Sunday, 18 February 2018

Dreaming spires?

Crossing the Line - part 14

I arrived in Oxford in October 1982 with my grant cheque, luggage and  music – a collection of vinyl & cassettes, a powerful amplifier and huge speaker bought from my friend Neil who hand-made the speaker cab himself.

My parents drove me down and we went to the porters lodge to find out where my room would be.  I was given 8:2 – Staircase 8 Room 2 – and shown where to find it.  Most of the staircases were in Old or New Quad, but staircase 8 was tucked away between the kitchen and dining hall, up narrow stairs and room 2 was just below the roof.

The view from my window
I was amazed to find that I had been given a suite of rooms!  There was a large living room with a three piece suite, an old fashioned desk & captain’s chair, a welsh dresser and coffee table.  Then there was a small bedroom and a loft room, which would come in handy for storing my kit during the holidays.  There was a pleasant view over the ridiculously named Deer Park (a piece of lawn half the size of a tennis court) and the dome of the Radcliffe Camera beyond.  On a mild October afternoon, I thought I had been granted a taste of paradise.  What is more, there were just two rooms on Staircase 8. With no other bedrooms nearby, I quickly realised that if my neighbour was out, I could turn my music up as loud as I wanted!

8:2 up at at the top
The downside of 8:2 quickly became apparent.  The nearest toilet for students was on the opposite side of Old Quad which meant getting soaked in the middle of the night when it was raining.  Later I discovered the staff toilets for the kitchen which I could sneak into at night, as long as I didn’t mind sharing them with a few cockroaches.  There was a shared sink in a cubby hole half way up the staircase but no bath or shower nearby which meant another long walk for anything more than washing your face, but by far the worst thing was the heating – or lack of it.  For this big suite of rooms I had one 2-bar electric fire mounted on the wall and nothing else.  It was the kind of heater which toasts whatever is within 2 feet of it, but does nothing to warm the air.  Added to that, 8:2 was at the top of the oldest surviving part of the college, dating back to the 15th century with no insulation in the roof above me.  Through the winter it was freezing!

My living room with the useless 2 bar electric fire
During my year in college, I learned how to make the most of it.  I bought a fan heater which sat next to my bed.  I could lean out to switch it on when I woke up and wait for the bedroom to warm up a little before getting up.  Even then it was not unusual to find ice on the inside of the lead lattice windows.  I also decided that, as there was no bath nearby, I was going to find the best bathroom in college to use.  Soon I discovered the sumptuous bathroom in Heberden staircase above the JCR (Junior Common Room).  I had a huge Edwardian bath, green tiled walls and unlimited hot water.  Bliss.

The first week was a whirlwind of new experiences. 

First, I had to obtain a gown and mortar board for matriculation (the act of joining the University).  Fortunately, there was an easy way to do this.  Every student was assigned a scout – an employee of the college who looks after you and cleans your room on the one hand, while acting as eyes and ears for the college on the other.  Writing this, I am amazed to find that the system still prevails today.  Gowns and mortar boards are bread and butter to scouts, and provide a handy income on the side as they supply second hand ones for a fee.  Gowns also had to be worn at formal dinner each evening, at the main Sunday service in the college chapel and at exams, so getting one was a priority.

Students were also required to wear something called ‘subfusc’ to matriculation, celebration dinners and exams.  For men this meant a black dinner suit, a white wing collar shirt and white bow tie topped off by the gown and mortar board.  I felt like a stuffed penguin from a cartoon.  Gowns were also graded by success and ability.  Scholars and Exhibitioners wore full flowing gowns reminiscent of teachers in the Harry Potter films.  Commoners wore something which looked like a half-shredded prop extra for a servant in a Dracula movie.  I was a Commoner, of course. 

The Matriculation ceremony itself consisted of being marched into the Sheldonian Theatre, listening to a few mumbled words in Latin, and then being marched out again.  Was that it, I thought.

