Robbie Low: The Interview
THE ANCIENT CHURCH of St Michael and All Angels, Edenham, had the flag of St George proudly flying from the tower. Behind the wisteria shrouded vicarage and the stable chapel, the acres of lawn and hedges and trees arched around the winding lane beyond the summerhouse and up the long sheep-scattered ascent of Pasture Hill. To the north and west, the echoing hill cradles Grimsthorpe Castle, seat of the Ancasters, whose busts adorn St Michael's chancel like some extraordinary family album in white marble and Latin.
For those readers suffering from a sense of déjà vu, let me come clean immediately. That was the opening paragraph of an interview I conducted eighteen months ago. The interviewee was the great evangelical parish priest, John Pearce, and the setting was the Spiritual House of South Lincoln at Edenham near Bourne. Last month I set out to spend an evening with the warden of that remarkable house, Fr Andy Hawes.
I have known Hawes for over twenty years. He was in the year below me at seminary and no less a passionate and remarkable advocate of the Gospel than he is now. Over the years his hair has thinned somewhat but never lost that look of having had an unresolved conflict with a brush. He dresses like a country catholic which is what he is, rather than a townie "anglo" and his eyes have a warmth and passion that are hallmarks of his character. He is a parish priest to his fingertips. He cares for three villages but is also one of the most respected spiritual directors of his generation. He learnt his trade at the feet of the remarkable Bishop John Maund (who died earlier this year full of years and grace). There is no art or artifice and, in an age where spirituality is often reduced to techniques for self-analysis, Hawes relies on the glorious hard work of the Word of God on the soul and the gift of a discernment which is accurate to the point of alarming. Hidden agendas run for cover in vain.
Hawes has run the Spiritual House for a decade now. It is huge and doubles as the vicarage. It is set in three acres which roll on into the glorious Lincolnshire countryside behind Stamford. He knew he would come here from boyhood. The parish and house have passed all resolutions and the original integrity can find here a haven. The cost has been considerable to Hawes himself. I asked him, first of all, about the house.
When did the house begin?
"There's been a house here since Saxon times. Edenham was one of the biggest Saxon minsters in England. The old Saxon cross shaft was a pagan standing stone. The missionaries preached here, erased pagan signs and carved the Gospel symbols. The stone here still has a pagan fertility goddess, breast full of milk on the front. "
In the Reformation, Augustinian canons were kicked out - the old priory was the kitchen area. The main part of that end of the house is Tudor, the stables - now the chapel - 18th century and the two storey main house is Queen Anne.
How has this house survived?
"It doesn't belong to the church. It is part of the Manor of Eresby, the old conquest family, the Ancasters. Lady Willoughby d'Eresby is the 24th baroness and the family have been very supportive patrons."
The Grimsthorpe estate was once the park of the Cistercian Abbey, Vaudray - the Valley of God. Old monastic granges are now the farms of the estate.
How did it become a Spiritual House?
"In the early 1970's, Bishop Simon Phipps set up 4 regional houses to offer hospitality and places to meet for the scattered rural communities. Twenty years later, only one remained and Edenham had endured a five-year interregnum awaiting pastoral reorganisation. I was asked to go and develop the house as a spiritual resource for the diocese - quiet days, retreats, meetings, teaching programmes, courses, one-to-one spiritual direction."
Over the years, Hawes has built up a remarkable team to help run the house and also a teaching and prayer team from which many parishes and individuals have benefited. Neither have the parishes suffered as this work has gone on. 10% - 12% of the population are regularly in church, rising to approximately 30% at the great festivals. Nor is it easier in the countryside. Indeed in town ministry, you can have a parish of 20,000, a hundred people in church, and only know two hundred. In the country, you may have the same result from a parish of a thousand but you need know every last one of the villagers or you're not really the vicar.
How did you begin?
