Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What a difference a year makes

Last Advent was unlike any other I'd experienced.
I learned in mid November that I had been short-listed for a post at Coventry Cathedral - and that the interviews were, of all bizarre things, being held in the week before Christmas...that week when every parish in the country is crammed to the gunwhales with school carol services, Christingles, nativities...and 1001 over-excited children.

Convention and common sense both demand that you don't tell your parishioners that you are going for a job interview. The obvious disruption and alarm that arises at any thought of the vicar leaving may be completely unnecessary - with 5 of us being interviewed, and with far less experience than I believed necessary for a Cathedral job, I was pretty convinced that this was fundamentally a training exercise - practice in preparing papers, an opportunity to engage with the interview process for a senior job and the beginnings of a gentle nudge towards considering moving on from a parish that I loved, and still love, dearly - and where I had envisaged staying at least until 2016.
So - I would have to vanish without explanations, leaving my curate and associate colleagues (who were in the loop) to cover for me. I hated those weeks before the interviews, weeks in which on one level I carried on absolutely as usual, while doing all I could to prepare...(with the help of a kind and generous friend who coached and encouraged me, helping me refine my presentation til it was as good as I could make it). And of course, even though I was utterly sure that I would not be appointed, the shadow of "What if..." hung over December too. This MIGHT be my last Advent here. Of course it wouldn't be. But it might...

Then came the 2 days of interview, beginning with a hyped-up version of trial by quiche which saw all of us subjected to the bishop's Christmas drinks party for diocesan and Cathedral staff...Dozens of strangers, all talking enthusiastically to their friends...Who were the other candidates? Would it matter if I admitted to catholic leanings over mincepies with an evangelical archdeacon? Why was the only person I knew in the room my possible future boss, and thus the person I should spend least time talking to?

I came out of that experience somewhat shaken, but with a sense that there were some really likeable people working in Coventry, whom I had enjoyed meeting - and that sense persisted and grew as the process continued. We were an all women shortlist, which made for a much more positive and supportive dynamic than I'd experienced before. At one point towards the end of the first day, after we had all given our presentations and done a bit of exploring of the Cathedral, we agreed that, as we all got on quite well, we'd be happy to do a 5 way job share - not something I could imagine having dreamed up in more consciously competitive situations.

And that night I had a tasty supper with a friend, who walked me through the streets of Coventry for a while til I told her to stop because something very odd was going on and I could feel myself falling in love with the place...and I knew I wasn't going to get the job so I wanted to stop before it was too late....

And I sort of slept in my hotel room, and sort of didn't...and got to the Cathedral FAR too early the next morning so spent some peaceful time in the ruins, where God was waiting for me. God, surprisingly, didn't seem to be at all worked up about the process, but told me to go in and have a good sing at the staff Christmas service. So in I trotted obediently - to find that, half way through singing Coventry Carol, I knew that though I was CERTAIN NOT TO GET THE JOB a bit of me belonged in Coventry and always would.

Then I preached my homily on the readings for the day, was lightly grilled by the panel, and sent on my way...feeling that it had been a wonderful experience, that I had loved the people I had met, and that there was not a snowball's chance in hell of my ever seeing them again.

And then, that night, the bishop phoned! And, to be honest, I was so utterly startled when he offered me the job that I was actually silent for a good 20 seconds...
But you see, those two days were all about God showing me that I could belong there. Even the things I messed up were part of the learning process. The carefully polished homily I wrote originally had to be ditched in favour of a last-minute dash because I had assumed the readings would be from the Eucharistic lectionary, even though they were listed there on the page in front of me - and only discovered on the Monday, with interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday...but actually, the re-write was perfectly OK, and taught me that perhaps I am a marginally better preacher than I generally believe myself to be...something it's good to realise before you contemplate the pulpit at Coventry. 

What God didn't do was prepare me for the awfulness of going through a parish Christmas when you are the only person who knows that you will be announcing your departure in the New Year. I felt like an adulterous spouse. All the joys of a full church, of once-a-year regulars saying "See you next Christmas Kathryn", the delight of a scratch choir singing Bethlehem Down rather beautifully, the excited squeals of small people at our Christingle workshop decorating the tree...all of that was lived out against the background music of farewell. I loved St Matthew's and telling my family there that I was leaving them was one of the hardest things I have ever done. year on, was it worth it? 
It has been both harder and more rewarding, more different from and more similar to parish life than I had imagined. The obvious gifts and joys - colleagues, music, the Cathedral itself - continue to delight me. The things I knew I'd struggle with continue to baffle and perturb (budgets, anyone?)
Advent is hard this year too, -because I miss the busy hubbub of community life, the same endless round of school services and OAP tea parties that were the backdrop to my waiting last year. I miss the funerals too - that sense of holding a light for the family as they gaze anxiously into the darkness....
But, half way through the staff carol service this morning I looked around me once again and realised these are my people, this is my place for now. 
And I was glad.

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