Class of 1982

Brasenose was a fairly small college with about just over 100 new undergraduates arriving each year.  That meant that you came across almost everyone in your year – from the public school toffs who didn’t much care for anyone outside their social class to the more ordinary students like me.  I didn’t much care for the toffs and there weren't many, so that wasn’t a problem and I did discover that money doesn’t always make you objectionable.  In my first week, during an evening at the college bar, I had a wonderful conversation with a final year student called Henry.  He put this naive fresher at ease and made me feel welcome and listened to. When the conversation came to a natural end and he moved on, someone else came up to me and said, “Do you know his father owns most of Hertfordshire?”

I got to know my fellow Maths students.  We were a pretty disparate bunch of people but I formed a lifelong friendship with my tutorial partner Anne.  Nick, a friend from Bolton School also went up to Brasenose and through him I got to know the lawyers who were a much more interesting group!  I signed up for rowing, much to my regret at 6am on cold winter mornings in the dark.  I also joined the college record lending library which had two categories of LPs on offer – Classical and CRAP (Contemporary Rock And Pop).  I always borrowed CRAP.

The place where I thought I would feel most at home, was in the huge variety of Christian churches and organisations which buzzed around Oxford.  The Mathematician who had hosted us when we came for interview was also the co-leader of the Christian Union in college, so an invitation quickly came to that and OICCU (the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union).  I went along and met some nice people, but also felt that some were a bit intense.  I went to St Aldates Church which was the biggest Anglican charismatic church in Oxford at the time and had a famous preacher and author as its vicar – Michael Green.  I went to the college chapel where I met someone who was to become a major influence on my life and faith.  He was the college chaplain – Jeffrey John.

I even started going to Maths lectures, although I gave that up in later years.  I found walking into the Maths Institute was a sobering experience; finding myself surrounded by Mathematicians, many of whom were geniuses was quite overwhelming.

The central method of teaching at Oxford is the tutorial.  A couple of times each week, we would meet with our tutors in pairs.  Our tutor would give us work to do between tutorials which led to regular all-nighters for me and Anne before tutorials, to get the work done, fortified by Martini and Death Burgers from the all night van near the college. 

If we had a Monday morning tutorial there was a problem.  Anne’s boyfriend would often come over for the weekend and catch the early coach back to London for work on Monday morning.  Just after he left, I would arrive, so Anne and I could get ready for the tutorial later that day.  Invariably, Anne’s scout, Armando would see her boyfriend leave and me arrive.  He was Italian and although he had lived in Oxford for many years, he still spoke with a thick accent, sounding like an Italian version of Manuel from Faulty Towers.  After a few Mondays, he would pull me aside on the way up to Anne’s room and say, “I know sir, itz-a-right, I know” and tap his finger against the side of his nose as a promise he wouldn’t say anything!  No amount of persuasion would convince him that he had got it wrong.   My scout and I also developed a healthy relationship during my year in college.  I didn’t mind if he didn’t clean the room that well, and he didn’t mind if I broke a few college rules.

My biggest shock however, was the way different Christians viewed and treated each other.  I encountered a culture where Roman Catholics were not seen as Christians; where people were questioned to see if they were ‘sound’; where there were more churches and chapels than anywhere I had ever been and yet most tended to retreat into their own cosy silo, looking down with suspicion or derision on the other silos around them.   I know that Universities are hot houses of opinion and heated discussion.  I know that Oxford is probably one of the more extreme versions of this, with institutions like the Oxford Union embodying polarised debate.  But this ran deeper.  The latest intake of new Christian students seemed to be pushed into choosing an allegiance, then called on to defend it against all-comers, and recruiting more people into their religious silo.  It was more competing spires than dreaming spires.

I felt caught between silos. I was an Evangelical Catholic Charismatic Christian and I didn’t want to pick a side or be backed into a corner.  Coming from a year in the open environment of the Scargill Community where all views were valued and our commitment was to live together in diversity, I found myself way out of my depth amidst a clamour of different voices, vying for my attention.

