Have dog collar, will travel: Counselling, dance workshops, conflict resolution, arbitration, exorcism . . . Jim White meets the country's first freelance vicar

IF YOU want to get married in a stately home, have your child baptised in the front room or bury your dog under the pear tree in the garden, and want your local Church of England vicar to conduct the proceedings, to add a little reverence to the affair, you will get a simple answer when you approach him to check his availability. It will be based on the words 'can't do'.

Until now, that is. Jonathan Blake, 38, the country's first freelance vicar, will do this sort of thing for you, no problem. He is, for instance, marrying a couple in a ceremony on the cliffs overlooking the Kent seaside resort of Herne Bay next week: 'I could get my robes blown about a bit,' he said.

According to the glossy brochure Mr Blake has just produced detailing his services, he also offers 'a wide range of ministry' including confession, counselling, listening, dance and diction workshops, conflict resolution and arbitration. And exorcism, he'll do that too, for his standard fee of pounds 30 an hour. If you want him to wear glittering ceremonial finery while doing any of the above, he'll do it; if you prefer your clergy in a suit, he'll wear one; if you asked him to dress as a pirate, he's happy to oblige. In this orbit, the client is king.

'The Church has completely lost its ability to help and heal people in their own environment, to ask them what they want out of an event, to enable them to enter into the planning,' said Mr Blake, in the garden of his modest suburban home in Kent, where he has a colony of domestic rabbits jovially excavating a warren under his garage. 'If you like, what I have done here is spotted a gap in the market.'

Spotted a gap in the market? This is not standard Church of England talk.

But it appears Mr Blake might be right. Since he launched himself as a self-employed sermon-giver and freelance funeral conductor at the beginning of this month, he has been inundated with work. During the course of this interview, his answering machine nearly exploded tackling the inquiries.

It was about three years ago that Mr Blake became aware of the fissure in the market which an ordained priest, working outside the confines of the Church of England, might address. He had a parish in south-east London, the usual run-down kind of place where no more than a dozen people attended matins on a Sunday. He thought that in order to make it a more satisfactory centre to the community he needed a few more regulars. So he went out to find them.

'The trouble is that the Church seems to have confused the mysteries of Christian faith with mysterious procedure,' he said, picking his way through rabbit droppings. 'It is almost masonic in the way it does things. A parish priest is restricted to what he can or can't say from the pulpit by a rigid belief structure enforced by the hierarchy. I found I was selling to people an institution in which I had lost all faith.'

One of the things he did in his church was to baptise the children from neighbouring parishes whose own vicar had refused to perform the ceremony because their parents were not regular churchgoers. In the process he incurred the displeasure of his bishop, who accused him of undermining his colleagues' integrity.

'There was me thinking baptism was about spreading the word,' he said. 'But I soon learnt it was about keeping it in the family. On one occasion, when I was conducting a baptism like that, one of the parents said to me, 'With the sort of views you hold, why are you trying to get us into church?'. That made me think. Basically I was delivering company policy at the cost of my own belief.'

At the same time his marriage was collapsing, a victim, he says, of the pressure a parish priest has to endure.

'I was unable to concentrate on bread-and-butter ministry because I was expected to act as accountant, caterer, clerk of works; I was immersed in petty politics. And your family life? You don't have any. Your privacy is constantly trespassed.'

When his marriage broke up and he was left with custody of two small children, he realised he could no longer remain in charge of a parish. He left the ministry and spent a year working as a financial adviser, which gave him more time to look after his children. But there was this God thing; he couldn't get it out of his system.

'My faith was undiminished, despite the experience. My understanding was if you are ordained, it's for life. I took legal advice and it seemed I was entitled to practise outside the jurisdiction of the established church. It seemed I could do the sort of work I was best equipped for outside its narrow confines.'

One thing he will not do, however, is bible bash.

'The church is so old-fashioned, but it thinks the only way to modernise is to go evangelical. It is such a limiting response. There is a liberal interpretation of the bible that makes sense, real sense. But the kind of people to whom it makes sense are put off by the church, either because it is so moribund or because of the evangelical approach which is so cliquey and childish. These are the people I think will find my approach appealing.'

The problem is, though, he is expecting them to pay for it. Vicars usually do this sort of thing for free. Is not the fact that he will financially profit a fundamental flaw to his ministry?

'First, you do pay for church services: funerals cost, weddings cost,' he said. 'And it has become a joke, hasn't it, that during these services the vicar will stand up and ask you to put money in the plate. I think it is better to sit down and say, 'This will cost so much', be upfront about it before you start. Also, I think it is a much better approach than those phoney American evangelists who say: 'My services are free, but if you like my work, make a donation'. And the implication is the bigger the donation, the better the chance of salvation. Anyway, at pounds 30 an hour, it is clear my intention is not to get rich quick.'

But isn't his brochure just a little too slick? 'The church is laughed at for being quaint and old-fashioned and useless. When someone behaves professionally, produces a nicely printed brochure, talks openly about charges, people are suspicious of his motives. I like to do things properly and people will find my services very professional.'

If you want to contact Rev Jonathan Blake BA (Hons) Dip Pastoral Studies (as his brochure says), he is available every day, including Sundays. 'That is the best thing about what I do now,' he said. 'I don't have to go to church.

I haven't stepped foot in one for over a year. What a liberating experience that has been.'

Jonathan Blake can be contacted on 01634 262920.

(Photograph omitted)

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