“I’m going to become a vicar’s wife,” said the Reverend Nick Jowett last week. “I already do a lot of cooking and cleaning.”
After 37 years as a priest at various parishes around South Yorkshire, Rev Jowett is set to provide a supporting role for his wife, Hilary, as she takes up a post as Vicar of Laughton and Rector of Dinnington.
He seems relaxed about his retirement: he’s planning to take a rest, maybe start a creative writing MA, maybe write his memoirs, maybe help out a bit at services as well as cooking and cleaning. But get him on to one of his other roles in the local church and his attitude changes. As the chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, his voice raises noticeably:
“The number of people going further into poverty is going to increase in the next few years as a result of deliberate Government policy and I think that’s absolutely horrific.
“It’s hard to express my anger enough at the posh boys in Number Ten who seem to have no understanding of how people suffer. They create these policies knowing that as a result millions of children are going to suffer. How can they do that? It makes me very very angry.”
He’s planning to stay involved in Church Action on Poverty, along with hosting coffee mornings at Dinnington, not surprisingly.
Nick grew up in inner-city Sheffield. His father was vicar of St George’s Church off Broad Lane, where the congregation was a mixture of university academics and working-class people from the terraced houses across the road.
“It was very busy, there were always all sorts of people from all classes coming through, and it was quite exciting for a kid growing up there. I think the sheer fun of parish life inspired me.”
He studied at King Edward VII school, where he gained an interest in the arts and drama, but always found himself cast in female roles in the school plays, he remembers. “Someone had to do it. And possibly the teacher fancied me.”
After further inspiration among the radical student Christian movement in Cambridge in the 1960s, he trained as a teacher – he was trying to avoid being ordained, he said.
His views changed after a visit to the Christian community of Taizé in France while teaching English in Germany. “There were thousands of young people there and I felt this wholeness of a community without boundaries. I went back to Germany and decided I didn’t want to be a teacher any more.”
In 1975 he was one of the last priests to be ordained at his father’s old church before it closed down. He worked in parishes on the Manor and in South Yorkshire mining communities, including a time during the 1984 strike where he and his colleagues set up welfare projects providing food and support to local mining families.
Then in 1989 he moved to the old St Andrews Church in Sharrow. The building became gradually more and more unsafe over the years and in 1998, as small stones were occasionally falling off the walls, the decision was made to move out and officially join up with the nearby Methodist church on Psalter Lane.
“We had a big congregation, they had a decent church,” he said.
The ecumenical work joining the two denominations led Nick to a role as diocese ecumenical officer for several years, and at St Andrews Psalter Lane the church also worked with non-Christians, especially the local Sufi Muslim community.
One of the requirements of the modern church is to work with other faiths, he believes.
“The Christian church is suffering withdrawal symptoms from Christendom and its time of power and glory,” he said.
“We’re working out how to live in a pluralist society and how we can bring our unique contribution to that mix.”
One way, he said, is bringing ‘good news’ at a practical level, by simply trying to make life better for people. And to Nick and many like him that means campaigning as well as simple practical help to the poor and disadvantaged.
“Sheffield is a divided city,” he said. “Working in Nether Edge you realise Nether Edge isn’t Sheffield, it’s almost sectioned off from reality, unaware of the experience of many people who live difficult lives but are often tremendously resourceful, but with little possibility of pleasure and delight in their lives.”
He describes the campaigning work of organisations like Church Action on Poverty as like water wearing down a stone. “It’s all you can do really and you just hope the pressure finally tells.”
He believes the point that more equality make life better for everyone is beginning to ‘creep into the national discourse’.
“The animus against the big banks is taking root now, thank goodness,” he said, voice raising again.
“How can anyone need to earn millions of pounds? How can you spend it all? It’s ludicrous.”
He’s hopeful that the successful ecumenical partnership at St Andrews Psalter Lane will continue to flourish under his successor, the Rev Gareth Jones, after Nick’s retirement lunch and service this Sunday (20th) with parishioners and the Bishop of Sheffield.
He’ll be preaching on the day and plans to refer to Matthias, the disciple chosen to replace Judas to ensure there were still 12, but of whom little was heard again.
“I’ll be saying that structures are maybe not that important. Don’t worship the past, the church should move on.”
And for those who question the political campaigning of priests like Nick Jowett, the new vicar’s wife has a simple reply: “Didn’t Jesus have a vision of society? Was his not a political death as well as theological?
“I remember Desmond Tutu’s response when people said the Church should not be political. He’d say, ‘What Bible are they reading?’”