At the end of my first term I returned home for Christmas and after a few days my father took me to one side.  He had noticed a weariness about me and wanted to know how I was really doing.  As we talked, he said to me “You look like you have lost your first love.”  Knowing the Bible verse in Revelation, I knew exactly what he meant.    In the visions for the 7 churches, the believers in Ephesus are commended for their hard work, perseverance and endurance, but then God says,

“Yet I hold this against you; you have lost your first love” (Rev 2:1-7)

I realised he was right.

While trying to navigate my way through the contesting voices, I had lost my first love of God.  I was becoming more wrapped up in issues than people.  Theological disputes were replacing life-giving faith.  I was becoming infected with a version of faith where being right was more important than loving others.  I had lost my first love and for someone who felt called to be a priest, this was serious. 

Paul’s words to the Corinthian church rung out in my head.

“If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Whatever I did when I went back for my second term, I had to rediscover the love that is at the heart of the Gospel.  I had to resist the divisive intellectualisation of faith which I was encountering.   I had to find a way to be counter cultural.  I had to find a way to cross the lines that were being laid out for me by others.

It felt daunting; I worried that it would be a lonely road; but I knew it was what I needed to do.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Moving on

Crossing the Line - part 14

As sixth form progressed, I had to decide what to do next.

In one way this was easy.  I wanted to go to university.   When I was about 15, I had made the audacious statement that I wanted to go to Cambridge.  I say audacious because I had only just made it off the bottom of my class into the dizzying heights of mediocrity at the time.  Somehow, my teacher managed not to burst out laughing and told me that if I worked hard, why not?

I only said Cambridge because we had visited it on a family holiday.  The rarefied atmosphere of the colleges won me over, from the grand to the quaint.  The thought of living in one of these ‘other worldly’ quads captured my imagination.

This was all fine until I mentioned it to Lesley who was my girlfriend at the time, and she said, “But I want to go to Oxford.”   So when I saw a young vocations weekend advertised at Jesus College Oxford, I knew I had to go.  What a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – I could go to a weekend about ordination and see Oxford properly at the same time. 

Two things stood out for me over the weekend. 

First was the morning I spent with the chaplain at Oxford prison.  It was a time of extreme overcrowding in British prisons and the sight of Victorian cells designed for one or two prisoners, but crammed with up to four inmates was shocking.  There was so little space that if anyone needed to get to the cell door, the others had to jump on their beds to allow him through.  It was also in the days of slopping out where the toilet consisted of a bucket with a towel over it, which was slopped out each morning before breakfast.  The smell must have been unbearable at times.

Second was an afternoon wandering about the colleges of Oxford.  I decided that I would walk around as many as I could and see if any of them ‘felt right’.  This was not a very scientific approach for someone looking for somewhere to study maths, but as I have since discovered there is an intuitive side to my personality which sometimes has the upper hand. As I walked around the colleges, I came to a very definite decision that there was one which felt right.  Brasenose College was a smallish college on Radcliffe Square and as I walked around I could imagine myself living and studying there.

So I came back to Bolton and told Lesley the good news that I had decided to apply to Oxford – except that when it came to filling in our applications, Lesley applied to Cambridge!  Perhaps there was something she was trying to tell me?  Our relationship actually lasted over 3 years, ending during the summer holidays just after A levels.  It was a happy time and through lots of ups and downs we made it work – a romantic relationship between two Christians which helped us both to grow without falling into the usual teenage pitfalls.  Lesley applied to Cambridge, and I applied to Oxford.

Then came the question of what to do with the time I would have off between the Oxbridge exams in November and starting university the following Autumn (wherever that might be).  During childhood, another place we had visited often was Scargill House in the Yorkshire Dales.  Set in the picturesque landscape of Upper Warfdale, Scargill was a Christian community of about 30 people who ran a conference, holiday, and retreat centre for about 90 guests.

 For most people the words ‘Christian community’ bring visions of pious looking monks or nuns in religious habits, but Scargill was nothing like that.  Most of the community at Scargill were in their 20’s and wore jeans not habits.  When a member of the community was invited onto local radio to try to explain what it was like to live in community, he began by saying, “We do everything together; we work together, we eat together, we...” and everyone wondered what he was going to say next!  Thankfully he finished the sentence with “We pray together.”  This religious community was predominantly a group of young people who chose to live there for a time to find out more about themselves and deepen their faith, joining for anything from a few months to a several years.

