Interview: Michele Guinness, author, speaker

11 November 2009

I read St John’s Gospel and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by torchlight under the bedclothes. They were both forbidden books in my Jewish family. Lady Chatterley didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know at 16, but St John was a complete revelation.

The person of Jesus just knocked me out. I was used to mournful-looking statues of him: Christianity and churches always seemed drab and dull, compared with the colour and vibrancy of Judaism and the synagogues I knew.

I could identify with Jesus’s frustra­tion with hypocrisy in Jews and Christians. I went to a church school, and I had to decide: was he who he said he was? When I went to university at 18, it was important that I should follow my own beliefs, live my life.

When I saw the York Mystery Plays, that’s when I saw how the Old Testament and New Testament fitted together.

I was a youth worker, working with very deprived young people on the streets of Manchester for some years. Then I went to a training event in the media. I told Radio Piccadilly: “What you need is a serial to get people listening,” and they said: “Write it.” So that’s how I wrote my story: how a girl from a practising Jewish family married a vicar.

I was invited to work full-time in the media, first working for Central Television, and then as a presenter on BBC Radio Coventry. I wrote my autobiography from that serial in my mid-20s: Child of the Covenant, which has sold 350,000 copies in several languages. That opened lots of doors for me in the media. I was also doing Pause for Thought on Radio 2, and made documentaries for Radio 4.

I was invited to be the press officer for a children’s hospice, and it was so exciting to use my skills to do something really worth while. Then I was invited to work for the NHS, and I suppose that was my grand passion for 12 years, improving communica­tions for patients. Eventually, I became head of communications for the Strategic Health Authority for the whole of Lancashire and Cumbria, supporting 30 press officers.

As a clergy wife, I was determined we would have our own house one day, and a reasonable standard of living. I didn’t want my children to grow up as Peter did, in a family where money was very tight. So I went out to work full-time even before we had children.

I got a fair amount of criticism as a clergy wife for working. Someone even said to me: “Well, I could understand it if you were a nurse or a teacher, but what good does working in the media do anyone?”

And I’m a Jewish woman: I have standards of what I should have in my home. It’s important that it’s lovely, welcoming. . . We’ve invested a lot of money in our vicarages over the years, and part of me resents that, but part of me says: “What the heck? I’m a Jewish mama at the end of the day.”

People should invest much more in their churches, so that when people come in they say: “Yeah, there is a Creator.”

My book Autumn Leave tells how we are exploring a ministry in France, and building our retirement home there. Community is incredibly important to us. You’re terribly rootless when you’re clergy. Peter was raised in Geneva, and his brother and sister live in the States, so he’s never had roots.

We both love France, and I spend as much time as I can there. Peter feels strongly that he has some years of ministry here left before retirement, so we are moving to a parish of great urban deprivation near Gillingham, near the Channel Tunnel. He’ll have some Sundays off each year to work in the French Church, too.

The French [Protestant] Church doesn’t do authority and leadership. Our little church is led by a local farmer and his wife.

Our Roman Catholic church is always shut. I’ve only ever known it to open on All Saints’ Day. Our local Protestant church consists of about 12 people, led by an Anglican; and our own little church has split off from the Mennonites, which it was linked with; so it’s no longer really legal.

Post-modernism hasn’t really affected French young people much. But they are so much better than we are in terms of community and caring for each other.

The best hope I have is for renewal in the Catholic Church. Our little church is having a joint meeting with them once a month, and we’re going to do Alpha together. Home groups will help as well, though people are suspicious: they’re seen as seditious.

If you sit down and compare us with the French, they have the Christian values: family, community, enjoy­ing. They have a statutory 35-hour week (tell that to the clergy in this country), and yet they are 20 per cent more productive than we’ve been. They just don’t have the Protestant work-ethic. It’s not in the genes. Catholicism isn’t in the genes, either: they have a history of rebellion and protest.

Sundays are fantastic: they just eat all day. Trucks are banned so families can get to each other. Communal meals are the most effective ways of drawing people in; so Alpha may work very well in France. Meetings start a lot later: the French don’t worry about going to bed if they’re enjoying themselves. That’s why I love France so much, being a Jew. The English way is so much more rigid.

It’s good to plan retirement early. I think it’s been wonderful for me: feeling I have a home there, my home where I can choose the kitchen tiles, make friends, feel there’s a place for me that’s mine.

My father died, but my mother is still very much with us, and we often share religious festivals with my brother and sister-in-law, who are Orthodox Jews, living in Newcastle. I have a daughter, Abby, who heads up the arts at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and Joel, who works for the Foreign Office, and is married to Sarah. They have two children; so I’m a granny. They’re very committed Christians, but they feel their Jewish roots very strongly.

Peter is the great-great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, the brewer, and there’s a huge extended family. Some are incredibly wealthy and involved in brewing. Some are clergy and are not. My father said: “So, did you have to pick a poor relative?” But it’s more complicated than that, even: some of the clergy have become very worldly, and some of the brewers have become clergy.

I am proudest of my work for the NHS — making a difference to the lives of patients — and I’m sad that my dad never lived to see what I did.

I hope I have given the Church a sense of its Jewish roots and the spirituality of Jesus — to see him being joyous. His ministry was three years of parties, celebration, and laughter with his disciples, not just a walk to the cross. We’ve lost his humour.

Contemporary Judaism is much nearer, culturally, to Jesus than the Church — colourful, vibrant, fun, joyful, pleasurable. French culture, too. We should be living in a way that attracts our neighbours.

I regret not having more children. I had terrible pregnancies, but, when I look back, I wonder why I didn’t have six. They are the most brilliant friends.

As a young Christian, I read the biography of Catherine Booth. She put up with so much flak from being up-front and having her own ministry — though she had ten children and raised them in the faith.

I just love the Book of Genesis. It’s full of people we can identify with — failures, manipulative women, men who get it wrong, Joseph who was imprisoned for years before he could take up his work. . . There are parts of the Bible which are more difficult — which make me heave a sigh. Romans is so dense and difficult.

I’m a butterfly: I find it hard to focus and settle in prayer. But I use the Hebraic form, using what I see to spark off my prayer, to open my eyes and look at life, as Jesus looked and learned from what was around him to tell stories. Jews are supposed to find a hundred things a day to bless God for.

I’m happiest in France, with French and English friends, at the dinner table, with a bottle of wine.

What makes me angry? How long have we got? The way clergy are treated — including bishops — not by the churches, but by the bureau­crats who build badly designed Heath-Robinson vicarages, and decide our holidays and pay and pensions. Where has the money gone from selling the old vicarages? There’s no money for the repairs that the new vicarages now need. And I see so many friends living in genteel poverty in retirement.

We feel valued so little, and, though there are great privileges, we sacrifice an enormous amount. Churches can give a wonderful wel­come, and bishops can be incredibly caring and supportive, but the bureaucrats make us feel incredibly uncared for. They are the people I’d like to be locked in a church with.

Michele Guinness was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Autumn Leave: A season in France is published by Authentic (£8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-850-78832-4).

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