"I was born in Grimsby Maternity Hospital in 1954. My two eldest sons were born there too. My dad was a joiner, a boat builder by trade. (Jack's just built another one this year after finishing the summer house) and, when the boat industry declined, he went on to shop fronts. When my younger brother, Patrick, was born he'd just won £50 on the Pools and convinced the brewery to let him have the pub at Grasby. It was next the blacksmiths and the forge and kitchen shared a chimney. Dad did odd jobs on farms during the day while Mum ran the pub."
They moved to the market town of Caister and then in 1962 to the seaside pub, the Smugglers Inn, at Chapel St. Leonard where they stayed till Jack and Kath retired six years ago.
Where did you go to school?
"De Aston, Market Raisen - all boys. Then, in the 6th form, it went co-ed. Sian John arrived in my life - very Welsh and very feisty. She didn't like me. My first question was: Are you related to Barry?"
(Hawes is a rugby fanatic - he keeps a copy of the Laws of the Game in his lavatory for constant revision and refereeing. Leicester Tigers is the big team and one of his sons, David, plays for Lincolnshire following in Dad's footsteps.)
What were you good at?
"All rounder - except science - loved poetry. My great inspiration was my teacher Jim Scarborough - he's just retired at Stamford and taught Lizzie (the younger daughter) in his final year."
(Just to get the sport out of the way, Lizzie and Hannah play hockey for the county; Ben, the eldest, is County Cross Country; Aidan, the youngest, is still at junior school. Needless to say, the mother of this tribe, mainstay of the house and church infant school teacher is the initially unimpressed Sian John.)
How did you come to faith?
"My parents weren't religious - no chance. That came much much later. Joan Simpson in the village school at "Chapel" heard me singing and got me to join the choir with Mr Rogers, the Welsh vicar. Friday evening rehearsals, my dad took me. The following Sunday, Maytime, I sat in BCP evensong - the little chancel was filled with sunlight and music and words that made me feel more alive than ever before. From that moment on, all I ever wanted to do was worship God. I was very conscious of vocation, born to do it. I've never doubted it though, when I was 14, I wished, for a while, that it wasn't true.
I was really blessed from then on with great priests, country parsons who were men of God. Dr Clifford Clubley who followed Rogers and then handed me on to Canon Stalley who put me in the school choir, prepared me for confirmation and married Sian and me years later. His English scholar background meant his sermons weren't ideal for a Lincolnshire market town but for me, waking up to poetry and language, they were wonderful. I remember every single one of his confirmation classes and I cried when he married us."
"Yes, it was the l970's and I was busy trying to deny my vocation and applied for social admin. at Birmingham and filled in with a year at Cyrenians in Cambridge. By Christmas, I knew it was wrong - social work - like sticking plasters on cholera victims. Another volunteer, a Nigerian, witnessed to Christ and I knew where I should be. I went to Sheffield to read Medieval History - near enough to help in the pub at the weekend.
I went regularly to Church and was greatly helped by Fr Edmund Wheate SSM - I threw all my doubts about the C of E, vocation, etc. at him and got no glib answers. I knew it had to be and I knew, from Sheffield, that I was a catholic - sung Eucharist, vestments, servers, reservation. That Christmas, I went home to see my vicar, Fr Richard Emerson. At 15, he'd worked on the docks with my dad. I told him, 'God is calling me to be a priest' and he said, 'I've been waiting for you to say that for years'."
From the vicar to the director of ordinands to the bishop to selection conference (in the middle of the deciding Ashes Test Match of 1976!) and on to Westcott House. It was a time of curious lifestyles and even more curious theology. I can remember coming into the Common Room late one night to find young Hawes, surrounded by academic liberals and self-professed "Christian atheists", standing on the table resolutely and magnificently defending the Virgin Birth and the central mystery of the Incarnation against all comers.
And back to Lincoln?
"Yes I knew it had to be there - even though the DDO told me there was nothing for me as their only ordinand! I went to Grimsby - 4 team vicars and 3 curates. I went to St Hugh's in the docks. On my first Sunday, a woman in black was waiting on the step at 7.30 am. She said, 'I'm a witch, possessed by the devil!." That was my first ministry and life's been like that every since, discerning human frailty and spiritual vulnerability. Life as a conflict between good and evil on a cosmic scale runs like a thread through the ministry."