Scargill Community 1982

 We certainly worked together and looking after the guests involved cooking, cleaning, as well as managing the 96-acre estate under the leadership of a Chaplaincy Team.  We also took turns to be on the Guest Team, leading whatever conference, retreat or holiday was on the programme for that week.  This involved making everyone feel at home, leading worship, drama or meditations, and accompanying our guests on walks around the Dales.

Scargill has the most beautiful modern chapel which somehow set the ethos for the whole place.  It is in the shape of praying hands under a huge wood shingle roof.  We sat around the altar on its large stone dais which doubled as a place to kneel for communion or as a stage for drama or dance.  Each end of the chapel was completely glazed in clear glass, revealing the beauty of God’s creation with views of across the dale or up into the forest behind.  Every morning we would meet there for prayers after an early breakfast.  It set the scene for the day.

I applied with excitement and got an interview.  It was the week after Easter and I borrowed my parents’ motor caravan to drive up in.  As I set off from Bolton it started to snow.  By the time I reached the Yorkshire Dales it was a blizzard.  The last 15 miles from Skipton to Kettlewell were going to be a real challenge, and one which proved too much.  I finally gave up when the snow plough I was following stopped because the snow drifts were too deep.  Returning to Skipton, I phoned Scargill in bitter disappointment, only to be told, “Don’t worry, we’ll pick you up!”

Sure enough, about 40 minutes later a land rover arrived driven by a member of the community who was an ex-royal marine commando.  I quickly learned that his strategy for snow drifts was simple; the bigger the drift, the faster you drive at it!  We arrived in one piece just in time to find that the power had gone out and there were 70 guests to look after.  It was an eventful weekend with the snow 2-3 feet deep in places.  After managing on emergency power overnight, the electricity came back on in the early hours of the morning and I spent most of the weekend in a team shovelling snow from the long driveway to make sure our guests could leave.

So it was that I was offered a place on the community and immediately after my Oxbridge exams, I left home on a new adventure.

Of course, nothing is ever what you expect it to be.  For me, the most important lesson of going to Scargill was to begin at the bottom again.  I left my church in Bolton and the youth group where everybody knew me and often looked to me for advice and leadership.  I arrived at Scargill where nobody knew me, and I didn’t know them.  The first week was spent washing up.  The second week, I was moved to House Team who cleaned the house from top to bottom every day.  Any romantic notions of the joys of living in community are quickly dashed when you are sent off to clean the 30 or so toilets around the house before 11am!  Then there was changeover day, when one group of guests left and another group arrived.  Every bed in 50 rooms needed changing, before cleaning and setting up just right for the new arrivals.  It was hard work and there was a ‘Scargill way’ of doing everything, from folding the sheets to arranging the furniture in the large meeting rooms.

Looking back, I learned there what it really means to serve people in Christian ministry.  Not up the front with everyone looking at you, like being a priest at the front of a church, but in the simple unseen acts of service which no one notices, except if they are not done – like cleaning toilets.  It was a good lesson for me to learn.

A few weeks after I arrived at Scargill, I had to go to Oxford for interview.  It was another cold and snowy few days, trudging through the snow from college to college for interviews.  When I looked at the other candidates I didn’t think I stood a chance.  There were only 6 places for Maths at Brasenose and there were 12 of us there.  All of them appeared to be much smarter than me.  At one interview, after we had talked about maths for a while, I remember being asked about my application.

He showed me two consecutive lines on the application form.  The first asked for my chosen subject – mathematics. The second asked what career I wanted to follow, and I had written “Priest in the Church of England”.  He looked puzzled and said, “So you don’t want to do anything with your maths after you finish then” quickly followed up by “So why do you want to study maths?”

I remember saying that I enjoyed maths and didn’t want to be the kind of vicar who didn’t know about anything apart from theology.  He smiled.

