Church regulations and limited resources can be frustrating says bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
PUBLISHED: 16:12 10 September 2017 | UPDATED: 16:12 10 September 2017
The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich the Rt Rev Martin Seeley talks about inheriting his love of the sea from his naval father, the challenges of rural parishes and his admiration for the region’s farmers.
The first interesting question is do I have free time, laughs the bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Rt Rev Martin Seeley. With 478 church buildings and 454 parishes combined into 125 benefices, I’m surprised he does.
A student in Cambridge in the early 1970s, he’s always been attracted to East Anglia. Working in the region wasn’t a career goal, but he’s glad he’s here.
“I’m really grateful to be near the sea, having a father in the navy growing up. I do enjoy the coast, popping up to Dunwich, Aldeburgh or South Cove. I enjoy travelling around, popping into farm shops, appreciating the local produce and really valuing the fact you can pretty much live off what we produce in Suffolk. That’s wonderfully attractive for us as a family.
“Getting to know some of the farmers and recognising the incredible challenges they face and the ingenuity with which they face them, one of the eye openers for me has been that creativity and resilience of the farming community and the fishermen.”
His teenage children are both musical, so the place they go most often is Snape Maltings.
“That’s both to see them perform in various school events; my daughter’s also in the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. We go to Aldeburgh Festival concerts and so forth and it’s just a fabulous location and space with amazing performances.”
Bishop Martin was born in Portsmouth and raised in Fareham, where his 91-year-old father still lives. He’s been in Ipswich two-and-a-bit years, having previously spent time in Cambridge as the principal of the theological college Westcott House.
He’s previously worked at the Advisory Board of Ministry and secretary for continuing ministerial education in Westminster, where he was responsible for the selection and training of people for ordination. He’s also spent time working in parishes in Manhattan, New York; and running a ecumenical educational institution in St Louis, Missouri.
“I grew up in a church family. When I was five my father was churchwarden so it was very much a part of our life. I had this sense that God was up to something with me when I was about 15. That fairly quickly developed into a sense of being called to ordination.”
While many of his friends were wondering what were they going to do their lives Bishop Martin found it very liberating to know for him, that question had pretty much been sorted out.
“I think the doubts I had are doubts that persist, which were doubts about ‘you’ve picked the wrong person, surely not me, I can’t possibly do this’. Even at that early point, where however much I felt I was the wrong person there was something that felt good and inevitable about it. So I didn’t resist it. I’ve resisted various things about the church itself as an organisation, but not about this particular relationship with God.”
The church, he adds, can often seem very controlling and, at times very demanding, with huge expectations of its clergy.
“I found myself getting frustrated either with rules and regulations or with the limitation of resources, particularly for parish clergy. Part of that is a faith test, you realise you actually can’t do this on your own and do need to rely not just on God but on other people. It’s an interesting organisation. What makes it quite complicated but also quite attractive to work in is that as a parish priest you do have a great deal of autonomy but that goes hand in hand with not having much resource.
“One of the most important qualities for anybody who’s ordained is to be able to form good relationships with a whole range of people. I’ve been ordained for nearly 40 years so I’ve seen huge changes in the church. Part of what enables you to thrive in that is being able to change and adapt, being flexible and willing to learn.”
What he’s found so extraordinary is the zig zaggy route his career’s taken. Every job has been a surprise, including becoming bishop.
“Certainly for me, you don’t go around thinking ‘ooh I’d like to be a bishop’. It needs other people to persuade you it might be possible. I got the phone call; I remember on a Thursday night in October a couple of years ago, that I’d been appointed. Then you do embrace it... even though I still think ‘ooh did they pick the right person’, nevertheless I feel ‘okay, I’m meant to be here’. There is a sense we believe God places us in the positions we’re in and that ‘God called me to this’.”
It’s a strange job, because you haven’t got a community of people you live and work among in the way when you’re a vicar and you’ve got a village or a town.
“I’ve got a huge number of parishes scattered across Suffolk and lots of clergy and I have a responsibility to support and care for all of them so that makes it quite complicated. I love being here, it’s a wonderful county. It’s very different from what I was experiencing before. I’ve not lived in a largely rural context before, but I’m constantly learning and really value being here.”
Prior to moving to Cambridge he was the vicar of the Isle of Dogs in the Diocese of London, a big urban parish that was, and still is, facing huge challenges and changes.
“The interesting thing is there are some similarities (between the needs of rural and urband parishes). Many of the rural parishes are pressed for resources, human and financial. Just like I found in the inner urban parishes, they are deeply immersed in the life of their communities; the life of the church and the life of the village interconnect.
“The people who participate in the life of the church are there, among other things, to serve the needs of the village, to care for people in the community and that’s absolutely vital for me, that the church exists for sharing God’s love, however you do that, for everybody in the community.”
Working in urban parishes, you’re close to lots of people who are easily accessible. That’s not the case in their rural counterparts.
“Communications like public transport and broadband are a huge challenge but I have found amazing creativity and ingenuity in communities and churches across Suffolk, helping make life better for people in all sorts of ways,” says Bishop Martin.
“But it seems hard for people in one place to learn about good ideas going on in another place, maybe only a few miles away. Some of that is about geography and some is the other side of the ‘self-reliance’ coin. Sometimes I get a bit frustrated thinking if only we could think a bit differently about this.”
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