Interview with former archdeacon on life, his new parish and the Church

The Venerable Adrian Harbidge at The Rectory

The Venerable Adrian Harbidge at The Rectory

The volcano was ‘incredible’ but the sermon was ‘rubbish’ – the sermon, given at sea, ten miles south of Las Palmas, was the first the Venerable Adrian Harbidge ever gave. Now in his mid-sixties, and some forty years on from his first sermon, he and his wife are the occupants of The Rectory in Seale, Surrey.

It is not every day that a former archdeacon takes over as priest-in-charge of a quiet, rural parish.  An archdeacon, according to Adrian Guy Harbidge, is sometimes called the ‘Bishop’s Rottweiler’ or ‘the crook at the top of the Bishop’s staff’.

There is little about the man opposite that reminds me of either. He is over six foot with features sketched from Quentin Blake  –  more Big Friendly Giant than Rottweiler.

He says he wanted to be ordained from the age of twelve – the age at which he met the twins, Michael and Peter Ball, monks in the Community of the Glorious Ascension. ‘’They were different monks because they did standing jumps on to kitchen tables.  They had a great sense of fun”.   The brothers, one his mathematics teacher, encouraged him through confirmation and on to study theology at Durham University.

Durham included a happy entanglement with the Newcastle-based West-Watson sisters but left him with little knowledge of ‘the world’.  His solution, on graduation, was to join the Elder Dempster shipping company as a purser on a three-year contract.  “I had no idea where I was going … All the officers talked Liverpool and the crew were Nigerian.”

A fascination with timeworn pewter tankards has never left him

A fascination with timeworn pewter tankards has never left him

The ships operated mainly along the coast of West Africa.  The voyages exposed Harbidge to Biafran War examples of boundary and tribal tensions; to corruption; to ship’s captain leadership; and to letters from the West-Watson sister that really mattered.

Sea duty complete he returned to England to train at Cuddesdon in Oxford.  He married Bridget West-Watson and was ordained in 1975.  His first appointment was as curate at Romsey Abbey.  It was a grand start but it was his next parish in Bournemouth that highlighted his skill with statistics.  Here he proved that the neighbouring parish had a quarter the population it thought it had.

In 1986 he was moved to Chandler’s Ford, the biggest ordinary parish in the diocese.  He stayed until 1999.   “I did a lot at Chandler’s Ford.  We used to say one crisis a week.”  There were also eight services on a Sunday and as many as four weddings on a Saturday.

By 2000 he had been appointed Archdeacon of Bournemouth, working with more statistics and the challenges of fundraising.   He had also been given a wider view – across parishes. One problem he says, is personalities.

“I am sorry to say this but there are some clergy who are incredibly skilled at driving congregations away.”

He has a rule of thumb for services: “… an hour and a quarter is long enough for a service.  An hour and a half is half an hour too long.  An hour and three quarters is an hour and three quarters too long.”

One development he would like is more inter-faith dialogue.  “I think it is very important.  I had a Muslim reading the lesson at my farewell service in Winchester Cathedral … He had come from Lebanon and he just could not understand how Jews, Christians and Muslims could not work together.”

St Laurence’s church is only a couple of hundred yards from the rectory.  It lies on the Pilgrims’ Way between Winchester and Canterbury.

I love the idea of doing a wedding, or a funeral, and the people, the coffin, or the couple, are standing in exactly the same space, on the same spot, where people have been standing, doing that, for nearly a thousand years.  There is something so right about that for the community.”

He wants communities to look after their churches and to enjoy them.   “I love weddings.”  The more confetti the better:  “We leave headstones lying around in the churchyard – why don’t we leave signs of a wedding or a

St Laurence's Church, Seale on a winter's day

St Laurence’s Church, Seale on a winter’s day

baptism lying around?”

The rectory garden is peaceful.  There is evidence that hedges are being trimmed:  “We have been trying to open up here so that people can feel that they can come to the vicarage.”   He believes that  “the priest does not work in isolation”, that “the church needs to be able to travel light and to respond..

What about the Church’s future? “I think we now have more branches than any other organisation … and that is because there is a basic affection, a loyalty, to the Church of England.”

Relaxed in the sunshine the Venerable Adrian Harbidge confesses:   “I am optimisitic …. I am horribly optimistic.”

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