Looking back, I am sure that this question got me a place at Brasenose.  It was the only thing which set me apart from other applicants, the only thing which would have been memorable when the time came to choose who to offer a place to.  I think it was just after Christmas that I got the letter inviting me to Brasenose College Oxford.  It took me a while to really believe it.

The time at Scargill passed all too quickly.  As I got used to the work there it became more and more fun.  I shared rooms with Simon who was mad about pot-holing and climbing, even taking me down the wet and slippery Providence Pot on one occasion.    As a community we welcomed everyone from Bishops to borstal boys.  Music, art and drama were a normal part of our weekly activities alongside cleaning the house, day in, day out. I even got used to the ‘Scargill way’ of doing things.

During one summer house-party when I was on the Guest Team, we organised a cross between ‘It’s a Knockout’ and a commando course around the estate complete with being drenched by fire hoses and a zip-wire ride!  Everyone had to complete the course in pairs and it started with a three-legged race, tied up with strips of old pillowcases.  “Keep hold of the pillowcases when you untie your legs” I said, “You may need them to staunch the blood later!” - trying to add to the excitement.  Imagine my face then the guest speaker for the week arrived at the finish line needing several stitches with blood dripping from the old pillow case wrapped around his arm!

I did start to think that Scargill would be the place I would end up, but then some of my youth group from Bolton came to visit and said “No – you need to be out in the world.”  So in September 1982, I left for Oxford with something of a heavy heart.  It was like finding somewhere you felt you belonged, but then knowing you have to move on.

Scargill became somewhere I went back to many times.  The chapel there became the place where I would return when I really needed to hear from God.  In the stillness, enveloped in those praying hands, surrounded by the beauty and majesty of creation, I always knew I would meet God there. 

It is some years now since I last went back, but I hope to visit again soon. 

You never know, perhaps I will hear something new?

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The New Normal

It is now 7 months since I first knew I had cancer.

Although at times the days and weeks have dragged by, the months seem to have gone so fast.  As I look back, I find it hard to fully appreciate how much my life has changed.

Before then, being healthy was simply a case of watching what I ate, trying to get enough exercise, not drinking too much and taking my daily vitamins.  That was normal life then.  Some days I would do better than others, and some days I would fail completely!

Since then, being healthy has been turned on its head.  What would have been considered deeply unhealthy before, is now a staple part of my life. Things which normal human beings would avoid like the plague have now become part and parcel of extending my life.

In the bleakest terms, this new normal consists of chemical castration by hormone therapy, subjecting my body to radioactive bombardment, and having poison pumped into my veins every 21 days.   That is not to mention all the tablets, blood tests, x-rays, scans and medical appointments which have become a normal part of life. 

I wonder how many people know that the average CT scan exposes you to ten times more radiation than two weeks in the Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan and almost twice as much as an hour in the grounds of the Chernobyl power station in 2010.  Radiotherapy treatment is measured in many more multiples again, which is why radiologists don’t just go behind a screen, they have to retreat to a separate room down a corridor before flicking the switch.  

Then there are the steroids given to ward off an adverse reaction to chemotherapy; a low daily dose and then a blitz of 2 weeks-worth of steroids in 2 days around each infusion.

It’s hardly what I would have called normal before and yet, for so many cancer sufferers, this is the new normal.

There have been other changes too.

Before cancer, the kind of church service I looked for would have been full of lively worship, with a band rather than an organ, lots of spontaneous participation, modern prayers and a sermon peppered with humour to liven it up.

Now (and I amazed that I am saying this) the service I best connect with each Sunday is 1662 Prayer Book Communion.  I have never been one to do away with BCP services (Book of Common Prayer) in the churches I have served in, but it has never been my cup of tea.  Since my diagnosis, that has all changed.  There is something about the gravitas of a 1662 Communion service which now feeds me; something about being carried by the liturgy which sustains me; something about the stillness which offers no answers but assures me of God’s presence.  They are the things which meet my needs now.

