Things ain’t what they used to be

George Austin on the remembrance of curates past

When I was made deacon in 1955, I was 23 years old going on 17 – desperately immature and yet with experience of a declining cotton town in the 1930s, of children at my primary school in ragged clothes and clogs for shoes, of wartime food rationing and of nights spent in the air-raid shelter with the noise of Nazi planes above and bombs and guns on the ground.

At Chichester Theological College we had students from all backgrounds, with a bus driver, a newspaper editor, an officer from a battle cruiser and a soldier who had worked behind enemy lines. It was not the privileged public school and Oxbridge background of 1968 Cuddesdon students but I know I was just as immature as they were when I was ordained, and all of us much more so than today’s candidates.

I mention this because the BBC’s digital TV channel BBC Four has again featured the Church of England in its schedules, this time with a repeat from 1969 – A Year in the Life of a Curate. But what a different life, what a different Church.

It began at Cuddesdon with the Principal – our old friend Robert Runcie – speaking directly and very nervously into the camera on how good he thought his students would be. The curate featured was none other than the priest who is now Dean of Gloucester, Nick Bury, who was first shown chatting with his chums as they prepared to set out into the unknown.

They were all very decent chaps – as one would expect – and as they cracked execrably unfunny jokes and pondered the future, there was the first very minor sign that the world really has changed in those thirty odd (indeed increasingly odd) years. For they spoke the Queen’s English in accents that only the Queen herself now employs.

It seemed as strange as the English pronunciation Shakespeare would find if he returned to the London of today, a change doubtless brought about by the classlessness of television. But there were more important differences.

The scene moved to Liverpool, where Nick Bury was to serve his title at the parish church of Our Lady and St Nicholas. He was met at Lime Street station by his fellow curate-to-be, one Stephen Pedley, also Queens’ College Cambridge and Cuddesdon, and now Bishop of Lancaster.

Their accommodation was spartan, for both curates lived in small furnished rooms in what appeared to be the attic of the church hall. It must have been like going back to school, and I suspect it might be much less acceptable forty years later. As I recall, his stipend was to be £600 a year, and there would have been no division of the hours of the working day into three, with two on and one off.

Unfortunately his vicar, Canon Edwin Young, had a heart attack only weeks after the arrival of his new curate, though there was no suggestion of a connection between the two events. But it did mean an increased workload and a steeper learning curve for Nick Bury – and, as he said, less time for prayer.

(Those who may have visited Canon Young in his study either at Liverpool or before that at Stepney will recall a wall covered with framed photos of Edwin with film stars, actors, musicians and the like. It was pleasantly nostalgic that he was first shown next to a photo of him standing – appropriately – with the Beatles.)

Liverpool now is a beautiful city. Then any beauty was covered in the grime of industry. The Clean Air Act had yet to make it possible for buildings to be restored to their Victorian splendour, and there seemed to be a perpetual thin smog blotting out the sun, as in all big cities of that era.

The docklands were as I remember them, dark and dismal, with an Isle of Man steamboat waiting for passengers. Was it the Ben-ma-Cree, I wondered? (Ah, those day trips spent being sick over the side.) Liverpool in those days largely existed for the shipping industry, and no one could have envisaged the vigour and development that would be there without it.

The church itself was in a poor area, and Nick Bury had gone there because of that. I thought of the difficulties sometimes experienced in filling such posts today. I know, many curates are just as sacrificial in their understanding of vocation as in the late 60s, but there are dangers now that were not as present then – muggings, drugs, violence against the clergy.

Liverpool has a large Roman Catholic population, especially strong in the parish where he served. He was called ‘Father’ because everyone assumed that a priest in that part of Liverpool was ‘one of us’. Ecumenical relations then were less developed than today, and I recall a Catholic priest elsewhere expressing alarm that at a joint service for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1978 we might have to say the Lord’s Prayer together. In public!

When Nick Bury parked his moped below a block of flats he was visiting, he put his crash helmet on the pillion seat and left it. He tells me that because they had stayed with the people during the Blitz, the clergy were held in great respect. ‘We did not pay on the buses, we got meat ridiculously cheaply and we didn’t have bikes pinched.’ Today respect has disappeared from the scene for everyone.

As the first year drew to a close and Nick Bury prepared for ordination to the priesthood, he mused on his experience. He told how he had thought he could make a change in the sometimes terrible housing conditions and found he could not. But I suspect that, like many a priest in such areas, he learnt the nature of the pastoral ministry a priest must exercise if he is really to use the gifts and opportunities God gives to him.

Since the two curates are now dean and bishop, a look at the path they were to follow suggests another subtle change, at any rate from the 70s and 80s. Before becoming Bishop of Lancaster, Stephen Pedley had spent 27 years in the parish ministry at home and abroad, ending with five years as a residentiary canon at Durham. Nick Bury for his part was a parish priest for 25 years, with four years in an Oxford chaplaincy.

When the PM in Yes, Prime Minister asked his appointments secretary if a certain candidate for bishop had ever been an ‘ordinary vicar’, he replied, ‘Clergy of the Church of England who want promotion make sure they never are just ordinary vicars.’

That was certainly true when that programme was made. If it is no longer true now, it is a change very much for the better.

George Austin was formerly Archdeacon of York