So, last Sunday (29th September) marked my Dad's retirement as a full time minister in the Church of English. Canon T.G. Oliver (to give him his full title) has come to the next chapter of his life after dedicating over 40 years to the Anglican church. Having grown up in the church, having seen my Dad's ministry at its various stages (from vicar of Huthwaite in Mansfield, to a lecturer on theology at St John's college, Nottingham, to Director of Theological Training for the Diocese of Rochester and, finally, to the Rector of Meopham, Kent) it's really only just sinking in that Dad's retiring, and what that means for my father going forward (lots of fishing, reading, writing and various theological duties) and what it means for us as family as we look back on my father's life in the church and his life to come.
I remember one well-meaning and rather over-sincere English lecturer at Luton University (yes, only the top academic establishment for me!) telling me that it must have been 'awfully hard' for me having been raised in the church, and having a psychiatrist mother. As if, by the roles they had taken in life, she instantly knew who they were and what they were like. Okay, not every son has a priest father and psychiatrist mother, it is unusual and noteworthy (I shall grant you that), but really I couldn't have been brought up in a more enriching, creative, loving and spiritually rich environment. From the start my father's ministry has been about the human in the divine, and vice-versa; how we encounter God in the every day, how Christ's ministry inspires compassion for those from all walks of life.
My family moved to Huthwaite in the early 80s, and dad became the vicar of All Saints church. Shortly after my father took up ministry there, the last coal mine was closed down in Huthwaite. Unemployment was rife. He'd come to a troubled community but I remember very well the warmth he found and nurtured within that community. And I remember my father always having a sense of fun about his ministry. One of the many duties Dad had to attend to was the monthly garden party. Well, it felt monthly, maybe it wasn't that often, but I can remember the marquee on the vicarage lawn, the bric-a-brac sale, the cake sale, the tombola, there were probably even prizes for the best marmalade or something. Dad found the garden parties essentially pretty dull, so one year he decided to liven it up a bit. What quite was going through my father's mind when he hired the Spiderman costume, I have no idea. But, around midday, Spiderman climbed out onto the roof of All Saints in full view of the garden party and had a clamber around. Other comedic moments in my father's ministry weren't always intentional: he once fell through a pulpit and uttered a VERY NAUGHTY WORD (apparently the front row stood and applauded), he once had to knock out a Rottweiler with a Bible on a pastoral visit he met on a dingy staircase in a high-rise, and I remember when he was miced up once at a service and had forgotten to switch it off - there was a very evangelical and very long and tedious hymn with the refrain 'Is anybody thirsty' to which my father's muttered response, broadcast to the whole church was, 'Aye, make mine a pint.'
Dad never really had much time for the pomp and circumstances of the church, he wasn't really a gaslight and gaters kind of guy. When he decided he wanted to enter the church, he was sat down by a high-ranking church member who lit a cigarette, looked Dad in the eye and said, 'Gordon, why do you want to be my fucking vicar?' To which Dad's response was 'I don't want to be your fucking vicar.' They decided, after that rejoinder, that he must be serious about his path. Another interview in Rochester hadn't gone quite as he wanted. A cadre of bishops, interviewing my Dad for the role of Director of Theological Training at Rochester Diocese, fired the question at him, 'What do you think the church will be like in ten years' time?' To which Dad responded, 'If I knew that I'd be wearing a purple shirt like you guys.' Dad came home convinced he'd messed it up. Turns out he was their first choice for the role. And that's why he is such a respected theologian and much loved minister; because he cuts right through the BS to the heart of the matter. Because he never forgets that love is the key in all things, that the compassion of Christ was what set him on his path in the first place.
But it isn't just a strong foundation in faith that my father has given me; my love of books comes very much from my parents. My mother read to me every night when I was a small boy. I've spoken elsewhere how her reading Alice in Wonderland to me cracked open my imagination and made me utterly fall in love with the possibilities stories present us. Dad once told me that his job was basically 'being paid to read books' (he being a lecturer at this point) and the idea that you could be paid to do such a thing stayed with me and led me down a path to a life in books. 'Books are one of the most important things in the world,' he said. And he wasn't wrong.
As I said, my Dad is inspirational. My sister, Anna, though not in ministry herself, is a theologian and works for the Methodist church, my mother became a lay preacher . Friends who meet my Dad for the first time often come away saying, 'Really? Your Dad's actually a priest?' The fact that he isn't the traditional cliched image of the buck-toothed, rather dry, well-meaning but ultimately dull vicar shows how important he has been in the church. And Dad loves and has loved the church. Not always; he is very dismayed that women bishops still aren't a part of the Anglican community and he hasn't always seen eye-to-eye with some of the higher-ups. But, hand on heart, I think that my father has left the church in a better place than when he first came to it. And he will no doubt continue to inspire others with the strength of his faith, his compassion and the fact that he is just huge amount of fun to know.
The minister presiding at my Dad's retirement service said that God had a message for my parents as they moved away from this chapter of their life, that God has asked the minister to pass on the message, 'Much loved children, thank you for your play." And that sums up the love, the warmth, the very human core of my father's ministry - that we are God's children, that we are loved and that we are here to share that love with all of God's creation.
I love you Dad. Thank you so much for raising me in faith and with love, and joy.