Just over 5 years ago, the then Rural Dean of Cowley, Peter Judd, moved to become Provost of Chelmsford Cathedral, only about 2 years after his immediate predecessor had gone on, after 2 years of being in office, to become Archdeacon of Chester. The deanery, reeling under this swift succession of Rural Deans, said to the Bishop, "Please give us a Rural Dean who isn’t going to be promoted in the foreseeable future!" And that was how I got the job.
Well, that’s one way of telling the story. A better way would be to say that after a process of consultation with the other clergy in the deanery, the Bishop invited me to take on this task. I had already thought and prayed about it, and expressed a willingness to undertake it if that was what others wanted, so I accepted the invitation and was duly licensed to be Rural Dean for a term of five years.
It has been an interesting and rewarding experience, and fascinating to see more of the workings of the Church of England’s structures. It has been a privilege to work more closely with the Bishop and Archdeacon in serving the diocese and the other parishes in the deanery in this way. The job would have been impossible, too, without the help of a great team of lay officers who serve the deanery as lay co-chairman, secretary and treasurer, with great enthusiasm and commitment. At the end of my five year term I decided it was right to step down in favour of someone else, and the Revd Elaine Bardwell, Vicar of New Marston, was licensed on June 12th as the new Area Dean. The name of the job has changed, to reflect more accurately the more urban nature of the 21st century Church!
Somewhere along the way, I read in the Church Times that the position of Rural or Area Dean is one of the 'minor honours' in the Church of England. I think this means you get a title that sounds good, and more work and responsibility, but no more pay or power. For some people this would suggest it was not so much a minor honour as a major pain in a part of the anatomy.
But it seems to me that, in spite of the quaintness and creakiness of the system, it has the potential of reflecting and modelling an important aspect of Christian discipleship. The Diocese of Oxford is currently encouraging its clergy and other leaders to learn about something called 'Servant Leadership'. I haven't been on the course yet, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase, in the light of what I've been doing as Area Dean. A leader who is also a servant of the people he or she leads, is a leader like Jesus himself. This leadership is not an opportunity to come into a situation with your own brilliant ideas and plans and ambitions, and manipulate everything that happens until you achieve those aims (and all the kudos that goes with success). It is about being with the people you lead as a sharer in their activities, helping them to discover their gifts and possibilities, and to realise them.
In the case of a deanery, I have always believed that the deanery structures exist not to build empires or centralise decision-making, but to help and serve the parishes in their life and mission. In some rural areas, this means sharing resources and even redeploying them where the needs are greater. In the more urban context of Cowley, it has more to do with facilitating communication between the parishes, fostering mutual understanding and love where at some times in the past there has been rivalry and suspicion, and sharing the good story there is to tell about all that God is doing in the churches here in East Oxford. I have been truly impressed with the calibre of the clergy and lay people in the deanery, and the lively nature of church life here. We have a lot to praise God for in all of this!
And now I can claim the triple distinction of being the last ever Rural Dean of Cowley, the only ex-Area Dean, and the only Dean of either description who is still in parish ministry in the deanery! I wish Elaine every blessing as she takes up the task, and ask you all to pray for her and the deanery, that the churches may continue to show forth Jesus by the way they live in the world.
Published in the Marston Times, July 2002