..Chris Rowberry was chosen
This is Petertide - but, of course, you knew that. The feast of St Peter, patron saint of fishermen, is a big weekend for former students of theology at Queen's College, Birmingham, not merely because they are the stuff of a five-part documentary series, The Calling, filmed over two years at the college, which begins tonight on BBC2, but because, for the Anglicans, 29 and 30 June are days of ordination.

Most of the students featured are in their thirties or forties. Most have given up careers and homes, and many uprooted their families to attend Queen's. All of them, in quite different ways, have felt called to serve God.

Monica Mills, a former NHS manager, driving instructor and Catholic, experienced a series of compelling visions after she divorced and remarried. Lucy Winkett, a professional singer, relinquished her traditional middle- class aspirations - "a house, a man and a car" - following the death of her boyfriend. Claude Bailey believes himself "something of a prophet" and has been tipped by a friend to become "the first Desmond Tutu in England."

For Chris Rowberry, 37, one-time social worker, sartorially the most colourful of the group, there was no single event or divine revelation, no direct summons from God, just a slow and sometimes painful journey of the soul.

Ask Chris why he chose the Anglican Church, and he says they have the best clothes. He is joking, of course, but if you had seen him ten days ago, in the vestry at the church of St Dunstan's, in Upton, near Poole in Dorset, after the Wednesday morning Eucharist, you would know how much he will enjoy the dressing up.

Chris and his family - his wife Karen, daughter Hannah, ten, and son Simon, eight - had been in Upton only three days. Chris was in that strange period of limbo, "here and not here": he was a deacon-in-waiting, a Reverend- to-be. Members of the congregation, spotting a newcomer in the back row, might not have known that here was their vicar's new right-hand man. He was as inconspicuous as a six-foot-something, big, bearded man can be. He had favoured for the occasion a pair of jeans and short-sleeved top, and was the very model of understatement. The parishes of Upton and Lytchett Minster, he had nicely judged, were not ready for the psychedelic orange jacket from Boggles in Bath, or the bright mauve, baggy apres-climbing trousers, his "action trousers".

They would have read his ordination card, though, pinned to the notice board, with a sun-and-moon device reflecting his Franciscan sensibilities, and they would have read the lines of a psalm: If I take wings of the morning and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;/Even there also shall thy hand lead me: and thy right hand shall hold me. Chris was invited to reflect upon the psalm on an Ignatian retreat; he stayed with the words for ten days, thought on them, prayed on them. It was one of his most profound spiritual experiences.

"Oh, you're Chris!" said Bill Galpin, a server at the Eucharist, as he removed his cassock and alb. Then he, and fellow server Penny Chilvers, with Joyce Clarke, assistant priest at the Church of the Holy Rood in East Stoke (standing in here for the vicar, Edward Cardale), fell to discussing high church fashion. Bill, one of the older members of the Upton congregation, a repository of church history, a high Anglican, handled the vestments with reverence, talking Chris through them.

"Now, look at these wonderful altar cloths. Look at these chasubles, 50 years old, some of them, sewn by the vicar's wife." Chris looked and looked; he held the chasubles against him, dipping at the knees to study himself in the mirror above the hand basin. He won't be able to wear a chasuble until next year, and even then will usually wear a green one. But the mauve is particularly sensational. (Roll on Lent, 1997! Roll on Advent!) And the red is rather splendid (Roll on Palm Sunday! Roll on Pentecost!) When would one wear the gold one? Christmas and Easter, said Bill, adding proudly, "This is what I call our cloth of gold."

