Did you ever access any careers type services?
No I don't think so. I applied for one junior research fellowship during the time which was actually a junior research fellowship based at my own college which was a pastoral one, like a junior dean, like a sort of welfare junior, welfare dean/JRF post combined which (...) College, they still have that system and I applied for that just because it was sort of, it seemed an obvious thing to do because they'd often have people from their own college. I mean, I'm not at all surprised I didn't get it and looking back on it I think I would have done it disastrously because I was so young, but otherwise I didn't apply for anything or really pursue anything at all except the Church of England which is its own, rather idiosyncratic process which involves making contact with somebody whose job it is to discern vocations and meeting with them several times talking about what sort of experiences one has had and what one, for instance, one needs to have – perhaps especially if one's young and inexperienced and eventually, as I say, being sent off to a selection conference which takes place residentially and you're together with a group of people for three days and you do various exercises and interviews and things like that and then you get a recommendation for training or not.
At any part of that process did you doubt that that was the way you wanted to go?
I don't think I doubted it was the way I wanted to go at that point. I doubted it afterwards, lots of time. I never doubted that it was what I had to do but I often doubted whether or not it was what I wanted to do. I think that when I started the process I was very excited by it all and the idea of the church excited me and in terms of my own, you know, to be frightfully theological for a moment, in terms of my own vocation and spiritual life I think that enthusiasm was part of what was steering me towards ordination, firing me up for it if you like so that the most important thing for me was a sense that this was absolutely the right thing for me to be doing. Now with hindsight I realise it wasn't the right thing to be doing over against lots of other things. I didn't weigh up lots of other options. This just felt like a clear and obvious path that I was definitely meant to be following and obviously I still firmly believe that now, that that was the case and it is the case but that childlike excitement about it is something one grows out of but one realises the importance of it in actually galvanising oneself and moving forward on what can be a difficult process for people because of the uncertainty of what's going to happen. Looking back on it I didn't think in those terms at all. I didn't think 'what will happen if I don't get selected? What will I do?' I mean, I must have given it some thought. I suppose I thought about school teaching or something like that but I have very little recollection of spending very much time thinking about alternatives. Just somehow or other I was sure that this was meant to be and whilst that might sound sort of fine because that's the way it happened, there are lots of people in that position for whom it doesn't work out and I think if I'd known more about the process and more about the church at the time I probably would have been more worried about it and more concerned with other options and covering bases and things like that.
You said that when you started the doctorate your primary concern or interest was in staying in Oxford, possibly as a don and so at some point during your doctoral experience the Church loomed larger than it did at the beginning but at the same time you didn't need a doctorate in order to pursue the career you're in.
No, sure. I mean when I started the doctorate I hadn't definitely decided on the career. I had definitely decided that theology was the right thing for me and maybe the ordained ministry was. I saw the two very much as going together but at the initial stage I was clearer about the interest in academic theology than I was that it was definitely right for me to go into the ordained ministry. And I suppose my fascination with Oxford and being a don and that sort of thing never entirely went away because in my time there was still the case that most dons in theology were ordained so I thought 'well, if I want to be a theology don then being ordained is actually going to be a help not a hindrance' because it would open up job possibilities and things like that.
Can we talk a bit now about the process for selection?
And maybe you could make some comparisons between what it was like for you when you went through it and how it might be now?
When I went through there was a particular
When was it again, sorry?