It has given me a new understanding of those who faithfully and resolutely come to church, often early on a Sunday morning when the church is still cold, to bathe in the 450-year-old language of this act of worship and prayer.

Then finally, there is a new awareness of those around me, who are also battling cancer – friends & neighbours, colleagues & those I network with via social media.

It is a bit like being inducted into a secret society, then having the doors opened wide to reveal a whole crowd of people in the same club, many of whom you knew, and yet didn’t know.

It seems that there is still a subtle taboo in talking about cancer, particularly among men, despite all the media publicity.  In the news this week were new statistics which show that more men now die from prostate cancer than women from breast cancer.  Yet breast cancer has achieved a national profile that prostate cancer has not.    I have become accustomed to a man drawing me aside to reveal in hushed tones, that prostate cancer is part of his life too.  It’s almost like a confession of some dark secret or clandestine conspiracy.

Discovering this wider community leads to sharing in other people’s journeys too, for good or ill.  On the same day a few weeks ago, I received two Facebook messages.  One from a friend who has been given the all-clear, and another from a friend who has been supporting me through chemo, to say that her treatment was no longer working.  She now has just months to live.  Joys and sorrows walk hand in hand.

This is the new normal. 

It’s a world where drugs and needles, poisons & radiation, spirituality & community, elation and grief are all integral parts of our day to day journey. 

So to all who are touched by cancer, I wish you every blessing as you navigate these very different paths in life, both fellow sufferers and their loved ones.  On this World Cancer Day 2018, let's break the taboos which still keep people silent and increase everyone’s awareness of a road better travelled together.

Let this be the new normal.

Many readers will know that my wife, Mel Hazlehurst, is having her head shaved to raise money and awareness for Prostate Cancer UK.  If you would like more information or want to donate simply visit

and a big thank you to all who have already given so generously.

In Mel’s words – you Rock!

PS  Back to Crossing the Line next week...

Sunday, 28 January 2018

First steps

Crossing the Line - part 13

It’s all very well hearing the call – but what do you do then?  Especially when you are 16 years old and still at school.

There was a lunch-time Christian group at school, but I had steered clear of it until now.  For a start, it didn’t have a very inspiring name.  Most schools and colleges had Christian Unions or Fellowships – we had the Christian Education Movement.  Usually this was abbreviated to CEM which was even less appealing.  It seemed like a name designed to put people off giving up their lunchtime.  It was certainly sterile enough for the secular agenda of the school.  It was safe.

In fact, I was only just old enough to go. 

My school was divided into a Boys Division and a Girls Division.  The two operated as two separate schools, a mirror image of each other in gender, ethos and architecture.  The buildings spread out along Chorley New Road in almost perfect symmetry, either side of a central arch.  On the right were the boys, on the left were the girls, with everything designed to ensure that the two should not meet.  Separate play grounds and sports fields, separate bus stops and separate Great Halls for assemblies, staring at each other across this central no-man’s land.  The Boys Division didn’t want the distraction of girls interrupting the finely tuned exam factory.  The Girls Division didn’t want those annoying boys getting in the way of producing ambitious young ladies.  When I started going out with Lesley from the Girls Division, it was mentioned at her next parents evening as something undesirable for a young lady studying hard.  There was almost no opportunity before 6th Form for boys and girls to meet together yet somehow we had circumvented this prohibition by living in the same village.

Girls Division on the left - Boys on the right
In spite of this division, the Christian Education Movement was a mixed society of both boys and girls, so no-one below the age of 16 was allowed to go.  I had turned 16 a couple of months before my ‘Gotcha’ moment but trying out CEM was something I was still keen to avoid.

I think it was Lesley who got me there one Thursday lunchtime.  She had a close friend who went, and one day she suggested that I should go - and that she would go too.  The CEM met in the Tower Room just above the central arch which divided the schools.  It was the only room in the entire school which had doors that led directly to both the Boys and Girls Divisions.  It felt a little like entering a diplomatic neutral zone – a gendered DMZ between two opposing worlds.