It must be strange, after a lifetime in civvies - years in chef's whites, or in social-worker casuals, to contemplate wearing clerical robes. Still, for the next 12 months, Chris's wardrobe will be relatively modest. He'll have his ordination stole, which was made to his design by the mother of a fellow Queen's student, and features a Franciscan Tau cross (T-shaped), and curling flames to signify the Holy Spirit. He'll be needing, say, three albs (one on, one off, one in the wash). He'll have a black cassock, and a surplice. He has a long black cloak ("I would, wouldn't I?"). And this is not, after all, about narcissism; it's about ceremony and symbolism. You must have to think yourself into it, you must have to be ready to take on the mantle, and to know that it will change the way others regard you. One day you're Joe Bloggs; the next day you're Rev Joe Bloggs. Or, as it might be, Rev Chris Rowberry.

But, then, that was what Queen's was all about. On the practical side, you have to learn how to kneel and stand up in a cassock: how not to walk up the inside of your skirt. And, beyond that, you need a deep and thorough psychological preparation. At college, the students' dedication, as much as their education, is tested; their assumptions are constantly challenged. This can be emotionally devastating.

No one enters lightly into the priesthood. For a start, one in two people who attend an Anglican selection conference is turned away. The chosen ones are sponsored by their diocese, to which they will probably return. Thus, Chris has come to Poole, in the Salisbury diocese. I asked Chris what had drawn him to this sort of parish, to these sorts of people? His response was simple and touching.

"When I came back from selection conference, I felt that what I wanted to be was just a priest for ordinary people. There was a group of people I knew, outside the school gate - there were mums and a few dads - and it made me feel quite emotional. I thought, I just want to be priest to these people, to baptise, to marry, to bury them, and to do the sacrament for them."

Then, how had he come, in a figurative sense, to this "place"? How had he come to the ministry? He was baptised into the Congregational Church (now the United Reformed Church). For some years he went with his parents and sister Jude to a Methodist Church, but by and by they stopped attending. He joined the Scouts, went to Parades Days at the local Presbyterian Church, where the preacher leaned out of his high pulpit to breathe fire and brimstone, but, frankly, Chris's withers were unwrung.

In adolescence he tuned into Radio Luxembourg, and learned to smoke. His school career had been patchy. He is slightly dyslexic; at ten he needed private tuition in reading. He still has trouble with "colonel", might write "curtain" for "certain", and believes that all teachers go about armed with red pens.

Infants' and junior school in Birmingham were not fun for him. He spent the best part of two years, at junior school, digging moss out from between the flagstones - a peculiar punishment devised by the head. But when he moved on to comprehensive school, with the arrival of a dynamic young headmaster, life improved. "One of the first things he did was to hold a cake-baking competition, and out of 16 entrants, 14 were boys." While the girls, in domestic science lessons, continued to learn to launder a pillow case or souse a herring, the boys were baking jacket potatoes and whipping up maids of honour. "We got the mickey taken out of us unmercifully, but as soon as we started making cakes and biscuits, it was 'All right, Chris? Er, can I have a cake?' This headmaster really wanted to get the school buzzing, so he invited all the heads of the local schools in, and we served them dinner; we learnt silver service. And I got really hooked on it."

The Rowberry family then moved to Dawlish, in Devon, which to Chris was "like a dream". He kept bees in the garden. He found new friends who loved walking, and the outdoor life. They would nip into the pub to do some under-age drinking, then go down to the beach, light fires, read poetry, sing Donovan songs as someone strummed the guitar; they would try to catch the wind.

At home, Chris burned joss sticks and got blissed out listening to Tubular Bells. He spattered the place with "Jesus Loves You" stickers. He began to explore his spirituality.

At 16, he left school to work for a year as a junior confectioner, before training for a diploma in catering at South Devon Technical College. He dreamed of becoming the next Sir Charles Forte. Had he not been called, we might have had a Rowberry's on every high street, theme restaurants, jackets 'n' cakes.

He went on to become head chef at a motel, serving 60 or 70 covers. Head chef? "There was me and a kitchen porter." Perhaps his heart wasn't in it. He had become a Samaritan, and was giving more to his counselling than to his casseroles. He would forget to order mushrooms; customers could whistle for their champignons a la grecque. He drove his perfectionist employer to distraction. They made him redundant.

