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Nourishing Memories, Chapter 8: Curacy in Harlesden, London

“I reckon this is worth you looking at for a curacy, Graham.”

Jeremy Pemberton, who shared a study with me at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, handed me a profile of a multiracial parish in northwest London.

“But I’ve already been approached to serve at St. Ebbe’s, Oxford.”

“I know. However, perhaps the inner city beckons?”

Ali, my wife, agreed with Jeremy.

“We’ve attended student churches in Oxford, London, and Cambridge. At some stage, we may end up in another one. But maybe God has something new now?”

Terry Nottage and St. Mark’s, Harlesden

We had a weekend at St. Mark’s Church, Harlesden, meeting the vicar and his wife, Terry and Eve Nottage, and key people in the congregation. We loved the parish, and both felt a deep call from God.

St. Mark’s Church was opened in 1915, with a corrugated iron west front, because there was not enough money to build the west wall and tower. An adjoining church hall was built in 1966, and two years later the west wall was completed in brick.

Terry offered me the post, subject to an interview with the Area Bishop of Willesden, Hewlett Thompson, and we were delighted to accept this new adventure.

I was ordained deacon by Bishop Hewlett at St. Mary’s, Ealing, at Michaelmas 1980 and ordained priest by the Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, at Michaelmas 1981.

Terry had grown up in working-class Dagenham, Essex, on the eastern side of London, where there was a large Ford factory. He had been converted to Christ through a friendship at work, where he was a draughtsman. The friend who helped him find a living faith was George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1991-2002), who stayed in touch with Terry throughout his life.

Terry studied at Oak Hill, the evangelical theological college, just north of London, and St. Mark’s was his first incumbency, after his curacy in Edgware. With the encouragement of Bishop Hewlett, he was trained in group work and led a regular clergy support group in the Willesden Episcopal Area. He was an excellent training incumbent, and he and Eve were an encouraging support to both Ali and me. Terry stressed that care for God’s environment was an integral part of God’s mission — a new and significant insight for me. I remember our staff away days, with David Burnell, lay reader at St. Mark’s, at Burnham Abbey, Berkshire. Terry later was director of ordinands in the Diocese of Exeter.

Home and Lodgers

In August 1980, Ali and I moved to 26 Ashburnham Road, Kensal Green, in the next-door parish of St. Martin’s. It was a four-bedroomed, end-of-terrace house, built in the early 1900s, with gas fires but without central heating. This was to be our home for the next four years. Ron Mortimer, a carpenter and key member of St. Mark’s, helped me adjust the door of my study. He liked the idea that my boss had been a carpenter.

Over the years various friends stayed as lodgers in our back bedroom, overlooking the small garden. John Kiddle was taking a year out between Queens’ College, Cambridge, and training at Ridley Hall. He was born in Kenya, where his parents were serving with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and would cycle across London each day to teach at a school in Bermondsey. He became godfather to our eldest daughter, Rosalind. He is now archdeacon of Wandsworth.

Tim Stratford had a gap year between the University of Leicester and training at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Later we were together on the Liturgical Commission and I wrote a chapter, “Worship on Upper Street, Islington,” in his edited book, Worship: Window on the Urban Church (SPCK, 2006). He is now Dean of Chester and I preached at Chester Cathedral on October 24, 2021.

Catherine Bambrough had been a friend of Ali’s at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and was studying to be a family lawyer. Later she was ordained and became rector of six rural parishes in the Diocese of Peterborough. In her retirement in Cambridge, she provides spiritual direction and pastoral supervision of clergy and, with her husband, Peter Ievins (who is also a priest), is in our Bible study group.

Sam Gibbs studied medicine at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and was training as a doctor at Middlesex Hospital, London. We remember fondly his jazz double bass and Spanish guitar. He became godfather to our second daughter, Miriam. Later he visited us at St. Andrew’s College, Kabare, Kenya, and then was a CMS mission partner in Murgwanza Hospital, Ngara, northwest Tanzania, at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He married CMS mission partner Miranda Poomugham from Kerala, India, and was a consultant in dermatology at Swindon Hospital, and a lay reader in the Diocese of Bristol, before his death in 2021.

Open Youth Club and Les Isaac

I founded an open youth club in the church hall on Thursday evenings for young people aged between 11 and 15. Roller skating and dancing demanded speed, precision, and daring swerves to avoid younger members. We had amazing fun with a sponge football, bar football, pool table, and table tennis. For several weeks, some brought their own sound system, set it up in the choir vestry, and had “toasting” competitions; this involved spontaneous, amplified, singing over recorded rhythmic backing music.

