speaker, a fellow Mason, said that although church sevices were important to this clergyman, what meant more than anything was the weekly (was it?) meeting of the Masons.
I led the choir, which included Rowena and I think Trevor. We had a man as organist at first, but he left when the music grew too unfamiliar. My fault. I tried too many new tunes all at once. Softly, softly is the way. Then we had a delightful American lady from the USAF base at Bentwaters nearby. Americans in the area must have almost outnumbered locals. She taught Rowena the piano, with helpful US terms like steps and skips instead of seconds and thirds.
We had many concerts, starting when I visited in hospital a retired professional violinist called Laurie - that was his Christian name. He and I played sonatas by Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and he got together small ensembles, including one that I played a piano concerto with. By Cambini. No, I've never heard of him either, before or since. Once we had a BBC organist, and made a loss because I took on the publicity and didn't know the ropes. Then there was at least once visiting chamber group. They complimented me on the programme notes that I managed to piece together after they had given me their list of items.
Laurie had played under Sir Thomas Beecham, and he revived his enthusiasm or music-making after he retired. He said once "I would never have done this while I was working, except for money." He was a close friend of the editor (female) of the local paper, so we got good publicity. He showed me a lot about interpretation. He used to have 'moments', places in a piece where we paused a millisecond and just brought the music to life. He had cancer after I left, and I travelled all the way back from Locking to Ipswich Hospital to see him. I gave him a version of the 23rd psalm I had written for him, called The Lord is my Conductor. His wife appreciated it, even if he was a bit past caring.
There was quite a good feeling of unity between the Woodbridge churches. The Baptist minister and I saw eye to eye on a lot of things. The RC priest was not nearly as friendly as Father Francis in Beccles; he lived just down at the foot of our large garden. On Good Friday we held a united service, and the year in St John's was memorble for all the clergy and ministers standing in the apse at the east end and taking part in a dramatic reading of the Passion Story from St Matthew. I added the Michel Quoist Stations of the Cross meditations.
There was one year when we held united weekday services with the different clergy and ministers taking turns to preach. Paul Wansey spoke in St John's, and preached what I considered a very one-sided doctrine of God's love and judgment, virtually denying any judgement. This was I think the last talk before the Good Friday service which was held in the Roman Catholic Church and at which I was down to preach. I felt I had to set the record straight, so preached a Biblical sermon, giving our Lord's teaching on jdgement full weight. It was quite clear to anyone who had heard Paul Wansey that I was answering him, and there was a bit of a division, I think. My friend the Baptist minster afterwards commended me on my faithful preaching of Scripture.
Our churchwardens when I arrived were Harry Nunn, a church primary school deputy head, and a good man and warden, and an elderly gentleman whose car driving was a peril to passenger and bystander alike. He retired soon, and was replaced by a man called David .... I did not know how to share the burdens of parish with other people, but Harry spoke to Paul Wansey saying I didn't share with him, and Paul passed this on to me, and we set up regular meetings, which were a very good thing. I could have done with a secretary. A lady who lived nearby offered to help, but her typing was even slower than mine, and I didn't feel it was really going to help. I needed a PA who could take charge of an office, which my study really was, and keep things neat and ticking over. I never had that. The admin behind the effective work was always shaky.
St Mary's had an office, and a parish worker cum secretary, and I used their facilities like Gestetner to roll off a weekly pew sheet - they had one too. I used the pew sheets to keep a pastoral eye on he congregation, and keep praying for each one. It worked like this - a system I started in Beccles. On Saturday evening I went through the congregational register, and wrote the name of each family at the top ofa leaflet, praying for them as I did. Then I went over to church and set the leaflets out in an alphabetically arranged leaflet display board. If there was a leaflet for any family still there from last Sunday, I knew they had missed that service, and I put the old leaflet inside the new one. After two or three weeks I paid the family a visit to see they were OK. Very few people complained at being followed up like this. It was a time-consuming system, but worth it. I have never had the gift of being able to spot who wasn't there.
The parish magazine when I arrived was for St John's alone, and was called Aspire (because St John's had a spire). We held an editorial committee each month, and spent an hour or more writing an editorial among us, with a secretary to record the results. It was a good time of debating what matter was important that month, and how we should deal with it.
Later the magazine was shared between St Mary's and St John's, and was called simply Wodbridge, subtitled a magazine of church and town life. I tried to make it not exclusively churchy, but it was a struggle. The local printer printed a year's supply of paper with the same headings for the outside cover, the rector's letter and Vicar's Viewpoint, and a few more regular features, in a different colour for each month, and then they printed the rest month by month in black and white. So we had a coloured magazine at little extra cost. We had a photo on the cover each month. I was pleased with the results. I suppose I spent a lot of time on that, too.
Old people's home and hospital. We had a historic old people's place called the Seckford Hospital where I took Sunday afternoon services in rotation with others. I used to visit the Ipswich Hospital regularly. In those days clergy were allowed to inspect the hospital admissions book and note down their own parishioners. That was stopped during my time in Woodbridge because one minister had used confidential information unwisely. Stupid man.
The vicarage garden was very large, including a lawn, where I built a wooden climbing frame out of branches and ten inch nails, a sunken lawn where a church hall had once stood, an orchard with tumbledown summerhouse, and a vegetable plot, which I eventually allowed a keen gardener to take over and use as his allotment - a good arrangment for both of us. The garden was great for the children, safe inside its brick wall. There was a magnificent copper beech in one corner. The parish held a fete in our garden each summer, and a team of men used to spend quite a long time tidying the place up beforehand. The only time it looked anything like manicured. I have never been a gardener.
At this time Uncle Charlie died, and left money which my parents immediately passed on to their three children. I used my share to buy a house of our own. There were as I have hinted family problems, and I hoped to make things better by leaving the barn of a vicarage and having our own place. It was in Tennyson Road, in St Mary's parish, near the bypass and backing onto the secondary modern school. It was open plan, with a central heat stack. For a while that seemed the answer, but soon it was not, and we moved back into the vicarage and let out our house. In the long run it was a good purchase, because house prices doubled very quickly, and when the marriage broke down we were able to walk away each with a reasonable amount towards a new start.
Time came when I felt that I could not go on in the parish with family problems being as they were, and I looked for the next step. I asked my parents whether the children and I could come and live with them for a while, and although they were elderly already, they agreed. We moved to Locking. My farewell to Woodbridge was full of emotion for me. For my own speech I found that I could barely raise mre than a whisper, but when I was able to tell the people that the children would be with me, there was a general sign of relief. One of the speakers told how he had mentioned me to someone in the town who wasn't sure which clergyman I was. He told him I was the friendly one, and the man knew who it was immediately!