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Meet Caroline Pinchbeck, Diocese of Canterbury

PUBLISHED: 08:59 19 February 2016 | UPDATED: 08:59 19 February 2016

More tea, vicar? Caroline Pinchbeck

More tea, vicar? Caroline Pinchbeck

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

The director of communities and partnerships for the Diocese of Canterbury on a fixed date for Easter, community hubs and the training value of The Vicar of Dibley

She got her calling at the age of six in her parish church in Lincolnshire and, nearly 40 years later, the memory is as vivid as it was life changing.

“It was All Saints Day, 1976, at a school service and our vicar was celebrating by the high altar. It was just that moment, a sense of vision: that’s what I’m going to do, it was as simple as that. It’s characterised my life really, I have these moments of clarity.”

Caroline Pinchbeck and I are chatting in her attic offices next to the Archbishop’s Palace, overlooking glorious Canterbury Cathedral. Today she holds the position of director of communities and partnerships for the Diocese of Canterbury and the role is as diverse as the title suggests.

Caroline goes out into the community and builds relationships, particularly with communities in rural Kent. She works with several secular organisations, such as Visit Kent and Produced in Kent, putting people in touch with organisations they need, and brokering relationships to bring people together. She is a locum priest for parishes in the diocese without clergy and also performs weddings, baptisms and funerals.

Busy is an understatement, but she shrugs off the comment in typical down-to-earth style, her regional accent unchanged despite her many years in Kent. “I’m Lincolnshire born and bred, a Fenlander, so I always tell people that we have webbed hands and feet, which is quite helpful! It’s where my home and heart is – it’s always a sense of place whenever I go back.”

The Garden of England, however, is very much her second home now and she is recognised wherever she goes. “Often I am the most visible presence of the church, because I am wearing the collar. The team were laughing the other week because we were at something and I was in mufti but I still got recognised. Even without the collar people know who I am. In one sense it’s convenient, because it gets conversations going.”

Caroline learnt very early on in life the value of conversations. Having joined the local Methodist Church at ‘12 or 13’ (“that’s where my brother went and it was village politics really to do so”), at 17 she felt a call to ministry.

“My priest said I was too young, so I went to Durham university in 1990 to study theology instead – at the time it was the place to go after Oxford and Cambridge – and the church, school and I decided if I came out an atheist, well that was OK too!”

Faith intact, she then worked in Reading as a residential social worker for a charitable Trust set up for ex-offenders. It was a real baptism of fire for a young 21 year old.

“Many had committed serious crimes such as murder and had been in for a very long stretch. I remember going into work one day and thinking about what people had done, but then thinking – they all have names and it’s there but for the grace of God … it was only a set of 
circumstances that had driven them.

“They could strip the veneer off you in 24 hours and I think that is the best thing I learnt, there was no protection. Now I just think, I have to be who I am, no pretence. That was the first lesson. The second was you might have moved someone on one step but then they could go back another two.”

Then came a call to action in the form of a letter from her superintendent saying if she was thinking about training for the church, then she should do it now.

Caroline “went back home where people knew me” and worked in the library service and a book shop. She started training as a methodist minister at Cambridge in the mid 1990s, later transferring to the Church of England.

A move to Cornwall in 2000 to look after six churches saw her in the midst of the foot and mouth epidemic, which affected all the communities she was serving. It’s a time that gave her some of the hardest, most poignant Sunday services she’s ever taken, but it’s also a time she describes as a real ‘privilege.’

“Nobody could move, everybody was in it and the church became the central point of people’s lives, where they could all come together.”

After six years in the Truro diocese, Caroline transferred to Kent to become parish priest at Eastling near Faversham. “Kent was one of the very few places in the UK I’d not been to regularly and didn’t know. Most of my friends thought I was completely mad, moving up from Cornwall – the perception was that it was industrial.

“Even people who love in Kent often don’t appreciate all its attributes. Kent is the Gateway to both Europe and to England and historically, socially and culturally it has so much to offer.”

A passionate advocate now for her borrowed county, after six happy years as curate in a very busy community, Caroline applied for her current job. “I’d just come out of curacy and thought it was a bit of a long shot but for some reason they gave it to me!”