The aim of the club was to help young people in our community realize that they mattered to God, because they mattered to us. Most members had no direct involvement with the church, but the fascinating network of relatives and friends meant that they often knew people in the congregation. There was no “Epilogue,” or short talk about God; emphasis was rather on building personal relationships, and gradually these led to interesting questions.

A weekend away, subsidized by the church, was organized to allow more time for these relationships and questions. We stayed in a small Methodist church hall at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, about an hour’s drive east of London on the Thames estuary. There were three boys and three girls, plus four leaders: Will Ellis, Marion Burnell, me, and our guest Les Isaac, a young Black evangelist and great friend of mine.

We had fun with races on the beach, eating fresh shrimps and cockles, and discussions late into the night. We listened, fascinated, to the story of Les’s life. He had been a violent youth and then had become a serious Rastafarian with long dreadlocks, spending his time smoking ganja and reasoning from the Bible.

Les’s world was shattered in 1974 when he saw his Messiah and God, Haile Selassie, on the News at Ten, ignoring the poor in Ethiopia. Soon after that a friend, who had recently become a Christian, spoke to him in the street and one night, in his room, he knelt and decided to be a follower of Jesus, who really was good news to the poor. That night he cut his dreadlocks and hurled his valuable ganja right out of the window. Then he started going around youth clubs, in his spare time, sharing this good news, and became a pastor in the Church of God of Prophecy.

In 2003 Les founded Street Pastors, an extraordinary movement of Christian volunteers who serve young people coming out of nightclubs. He invited me to preach at the London Graduation of Street Pastors, in Brixton, on November 19, 2016, and at a managers and coordinators meeting, in Kennington, on July 14, 2017. On February 19, 2017, he was appointed an ecumenical canon of Southwark Cathedral.

It was Les’s address on “Serving the Common Good” at the National Prayer Breakfast in Parliament on July 5, 2022, that precipitated the downfall of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Sajid Javid said live on BBC TV (July 10, 2022) that it was Les’s mention of the importance of integrity in public life which strengthened his resolve to resign that evening as Secretary of State for Health. This triggered the resignations of Rishi Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer a few minutes later, and then of more than 50 other members of the government.

The most startling experience of our youth club weekend away, for me, was going swimming in the nearby pool. As we walked out together from the changing rooms, everyone stopped and stared at us; it was extraordinary. They had obviously never seen Black people close up before, and we all felt the force of their looks. It struck me for the first time that my life as a white priest was really bound up with these young people. We enjoyed our time in the pool, and on the way back, and late into the night, we explored these feelings of being stared at and of being Black in a white society.

After we left Harlesden, Andrew Bush and Will Ellis continued the leadership of the youth club. On January 18, 2009, Andy preached a moving sermon — “Suffer Little Children: Why Does God Permit It?” — at St. Mary’s Islington, when I was vicar there and he was professor of pediatric respirology at Imperial College, London. He and Sue, his wife, still attend St. Mark’s Church. Sue is churchwarden and Andy is training to be a lay reader, as he approaches retirement.

A curacy is usually for three years, but I was asked to stay on an extra year to focus on the parish of St. Martin — which had become vacant and where Terry was made priest in charge — as well as continuing as vicar of St. Mark’s. Carolyn Headley became a deaconess at St. Mark’s and later taught liturgy and spirituality at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

Friends at St. Mark’s

Friends in the church were of many generations and ethnic backgrounds. When I arrived, there were two white churchwardens and Terry wanted more diversity. Alec Wallen attended faithfully and regularly with his wife, Alice. At the wedding reception of a young couple of Jamaican heritage, I noticed that people looked to Alec, the respected elder statesman, to sum up the emotions of the community. He did so with profundity and natural eloquence. Alec served as a beloved churchwarden for many years.

Hazel Rhoden fostered over 30 children for Brent Council and was known throughout the parish as “Aunty.” She introduced us to the maize and chickens in her garden. Kate Eutrope, with her son, Eddie, gave us our first taste of curried goat. Dorothy Gittens and Myrna Sturge brought up their children in the faith. I prepared Dorothy’s son, George, and Myrna’s children, Alison and Andrew, for confirmation and Andrew later became churchwarden.

Norman Mitchell, a retired Pentecostal pastor, founded the West Indian Senior Citizen Organisation in 1980 to help members of the Windrush Generation who had become old, frail, and isolated. He is now 102 years old, and it was a delight to see him when I preached at St. Mark’s on October 9, 2022, and March 26, 2023, during the vacancy between vicars. I also saw him at the licensing of the new vicar, Dave Roberts, on July 9, 2023, by the Bishop of Willesden, Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy.

