Christmas is a busy time for the church, but its clergy never stop working. Roz Whistance meets one of the Island’s vicars who is making his mark on the community in East Wight.
“I’m just an ordinary family man, doing a job,” says the Rev Graham Morris. He is in the throws of sorting out his Christmas diary when we meet, and when you see him organising his life with a BlackBerry, that pocket computer beloved of those in the financial world, or with his family down at the Winter Gardens supping a pint, or even expressing the odd strong word, you can’t help thinking he doesn’t fit the vicar-shaped mould most of us hold in our heads.
The Vicar of St Catherine’s and Holy Trinity, Ventnor and Rector of Bonchurch, and Area Dean of East Wight is not the be-robed ethereal person who drifts up, makes small talk and moves on. “I’m a people person,” he says. “But I wouldn’t want this article to say Graham Morris is good because he’s got the common touch. I’d rather it said ‘here’s a clergyman wrestling with all the issues we’re wrestling with.’”
So he approaches his Christmas services knowing it’s been a bad year for his parishioners: jobs have been lost and money is tight. “The Christmas story is about how we value other people. The first people chosen to receive the most powerful message that’s affected 2,000 years of history were the scruffiest, most ragamuffin group of people, those living on the fringe of society in their day! How do we relate to that, and how do we treat those on the fringe of our society today?”
Graham grew up in rural Herefordshire, where his father was a builder, and left school in 1976, a grim time to find employment. So he took a summer job on a friend’s farm, loved the work, and went to agricultural college. “I’m mad about cows,” he grins. “Mum and dad worried that instead of having pictures of Kate Bush on the wall I’d got the latest pedigree Friesian!” When his first job – setting up a new dairy farm – came to an end, Graham started a small business doing relief farm work. “I absolutely loved it,” bubbles Graham, “and I was successful. It was almost a licence to print money.”
And yet he wasn’t completely satisfied. “You start asking what’s making all this tick? And theology was the only way to really answer that question. God‘s involvement with people like me in the ordinariness of the world was just fascinating!”
He’d found his vocation. If his father was disappointed to see his son giving up a successful business, he didn’t show it. “My parents have always been wonderfully supportive, and that’s a lesson I hope I’ve carried over as a father,” he says, pointing to a photo of his daughter Amy, who has recently joined the Army.
Graham chose to train at Salisbury and Wells because of its practical approach. “By week five you’re off to Toxteth, immersed in a troubled community, then living as a down and out in London, or off to a hospital for paraplegics. You get men calling out: ‘You, training to be a vicar – I’ve lost the use of my legs, what has your God got to say about that?’”
Such hands-on training at Salisbury anchored him as a clergyman, he says. After his first job in the rural community of Ironbridge in Shropshire, he married his wife Angela who came from his home town of Bromyard in Herefordshire, he moved to down-and-out Wolverhampton “where you could measure the people’s values by the size of the satellite dish on the house.” He says: “That’s where I earned my stripes, learnt what it means to be a vicar alongside poverty not just of money but of values and priorities.”
But the intensity of working with real suffering and poverty was to take its toll: “Every time the windows got smashed I sensed the urge to go and smash their windows, I never did, I’m not that brave! It caused me to reflect on the kind of person I was becoming.” Angela, he says, has supported him in everything, but he was becoming difficult to live with. “After nine good years there it was time to move on. I was in danger of burning out.”
So with daughter Amy and son Tim they came to the Isle of Wight. “The time has flown by. Amy has grown up and joined the army,” he says, adding “I don’t stop worrying about her, though she’d say ‘Shut up, Dad, I’m 20!’ And Tim is doing A Levels, he is a great people person.”
As for Graham, he was asked to be officer for rural affairs. The setting might have changed, but the brief is just the same. To reach out to people, to let them know the Church is there for them.
So he and his ministry team – they call themselves the ‘corporate vicar’ – are constantly looking at the way in which their three Victorian churches can be used to embrace the whole community. St Catherine’s – currently undergoing refurbishment – has a coffee shop, a book shop, a Traid Craft outlet, and it has become a major venue for classical music.
“The danger for Anglicans, and this is my frustration, is that we fall into the trap of those familiar words: ‘As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, amen.’ That’s not about vision. People without vision perish.”
So he and his team have created a ‘café-style church.’ On Saturday evenings young people gather for Venue 2. “They eat doughnuts and drink fizzy drinks and play their genre of music – it’s very loud!”
While not undermining traditional-style church – and Graham describes himself as ‘middle of the road’ in terms of worship style – such projects are opening doors to new people. “That’s what I love about my beloved Church of England,” he says. “It is so broad, there is room for every style.”
Unsurprisingly the message he will preach over Christmas, while not a comfortable picture is one to which everyone can relate. He quotes Mervyn Stockwood: “The straw used in the manger was as sharp as the nails that fixed him to the cross,” which is a far cry from the cutesy image of the baby Jesus on Christmas cards. But this just excites Graham all the more: “God makes himself so vulnerable that straightaway we can identify with him. A young woman with nowhere to stay searches the streets of Bethlehem,” he says. “These people we read about in the scriptures are ordinary people like you and me trying to make sense of all the God-stuff going on around them. “
Just then the phone rings and while we talk over the message being left on the answerphone Graham suddenly catches the words ‘pub lunch’. “I think I’d better call back!” he says.
Graham gets cross that he and his colleagues sometimes get taken for granted. “The doctor couldn’t do his job without the people that clean the wards. We’d be in a total mess without the dustman, doing their work. As for the clergy, at times they are amongst that lot, they’re the hidden people,” he says. “I’m just one of a number of clergy that are doing good work within the heart of our Island community.”