Roses round the door - and blood on the doorstep

Clergy sent to run-down city centres are unprepared for the risks they and their families run
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The Independent Online
For more than 10 years, I lived in a magical house within walking distance of central London. It had eight bedrooms, huge, high-ceilinged reception rooms, a spiral staircase, stained glass windows, a modern kitchen and a wonderful, enclosed garden with an Albertine rose climbing 30 feet up an old brick wall. We had freehold rights to it, and it did not cost us a penny.

It was an Anglican vicarage located in the poorest ward of the poorest borough in Britain. Around this rather wonderful example of Victorian Gothic fantasy was a wasteland of council housing, a community which was disintegrating: wracked with crime, unemployment, poverty, alienation, and alcohol and drug abuse. There was a level of casual violence here that nothing had prepared me for. My husband, the vicar, went one day to make a visit related to a baptism and noticed a sawn-off shotgun lying on the table. The baby's mother told her man to put it away "because the vicar is here", so he pushed it under the sofa.

We laughed. We went on laughing, in fact, for most of the time we lived there; there is not much else you can do, and anyway I loved it. It is only now, afterwards, living in the country and reading about Christopher Gray and Anthony Couchman, inner-city clergy killed and wounded on the job, that I realise how frightened I ought to have been. For the vicar, for the children and for myself.

I got shot at once, as a matter of fact, with a .22 rifle, through he window of my study. That was scary, but it was also arbitrary and pointless - the assailant was drug-freaked, and certainly without any personal malice. More frightening was the experience of coming home to find a great deal of blood all over the front door steps, apparently flowing from under the door. It was not, in fact: there had been a knife fight on the doorstep. Or the time when it transpired, following a minor burglary, that both the children individually had encountered the thief on the stairs, and said polite hellos to him: they were so used to strangers. (An interesting side-effect of their immersion in the local community was that when the police asked them to describe the intruder they both knew what he was wearing in some detail, but neither had noticed whether he was black or white.)

We went on believing in an "open house" policy, but over the years we became more cautious - or less committed; more aware - or less holy. Gradually we acquired basic precautions: a chain on the door, an insistence that the children use it, a burglar alarm, spikes on the garden wall, window grilles; though often it was our insurers' growing reluctance, rather than our good sense, that dictated these developments. And none of these things would have protected anyone from the panicked ring on the bell at night; from the disconcerting realisation that the person you are giving a cup of tea to is simply insane; from the very angry, or the totally desperate.

We would have gone there anyway, I think, even if we had been better prepared. But the lack of warning and support seems, retro- spectively, terrifying. The training my husband went through did not include self- preservation. We needed teaching, not just about physical danger but also about more delicate issues. No one ever spoke about what it meant for children to go to a primary school in which they would be the only child in socioeconomic groups A/B/C1/C2. When I asked my 15-year-old what was the best thing about his father not being a vicar any more, he said, "not being the vicar's kid in school".

The gentlemanly liberalism of the Church of England does not like to talk about class: but it matters. Our children were torn apart by divergent standards. We were once called to my daughter's secondary school by a perplexed headteacher, who had threatened all sorts of extreme horrors in punishment for some minor infringement, and then demanded that the perpetrators "own up". Middle-class ethics dictated that my daughter publicly confess, but refuse to name other names. The head said that no one had ever owned up like that, and she had committed herself to such severity only as a way of making clear to the undetectable offenders the seriousness of the offence.

Less amusingly, a primary school teacher once told us self-righteously, "I did not come to the East End to teach children like yours."

Not many clergy have a background that truly enables them to realise what they are going to. Inner-city ministry carries kudos; it is also a recognised step on the ladder of promotion. The unfortunate sentimentality about "front-line heroes" does not help. There is a further problem with training clergy: although they acquire very few useful survival skills, they tend to acquire considerable arrogance; a failure to know what they do not know, and therefore to know when to seek help. No one, without proper psychiatric training, and within a protective institution, should be "counselling" anyone at 1.30am; pro- tecting, talking to, seeking support for, calming down, perhaps - but counselling ...

In any case, there really is no choice about being there. If the clergy believe they are there to embody Christ, then they will just have to push on with open-door, all-hour, on-the-spot, high-contact, risky ministry. After all, He did.

I do not regret any of it. I miss it sometimes. I learned a lot. It was worth the risk - it was even worth the risk to the children. The roses were so beautiful, and the good bits - the warmth, the affection, even some of the high expectations and unearned respect - were very good indeed. After all, you can get killed and raped and maimed almost anywhere, but spiral staircases with moral kudos and a pension are hard to come by.

I could not help but notice that the Bishop of Barking, chair of a bishops' advisory group on urban priority areas, said that there was a "danger" that there might come a time when priests would have to leave the inner cities. That is the point of divergence: they can leave; the other victims of the violence bred of deprivation cannot. It is tragic when a priest is killed or maimed, but only because it is tragic that anyone is so killed or maimed. If the Church of England - or any other Christian group - wants to protect clergy from these dangers, it should be more seriously engaged in ending endemic slum poverty in our inner cities, not in thinking about how to get out.

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