Sandie Stratford and Sue Bush led the Parents and Toddlers Group, which, like the youth club, was open to all in the community and was a bridge into church life for many over the years. Ali enjoyed this group after the birth of Rosalind in October 1981 and of Miriam in August 1984.

Sandie had studied linguistics at university and later worked part time for the Brent Adult Literacy and Numeracy Scheme. In 1986 she carried out a survey showing that, of the 75 percent Afro-Caribbean students, a significant percentage stated their reasons for having joined the scheme as “the desire to read the Bible.” With her colleague, she wrote a literacy course based on reading the Bible, which was funded by the militant Brent Council.

Paul and Kay Vernon lived opposite us on Ashburnham Road and became good friends. Kay ran the bookstall at church, sang soprano, and was later a governor of Princess Frederica School, where I regularly took assemblies. Paul was the organist and had studied composition at King’s College, London, under Geoffrey Bush, Andy’s father. He composed a moving wedding anthem, “From His Courts the Lord Send You Bliss,” based on Psalms 127 and 128 and Pachelbel’s Canon, which was later sung at my consecration at Westminster Abbey on June 24, 2009.

Caroline White worked at the BBC and later became a member of the Church of England’s College of Archbishops’ Evangelists and continues to preach at St. Mark’s. She married Malcolm Winterburn, who became churchwarden and tragically died at a young age.

Jack Knill Jones was secretary of the Reading Group I founded — one book we studied was Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God — and is now vicar of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.

Eclectics and Mission

I was very grateful to Terry Nottage for encouraging me to be part of Eclectics and for allowing me time away from the parish to take part in two university missions and two visits to Yugoslavia.

Eclectics was a group of evangelical clergy under the age of 40 who met regularly for edification and encouragement. It was founded by John Stott in 1956, on a model of The Eclectic Society founded by John Newton in 1783. I became secretary of the North London Group and organized meetings about three times a year. On November 3, 1981, I led a Bible study for Eclectics at St. Mary’s, Islington, on Ephesians 4:1-16.

In February 1983 I was at Clare College, Cambridge, for a week as assistant missioner, during the Cambridge Christian Union mission, and in 1984 was an assistant missioner during the Chaplain’s Mission to the West London Colleges of the University of London, organized by Paul Bayes, who later was Bishop of Liverpool.

From April 1 to 13, 1981, I visited Yugoslavia again (see Chapter 7), this time with Hugo de Waal, the principal of Ridley Hall. We spoke at a pastors conference of the Hungarian Reformed Church at Feketic. We also visited Bishop Danilo, vicar bishop, and Bishop Stefan of Zica, at the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate in Belgrade, and Monsignor Ciril Kos, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dakovo, who had spent nine years in prison after World War II.

From February 20 to 3 March 3, 1984, I was in Yugoslavia again and spoke at another Reformed pastors conference at Feketic and gave two lectures at the Pentecostal Biblical Theological Institute at Osijek, founded by Peter Kuzmic. In Slavonski Brod, I met Marko, a Roman Catholic priest. In Belgrade, I met Patriarch German, the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, and Dr. Amfilohije Radovic, dean of the faculty, and we discussed current issues in the Church of England.

After both these visits, as after the 1980 visit, I wrote detailed reports (1981 and 1984) for Stella Alexander, a researcher at Keston College and author of Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945 (CUP, 1979).

As I look back now, Eclectics furnished the background to the founding of Fulcrum in 2003, and the visits to Yugoslavia paved the way for a lifetime of world mission, ecumenical engagement, and academic research.

Family and Future

Ali worked as an enumerator for the 1981 Census and on October 18, 1981, Rosalind, our eldest of three daughters, was born in Hammersmith Hospital. She was baptized at St. Mark’s Church. Ali trained on the Willesden Course for Pastoral Relationships, the architect of which was Joy Thompson, the wife of the Bishop of Willesden. Joy encouraged Ali to train further and the bishop provided a grant for her to study part time for a year at the Institute for Group Analysis. These courses laid the foundations for Ali’s later career in psychotherapy.

In discerning where to serve after Harlesden, two possibilities kept coming up in our minds. I could become a vicar in another London inner-city parish or a theological educator in Africa with the Church Mission Society. During a holiday in Jersey, staying with friends from Oxford, I said Evening Prayer in the local parish church and was struck by the Old Testament passage set for that evening (Gen. 12:1-9) about the call of Abraham to leave his country and kindred and to go to another land.

On August 3, 1984, Miriam was born. Six weeks later, we moved to Birmingham, to begin two terms of training for mission with the Church Mission Society, at Crowther Hall, Selly Oak Colleges.

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