With two sons born, Hawes was asked to go to Sutton and Gedney Drove End. He had prayed against being sent there and was the 13th person to be offered the job. The old religion was very active there (NOT Roman Catholicism!) and everything from threatening telephone calls to graveyard vandalism had to be dealt with and family feuds that had lasted generations.
Curiously it was a very happy time. The girls were born there, the churches grew - Gedney went from 3 people once a fortnight to 18 confirmands in the first 18 months and continues strongly. The garden, of economic necessity, became an allotment and Hawes' first serious work in the field of spiritual direction began.
In 1988, the call to Edenham came.
How did you know!
"I'd known for years. I'd never been there but I'd seen it in dreams and prayers. Bill Ind (then Bishop of Grantham) called me over. He was very friendly then, and, with tremendous support from Lady Willoughby, we began the initial conversion work to get it started."
The combination of a blunt Lincolnshire publican's son, Hawes has never lost his accent or his directness, and the last in the line of one of the most ancient aristocratic houses in England is not the least fascinating part of the Edenham story. Hawes describes himself, with a chuckle, as a convert to enlightened despotism, "a wonderful form of government", and is clear that, without his patron, orthodoxy would have been denied a fair chance. Lady Willoughby is no idle socialite. She is heavily involved with Princess Anne in 'Save the Children' and worked in the Lebanon during the civil war. Her own life and worship has been heavily influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy. Her chapel is well used and she takes great care over the liturgy - it must be B.C.P.
How did 1992 affect the House?
"Complications. Because I won't allow women priests to celebrate here, the diocesan authorities have stopped using me. Some parishes boycott the house. It took two years to negotiate a policy statement to protect the integrity of the house. The positive consequence is that many orthodox now regard us as an oasis. It's also about the only place in the diocese where there is any real meeting of both integrities."
How important was Bishop John Maund?
"I was in my first term at Westcott when the penny dropped about confession. We went to Hengrave Hall Ecumenical Community where Bishop John had retired (from Lesotho). It was the beginning of twenty years' great friendship and guidance. He was a remarkable man, one of the giants in the land. Most of what I know about the practicalities of spiritual ministry came from him and the study he guided me through."
Do you still write poetry?
"Yes. I've written things for our children, for myself, for Sian, for God. I write things for Patrick (brother) who puts them to music."
Over the last few years together they have produced some remarkable works, "The Wedding at Cana" - a much performed cantata - "The Far Seeing Land" - a haunting set of meditations on Lincolnshire, the land and the faith and many others. Patrick is a very gifted professional composer, organist and pianist, Hawes is a jazz bass player and all the children play instruments and one of them has started composing.
How do you manage all these things?
"It's not easy but the mixture of family life, parish life, spiritual life and ministry are both possible and interdependent."
They are also, often, exhausting and anyone who knows the House will know what a remarkable part has been played by Sian and a loyal team of volunteers and "The Friends".
Will you stay here for ever?
"You mean retirement? Well if I could invent my own job, I couldn't dream up as good a job for me to do and much remains to be done here. Practically we're just launching an appeal for £100,000 to put in disabled facilities, fire escapes, re-order the ground floor, expand the number of bedrooms available to retreatants etc. and I want to push on with the work of making this a place of great beauty and holiness. That takes longer than a lifetime."
Before leaving, I went in to the stable chapel - the simple altar, the glorious ikons on the ancient stone wall, the paschal candle in the mysterious stump of oak. Outside the chill autumn night, clear sky and a radiant heaven. Inside the quiet warm stillness and, above the altar, a simple wooden crucifix, carved by Hawes' dad in thanksgiving for him and mum coming to faith, in thanksgiving for everything really - Christ on the cross, suffering suffused with the glory and dignity of kingship - an eloquent statement of the heart of our faith.
Here, that faith, the land, and the people are both understood and offered.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Albans.-
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