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More TV vicars

BBC Two’s A Vicar’s Life is following four clergy as they minister to people in a rural diocese.

The Rev Matthew Stafford tells Philip Halcrow about sharing people’s joys and sorrows

I’ve felt called to the priesthood since I was five years old

THE area, says the Rev Matthew Stafford, is beautiful. ‘I drive down the Corvedale from Much Wenlock towards my furthest parish at Stanton Long,’ he tells me, ‘I’m in the Shropshire Hills, and I feel blessed to be ministering in this wonderful part of God’s world.’

But as viewers who follow Matthew – and three other ministers – in BBC Two’s documentary series A Vicar’s Life can see, life as a country clergyman is no piece of escapism.

Matthew remembers: ‘When the BBC began talking with us about making the programme, I was excited. I saw it as an opportunity to raise the profile of Much Wenlock, which is a beautiful part of the world. But I also saw it as a way of letting viewers see an individual who may be a vicar but whose calling doesn’t mean he escapes the same sorrows – as well as experiencing the same joys – as everybody else. So the programmemakers were following us when my son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, goes to college, and when I moved my father-in-law, who needs 24-hour care, down from Birkenhead, which highlights the plight of social care in our country.’

In the series, Matthew and the other clergy attempt to meet all kinds of needs in the congregations and communities of the Hereford Diocese. The Rev Ruth Hulse visits a dying church member and later conducts her funeral. Father Matthew Cashmore helps a woman without a home who has been camping in the middle of a roundabout. The Rev Nicholas Lowton meets farmers who are losing their tenancy because of cutbacks.

The series also shows Matthew in the thick of more joyful occasions, conducting a wedding and a baptism and socialising with parishioners at a fête.

Matthew tells me that ‘one of the great privileges of ministry is that people give you the gift of becoming part of their lives and allow you to share in their joys and sorrows. Sometimes a complete stranger will tell you  he was given a U grade at A level RE. ‘I am grateful that God sent me via the Church Army, which in the old days was seen as the Anglican equivalent of The Salvation Army. Its training was so much more practical than academic. I enjoyed my biblical studies at theological college when I became slightly more academically competent, but I know I am a better priest in the Church of England because of my practical Church Army training.’

As the TV series shows, people turn to clergy for spiritual insight, guidance and comfort. But where does a clergyman turn for support?

‘I have an amazing wife who keeps my feet firmly on the ground,’ says Matthew, ‘and I have a close circle of friends, some of them Christians, others who wouldn’t deem something, in confidence, that they wouldn’t tell anybody else.

‘And for me, the gospel is about meeting people where they are, just as Christ did.’ Matthew says that Christian ministry was on his horizon even when he was a young boy. ‘Hand on heart, I’ve felt called to the priesthood since I was five years old,’ he reveals. ‘My nan can testify that she heard me say as a five-year-old that when I grew up I wanted to be a vicar.

‘I always had a feeling that God’s hand was on me, and I’m indebted to all those people who nurtured my vocation. From the age of seven, I was busy in the life of my church. I joined the choir and was a bellringer. When I used to say that I wanted to be a vicar, my priest didn’t pooh-pooh it or say I should go off and do something different first, but fostered my Christian faith and sense of vocation. ‘Not that it was easy,’ adds the man who can be seen in A Vicar’s Life mentioning that themselves particularly religious.

‘But I can’t stand in the pulpit on a Sunday and tell people to take their relationship with God seriously if I’m not prepared to do the same myself. I go to an abbey in Worcestershire for retreats and quiet days. ‘As far as I’m concerned the word “Bible” stands for “best instruction before leaving earth”. So I have a pattern of Scripture readings and prayer. And when I’m out walking the dogs, I pray.’

Through all his days, dealing with the life of 14 churches, Matthew is determined not to lose sight of what is important.

‘At times, we can get preoccupied with keeping the show on the road,’ he says. ‘We must never forget what church exists for in the first place – to make Christ’s love known to all.’

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