When I got there, about 8 people were holding a Bible study and I saw a group of dispirited boys and girls with heads down listening to someone holding forth about his own views to the exclusion of everyone else.  It was just as I had feared.  On the way there, I had decided not to say anything at the meeting, keep a low profile and drift away at the end; but listening to this monologue dominating the proceedings and getting more and more aggressive, awakened something in me.  I tried to keep quiet, but the more I saw how everyone else had been cowed into submission, the less I was able to remain quiet.  Eventually I snapped.  I opened my mouth and out came something like, “Oh come off it!”  I can’t remember if those were my exact words, but they certainly express the sentiment of what I said.  Everyone looked up in shock. 

At the end of the meeting, the leader announced that they needed to elect a new member to the committee which organised CEM.  Before I knew what wat happening, and without offering, I had been elected.   “So much for keeping a low profile” summed up my thoughts as I went to afternoon classes.

Over the months which followed, we changed the whole feel of CEM.  Argumentative debates went out.  In came more prayer, music and fellowship.   Before I knew it, I was leading the committee, and we were booking more local ministers and preachers as visiting speakers.

Over the two years which followed, more and more people came.  We went from single figures to forty or fifty people on a good day with an exciting speaker or worship leader.  We got permission to start an early-morning prayer meeting each week, with about a dozen of us gathering at 8:15am to pray together for half an hour before school started. 

Who was the only one wearing sunglasses
for the school photo?
When churches in Bolton came together to organise a town-wide mission, I got permission to bring a Christian rock band into the Boys Division for a lunchtime concert in the theatre.  We could have filled the theatre twice over with those trying to get in, and I was invited by the headmaster to speak at the whole school assembly about the mission.  I told the story of meeting a drug addict at the mission meeting in the Town Hall the night before, and how he wanted to change, but didn’t think he could.  Perhaps we are all like that before God, I suggested to 800 of my peers.

It would be wrong of course, to suppose that this was all my doing.  We worked as a team.  God brought people to us.  Then they introduced their friends, and before we knew it, it was unusual to have less than 20 teenagers meeting together in this very secular school.  We met for prayer and reading the Bible together, for worship and for fellowship.

Alongside this, my father had changed parishes, and we had moved from the village at Blackrod into Bolton, close to the school.  There was no youth club or fellowship at the church, and before long I invited the handful of other teenagers to my room in the Vicarage for a kind of Youth Fellowship.  I had no idea what I was doing or supposed to do, but saw the need.  We prayed and read the Bible together and for many months it stayed at about 6 of us, (some under pressure from their parents) and nothing seemed to be happening.

Then I sensed God prompting me to talk about being Baptised in the Holy Spirit, sharing my story and how God had changed my life.  It started to strike a chord and others began to come.  Some were from the Christian Education Movement at Bolton School, but more were from other local schools.  David and Catherine from Smithills School came and started to bring others.  David was very gifted on the guitar, and a natural salesman.  Catherine was the quiet and highly practical person that every group needs to flourish.  Then Neil came and introduced us to 100% Proof – not a whisky but a Christian Heavy Rock Band with a sound like AC/DC!  We started taking other people to their concerts around Manchester and as they shared their Christian faith without compromise, others saw that you could be a Christian without being a wimp! There were others too like Janet, Tim, Robin and Douglas – too many to mention.  We all grew in faith and learned to encourage others in theirs.

100% Proof in Concert
In time,  St Margaret’s Youth Group grew out of my room into the Vicarage dining Room.  Then it out-grew the dining room and took over the living room.  When finally we could not squeeze anyone else into the Vicarage, it had to move to the new Church Hall and continued to grow, with David leading after I left home for a gap year before university.

St Margaret’s Church was in a fairly ordinary part of Bolton surrounded by traditional streets of terraced housing and the old cotton mills for which Lancashire was once famous, now empty and silent.  The church had a problem with vandalism.  It had huge windows at the back made up of thousands of squares of glass held together in a lead lattice.  One of the jobs over the weekend was to sweep up the broken glass from the stones which had been thrown to break them.  One weekend my dad counted over 100 broken panes of glass in the church.  It was just too tempting for kids with nothing to do.