It was 1994 that I was actually interviewed and selected and 1995 that I started theological college. The system in the Church of England is supposed to be that you are selected for training not for ordination. That is to say, when you are selected there's no guarantee that you will be ordained but there's a guarantee that the church thinks you're worth training. Now the reality is that because it costs the Church of England a lot of money to train you, once they've decided you're going to train you have to do something pretty drastic not to be ordained. You know you have to commit adultery or something like that. The period that I went through was interesting because there had, over the previous few years, been quite a reaction against people coming straight from college. There'd been a general sense in the C of E that 'what do these young whippersnappers know, they'd better go and learn something about life,' so they started turning down lots of people in their early twenties, telling them to come back a few years later. And of course what happened is that very few of them came back. They all went off and got nice jobs and thought well why the heck do I want to go into the church and the church started realising that if it didn't have any young ordinands then it wasn't getting enough work out of people before it had to start paying their pensions and it couldn't afford to do that. So I was really at the beginning of the time when they'd started saying 'no, we're not actually obsessed with sending you off to Outer Mongolia, there'll be plenty of chance for you to get lots of experience while you're training,' but nevertheless the fact that I was 25 not 22 or 24 I was in fact, helped. If I'd come straight from an undergraduate course I don't think I would have been selected straight away and it was undoubtedly a matter of playing down the academic stuff to a certain extent and playing up practical and pastoral stuff that I did. A very simple example is, there used to be, still is in Oxford, a student run organisation called JACARI. JACARI stands for Joint Action Committee Against Racial Intolerance which sounds terribly dramatic but what it actually existed for was for students to teach English to British kids whose home language wasn't English. So particularly JACARI works with the Muslim community in East Oxford. And I used to go out to East Oxford once a week on the bus and teach a little boy whose name was (.....) who was struggling with his school work. Now, as it happened, there was absolutely nothing wrong with (.....)'s English. He just struggled with school work you know, but it was a nice thing to do and I enjoyed it and we had fun, and being rather cynical I have to say that that sort of thing really wowed the selectors in the Church of England. You know they thought 'goodness me, here's this terribly, terribly bright, prize winning theologian who instead of spending all his time in the library goes off and teaches a Pakistani boy English. How wonderful must he be,' you know. And actually because my background, you know, I grew up in both (...) and (...) London where most of my best friends were British Asians, that experience for me was perfectly normal, but because I was coming from Oxford and from doctoral work, that seemed very striking because their idea of a researcher and an academic didn't fit with that more sort of, how shall we say, sort of grounded or socially involved type of person. I don't know.
More about your background
I lived until I was 12 in the London Borough of (......). Now in the 1970s in the London Borough of (......) it was a very interesting time. The London Borough of (......) includes the area called (.......) and when I was at school in the 70s (.....) Borough Council had what they thought was the frightfully enlightened policy of having a representative number of British Asians in all their schools. Well this mean that at 8 o'clock every morning a fleet of coaches went into (.......) and bussed all these kids out around the borough and you didn't have to be terribly bright to notice that, we called them the children who came on the coach, you didn't have to be terribly bright to notice that they were all Asian. Now it didn't bother us, we all got on perfectly well, but looking back on it, it was a strange thing to be part of. When I was 12 we moved over the other side of London to a place called (.....) which is quite near another quite large Asian community. More of a Sikh community in (......) for some reason. I don't know the demographic, and also a large Jewish community in (.......) so what you might call multiculturalism has always been a big part of my life and one of the things that always struck me as strange about Oxford is how terribly un-multicultural it is and in particular how terribly white it is. And whenever friends of mine would come and visit or my parents, after a couple of hours walking around or something people would often say 'it's very striking how white everybody is' because when you've grown up in London and you're used to what you might call a racial mix, it's a shock. Now in that respect the selection process the Church of England, although it claimed to represent reality, it was actually representing the white establishment because that's what the Church of England was like and that's why something as simple as helping out with JACARI seemed to them to be so spectacular whereas to me it just seemed like a very basic thing to be doing. To give a little bit of your time to, you know, to help somebody else – and I actually quite enjoyed doing it. So there was that sort of hoop jumping element of selection that as an academic one was quite cynical about, but it wasn't unnatural. I wasn't doing JACARI so that I could get ordained. I was doing JACARI because I wanted to do JACARI.
I wonder if you could give me a little bit of a chronology of finishing the DPhil and then your career progression.
OK. So I finished my DPhil in 1995, September, and I went straight to theological college. In fact I handed my DPhil in at the university offices as the very last thing I did before I drove out of Oxford in my car not to return, as it were. And I started theological college three days later in Cambridge. Whilst I was in Cambridge I did a lot of different sorts of practical work, partly practical experience in a parish in Cambridge. Also I worked for three months on an estate in inner city Salford, worked in a school there and a church and that was a very formative experience. And then a few months later I spent three months working at a church in the middle of Manhattan in New York City and that was also a very formative thing. So it was the practical stuff I did after my doctorate that was most directly formative of me when I was starting my parish ministry. And then after being ordained in 1997 I worked for two and a half years in a church in Essex and learnt a tremendous amount and grew up I think at that point, or at least began to grow up. It was an ordinary sort of residential commuter town, not terribly well heeled, not terribly needy either. A good sort of mix of a place. I came back to Oxford largely because I wanted to get married and my wife was planning to do a doctorate, so I wanted to work in either Oxford or Cambridge cos that's where she wanted to be and after two years working in a church institution in Oxford I then went on to work at a college in an assistant chaplaincy position in an academic community and then moved on from there to another similar institution where I was for four years before I became vicar of this parish which is one of many parishes in the centre of Oxford.