Starting in 2011 with a part-time PA (now there is a core team of four, nine externally funded posts and a ‘whole raft’ of volunteer support) plus “a lot of rural experience to bring to the role,” and the diocese’s many existing partnerships, it was her role to develop more.

That has certainly happened, with 228 and counting now, ranging from civic parish councils, schools and heritage groups to Kent County Council, Action with Communities in Rural Kent, Visit Kent and Produced in Kent.

There are also multiple national church networks and international organisations to work with on projects such as aid, and as a diocese there are European connections and an exotic-sounding Diocesan link with the Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean, covering Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Home may be in Blean but she is often on her travels.

Easter is approaching and I am interested in Caroline’s view on a fixed date, as we have for Christmas. She’s not keen. “I like the edginess of it as it is,” she says. “I think people miss out on the progression of Easter – I always love it on Psalm Sunday because you can read the whole narrative and it is one of the most moving and poignant services annually that I take.

“It always astonishes me, after the first two minutes everyone in the congregation settles down and then always there is just complete silence – you can hear a pin drop – and it is the only time really that you hear that whole story in one go. I like that journey, but there is always that challenge: how many of us would not deny that we would have been shouting ‘Hosanna’ one minute and then ‘crucify him’ the next?

“On Good Friday when we hear the passage where the centurion says ‘truly this man was the Son of God,’ it gets me every time. I love Easter Day too, but I do think as a church that we do the emotion of Easter really well.”

There is much to challenge and engage Caroline, but does she hanker for more: are we looking a future Bishop, for example? She smiles. “You only think about a move if you feel undervalued or unchallenged and I do have an awful lot of freedom in the job market because I’m single. I was with some people recently who are predominantly married and felt unable to move because of their children. I don’t have that, I could go anywhere.

“At the moment I am very happy and there is a lot going on. In my head I thought I would always just be a parish priest, and that’s what I see for the next 25 years. I go into our parishes every Sunday and I always do two or three services and it’s actually very useful to see how the different buildings work as a place of worship.

“At the end of the day, my vocation is to be a minister of the Word and Sacrament. That’s my first calling; everything else is added on.”

I am intrigued if there is any aspect of her role that Caroline finds particularly challenging, and if there’s anything she misses. She admits: “Sermons are not my natural inclination, you always have that moment of nerves – it’s a bit like that sweet spot in tennis, when you get it right it’s really right. You have to temper what you deliver and you never give the same sermon, the size of the congregation – it could be 200 or just a handful – and the building itself can alter everything. We are not trained in oratory either.

“I miss preparing people for confirmation, because you journey with people on their spiritual voyage, but I do everything else still.”

I rather hesitantly bring up Vicar of Dibley comparisons, but Caroline isn’t remotely offended, quite the opposite: “I always use it when we are training ordinands; the best episode is the district councillor elections one when Geraldine clashes with David Horton.

“You do often have to eat cakes which are really quite unsavoury but that is the nature of the job, you do have to listen to people who go on and on and on like Frank Pickle and you have to have a lot of patience. The programme is actually very true to how a community is like, a real snapshot. One of our fortes is cups of tea.”

What is she most proud of to date? Caroline has no hesitation. “The Community Hubs, where we have Credit Unions, food banks, etc – we are just starting our fourth. There’s a DNA to the project, but they all have different needs and different communities. Kent is Delicious remains one of our biggest successes – it’s our fifth year now, it keeps growing, changing and evolving and every year there are new partners.

“Sometimes I feel I go into communities, put in a hand grenade and get them all excited. That’s what I really enjoy.”

Find out more

For the Diocese of Canterbury’s new links with Kent Life’s Garden of the Year Awards, turn to pages xxx to xxx.

Follow Caroline on @RuralCanterbury

My Favourite Kent

Favourite Kent places

I like the coast, the marshes, looking across the Weald – that wonderful view from Chartwell.

Favourite Canterbury place

Inevitably I will say the Cathedral – I go so often but I see something new every time, the way the light falls, the time of day. You have to remember that when the cathedral was built ordinary people were living in mud huts, people literally gave their lives to build it and it was a real labour of love.

Things to do

I enjoy doing my garden, visiting my various godchildren around the country, spending time with my nieces and nephews (she has a sister and two brothers).

Going out

I’ll go to a local pub if I’m out walking with friends, but I always meet someone I know.

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