So what could we do about it?  That was the question.  The Youth Group started to organise “St Maggie’s Discos” for teenagers, in the Church Hall (it was the end of the 70’s when discos were still cool).  At the first one, about 50 turned up.  By the 3rd or 4th, we were turning people away because we had already filled the hall with around 300 young people.

The discos were never problem free and we couldn’t have done it without the stalwart support of some of the men in the church who controlled the door and provided back-up if anything started to get out of hand.  One night when we were preparing for a disco, a phone-call came from the police.  They had received a tip-off saying that a knife fight was being planned between two local gangs, at our disco.  Cancelling was not an option.  The idea of having 300+ young people in the street outside the church with nowhere to go was not a good plan.  When they were inside, we could ensure there was no alcohol, but outside, they would have been knocking back the Tenants Extra or Strongbow unabated.

We decided to go ahead, with two plain clothed CID officers in the Church Hall and 2 police riot vans parked up a couple of streets away.  Soon after the disco started, David and I found out which gangs were planning to fight, and got their leaders together.  We said to them, “If you do this, this will be the last St Maggie’s Disco ever.  Everyone will suffer.”  To our amazement, they gave us their word that there would be no fighting at the disco that night.  We learned later that they adjourned to a local park after the disco to settle their scores after the disco had finished, but they respected what we were offering to teenagers with nothing to do, and they didn’t want to be the ones who put an end to it.

Alongside this, the vandalism on the church dropped to zero without the church ever having to get anyone arrested or charged or taken to court.

Some of St Margaret's Youth Group on a Good Friday Walk
We also found that some of the disaffected young people who came to the discos also started to come to church and the Youth Group.  Side by side, posh pupils from Bolton School and teenagers with drink problems and criminal records were praying and worshipping together.  We even had one teenage girl whose Saturday job was as a prostitute until she gave her life to Christ in the Youth Group.

Reflecting on those first steps in ministry, I am amazed by two things.

First was the trust which was placed in us by my dad and our local church.  We were left to run the Youth Group ourselves without interference.  We planned the worship, led the Bible studies, wrote the talks, prayed and ministered to each other and those in need.  We saw God heal broken hearts and soften hardened hearts as we prayed, without the need to call a grown-up in to do the 'important stuff'.  While recognising the need for good safeguarding in youth work, I wonder if we now tend to professionalise it too much, rather than letting young people reach young people.

Second is how God honoured everything that we did.  As I look back to that time, I can’t believe how much I crammed in.  I was doing my A-levels, working a part time job, was in a 3-year committed relationship with my girlfriend and leading a youth ministry the size of most churches.  By rights, it should have all collapsed in a heap at some point, and yet it didn’t.  I even finished my A-levels with four grade A’s – something I couldn’t have even imagined a few years earlier.  God honoured the commitment which had been required of me and I was not alone.  The other leaders all went on to college and university. 

Neil, Benny and Tim drawing attention
to themselves at Greenbelt
I guess both of these things come back to trust.  Trust in the God who calls us, and trust in one another.  I wonder how much we miss out on because of our reluctance to do either.  I remember an former bishop of Southwark Cathedral advising his clergy to experiment; to see what would work and what wouldn’t in their parishes.  Experiment, experiment and then experiment some more.  He recognised that some of these experiments would go wrong but then we pick ourselves up and learn from them.  The other option is always playing it safe, repeating the things which have worked in the past until they finally bury themselves.  For young people in particular, this is simply not an option in a fast changing society.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of being in touch with a good number of people from St Maggie’s Youth Group, and I am constantly delighted and amazed by the way so many have carried on with their Christian faith.  Some are even worship leaders, pastors and vicars.  All through the trust which was placed in us by the church in our teenage years. 

It is perhaps worth remembering that the greatest calling of all time was entrusted to a teenage girl in a village in the middle of nowhere.  Perhaps the church should be looking for more teenagers to invest with trust?