Gallery: Ipswich’s Rev Andrew Dotchin, an avid Facebook fan, tells how we uses social media to talk about his love of bacon...and be reflective

South East Ipswich Safer Neighbourhood Team Loan Shark Week.
Sid the Shark meets Rev Andrew Dotchi

South East Ipswich Safer Neighbourhood Team Loan Shark Week. Sid the Shark meets Rev Andrew Dotchin, at Whitton Church Ipswich to talk about the dangers of loan sharks - Credit: Archant

It’s over coffee with bacon and cheese turn-overs that Andrew Dotchin starts to tell his fascinating life story.

James Marston meets Ipswich's Cyber Vicar Rev. Andrew Dotchin

James Marston meets Ipswich's Cyber Vicar Rev. Andrew Dotchin - Credit: Lucy Taylor

Born in March, Cambridgeshire, the son of a submariner, Andrew was baptized on board HMS Narvik in Grand Harbour Valetta in Malta and spent his early years in a variety of places as his family followed a succession of Royal Naval postings.

He said: “I went to the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook when I was 11. It was the first time I had lived any length of time in one place.”

And it was at school he first began to get interested in the church.

He said: “I used to help the Chaplain as it was a way of getting out of marching around the parade ground.”

With science A-levels, he started a career in the pharmaceutical world.

He said: “We moved to South Africa when my father joined the South African navy when I was about 19. Within two days of arriving we realised it was a mistake to have moved to such a racist place.”

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Working in the quality control department of a chocolate factory and then in the mining and printing industry in his early 20s, Andrew met his wife-to-be Lesley-Anne while on a three month secondment to Johannesburg.

He said: “Knowing I needed to enter the church at some point, I told her that before our relationship grew deeper further that might happen.

“Fortunately she shared a call with me to serve others in church life and she said ‘Yes’.”

At the age of 30 Andrew went to study to join the priesthood in a seminary in a black residential area of Natal.

He said: “It was illegal for white people to live in black areas at that time. I found it very exciting to be living in a mixed community finding out more about the country from the viewpoint of black people.

“I learned a valuable lesson, not to always be the first person to speak because I can tend to be a bit mouthy.”

Ordained in 1984, Andrew’s first parish was in the Eastern Transvaal.

He said: “The college where I studied had a long tradition of resisting apartheid. This meant the Security Police would raid it from time to time.”

After three years in the Eastern Transvaal, Andrew moved to one of the wealthiest parishes in the country in Johannesburg – an area that put into stark contrast the difference between the lives of the rich and those of the poor.

He said: “The parishioners there were good people. They had classic liberal views but from the position of wealth. They all had house staff and gardeners but they didn’t realise the grind that was the life of other people.”

Andrew’s stance against apartheid brought him to the attention of the regime’s authorities as his career developed.

He said: “I was working in a parish called Belgravia in Johannesburg. It was an area originally built for the mine owners but 100 years later it had declined and was an area of mixed white and black population. I began to perform mixed marriages which were illegal at the time.”

The country’s racial laws meant the church secretly kept two sets of marriage registers – one they showed the authorities and one they didn’t.

A campaigner against forced conscription, Andrew said: “I was arrested four times. I also had a spy in my congregation and was followed.”

But it was through his sense of purpose that Andrew said he found satisfaction and the ability to face the dangers.

He said: “I was working with men like Desmond Tutu, a truly holy man who I am proud to call a friend.”

In the early 1990s South Africa began to change.

Andrew said: “I wasn’t South African but to make sure every resident was counted in I managed to get a vote in the first elections. I voted for the ANC. It was a wonderful time and a real joy to see South Africa becoming African.”

At the end of 2000 Andrew and his family decided to come back to the UK.

He said: “We wanted our sons to find out about their heritage here in the UK. I had two options at the time, one to move to Cape Town or to work in England. We decided to come back and I worked for three years in churches around Halesworth.”

Andrew said there were huge differences between his work in South Africa and Suffolk. But not everything was different, He said: “Across the world the parish system is the same though the actual work is different. So the work was familiar to me and I loved being a team vicar.”

After a few years Andrew decided he wanted to return to an urban parish and Whitton was vacant.

He said: “In terms of population Whitton is one of the biggest parishes in Suffolk.

“The people here are very real, what you see is what you get.

“It is exciting to live and work here. It is amongst the 10% most deprived areas in the UK but there are honest people here. I refuse to accept the Benefits Street or Vicky Pollard stereotypes of people living in social housing. Every single mother I know is working as hard as she can for her kids.”

Andrew said education is the best way to improve the lives of those living in difficult conditions.

He said: “It’s not about formal qualifications it is about raising aspirations and enablement. People say they have lost the sense of community across the UK and that is why places like churches and parish halls are so important and often where that community spirit is coming back again.”

Andrew said baptisms are a favourite and important part of his work.

He said: “We usually get about 150 people at a baptism. People still turn to the church at those transitional moments in life like weddings, baptisms and funerals. That is the job of a vicar, to help people express the things they can’t express at those times. Much of the job is about holding these important times for people. The church has got to be open for people at those moments.”

An avid Facebook user, Andrew has grasped the advantages of social media in his ministry.

The 58-year-old said: “The gospels are all about communicating. I used Facebook to engage with the community. I can talk about my love of bacon but I can also be reflective. Each day everyone needs to laugh so I might post something funny. I have occasionally ‘named and shamed’ when unhelpful things have happened in the community . I want to say it’s ok to do things for other people. I try to be the vicar not just for those who come to church but also for everyone who lives in the parish.”

An anti-apartheid campaigner, it comes as no surprise Andrew is in favour of women bishops.

He said: “I voted for women bishops in South Africa twenty years ago and came back and found myself doing it again. It is painful to see a woman so obviously called to ministry and have the church say ‘no’. Being a bishop isn’t a gender specific role.”

Andrew is also prepared to put his head over the parapet on the issue of gay marriage.

He said: “My experience of how lesbian and gay people are treated in Suffolk is one where people are usually gentle and accepting “don’t ram your rainbow flag down my throat and I shan’t interfere in your life.”.

“Some people don’t like the fact that I have been involved in organising Suffolk Pride but I’ll do it again.

“The church itself has recommended that we welcome and celebrate lesbian and gay people into the congregations. The bishops have fudged the issue and we now have an awkward situation where clergy cannot be ordained if they are in a same sex marriage but can have a civil partnership. We are in a position of don’t ask don’t tell at the moment.”

“Marriage is about faithfulness, it isn’t about sex or children, it is a covenant between two people. I look forward to the day when gay men and women can be married in a church.”

Now a grandfather, Andrew says away from his work he likes a beer in his local the Man on the Moon and enjoys helping his eldest son with his hang-gliding hobby.