Meanwhile, in Chris's personal life, all was not well. He refers to the years from age 18 to 23 as his "turbulent period". He had discovered women, discovered sex; he was very promiscuous, and miserable as sin. He kept saying to God, "If you want me to change my ways, give me a sign. Er, let somebody give me something." Then, maybe a friend would buy him a drink, and he'd think, "Is this it? Is this the sign? No, it can't be."

An older woman, one of his lovers, perceiving that he needed someone to straighten him out, and hearing him grumble that there were no nice girls in town, said, oh, he ought to meet Karen. "She told me that Karen was interested in doing voluntary work, so I brought some leaflets down. And when I met her, I was besotted. I'd never been besotted before."

And was Karen besotted, in her turn? "Apparently. Although I can't think why, because when I get nervous, I bounce."

Karen, a committed Christian, seems clever, humorous, strong-minded. Gently but firmly, she turned Chris around. She sat him down on the beach at Seaton and told him, "You have 40 more years of working life. What are you going to do?"

For his part, Chris knew that here was the woman he wanted to marry. They became engaged, and four months later she went off to India for 11 months with VSO. He still has her 105 letters; she still has all his. A month after she came home, they were married.

When she encouraged him in the Christian faith, Karen could not have known how absolutely Chris would embrace it. His first calling was to social work: he placed children with adoptive parents, and dealt with child abuse cases. He then became a tertiary Franciscan. He was enamoured of the Californian Creation Spirituality movement. Then his bosses told him to remove his "God is Love" badge, to leave his Christian principles at home, and he just couldn't. Of course he would not evangelise, but it is in the very nature of faith that it goes with you.

Whether or not she would have wished Chris to become a priest, though, Karen could not quarrel with his choice. In a way, she was in something of a bind. As he puts it, "If you're both believing Christians, and your partner is going to train as a priest, and you believe, also, that your partner has been called, how can you argue? The question is: how can you argue with God?"

Karen has, from the start, made accommodations and compromises. "It's been me who's led the way," says Chris. "When Karen went to India, she left me with this task, to find what I would do for the next 40 years. When she came back, I went to train as a social worker for two years, on a very small grant, and she worked and supported us for two years."

At the height of his social work career, as a youth officer, Chris earned around pounds 17,000. Karen was earning almost as much. At Queen's, the family was back to living on a student grant, in family accommodation at the college, although in the last five months Karen found wonderfully fulfilling work as assistant to a special needs co-ordinator.

In Upton, they must get by, for the time being at least, on Chris's modest stipend. Last week Karen embarked on a search for employment. The job situation looked a bit bleak.

It's not just about money, of course. She made it clear, when she and Chris were both interviewed by the Bishop of Salisbury, that she wasn't going to be Mrs Curate; she wasn't going to be Mrs Deacon. She'll help Chris, naturally, but I don't think she'll be sewing altar cloths.

She is happy with the semi-detached house that comes with Chris's new role; she saw it twice before they moved here, and decided that it suited (which was just as well, as there was no alternative). She is glad that they have a big garden.

The front room is Chris's office, where he calls up the latest messages and discussions from the Alternative Worship News Group on the Internet, or taps out a sermon on his palm-top computer ("It's got a little, dinky memory - a bit like me"). The children are settling into their new schools - again. They are accepting of their changed circumstances. "What choice do they have?" asks Chris. Simon's only comment, on leaving Queen's, was, "It's a shame you're going to be a vicar now, Dad, because we won't see so much of you."

It must at moments seem daunting to both Chris and Karen, that this new life, the priesthood, is for ever. Karen might have had an easier time of it married to the owner of Chris's Spuds 'n' Puds chain, than to the Rev Rowberry. Just the same, at 5.30pm today, when she witnesses his ordination in Salisbury Cathedral, she will be very proud

Comments