After a year in Sodor and Man, Michael Brydon offers a few thoughts
When I announced that I was moving to the Diocese of Sodor and Man, as Bishop’s chaplain, most people had no idea where I was going. It was confused with the Isle of Wight and others thought Sodor was only the fictional home of Thomas the Tank Engine. I found it helpful to ask people to imagine a map of the British Isles, including Ireland, and to stick a mental pin in the middle, which lands roughly on the Isle of Man.
Man has been described as the Malta of the Irish Sea. St Paul’s journey to Malta was somewhat traumatic and my own was far from straightforward. I was offered the job as Bishop’s chaplain in the summer of 2020 and fondly imagined that I would be there by Christmas. This was not to be with multiple English lockdowns and the sealing of Man’s borders. It is a Crown Dependency, governed by the High Court of Tynwald (not Westminster), which goes back over a thousand years and determines all domestic policy.
When I was finally granted permission to land, in February 2021, I wondered what sort of country I would find. I had done the interview on Zoom and had never visited the Island before. On the surface, it is not radically different from England, since people tend to have the same sort of social values. On the other hand there is a clear sense that people are very proud of the Island. You will see the flag, showing the Three Legs of Man, flying from numerous public and private buildings. ‘Comeovers’ will also need to navigate a different tax system, changing the car number plates, using different money and stamps, and would be wise to learn the Manx anthem, ‘O Land of My Birth’. It is interesting how some parts of folklore remain so mainstream that even the bus service plays an electronic greeting to the little people as it crosses the fairy bridge.
The history of the church is also distinct on Man. There is rich legacy from the first millennium of Celtic crosses; arguably the finest world collection. We have unique saints, such as St Maughold, our patron. Maughold was a fifth century Irish robber, who was brought to Christ by St Patrick, and then sent off in a tiny coracle to do penance. The coracle washed up on Man and Maughold eventually became bishop of the Island.
When Manx people refer to the ‘Good Bishop’, however, they are talking about Bishop Wilson, who led the diocese for fifty-eight years before dying at the age of ninety-one in 1755. He was greatly loved by the Island for his charity, pastoral care, preaching and desire to better the lot of the people. John Keble was later to write his biography and to edit his works for the Library of Anglo Catholic Theology. Wilson’s works greatly influenced the young John Henry Newman, who referred to him ‘as burning and shining light.’
Wilson faced plenty of challenges in his ministry and Sodor and Man faces many distinct ones today. It is often hard to persuade clergy to move to an island and gift aid does not exist on Man. The raising of parish share has also been hit by the pandemic; in particular the two year absence of the famous TT Races has prevented a lot of normal annual fund raising. As a small diocese it has a tiny infrastructure, but has to provide the same services mandated across the Church of England. The Bishop, by virtue of being the only surviving baron of Man, also has an ex officio position on the Legislative Council of Tynwald and in Tynwald Court, which is a privilege, but one that is both time-consuming and demanding.
On the other hand, being a small diocese has many advantages. It feels much more like a family. The Bishop and other senior staff are highly accessible and very hands on when it comes to caring for parishes and undertaking pastoral visits. If someone rings up and wants to speak to the Bishop it is often possible to do so immediately. There is some very impressive work done by the laity in helping some of the more isolated churches to thrive.
My personal experience of the diocese has been overwhelmingly positive. I have received a generous welcome and was touched that my colleagues were willing to support me when I stood for General Synod; mutual flourishing is a definite reality. I have provided cover all over the Island, but am becoming increasingly connected to St Matthew’s, Douglas, which is the only Society parish on Man. The position of chaplain, to the Mayor of Douglas, has also helped me to play a wider role in civic life, I have enjoyed the ancient ceremonies of Tynwald Day and the chance to speak on Manx Radio. Externally I have also been given the opportunities to act as a Bishops’ Advisor and to train as an inspector of Theological Education Institutions.
Sodor and Man is a unique diocese. It is part of the Church of England but it is also set apart as shown by the way all Synodical Legislation has to go through Tynwald to become legal. You have to be hands on in this diocese and willing to fill in wherever needed. The Manx anthem speaks of Man being a ‘gem of God’s earth’. Its many treasures have certainly blessed me.
The Reverend Dr Michael Brydon has been Chaplain to the Bishop of Sodor and Man since February 2021. He was previously in the Diocese of Chichester.